A blog by Barry Edelson

Don't Encourage Them

Thoughts on Things Political

Obama's Got the Republicans Right Where He Wants Them

It will take some time, but Americans will gradually come to understand that their new president is so many moves ahead of the competition that he is playing a different game altogether. His victory over the supposedly indomitable Clinton machine during the primaries ought to have been evidence enough of Obama's superior political mind. But we'll just have to exercise patience before the country recognizes that they have truly elected someone to the presidency who is in a league of his own.

Take the stimulus bill, for example, just passed by Congress yesterday. Forget for now the merits of the bill, which is a topic for another essay, and focus on the politics. Commentators are climbing over each other to proclaim the new president naive for believing that bipartisanship would be easy. Exhibit A, we are told, is the total lack of Republican support for the bill in the House and the mere support of three moderate Republicans in the Senate. This is supposed to demonstrate convincingly that Obama is in over his head, and that if those nasty Republicans aren't going to come around on legislation that is so important to the country, then they're obviously going to play him for a fool for the next four years.

Okay, now let's consider what an alternative White House strategy might have looked like. Obama could have started the process by saying to the Republicans: Look, we won the election, we have strong majorities in both houses, we don't need you, so get out of our way. (It's hard to imagine a President Hillary Clinton doing anything else.) The result of that "screw you" approach, however politely phrased, would have been a reciprocal "screw you" from the other side, and continuing acrimony all around. That would have made him look no better than his immediate predecessor, whose majority-plus-one strategy was deeply divisive. It would have also made the new president desperate to hold his Congressional majority in the mid-term elections of 2010, which will be a tough task without a miraculous economic recovery.

What the Beltway mavens forget is that Obama never needed the Republicans on the stimulus. With or without the GOP, the victory is Obama's, and not only for the passage of the bill. By behaving like an adult and extending the hand of friendship, he has painted the Republicans into a very dark corner, from which escape is made even harder by their own recalcitrance. If the economy does in fact respond in a year or two, the Democrats can claim all the credit. If it doesn't, the country's mood will be so sour that the inevitable Republican "I told you so" will only make them look self-serving and heartless. Either way, the only path back from the political wilderness will be through the Oval Office. Whenever the Republican leadership decides it is in their interest to cooperate on some issue or other, the President will look prescient for having stayed true to the course of bipartisanship when all others had given up.

So when President Obama says that creating a more bipartisan spirit won't happen overnight, he's not just making excuses. He knew full well that the Republicans might dig their heels in on the stimulus, but he also knew he could pass it without them. By making it look as though he really wanted them on board, he gets all the credit for trying without risking failure. While pundits and pollsters fret over the weekly pulse, Obama has his eyes on a much bigger prize.

February 14, 2009

Who is the Real John McCain?

So John McCain can tell a joke. This ought not to be news to anyone who knew anything about his public persona prior to last week's Al Smith Dinner in New York. On the other hand, it might very well have come as a surprise to those who had never seen him on camera for longer than a sound-bite before his three televised presidential debates with Barack Obama. In any number of interviews and speeches over a long career, McCain has shown himself capable of being a witty and amiable fellow. Like most successful politicians, however, he has also shown himself capable of thrusting the dagger when he has to.

Which raises the perennial question about political candidates: which one is the real person? Much has been made about McCain's apparent change of personality during the course of the presidential campaign. The avuncular, brutally honest senator who was the beloved of the press corps has been somehow transformed into the testy, power-hungry has-been we now see on our screens every day. How does one reconcile the jocular pol who poked good-natured fun at his opponent, and himself, with the seething old man in the presidential debate on the previous evening at Hofstra University (where, coincidentally, I happen to be writing this piece a week after the event during a break in a seminar, and where banners advertising the debate still hang from every lamppost)?

If we accept as given that politicians are performers who try to reveal to us only as much as they want us to see, then none of the versions of McCain we see in public are "real" by any reasonable definition of the word, practical or metaphysical. What we are able to observe, through the filter of the media and our own senses, is a small segment of a manufactured portrait. Since the overwhelming majority of the words uttered by any presidential candidate is in fact carefully orchestrated by a small army of advisors and speechwriters — a conclusion strongly supported in this case by the marked departure of the "new" McCain from the more sure-footed "old" McCain we used to think we knew — the fundamental dishonesty of his campaign is all the more appalling.

This is not to suggest that Obama has earned a free pass on this matter. He has been able to take the relatively higher road since last summer by virtue of his solid and growing lead in the polls. During his primary campaign against Sen. Clinton, however, his sharp political elbows were clearly in evidence, and he showed less reluctance to stretch the truth about his opponent than he has found necessary in the general election. This can be attributed less to scruples than to the confluence of events which have flowed in his favor: mainly, the worsening economic situation and the abysmal performance of the McCain campaign.

And yet, there is an element of destructiveness, even nihilism, about the attacks on Obama by McCain. It is one thing to call your opponent a traitor and a scoundrel and to mean it, and quite another to say these things only to get yourself elected. To do so, knowing full well that the accusations are merely political theater, is to guarantee that, if your opponent is elected, a significant number of your supporters will be left with the powerful impression that he or she cannot be trusted to hold office or, worse, that the election results are implicitly illegitimate. There is no way that a miscreant like your opponent could possibly have defeated a wonderful human being like you in a truly fair contest of issues and character.

Ironically, attempts at humor undermine the effort to demonize one's opponent, especially when the jokes are actually funny. Appearances like Sarah Palin's improbable cameo on "Saturday Night Live" or McCain's excellent monologue at the Al Smith Dinner only raise questions about the sincerity of the "serious" campaign. If you really believe that your opponent is a friend of terrorists, then how can you sit two chairs away from him at a formal dinner and laugh at his jokes? Last night, you accused him of being part of the greatest election fraud in American history, and tonight you're telling us what a remarkable and likable guy you think he is. Which are we supposed to believe?

What makes McCain's tactics particularly disappointing is that he appeared at one time genuinely to be a candidate of a different stripe altogether. How many Americans have not wondered whether the country wouldn't be in significantly better shape today had McCain been elected president in 2000 instead of Bush? He did not need to sink so low. And he surely did not need to insinuate into the campaign the social divisions that more conventional Republicans have feasted on for the last 20 or 30 years. While McCain and Palin cannot be blamed for the inflammatory statements shouted by disreputable people at their rallies, neither can they dodge their responsibility for injecting the weary and irrelevant platitudes of the culture wars at a time when the nation is confronting extraordinarily grave problems.

Win or lose, McCain has opened a Pandora's box whose noxious contents will not just disappear into thin air after Election Day. What will he say then, "Just kidding"?

October 25, 2008

Great Men Hiding Everywhere

There's a well-known photograph of President John F. Kennedy standing with Lyndon Johnson and several advisors at the White House. They look as though they have just ended a meeting, though Kennedy's expression is serious and he is still actively engaged in conversation, pointing a finger for emphasis. (The photo is mostly remembered for the President's son poking his happy face out from under the desk, plainly oblivious to the men in the room and their deep conversation.) When considering presidential candidates, I try to imagine them standing in for the people in this photograph: Are they intelligent enough, thoughtful enough, serious enough and seasoned enough to weigh the life-and-death issues that a presidential administration has to face?

How terribly sad for our nation that electing a president invariably comes down to a choice between the lesser of two evils rather than between two extraordinary individuals. John McCain is seasoned, if nothing else, but he has hardly shown signs that he would have a steady hand on the tiller. His choice of a running mate reveals a decision-making ability that, to put it charitably, is not reassuring. Barack Obama may show more poise and intelligence than his Republican counterpart, but it is hard to argue that his lack of experience isn't a concern. As I wrote much earlier in this interminable campaign, Obama was only the fifth-most qualified candidate on the Democratic side. That he had the good sense to choose one of his more highly qualified opponents as his running mate is a point in his favor, but only serves to underscore the electorate's general concerns about handing him the reins of power.

By the same token, after eight years of enduring the deadly blunders of a severely under-qualified politician in the Oval Office, the bar has been set frighteningly low. Only by such low standards could Sarah Palin's abysmal performance in her debate against Joe Biden actually be considered a success. If all it takes to be considered qualified to be President of the United States is memorizing a script and delivering it with a gee-whiz-I'm-just-a-hockey-mom style of banter, then there are hundreds of unemployed Off-Broadway actresses who could have played the part a lot more convincingly than Palin did last Thursday evening.

It seems unimaginable that
we are about to make the
same mistake all over again.

It would seem unimaginable, after suffering the consequences of electing an intellectually limited governor whose colloquialisms convinced enough voters that he was a "regular guy" just like them, that something close to half the electorate is going to make the same mistake all over again. But it is painfully apparent that the minimum qualifications most Americans demand for contenders to the presidency are lower than for seekers of any other office. For no other elected position would voters even suggest that experience, intelligence and competence are less important qualities in a candidate than being "just like me." How else to explain the throngs who are coming out to see Palin's scripted and staged campaign events. In every crowd, reporters have no trouble finding any number of women who express exactly that sentiment: she's a mom just like me, a wife just like me, an ordinary woman just like me.

As long as I live, I will never get it. I don't want a president who is remotely like me. I want a president who is leagues ahead of me in smarts, judgment and intestinal fortitude. McCain, who has lived off of his resume of hardship throughout his political career, is the perfect exemplar of this bizarre phenomenon. By all accounts, he showed extraordinary bravery and endurance as a prisoner of war in what must have been a more harrowing experience than hardly any of his fellow countrymen will ever have to bear. But that record does not explain exactly how it makes him ready to be president or what he means when he says, repeatedly, that he knows how to win wars. In the first place, America lost the one war of which he had direct experience, and second, he began that war as a "top gun" Navy pilot and ended it in confinement. That hardly counts as experience as either a chief executive or a military commander.

By the same measure, Obama's political or management experience doesn't add up to much, either. But if voters in the Republican and Democratic primaries had opted for the candidates with the most executive experience, we would now be facing a choice between Mitt Romney and Bill Richardson. Like it or not, the next president is going to be Obama or McCain, two flawed, career politicians. Given McCain's notoriously volatile temperament and his seat-of-the-pants style (most recently exhibited in his failed attempt to parachute into the bailout talks and save the day), Obama would appear to be closer to passing the Kennedy photograph test as the capable, thoughtful, well-prepared leader the country needs in perilous times. Biden may be gaffe-prone but is nonetheless a serious politician, and the most experienced one on either ticket; it is not difficult to imagine him also in that presidential photograph, arms folded in earnest discussion with the president. Only in a grotesque parody of the Oval Office could we picture the neophyte Palin, whose policy experience amounts to memorizing notes prepared for her by her running mate's handlers, in such a history-making moment.

It is true that JFK, LBJ and their advisors, for all of their collective brilliance and experience, made a lot of mistakes, some of them very costly for the nation. But that is not an argument in favor of rolling the dice on someone whose character flaws or inexperience ought to disqualify him out of hand. In the 30-odd years since I've been old enough to vote, I have waited for a presidential choice between two exceptional people, the election of either of whom would appear to be good for the country and not a danger to the supporters of the losing ticket. I am still waiting.

October 5, 2008

Supreme Hypocrisy

If there are any citizens out there who still hold the quaint view that the United States Supreme Court consists of nine sage individuals who stand apart from politics and deliver dispassionate opinions on matters of law, they have clearly not been reading the papers for the last eight years. But while there is no reason to be surprised when a justice's opinions coincide precisely with his or her political views, there is ample justification for disgust at the hypocrisy of those who, including some of the justices themselves, claim that those opinions merely reflect the purity of their so-called judicial philosophy. From Bush v. Gore to last week's decision in Boumediene v. Bush, it is self-evident that a number of those on today's Court are as interested in scoring political points as in defending Constitutional principles.

A keen political awareness and bias on the part of Supreme Court justices is hardly unique to this era, but the vitriolic tone of many of their opinions — most notably those written by Antonin Scalia, thankfully mostly in dissent — has driven partisanship on the court to a new historical low. Of the majority opinion in Boumediene, Scalia wrote, "It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed," a talking point straight out of the Karl Rove playbook. Somehow, in his hypothetical rantings he failed to mention the hundreds of dreadful decisions by the Bush White House and Rumsfeld Pentagon that have resulted in an al-Qaeda recruiting bonanza and consequently have caused many actual Americans to be killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then again, no loyal Republican would ever bring this up, would he?

Conservatives who railed for decades against the liberal "activism" of the court (led largely by Chief Justice Earl Warren, a Republican) have cheered just as boisterously from the sidelines as its most conservative members have actively sought to overturn what they see as the gross judicial excesses of the last half century. With the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, the ideological right certainly believes it has come closer than ever to realizing this goal. Not only Roe v. Wade but Miranda v. Arizona, Griswold v. Connecticut and a host of the other bulwarks of the Court's most progressive and enlightened era have long been in their sights. (And then what? Brown v. Board Education? Why not revisit Dred Scott while we're at it?)

Which of our civil liberties
can the Court's conservatives
be counted on to defend?

An article by Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker a few years ago went a long way toward explaining Scalia's approach to jurisprudence. She provided compelling evidence to suggest that this son of a college professor and husband of an English major derived his views at least in part from the New Criticism that held sway in universities through much of the 20th century.

Both the New Critics and their postmodern offspring have several important beliefs in common with Scalia, the most important of which is an extreme textualism, which holds that the author's intent is considered to be inherently unknowable and therefore irrelevant. (They also share a smug certitude and a disdain bordering on contempt for differing opinions.) The New Criticism was noteworthy for its bloodless interpretations of even the most stirring literature. Not coincidentally, it was promulgated in part by academics who, in the post-war hunt for Nazi sympathizers and collaborators, had good reason to embrace a philosophy which divorced an individual from his actions.

Ignoring historical or biographical contexts in the study of literature is an absurdity, proceeding as it does from the premise that the author does not exist, but it ultimately harms no one. Ignoring context in the application of the law, however, has real-world consequences that are frequently destructive. Boumediene is perhaps the most egregious and troubling example to date. If the four conservatives who voted that a prisoner's right to a writ of habeas corpus, a guarantor of freedom that a pre-Bush America would have thought sacrosanct, depends on the circumstances, then which of our civil liberties can they be counted on to defend? Moreover, how does Scalia's precious 'originalism' jibe with a reading of the Constitution that relies on the very sort of weak-kneed relativism that is frequently derided by the religiously inclined right wing to which so many conservative judges pledge allegiance? If habeas corpus only applies sometimes, then their entire edifice of moral certitude has not a single principle that cannot be eviscerated with the same logic.

Scalia's self-righteousness yields a double-edged failure: he has not only been unable and/or unwilling to build a consensus for his ideas among the other justices (much to the dismay of many conservatives) but, by making up his mind in advance on every case before the Court, he has also effectively shielded himself from the views of others. This is the opposite of deliberation: it is a form of legal and intellectual tyranny, and is at least as egregious as the threats to liberty that supposedly result when justices 'find' rights in the Constitution that aren't explicitly in the text. Despite his contempt for the idea of a 'living Constitution', Scalia and his fellow conservatives might do well to remember that their job (implicit in the title 'Justice') is not to win arguments or advance grandiose theories, but to administer the law on behalf of living people whose sufferings at the hands of tyranny, inequality or injustice are in no way theoretical.

June 15, 2008

Nobody Could Be That Clean

In a college journalism class many years ago, I learned the difference between two kinds of libel: per se and per quod. Libel per se is a published lie that could destroy the reputation of just about anyone. For example, being accused of child molestation wouldn't be good for anyone's position in society. By contrast, libel per quod would be damaging only to someone in a particular circumstance. For example, you or I may not be too bothered by a story about our being drunk at a party (it would not likely even be newsworthy) but the same story told about a zealous campaigner against substance abuse would likely be met with some derision.

Eliot Spitzer's abrupt disgrace and likely political demise brings this distinction sharply to mind. Many politicians could conceivably survive accusations of being a client of prostitutes. Indeed, countless denizens of official Washington have at some point been compromised by one form of sexual indiscretion or another. Spitzer's predicament is rather more dire. The fanaticism with which he has prosecuted every sort of human depravity — including prostitution rings — makes it impossible to imagine a scenario in which his credibility could be restored. Whatever the pundits will say (and they have already begun to say it), it isn't human weakness, exploitaton of women or consorting with criminals that is bringing the man down. It is the sheer hypocrisy of a self-righteous prosecutor who apparently thought his aggressiveness was an impermeable defense against any potential allegations against his own person. He must have thought: Who would dare accuse ME?

When a man in power comes to believe in his own infallibility, abuse of power is never far behind. The most demoralizing aspects of the Spitzer story are its banality and our failure to see it coming. How many times have we witnessed the same dreary spectacle: a crusader becomes famous for wagging his accusatory finger at those who fail to live up to his self-declared standards of law, faith, ethics or morality, only to have the finger turned, in the end, at his own feet of clay. The list of the fallen is long and familiar, and I need not bore you with the roster of public figures who have been caught, literally or figuratively, with their pants down.

In the mere 24 hours since the news of Spitzer's collapse erupted in the press, we have heard the familiar lament: Is anyone clean? But this is the wrong question. Of course people in office are corrupt. They are human, weak and fallible (just like the rest of us) and that is precisely why the founding fathers designed a system of government in which no one, at least in theory, may be entrusted with unchecked authority.

What we should be asking is: Why are we so gullible? It is probably too much to hope that we will now be suspicious of those who conspicuously wrap themselves in the cloak of righteousness. It would almost be worth enduring this sorry spectacle if, the next time a preacher or politician publicly excoriates anyone for a lack of moral rectitude, we had learned to ask ourselves: What is this one hiding?

March 11, 2008

Has Anyone Seen Our Moral Compass "Over There"?

Just the other day John McCain repeated one of most spurious arguments made by supporters of the war in Iraq: that if we pull our troops out before defeating the terrorists "over there", they will not only take over Iraq but will "follow us home." No doubt this is part of his regular stump speech, and he may very well trot out this scare tactic half a dozen times every day. It would seem to appeal primarily to older voters, as it deliberately employs the same language to arouse the fear of terrorists that is commonly used to invoke the fear of muggers who might follow one home from the supermarket.

This applause line by McCain is, of course, a corollary of the oft-quoted mantra of George Bush, that "if we don't fight them over there we will have to fight them over here." There is no shortage of available facts with which to contradict this simplistic assertion: that, as Barack Obama pointed out in the battle of the stump speeches last week, Al Qaeda in Iraq is an offspring of the American invasion and didn't previously exist; that the fight against the insurgency in Iraq does nothing to deter the real Al Qaeda, comfortably ensconced along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, from plotting against us; or that the defense of the homeland is hardly enhanced by the recruitment opportunities we have created for terrorist groups everywhere by our government's heavy-handed actions around the globe.

However, the most powerful argument against the vapid rhetoric of Bush and McCain is a moral one. There was a very strong case to be made for the invasion of Iraq on purely humanitarian grounds. Hostility towards the arrogance and incompetence of Bush and his advisors ought not to obscure the reality that Saddam Hussein was a Stalinist dictator whose reign of terror was unsurpassed in its sadistic cruelty. I do not subscribe to the argument that "we cannot be the world's policeman." Why not? That we are not able to intercede effectively in every conflict does not absolve us of the moral obligation to use our superior might to rescue those we can.

What gives us the right to
decide that Iraqi civilians
must die instead of
American ones?

But that is not the argument Bush made for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. While there was the occasional mention of Saddam's "rape rooms" and "torture chambers", the thrust of the argument was entirely self-serving: We must invade Iraq in order to prevent attacks even more devastating than 9/11. And it was not an argument entirely without merit. There was every reason to believe that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, or certainly had the unending desire to obtain them, and the war debate was framed in terms of getting him before he could get us.

The moral problem with that line of reasoning is that countless Iraqis — tens of thousands at the very least — have lost their lives, their homes, their livelihoods and their hope for the future as a result of our bungled attempt at nation building (a task derided by Bush and his supporters during the 2000 election campaign, but never mind). Even if it were true that fighting the Iraqi insurgency prevents terrorist attacks in the United States, what gives us the right to decide that Iraqi civilians must die instead of American ones? Bush's slogan-based morality has no room in it for the unpleasant reality that many times the number of innocents have been killed as a result of the American-led invasion than were killed on 9/11. For that matter, many more American troops have died at this point than were killed on 9/11. That Saddam may have killed even more people is not a response. We each bear the responsibility for the blood we spill.

If you accept the insidious rhetoric of war pushed for years by Bush and now echoed by McCain, and if you believe also in the purported mission to spread democracy in the Middle East, then you are obliged to ask yourself whether the Iraqis ever gave their consent to be sacrificed in our stead. We justify our actions in every war with no regard for the innumerable dead of the nations we claim to be trying to save, and then wonder that the rest of humanity fails to regard America as a force for good. Given all of the ways in which our moral standing in the world has been squandered, it should come as no surprise that this question hardly ever sees the light of day.

March 2, 2008

Nader Embarrasses Himself – Again

To understand why Ralph Nader's previous campaigns for the presidency were intellectually dishonest, all you have to do is answer one question: What has been the practical result of them? Has America embraced any part of his agenda? Have either the Democrats or Republicans warmed to any of his ideas and changed their policies accordingly?

Obviously, the answer is no. And also obviously, if you want to change the country, you don't do it by running for president as a third-party candidate (or as a no-hoper in one of the major parties, either). What has been the legacy of Ross Perot, or John Anderson, or any of the other charlatans, dreamers and egotists who had their brief flirtations with presidential campaign fame? Not one has left a mark, except as a punch-line for comedians or a footnote to serious discussions of presidential politics.

Had Ralph Nader long ago successfully run for mayor of somewhere, and then later perhaps run for governor, and managed actually to implement some of the changes he claims to be so passionate about, then perhaps his presidential bids might have had some credibility. But when you start out by running for the one office you have absolutely no chance of winning, then all you are doing is latching on to the presidential whirlwind to drive your personal publicity machine. The instant the campaign is done, so are you.

Nader may very well believe in the things he professes—he does not seem capable of irony—and his past work has indeed been a great service to the country. It is all the more sad that he has squandered a sterling reputation for working selflessly in the public interest by his quixotic and ultimately worthless attempts at the White House.

And that is already more words than the matter warrants.

February 24, 2008

Feel Stimulated Yet?

The economy is in the doldrums. The Fed has been cutting interest rates, but the markets keep tumbling. Politicians, succumbing to their humanitarian instincts, are deeply worried about the struggles of ordinary Americans. Something must be done. But what? Wait, here's an idea: print more money and shower it upon the heads of consumers and corporations. Never mind about the deficit; as the saying goes, a little more snow on the Alps doesn't make Switzerland look any bigger.

Sounds like 2008? Try 1993. A newly elected Bill Clinton proposed a $30 billion economic stimulus package in an attempt to perk up a lethargic economy. Like the $150 billion plan now being proposed by his successor, George W. Bush, that one also contained a delightful combination of tax breaks and outright giveaways. If memory serves, every single Republican member of the House of Representatives voted against Clinton's plan, and there were just enough Democratic skeptics to defeat it.

As a percentage of the federal budget, which has doubled in size over the last 15 years (along with the national debt, but no matter), Bush's new proposal is two and half times as large as Clinton's. So why is a Republican president now proposing to spend his way out of recession, and why are Republican lawmakers falling over each other to pass it?

Never mind about the deficit:
a little snow on the Alps doesn't
make Switzerland look any bigger.

Simply put, 2008 is an election year, and 1993 was not. Back then, Republicans in Congress had a vested interest in putting roadblocks in the new President's path, and in pretending to stand up for the people against Democratic profligacy. Today, having long abandoned their devotion to fiscal rectitude, they have a vested interest in bestowing largesse upon the voters in whose hands their fate will rest next November and whose hearts have largely turned against them over the last few years. A mixture of tax cuts (irresistible to Republicans) and handouts (irresistible to Democrats) virtually guarantees successful passage. Add to the recipe a lame-duck president who can no longer be harmed or helped politically by the financial condition of his subjects, and we have all the makings of sound, principled economic policy.

The voters, we are constantly reminded, are the very same ones who send their money to Washington for the sole purpose of propping up a useless bureaucracy, and who benefit from tax cuts by having "their own hard-earned money" returned to them. (Note that tax cuts never return any other money but the hard-earned kind.) Why it is exactly that politicians should be given credit for giving their constituents something which was rightfully theirs in the first place is anybody's guess. But as long as both of our major political parties insist upon reducing every political argument into increasingly meaningless talking points—as if life only ever presented two stark, obvious choices in every situation—who can blame the poor voter for being grateful for the few crumbs that accidentally fall his way?

January 19, 2008

Defining Presidency Down

The results from the Iowa caucuses raise that quadrennial, anxiety-inducing question: what exactly do people think they're voting for? It is clear that the one thing they are most assuredly NOT voting for is the most qualified person to be president.

It is bad enough, on the Democratic side, that the fourth-best qualified candidate was leading in the polls through much of the last year, but even worse that her main challengers for the nomination are the fifth- and sixth-best qualified candidates. The popularity of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards is understandable on many levels, but how is it that Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson, any one of whom could walk into the Oval Office and confidently take over the executive branch tomorrow, barely registered a blip on the voters' radar screens?

The Republican race is even more confounding. Arguably the best candidate in either party, John McCain, has had to scramble for months from the back of the pack against a cardboard cutout of an ex-governor, a quirky ex-pastor, a somnolent ex-senator and a snarling ex-mayor. McCain may very well eke out a win in New Hampshire and gain enough support to have a serious shot at the nomination. But the fact that he has trailed in the national polls from very early in this campaign does not say anything very flattering about the average Republican voter's judgment.

The fundamental problem is that Americans don't vote, they pray. This is not about the religious convictions of any particular candidate (surely the correct answer to the question "What would Jesus do?" can never be "Run for president"). This is about the public's insatiable thirst for inspiration. No matter what pedestrian qualities voters may look for in lesser elected officials — competence, for example — when it comes to the presidency, the pious and the apostates alike always look for a candidate who moves them. How often does one hear voters say they prefer a candidate for the state senate or the town council because he "shares my values"? For some reason, the chief executive has to reflect some idealized, vague and convoluted notion of how we think of ourselves.

Americans don't vote, they pray.

Never mind the outright charlatanism this often leads to. The wonder of Mitt Romney, the most two-faced politician to come down the Mass Pike in some time, isn't that he only came in second in Iowa but that anyone could vote for him at all. Is there a Republican voter who really believes that he's sincerely changed his mind on almost every major issue — just in time to run for president? But this is beside the point. Analyzed issue by issue, most presidential candidates would never get out of the starting gate. In the end, we typically have a choice between two flawed, compromised, ruthless and devious career politicians. The one who more closely manages to look like the American mythological leader, the hero on the white horse, usually wins. (One could probably build an argument that the candidate who most closely resembles the movie characters played by Gary Cooper has most frequently been elected president.)

Only once have I ever been tempted to call into a radio program, in 2000, when Hillary Clinton was running for the Senate in New York and the question for listeners was whether they base their vote on the candidates' views on the issues or on character and personal history. One caller after another said they either wouldn't vote for Hillary because she didn't walk out on Bill after the Monica business, or would vote for her because of the way she held her marriage together. Could these people be living in the real world? Most people don't know what's going on in their best friend's marriage, let alone the Clintons'.

It's easy enough to ridicule people who consistently vote against their own interests: poor people who fall for tax-cutting Republicans, for example, because of the existential threat posed by flag burning, or middle-class voters who stick with protectionist Democrats whose policies, if carried out, would be much more likely to cost them their jobs. But the reality is that when it comes to electing a president, image is everything. And the image we're looking for is not the slickly packaged, market-researched, heavily financed products we are forced to choose from on Election Day. It's the image in the distorted mirror that we hold up to ourselves, in the vain hope that we'll see a reflection that is much more attractive than the one we're used to seeing there. And that sort of self-deception can lead to all manner of preposterous results.

January 4, 2008

Romney's Creed: "And Liberty for Me"

The similarities between Mitt Romney's speech in Texas on December 6 with the one given by John F. Kennedy in 1960 are superficial, and the comparison is odious. They were both political speeches designed to help their respective speakers get elected. But Kennedy also managed to defend a principle: the separation of church and state. His record in government prior to that time certainly supported his stated conviction, and there was nothing in his actions as president to suggest that he was insincere.

So where is the statement of principle in Romney's speech? His "defense of religious liberty" is not a principle, or at least not one that needs defending. It's a craven appeal to religious conservatives who see imaginary enemies of faith lurking everywhere. It's not enough that we have unfettered freedom to worship in this country, as the Constitution guarantees. As Romney plainly stated yesterday, the culture warriors have another agenda: they are hell-bent on slaying the dragon of "secularism", whatever that straw-man is supposed to mean.

Romney had a tough row to hoe in that speech. On the one hand, he had to convince non-Mormon Christians that his faith, which many other Christians view as peculiar if not downright heretical, would not inform his decision-making as president. On the other hand, he nonetheless had to show that he is a genuinely religious person whose beliefs would indeed inform his decision-making (just not his Mormon beliefs — got it?). Therefore, instead of Kennedy's insistence that we keep religion out of politics as a guarantee of religious freedom, Romney makes an unctuous appeal to the righteous: we believers have to stick together to defeat those evil secularists. Instead of the communitarian view — "We have no right to be intolerant of one another" — we get raw self-interest — "We have an obligation to be intolerant of those who disagree with us (wink, wink)."

If that is what passes for principle today, the country has badly lost its moral bearings in the last 47 years. But, of course, we knew that already. Where is the surprise in a politician using his religious beliefs as a hypocritical ploy to buy votes? Anyone who wears religion on his or her sleeve invariably has something hidden up that sleeve. (That is another way in which the comparison with Kennedy is grotesque.) The last laugh will no doubt be on Romney, though, because if he thinks either the Mormons or the evangelicals are going to put him over the top in the primaries, let alone in the Electoral College, he is in for a rude awakening. Mike Huckabee seems to have the evangelical vote going his way, and the Mormons — well, just do the math. He would have been better off if he had become a Methodist long ago.

One wonders whether Kennedy was a bit fortunate in having had Nixon as his opponent in 1960. Had Nixon been a Presbyterian or Episcopalian, it might very well have made a difference in that razor-thin margin of victory. Nixon was generally silent on the issue of Kennedy's Catholicism. Could it have been because, as a Quaker, he didn't want to draw attention to the fact that he belonged to a Christian sect that, like the Mormons, is viewed as odd by most Americans? Too bad for Romney that there isn't a Muslim or a Jew running for the Democratic nomination: that might have been his best chance to immunize himself from the weirdness factor, and without having to resort to a declaration of war on all those godless heathens in the other party.

December 7, 2007

Who's Up First? Who Cares?

What a silly spectacle we have been subjected to over the last year, as the states of the union elbowed one another aside trying to be the first to hold a presidential primary. This shameless display of boosterism puts the lie to the hallowed phrase, "the American people", which politicians habitually invoke whenever they know they have little or no support for a particular stance. If we are truly one people, it ought not to matter which state goes first, because one group of voters is much like another. On the other hand, if the respective peoples of the various states truly are different from one another, then no state can claim to be more or less typical of the nation than any other. What makes Iowa and New Hampshire any less "representative" than any of the other 48 states? And never mind the irony of claiming that one's ordinariness is what makes one special; that's hardly a compelling argument for changing the process, or for anything else.

In any event, what difference can it possibly make to the overall process which state goes first? Any line-up of primaries and caucuses is sure to favor one candidate more than another. It seems more than likely that governors, members of Congress and state party officials are playing this unseemly game of "me first" in a brazen attempt to corner some of the increased economic activity and publicity that comes from being among the early primary states.

The idea of a national primary has been mooted, but this is not much of a solution. If every state held its primary election on the same day, the best-financed candidates would hold an enormous advantage as the only ones with enough money to fight a national campaign. (It would also likely drive up the cost of the primaries, as there would be even more at stake for the national parties and special interest groups in the first round of national voting. Presidential elections are ghastly enough already; the last thing we need is two national votes in a single year.)

It's in the nature of democracy to be messy, and human nature to cry foul when the other guy wins. If the process stays largely the same from one election cycle to the next, then at least all the candidates know the rules of the game before they set out. What is truly unfair is changing the rules in the middle of the process, which is exactly what this gamesmanship has nearly accomplished. As it turns out, Iowa and New Hampshire appear to be hanging on to their traditional monopoly over the early part of the race. And why not?

November 26, 2007

A Lost Vinick Moment

Despite his obvious and considerable shortcomings, Rudy Giuliani did at first seem to have one redeeming feature as a presidential candidate: the potential to be the closest embodiment in real life to the politics of Arnie Vinick and thereby the salvation of the Republican mainstream. Vinick was the fictional Republican on "The West Wing", played by Alan Alda, who eschewed the religious right in the expectation that moderate and independent voters would naturally flock to a fiscal conservative who is tough on security but socially tolerant. By seeking and accepting the endorsement of Pat Robertson, however, Giuliani has thrown aside the Vinick strategy and effectively kissed the independent vote goodbye (and, perhaps with it, any hope of victory in the general election). But far more important than the impact on his personal fortunes, Giuliani has also crushed any hope that he might lead the Republicans back from their 30-year sojourn on the outer fringes of right-wing politics and reinvent them as the respectable right-of-centre party they used to be — and that the country desperately needs if we are to maintain a stable two-party democracy.

November 12, 2007

Tortured Logic

Nearly seven years into the Bush administration, is it possible that anyone is surprised by revelations of secret justifications for torture or the politicization of the Justice Department? It would only be news if these things had not happened, or that the government had suddenly discovered its moral compass.

After Alberto Gonzalez's weak and useless testimony before the Judiciary Committee during the spring and summer, some members of Congress, and any number of conservative pundits, excused him as a basically good and decent person who was simply in over his head. But every good and decent person knows that torture in any form is morally abhorrent and that it irreparably debases the people who order, perform and condone it.

September 2007

Is Rudy Kidding?

Astonishingly, Rudy Giuliani continues to claim that he said, "Thank God George Bush is our president" right after 9/11. I remember hearing him say it on the radio during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. In that particular incarnation of this extraordinary quotation, he prefaced it by saying, "Like most Americans, I said a little prayer thanking God..." Really? Most Americans I know after 9/11 said about George Bush, "You go to war with the president you have, not the president you wish you had." Or, more succinctly, "What have we done?"

Let us forget for a moment how remarkable it is that Giuliani persists in repeating this canard. It underlines an essential problem with him as a politician, and, one presumes, as a human being: If he did in fact say this, it reflects very badly on his judgment. But since Giuliani is a pathologically self-centered man who does not ordinarily bow and scrape before anyone, it is highly unlikely that he felt or said anything of the kind, which reflects even more poorly on his veracity and integrity.

What people really said
about Bush after 9/11:
"You go to war with the
president you have,
not the president
you wish you had."

The public figure Giuliani has always most reminded me of is Robert Moses. I have no idea if Giuliani considers Moses a role model, but he might as well. They have much in common: insatiable lust for power, contempt for opponents, disdain for the democratic process (it is largely forgotten that the hero of 9/11 briefly advocated canceling the 2001 mayoral election so he could continue to save New York even after his term ended). But I am most reminded of the similarity between the two men when people say of either one, "Yes, but he did great things for the city." Some of the things Rudy did and Moses built happened to benefit others, but did either one of them ever do anything for anyone unless some benefit redounded to themselves?

Perhaps that is why Giuliani cravenly professes his admiration for that other empathy-challenged politician, his president, who has made the world safe for the abuse of authority.

August 2007

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