Monday, May 26, 2008

Political Soap Opera

Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. -- George Orwell

In This Week's Sift:

The Clintons, Season 17. Why is so much political coverage focused on a candidate who no longer has a chance to win?

The Scariest Thing I Read This Week. Radar's article about a program called Main Core is all based on anonymous sources. But it's a pretty frightening story all the same.

McCain Watch. Nobody is paying attention, but the media actually is starting to scrutinize John McCain.

Short Notes.
Playing fetch in Iraq, Joe vs. Joe, Sistani's new fatwa, and a bold way to handle the border patrol.

The Clintons, Season 17
Politics and government are actually not very popular in America, so it's not unusual for our political coverage to be taken over by some other art form. That happened this week, as the media focused its attention not on the future governance of the United States, but on the ongoing soap opera of The Clintons. Will the sexist media force Hillary out of the race? Will she destroy the Democratic Party? Will we finally discover that Barack is the secret love child of Bill Clinton and Tina Turner? Stay tuned.

Let's get political reality out of the way as fast as possible: Obama now has the majority of the elected delegates. The superdelegates continue to trend towards him. In spite of the claims of the Clinton campaign, the polls show no statistically significant difference between how Obama and Clinton compete against McCain. There is no credible scenario where Clinton gets the nomination, or credible argument that she should get it, and even the incredible scenarios leave the Democratic Party so shattered that McCain wins.

Enough of that. It's boring. On to the juicy stuff.

Did She Really Say That? No, not really. She did bring up Bobby Kennedy's assassination while answering a question about why she was staying in the race, but the people who think she was hinting that someone might shoot Obama are being unfair. (Keith Olbermann, who I ordinarily admire a lot, kind of wigged out on this one.) The first time I saw the video, I interpreted it the same way she eventually explained it: the RFK assassination is something lots of people remember from a primary campaign that stretched into June. Bringing it up was misguided for a bunch of other reasons -- 1968 is not a campaign today's Democrats should be imitating -- but I didn't hear any invitation to violence. (An invitation to violence looks like this.) The most complete telling of the story is here.

As past readers of this blog should know, I'm down on this whole somebody-said-a-bad-thing style of politics. I didn't like it when the media was going crazy about Obama's "bitter" comment, and I don't like it now. Obama is being gracious and writing the whole thing off to the stress of a long campaign causing words to come out wrong. Let's leave it at that.

What's She Doing? I wish I could figure it out. There's nothing inherently wrong with a candidate continuing to run long after any real chance at the nomination is gone. Mike Huckabee did it, and nobody holds it against him.

But Clinton is doing something Huckabee didn't: working hard to raise resentment against her party's near-certain nominee. Her Florida-and-Michigan rhetoric tries to make Obama's victory seem illegitimate. The why-are-they-trying-to-force-me-out stuff is salting the wounds of her supporters. Just before making the RFK comparison she complained "People have been trying to push me out of this ever since Iowa." Why? "I don't know. I don't know. I find it curious. Because it's unprecedented in history." In reality, Obama's been handling her with kid gloves, but she's doing her best to sound like a victim.

Hillary Clinton is on a very destructive path. I can't figure out where it's going or what she hopes to gain from it.

Mulitiple frames. From the beginning of Hillary's campaign, many older women -- who experienced overt discrimination that younger women have trouble imagining -- have framed this campaign as The Only Chance In Our Lifetime To Elect a Woman President. Some of them seem to have a hard time imagining that other people frame the campaign differently, so they can only attribute Clinton's loss to sexism. Any other explanation is just an excuse.

By contrast, thirty-somethings, male and female alike, find the Clinton-is-all-women notion puzzling. To them, Clinton's gender is an important part of her biography, but not the all-encompassing theme of 2008.

A lot of Democrats of all ages have framed this campaign around the war: Clinton voted to authorize it and has never really admitted that vote was a mistake, or explained how she will avoid similar mistakes in the future. When the war was popular, she positioned herself so that its possible success wouldn't ruin her candidacy. Now that it's unpopular, she talks forcefully about ending it. In 2006 the late Molly Ivins wrote: "Sen. Clinton is apparently incapable of taking a clear stand on the war in Iraq, and that alone is enough to disqualify her." Is that an excuse for sexism?

For liberal activists, 2008 is the culmination of the Dean revolution of 2004. The Clinton-era move-to-the-right tactics that killed us in 2002 and 2004 are finally being rejected. Hillary made the mistake of picking the wrong side: She's the establishment candidate in a revolutionary year. Should we ignore that because she's a woman?

Is She the Last Hope? Marie Cocco writes: "The record suggests that if Clinton is not the nominee, no woman will seriously contend for the White House for another generation." Of course, after Colin Powell ruined his future by being the mouthpiece for the Bush administration's lies to the UN, the prospects for a black president looked pretty dim too. Who saw Obama coming in 2003?

Let's back up and take a wider view of how sexism works at this level. Lots of people, male and female, are talented enough to make a serious run for president. What most of them lack are a jumping-off point and a story. Sexism has made it harder for women to get either one.

Credible presidential candidates are almost always either governors or senators or vice presidents. You need that jumping-off point. (Congressmen like Dennis Kucinich or Tom Tancredo just prove the rule. How far did they get?) So as long as there weren't many female governors or senators, the chances for a female president were slim. But that's changing. The Center for American Women and Politics lists eight current female governors, including two -- Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas -- who are widely mentioned as Obama VP possibilities. There are 16 female senators. Not half, but not zero either. Then there's Nancy Pelosi. The more women who stand at jumping-off points, the more likely that one will be in the right place when opportunity beckons.

But that's not the complete accounting of sexism in presidential politics. A candidate also needs to be the protagonist of a story of leadership, and men have a bunch of such stories to choose from. John McCain can run as a war hero, because war-hero-becomes-political-leader is a story as old as Caesar. When Obama runs as a charismatic young Turk, people say, "Oh, yeah -- JFK. I know this story."

Right now neither of those stories works for women. (I think that's a big piece of the feminist resentment of Obama.) Only two leadership stories do: The Deserving Ladder-Climber, who pays all her dues, fulfills all the prerequisites, does all the homework, and is ready. And the Heir, who carries on the political legacy of her father or husband. (Think Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Evita Peron.) Hillary Clinton's story is a combination of the two: She paid her dues in her husband's administration.

Both stories have disadvantages. By the time a Deserving Ladder-Climber makes it to a jumping-off point, she might be too old to go further, like Diane Feinstein (but not Sebelius or Napolitano) today. And since legacy-producing leaders are rare, plausible Heirs are always going to be rare too.

The main reason I think we'll see a female president much sooner than a generation is because more leadership stories are going to open up for women. The manufactured Jessica Lynch story took off because the country is ready to see a woman as a war hero. A genuine female war hero may yet come out of Iraq or Afghanistan and start moving up. I'd love to see a 40-something woman try the Charismatic Young Turk story -- that might be ready to start working too. As we see more female CEOs, the Non-Political Business Wizard story -- Ross Perot, Lee Iaccoca -- might open up as well.

We'll really know that women have made it in American politics when we see a uniquely female leadership story, one that builds on traditionally feminine archetypes. That might take a generation. But some other story will work first.

The Scariest Thing I Read This Week
Like digby and emptywheel, I don't know what to do with articles like this one from Radar magazine. It's frightening. It sounds plausible. But it's totally based on anonymous sources, so maybe it's just one reporter's paranoid fantasy. Should we be scared or not? Beats me.

Here's the main idea: Deep inside some part of the Homeland Security Department, probably FEMA, is a plan to deal with the ultimate emergency -- something that unleashes chaos on the land and threatens the continuity of government. The plan descends from those Cold War plans to keep the country going after nuclear attack, and it contains the option of martial law.

Scary, but not too scary yet. Just about everybody who's thought much about the possibility of apocalyptic disaster assumes there's a plan like that somewhere. But it gets scarier if this plan is not just a wad of paper in a filing cabinet in some underground bunker, but is instead an active program interconnected with all the Bush administration's illegal spying programs. That's the thesis of this article: All the illegal wiretapping and data mining is feeding a database called Main Core, which has records on eight million suspicious Americans, and which will be used to figure out who the government needs to round up and detain at the outset of the national emergency.
It is, of course, appropriate for any government to plan for the worst. But when COG [continuity of government] plans are shrouded in extreme secrecy, effectively unregulated by Congress or the courts, and married to an overreaching surveillance state—as seems to be the case with Main Core—even sober observers must weigh whether the protections put in place by the federal government are becoming more dangerous to America than any outside threat.
Like any good conspiracy theories, this one pulls a lot of threads together. No one has ever explained the real issues behind the dramatic Ashcroft hospital-room scene. Why has the Department of Homeland Security expanded its capacity for large-scale temporary detention? Administration testimony about warrantless wiretapping has always carefully bracketed "this program" without commenting on what other secret programs might be doing. DHS is a likely home for such a program, because it lacks the Congressional oversight and legal restrictions of the CIA, FBI, NSA, or other intelligence agencies. FEMA's feeble performance against natural disasters might be the result of its re-orientation towards political emergencies. And why did the Military Commissions Act of 2006 expand the domestic role of the military?

The right answer to these questions is not to jump to conclusions, but for Congress to soberly investigate. Of course, that would mean avoiding the executive privilege roadblock that has allowed the administration to prevent any serious oversight so far. That's not going to happen until Congress either threatens impeachment or starts putting people in jail under its power of inherent contempt. And so far it isn't ready to go there.

McCain Watch
Fasincating piece in the NYT a week ago Sunday: The McCain Doctrines by Matt Bai. Bai compares the military-policy views of four Vietnam-veteran senators -- McCain, Kerry, Hagel, and Webb -- and makes an insightful point: By spending 1967-1973 as a POW, McCain missed the common experience of the war that the others were having.
During those years, McCain did not share the disillusioning and morally jarring experiences of soldiers like Kerry, Webb and Hagel, who found themselves unable to recognize their enemy in the confusion of the jungle; he never underwent the conversion that caused Kerry, for one, to toss away some of his war decorations during a protest at the Capitol. Whatever anger McCain felt remained focused on his captors, not on his own superiors back in Washington.
McCain compensated for this hole in his experience by studying the Vietnam War after-the-fact at the National War College. There he was taught that we arrived at the right anti-insurgent strategy in Vietnam too late, and that Congress pulled the plug on an effort that was starting to work. That's the lesson he's applying to Iraq.

It briefly looked as if McCain had taken an in-between position on Telecom Amnesty: Give the telecom companies retroactive immunity only after Congress had held rigorous hearings to figure out what they did. Alas, it was an illusion. The McCain campaign has issued a correction: McCain completely supports the Bush administration policy of no-strings amnesty for the telecoms who helped the government illegally spy on their customers.

Slate's Robert Gordon explains why McCain is wrong on health care. When the federal government started allowing interstate banking, all the card companies moved their credit card operations to South Dakota, which gives consumers the fewest rights. McCain's proposal for interstate health insurance would have the same result.

The Washington Post determines that the saving McCain expects to make by limiting earmarks just doesn't add up.

Short Notes
In Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani is turning against us. That's pretty important.

Public Eye magazine discusses the emerging links between the religious right and anti-immigrant groups. The article traces the fault lines in a political coalition that wants to include both working-class whites (who feel threatened by the growth of the American Latino population) and the Catholic Church (which represents most of that population and depends on it for future growth).

Phillip Carter's Intel Dump blog pointed me in the direction of one of his favorite soldier blogs: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal and this story about an American platoon in Iraq adopting a stray dog. Small things can be very touching sometimes, like a game of fetch just before dawn in a place that seems abnormal in every other way.

RFK Jr. and Brandon Demelle remind us of all the important stuff that happened this week that the major media never got around to covering. Think of it as a Short Notes inside Short Notes.

A pair of Joes -- Lieberman and Biden -- went back and forth on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal this week.

Lieberman charges that the Democratic Party has abandoned the strong foreign policy that it stood for under Truman and Kennedy, that after Vietnam it slid into believing "the Cold War was mostly America's fault" -- a position that was reversed under Clinton and now has been reversed back. After 9/11 "I felt strongly that Democrats should embrace the basic framework the president had advanced for the war on terror as our own, because it was our own. But that was not the choice most Democratic leaders made."

Biden points out that there is not a single part of the world where the Lieberman-Bush-McCain foreign policy is working. "On George Bush's watch, Iran, not freedom, has been on the march." He describes 9/11 as a historic opportunity "to unite Americans and the world in common cause" -- an opportunity that the administration blew through policies that "divided Americans from each other and from the world." He concludes: "The Bush-McCain saber rattling is the most self-defeating policy imaginable. It achieves nothing. But it forces Iranians who despise the regime to rally behind their leaders."

I'm sure you're in suspense about which case I find more convincing. Do I favor torture, the surrender of our civil liberties, and pre-emptive war based on false intelligence? Or should we try to represent the democratic values of the world and deserve the good-guy mantle that Bush wants to claim through rhetoric alone? Hmmm. Let me think.

Glenn Greenwald follows the money as the telecoms try to get Congress to let them off the hook for breaking the law. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the groups whose lawsuits will be dropped if telecom immunity passes, reports: "AT&T's spending for three months on lobbying alone is significantly more than the entire EFF budget for a whole year."

Now even the Pentagon is admitting that contractors in Iraq were mismanaged.

In case you missed any part of it, SlateV has a seven-minute summary of everything that's happened in the race for the Democratic nomination.

I don't think I'd have the guts to handle a border-patrol checkpoint like this.

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