Monday, June 9, 2008

Looking Towards November

Democracy without honest information creates the illusion of popular consent, while enhancing the power of the state and the privileged interests protected by it. -- Bill Moyers, speaking Saturday to the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis

In This Week's Sift:

Two Eventful Weeks. Since my last Sift, the primaries ended and Barack Obama became the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party. Where the race is now, the best links for keeping track of it, and best guesses about what the Clinton supporters will do.

They Lied. Not so long ago, saying "Bush lied" marked you as a resident of the Far Left. Now the Senate Intelligence Committee has come very close to saying it, with the support of two of its Republican members.

The Media Helped Them Lie. Scott McClellan says the media was "too deferential to the White House" when the Iraq War was being sold. ABC's Charles Gibson protests, but the facts don't back him up.

Political Summer Reading.
A few books that aren't exactly beach reading, but are worth a look if you have some time this summer.

I'm running over my voluntary 3,000-word limit this week, so I'll do without a Short Notes section. In the meantime, check out the most recent "Unearthed News" feature by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Brendan DeMelle on Huffington Post. Short Notes will be back next week.

Two Eventful Weeks
I'm going to assume that you do not live in a cave, and so you already know the basics of what happened in politics these last two weeks. It started a week ago Saturday when the Democrats came up with a compromise to resolve the Florida-and-Michigan issue. Not everybody liked it. The final primaries were held on Tuesday, and superdelegates finally started declaring themselves in large numbers. By Tuesday night, Obama had the support of a majority of delegates to the Democratic Convention in August, so he declared victory in a very good speech in the same arena in Minnesota where the Republican Convention will be held. Clinton gave a speech that night that did not include a concession, for which she was roundly criticized.

McCain also spoke that day, lamely enough that the contrast with Obama scared Republicans. The snarkiest response to his speech came not from some upstart liberal blog, but from the Economist, which noticed a resemblance to Batman's arch-villain the Joker in McCain's "terrifying death rictus grin-and-snicker after every joke line. I don't know whether Americans are ready to vote for Mr McCain, but I am prepared to pay him one million dollars not to release deadly Smilex gas over the New Year's Eve crowd at midnight."

Wednesday a conference call with her supporters in Congress convinced Clinton that the campaign was over and it was time to endorse Obama. On Saturday she that did just that. It was an emotional scene, and she handled it marvelously. I had grown increasingly suspicious of Clinton as the campaign wore on, so I watched closely for some hint that would undercut the main message; I didn't see one. She put her full effort into the speech and did her best to convince her supporters to get behind Obama.

Where Are We Now? According to the polls, McCain and Obama are more-or-less tied, with perhaps a slight advantage to Obama in both the popular vote and the electoral college. The conventional wisdom is a little more definite in predicting an Obama win.

The best place to watch the numbers is the 538 blog. (538 is the total number of electoral votes, with 270 making a majority.) 538 is to polling what Bill James is to baseball statistics. During the primaries, 538 (also known as the blogger Poblano) was uncanny at cutting through the pre-election fog -- figuring out who would actually vote, how the undecideds would break, and so on. 538 doesn't conduct polls, it just reanalyzes everybody else's data and tosses in everything else that seems relevant: a state's demographic profile, results from similar demographics in other states, how Bush and Kerry did in 2004, fund-raising numbers, and so on. It works.

538's current if-the-election-were-held-today guess is a 273-265 electoral college win for Obama.

The best place to watch the conventional wisdom is through the predictive markets. These resemble stock markets, but the shares correspond to candidates. A share of Obama will pay $100 if Obama wins, and people bid to determine what that share is worth today. Right now, Obama is trading at $61.80 compared to $35.90 for McCain. Originally, the wisdom-of-crowds folks believed that predictive markets might have uncanny prognosticating ability, but so far they seem to react to events more than predict them. (Last November-December, for example, shares of Huckabee went up more or less in tandem with his Iowa poll numbers.) It is a good way to quantify what people are expecting at the moment, though. Follow them through Slate's continuing "Why Vote When You Can Bet?" feature.

What's Obama's Advantage? If the polls are nearly even, you might wonder why the conventional wisdom is favoring Obama. I can't speak for all the conventionally wise, but here's why I expect him to win: I think the final days of the divisive primary campaign were a low point for Obama. The country is leaning towards the Democrats at all other levels, and as November approaches I expect the presidential level to align with that trend. In other words, there's a big pool of voters who support Democrats generally and Democratic positions on the major issues, but who right now are either undecided or leaning towards McCain. I think Obama will eventually get most of their votes.

In particular, I expect Obama to eventually win over two types of voters: moderates who mistakenly think that McCain is a moderate, and some Clinton fans who are supporting McCain out of spite.

Finally, McCain is pushing the same experience theme that failed Clinton in January. Experience works as an issue only until the public can see the candidates side-by-side. At that point, the experience difference has to be visible in their performance -- McCain needs to look like he knows what he's talking about while Obama doesn't. If the experience advantage is invisible -- and I think it will be -- the issue goes away. That's what happened in Kennedy vs. Nixon.

Moderates. Most politicians have a boom-bust cycle with the media. Obama, for example, got a lot of good coverage when he was emerging in December-January, and then March was 24/7 Jeremiah Wright. Through last summer and fall, Clinton benefited from the media message that she was inevitable. But immediately after Iowa pundits focused entirely on her failures, and then in the spring they exaggerated her chances of winning after Obama had built an insurmountable lead. Build-up-tear-down is the normal pattern.

For some reason, McCain has no cycle. Since he emerged on the national scene in 1999, he has received relentlessly positive coverage. As a result, people tend to believe that McCain agrees with them, even when he doesn't. Many pro-choice voters, for example, somehow have gotten the impression that McCain is pro-choice, when he actually takes a fairly extreme pro-life position. That's typical. McCain is a doctrinaire conservative. He's even more hawkish than Bush. He thinks the magic of the marketplace will solve our healthcare problems. He supports the Bush tax cuts and wants to focus new tax cuts on corporations, while balancing the budget through "entitlement reform" -- cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Now, I understand that some people will never catch on. But more and more voters will start paying attention as the election gets closer, and many will be shocked by what they find.

Clintonites. There's a lot of anger among Clinton supporters right now, especially older women who see Obama as all the undeserving young men who ever got promoted over them. Until Saturday, Clinton did her best to fan that anger. The whole point of all the Florida-and-Michigan stuff was to create a narrative of injustice and paint Obama's victory as illegitimate. (If you buy this narrative, try to imagine it with the names switched: What if Obama tried to count a primary that he had won because Clinton's name wasn't on the ballot, and where many voters had stayed home because the Democratic Party had told them their primary was meaningless? Which way does the injustice go then?)

Lots of people have written about this group lately: Michelle Goldberg at The New Republic, Carol Lundergan at TPM Cafe, and Jane Hamsher at the Huffington Post, just to name a few. The BloggingHeads discussion between Jane Hamsher and Brink Lindsey is pretty insightful: Jane separates the Clinton-loyal women into two groups: politically active feminists and previously apolitical women who identify with Hillary personally. The first group will come home to the Democrats, she says, but the second may not. For them, it's not about abortion or the Supreme Court or the economy or the war; it's about Hillary. No Hillary, no vote.

That matches what I see on the blogs. As the campaign wore on, Democratic blogs became more and more segregated into pro-Obama blogs (like DailyKos) and pro-Clinton blogs (like MyDD). Neither completely eliminated its minority supporting the other candidate, but life was difficult for them. Already on Wednesday, though, peace started breaking out. The harsh feelings on either side are not entirely gone, but people who care about politics and progressive values realize what's at stake in this election. They aren't going to dwell on their disappointments or let personal animosity screw things up.

On the blogs specifically set up to support Clinton's candidacy, though, it's a different story. The outstanding example here is HillaryIs44 (a reference to the 44th president, the next one). These bloggers feel wronged by Obama and the Democratic Party, and they're out to take down anybody involved in denying Hillary the nomination, including Obama-supporting superdelegates like John Kerry. Clinton's concession speech made no difference to them, and many hang on to the fantasy that some Obama scandal will still break out and cause the superdelegates to change their minds. The key acronym here is PUMA (Party Unity My Ass).

These are the people McCain was pandering to at the beginning of his Tuesday speech, when he congratulated Clinton at length and said, "Pundits and party elders have declared that Senator Obama will be my opponent." He was implicitly pushing the message that Obama stole the nomination from the rightful victor, Hillary Clinton.

Nobody knows exactly how many HillaryIs44-type people there are, or if McCain can really keep their support. The measure to watch is not the tone of HillaryIs44 (which will never change), but its traffic level. Will this community of resentment hold together, or will its members defect one-by-one as November approaches?

Will Clinton Be VP? No. Forget all the arguments for and against, it comes down to this: Clinton said McCain would be a better commander-in-chief than Obama. If she's on the ticket, Republicans will run that video 24/7.

They Lied.
More people have changed their minds about George W. Bush than about any president in American history. Over the last seven years, his approval rating has done a falcon-dive from its historic high in the 90s after 9-11 to a Nixon-like 25% today. In the course of that long re-assessment, two events stand out: his administration's bumbling response to Hurricane Katrina, and its failure to find WMDs in Iraq. We didn't save New Orleans, and we didn't save the hypothetical cities that Bin Laden was going to destroy with Saddam's weapons.

No matter how messy, bloody, and expensive the Iraq War turned out to be, Americans would still support it if we thought it had prevented al Qaida from blowing up Atlanta or unleashing an anthrax plague on Chicago. That was the war President Bush sold us. If it had just turned out to cost more than he led us to believe, we'd have forgiven him.

But there were no WMDs. American cities faced no danger from Saddam. And if Bin Laden still has plans to destroy them, our troops in Iraq do not stand in his way.

Katrina was just incompetence, but Iraq has long carried an odor of deception. Did Bush and his people just get it wrong? Were they themselves fooled by incompetent intelligence services? Or did they lie to us?

The new report of the Senate Intelligence Committee adds weight to the case that they lied. The Senate report examines the public statements of Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, and Powell during the lead-up to the war, and compares them to the intelligence reports the administration was receiving. Conclusion: In regard to WMDs, evidence supporting their position existed, but they ignored contrary evidence and dissenting interpretations in the intelligence community. In regard to the relationship between Saddam and Bin Laden, they just made stuff up. The intelligence community had debunked the Saddam/Osama relationship, but the administration pushed it anyway. All of the committee's Democrats and two Republicans -- Chuck Hagel and Olympia Snowe -- approved the report.

The Media Helped Them Lie.
Almost simultaneously, Scott McCellan's new book What Happened was describing the Iraq deception from the inside, using the word propaganda to describe what the administration did.

In addition to the obvious conflict with the administration, McClellan's book touched off a discussion about the role of the press. A lot of the mainstream journalists -- NBC's David Gregory, for example -- took offense at McClellan's charge that the press was "too deferential to the White House."

NBC's Today morning show coincidentally had the three major network anchors on -- Katie Couric, Brian Williams, and Charles Gibson -- and asked them about it. Couric described the pressure the networks were under -- how the administration threatened to freeze CBS out of war coverage if they didn't change their tone. But Gibson claimed the right questions were asked and "there was a lot of skepticism" about Colin Powell's speech.

Unfortunately for Gibson, we have Google and YouTube now and can check his memory. Glenn Greenwald did the research, and discovered that in fact Gibson displayed precious little skepticism after Powell's speech.

"It is not our job to debate [the administration]," Gibson told the Today audience, "It is our job to ask the questions." Glenn goes on to nail this as the Stenographic Model of Journalism:
Real reporting is about uncovering facts that the political elite try to conceal, not ones they willingly broadcast. It's about investigating and exposing -- not mindlessly amplifying -- the falsehoods and deceit of government claims. But our modern "journalists" (with some noble exceptions) don't do that not only because they can't do it, but also because they don't think it's their job.
His post contains many links worth following, to discussions of how Phil Donahue's show got canceled despite its ratings, the firing of Ashleigh Banfield, and CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin's assertion that "the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings."

Political Summer Reading List
Imagine that you're a what-the-hell kind of guy who loves foreign languages and cultures. You've been bopping through life with no discernible plan when in June, 2001 you get this amazingly brilliant idea: If you join the Army, they'll pay you to learn Arabic. Fast forward a couple of years, and life is not turning out exactly the way you planned. You're an interrogator at Abu Ghraib.

That's what happened to Tony Lagouranis. He begins his memoir Fear Up Harsh with one of the great opening lines: "I should never be mistaken for a hero." And then he goes on to tell a fascinating story of corruption and slippery slopes. It has a moral:
Once introduced into war, torture will inevitably spread, because ticking bombs are everywhere. Each and every prisoner, without exception, has the potential to be the one that provides the information that will save American lives. So if you accept the logic that we have to perform torture to prevent deaths, each and every prisoner is deserving of torture. ... We should be very concerned about this steady progression and where it will lead, because the essence of torture -- tyrannical control over the will of another -- is everything that a free and democratic society is supposed to stand against. We should be very skeptical of the idea that our use of torture overseas will never come home.

Martha Nussbaum is a philosopher whose new book Liberty of Conscience explores the boundary between philosophy, American history, and constitutional law with regard to the issue of religious freedom and the relationship between church and state. If that description sounds dense, academic, and unreadable, I've done her an injustice. Her book has a very simple point: Defenders of religious liberty screw up when they present separation-of-church-and-state as an end in itself. Separation is better understood as a means to this end: Every American should come to the public square as an equal, without hierarchies created by ranking one religion over another. Mixing church with state inevitably implies that some beliefs make you more (or less) American, and therefore they entitle you to a higher (or lower) level of respect from your government.

Nussbaum retells the history of religious freedom and oppression in America -- including the shameful parts -- from Roger Williams leaving the Massachusetts Bay Colony to present controversies about displaying the Ten Commandments, reciting "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, and same-sex marriage. Her ultimate conclusions resemble down-the-line ACLUism. But her arguments are founded on values that really are common to the vast majority of Americans, rather than values that we merely wish were common.

Have you ever noticed how the war party is full of people who dodged military service? The anti-gay party has an inordinate number of closeted gays? The family values party has a hard time finding candidates who can hold their first marriage together long enough to raise a child? (And do any of them have a daughter as pride-worthy as Chelsea Clinton?)

Glenn Greenwald thinks that's not just a series of unfortunate coincidences. In Great American Hypocrites, he makes the case that the true core value of the conservative movement is hypocrisy. And in a brilliant move, he takes his history-of-conservative-hypocrisy all the way back to the icon: John Wayne. I can't count the number of times I've heard somebody say that the Republicans are the John Wayne party. Well, Glenn agrees: Wayne ducked military service during World War II, when other actors of his era (Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable -- even Jane Fonda's dad Henry, for God's sake) enlisted. He philandered. He was married three times. He got hooked on prescription drugs. And all the while he strutted around like the epitome of male virtue. Yep, he's the model for the Republican party.

Like most of Glenn's stuff, this book repeats itself and could have been a lot shorter. But it's a fun rant, and will provide plenty of ammunition for arguments with conservative friends and relatives.

Every few months the blogosphere lights up with reports of some inspirational talk given by Bill Moyers. Well, now you can read them all in a book, Moyers on Democracy. Except for the talk he gave at the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis Saturday. That one you'll just have to watch on YouTube. You can also watch the hilarious way Moyers turns the tables on an ambush interviewer sent by Bill O'Reilly. It takes nine minutes to play out, but it's worth it.

I haven't finished Drew Westen's The Political Brain yet, but I've seen enough to recommend it. His main point is that Democrats approach a campaign like a high school debate, while Republicans approach it like marketing. That's why Republicans win even when the Democrats' positions are more popular. He discusses how emotions and imagery influence political decision-making, and dissects political advertisements to explain why they do or don't work.

3 comments:

DavidW in SF said...

A couple comments...

Regarding the population of "HillaryIs44.com", someone on DailyKos did a data analysis of all of the posted comments on that site and came up with some startling numbers. Here's the money quote:

The 100,000 posts were written by 310 users. That is NOT a typo. Three hundred and ten users wrote all 100,000 posts. The most prolific user posted 7170 times. The top 20 users have posted 45% off all posts and 24 users have posted half of all posts. 171 users are "regulars", where regulars are defined as having posted 20+ times, the regulars have posted more than 99% of all posts.

Now, that site may not be representative of the entire spectrum of the "Hillary or no one" contingent, but it would seem to indicate that the numbers overall may not be as large as we fear. (And 7140 posts (60/day average) by one poster over the four month period would indicate something nearing psychosis or a well-paid Republican operative.) I suspect there's a fair amount of Republican "dirty ops" making up the traffic of these sites. We'll certainly know as post-primary polling proceeds.

Regarding "Bush lied", I would contend that Katrina can be pitched as the worst Bush lie of all. George W. Bush's claims post-9/11 and especially in the period leading up to the 2004 elections was that he was the one who would protect the country and be prepared in case of attack. However, his actions put the lie to all of those assertions.

On taking office in January 2001, Bush appointed Joe Allbaugh to head FEMA. Allbaugh was a crony, but he was at least a nominally qualified crony for the FEMA job. Allbaugh resigned when FEMA was merged into the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003. After that, Allbaugh went off to concentrate full time on war-profiteering. Given that his appointment was before 9/11, he wasn't so bad for a Bush appointment.

However, Bush nominated Michael D. Brown in January 2003 (i.e., AFTER 9/11) to replace the soon-to-be-departing Allbaugh. Putting the question of competence aside, Bush nominated a CLEARLY UNQUALIFIED crony to head up what should have been one of the most important positions in one of the most important offices to respond to any terrorist attacks on our soil. Bush's stated highest priority was protecting America in case of attack. This appointment clearly shows that Bush had no actual interest in his constantly repeated "highest priority", which was of great urgency for the American people. If one cared to track down all of Bush's statements on this matter between 9/11 and the 2004 elections, one can probably find hundreds of repetitions of this lie.

For me it's not so much the completely botched response to Katrina that bothers me (as horrifying as it is), but the fact that Bush brazenly lied to the American people on an on-going basis about this before it happened in order to get elected. One can only imagine his lack of preparedness for a surprise "dirty bomb" attack that didn't have a five-day warning like Katrina. I'm not sure whether Kucinich included this in his recent impeachment charges against Bush, but it should be near the top of the list.

Doug Muder said...

I wondered about how many posters there were on HillaryIs44, but didn't realize somebody had done the research. Thanks, davidw.

I see your point on Katrina, but I think we're talking about a much less direct variety of deception. I don't think anyone in the administration intended to make such a botch of the situation, but giving jobs to cronies and political operatives was just a higher priority than responding to an emergency of this scale.

I think FEMA fell victim to the fundamental conservative belief that (other than the military) government just isn't important. If you think that civilian government employees are all lazy bureaucrats, why not replace them with political operatives?

I wish more people paid attention to the self-fulfilling nature of a view of government. Take Russia for example. For 70 years Russians were told that capitalists were crooks, and then they were told to become capitalists. What happened?

Similarly, Republicans spent decades preaching that government was incompetent and useless. Then they said, "OK, we're the government now." The results shouldn't have surprised anybody.

p0m said...

I'll have to get Drew Westin's The Political Brain. A couple days ago I had a look at:
http://www.ontheissues.org/2008/Barack_Obama_Principles_+_Values.htm
I don't know how reliable that site is, but they did not really list values or principles, only policies and intentions, for him. Their presentation at least credited McCain with valuing a couple things that other people might agree with such as, "Don't spend my money on other people." But Obama needs to formulate clearly, and in a way that everybody can understand, the idea that a well-functioning society is not just an opportunity for a privileged group to make money off the rest of us. There is a reason why a whole village should teach a child.