Monday, July 21, 2008

Re-telling Bush's Story

We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that's got to change. -- Al Gore

In This Week's Sift:
  • The Election's Central Issue. Is George Bush a bad president who coincidentally happens to be conservative? Or are his administration's failures the culmination of decades of conservative policies?
  • Gore's Moon Shot. I'm still trying to figure out what I think about Al Gore's call for 100% carbon-free electricity in ten years.
  • What Real Conservatives Want. The Texas Republican platform demonstrates how radical the party's base is. Democrats should make McCain and all other Republicans say whether they agree with it or not.
  • Short Notes. What Michelle means to black professional women. Who's still in high school: bloggers or mainstream media pundits? We're #12! Snuggly the Security Bear explains FISA. And same-sex marriage is on its way to becoming no big deal in Massachusetts -- just like I said it would.

The Election's Central Issue
This election has many individual issues -- the wars, health care, the economy, global warming, civil liberties, etc. -- but behind them all lies one simple question: How will the American people tell the story of George W. Bush?

It's not whether he has been a good president or a bad president. That's been decided. Bush has one of the lowest approval ratings ever (23% at last count), and has been unpopular for a long time. His approval has been below 40% in Gallup's survey (which is more favorable to Bush than most, currently 29%) since January, 2006. By comparison, at this point in his presidency Bill Clinton (already impeached-but-not-removed by then) had a Gallup approval number double Bush's, 58% vs. 29%.

My personal suspicion is that these numbers underestimate Bush's unpopularity. At 23%, you're down to the people who feel like they have to defend you. I'll bet a poll coupled with a polygraph would net a much lower number. As soon as Bush is off the stage those 23% will never invoke his name again, just as no Republican brings up Nixon today. (Gallup showed Nixon with 24% approval just before he left office. I wonder how many people would admit to belonging to that 24% a year or two later.)

The unresolved question, though, is: Why was Bush such a bad president? The Republicans can win this election if they can sell the story that Bush's problems are personal, that he made some bad judgments another conservative Republican wouldn't make. This is the line McCain pushes on Iraq: Bush listened to Rumsfeld and invaded without enough troops, then didn't employ a good counter-insurgency strategy. But Rumsfeld has been fired, the strategy has been fixed, and we're finally on track for the victory that we should have had in 2003. Bush bungled Katrina, but that was just bad management -- and management is a non-partisan skill. On the economy, Bush just wasn't conservative enough: He didn't control Congress' runaway spending. (The fact that Congress was controlled by Republicans during most of the Bush years is conveniently forgotten.)

The Democrats need to tell a different story: The Bush presidency's failures are the natural result of three big conservative ideas that go back to Ronald Reagan: Don't tax the rich, don't regulate business, and wave a big stick at the rest of the world. Replacing Bush changes nothing if we don't reject those ideas.

The last 28 years -- Clinton stalled the trend but didn't reverse it -- has been a more-than-fair test of this conservative philosophy, which we now see doesn't work. If you cut rich people's taxes, they get a lot richer, the government borrows a lot of money, and the benefits never trickle down. If you de-regulate corporations, you don't get reasonably priced health care for all, you get Enron, MCI, and the mortgage crisis.* If you take a might-makes-right approach to other countries, they won't cooperate. You'll spend trillions sending troops all over the world, until you have no more troops to send.

Which of those failed conservative policies do McCain or the Republican Congressional candidates reject? Maybe they're ready to stop denying global warming** -- some of them, sort of, maybe. But McCain proposes more tax cuts targeted at the rich.*** He promises more wars. The center of his health care plan is a tax deduction plus a proposal to de-regulate health insurance companies, and he makes this vacuous promise, which is unsupported by any specifics whatever:
John McCain understands that those without prior group coverage and those with pre-existing conditions have the most difficulty on the individual market, and we need to make sure they get the high-quality coverage they need.
In other words, if you have a pre-existing condition, John McCain feels your pain. Kind of.

So here's the story Democrats need to tell to the 77% of Americans who say the country is on the wrong track. It's not on the wrong track because President Bush made some bizarre wrong turn. He just went eight years further down the road laid out by Ronald Reagan, and this is where it leads. John McCain and the Republicans running for Congress want to keep going further down that road. Obama and the Democrats don't. If Democrats can convince the country to tell Bush's story that way, they'll have a landslide in November.

* I'm reminded of the commercials that John Houseman made in the Eighties for Smith Barney, which is now part of Citibank. "They make money the old-fashioned way," he asserted forcefully. "They earn it." The folks running Enron made money the really old-fashioned way -- they stole it. That's what big executives do when they know no one is watching them. Want more Enrons? Keep de-regulating.

** I haven't read the entire 2004 Republican Platform, but I know it doesn't contain the words warming or climate. The 2008 Platform of the Texas Republican Party says: "We oppose taxes levied and regulations imposed based on the alleged threat of global warming." If McCain tries to put something about global warming into the national platform, there's going to be a nasty fight. I'm betting he doesn't.

*** On his web site the plan to eliminate the Alternate Minimum Tax is promoted as a tax cut for "middle class families" with no mention of the rich. But the AMT was originally targeted only at the rich. Now it hits some families in the upper half of the middle class, because Bush lowered the non-AMT tax rates and left the AMT alone. Even so, in 2010 90% of the AMT will be paid by households with incomes over $100,000. McCain also proposes a cut in the corporate tax rate. Millions of middle-class Americans own some small amount of corporate stock, but the overwhelming majority of the benefit from a corporate tax cut goes to the very wealthy. He'll tell you it will trickle down, but it never does.

Gore's Moon Shot
"Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years," Al Gore said Thursday. (Here's the text and video of Gore's speech.) He compared this challenge to JFK's pledge to put a man on the Moon, which seemed far-fetched at the time but actually came in ahead of schedule.

I'm looking for thoughtful commentary about how realistic Gore's goal is, and I'm finding darn little of it. If you see something I should look at, either append a comment on the blog or email me. I'll return to this story next week.

What Real Conservatives Want
In most states the Republican Party has to wear a mask of reasonability. But in Texas they get to let it all hang out. The 2008 Platform of the Texas Republican Party is worth a read. In fact, I'd recommend that Democrats distribute this platform nationwide and make it as well known as possible. Here are some highlights:
The embodiment of the Conservative Dream in America is Texas. ... This platform is indeed the heart and soul of our Party.

We reaffirm our belief in ... eliminating the Endangered Species Act. ... We oppose taxes levied and regulations imposed based on the alleged threat of global warming. ... we oppose subsidizing alternative fuel production

We believe the Minimum Wage Law should be repealed.

We support an immediate and orderly transition to a system of private pensions based on the concept of individual retirement accounts, and gradually phasing out the Social Security tax.

Life begins at the moment of fertilization and ends at the point of natural death. All innocent human life must be protected. ... We are resolute regarding the reversal of Roe v. Wade. ... We oppose sale and use of the dangerous “Morning After Pill.” ... we urge Congress to withhold Supreme Court jurisdiction in cases involving abortion, religious freedom, and the Bill of Rights.

We believe [affirmative action] is simply racism disguised as a social virtue. ... We demand abolition of bilingual education. ... We have room for but one language here and that is the English language. ... We urge immediate repeal of the Hate Crimes Law.

We further call on Congress to pass and the state legislatures to ratify a marriage amendment declaring that marriage in the United States shall consist of and be recognized only as the union of a natural man and a natural woman. Neither the United States nor any state shall recognize or grant to any unmarried person the legal rights or status of a spouse. ... We urge the Legislature to rescind no–fault divorce laws. ... We oppose ... adoption by homosexuals.

We oppose any sex education other than abstinence until heterosexual marriage. ... We urge Congress to repeal government-sponsored programs that deal with early childhood development. ... We urge the Legislature, Governor, Commissioner of Education and State Board of Education to remind administrators and school boards that corporal punishment is effective and legal in Texas. ... We support objective teaching and equal treatment of strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories, including Intelligent Design. ... We pledge our influence ... toward dispelling the myth of separation of church and state.

We believe the Legislature should enact legislation: allowing: Concealed Handgun License holders to carry concealed weapons on publicly owned institutions of learning

No extraordinary medical care, including organ transplants or body part replacement, should be performed on prisoners at taxpayer expense.

The Internal Revenue Service is unacceptable to U. S. taxpayers! We urge that the IRS be abolished and the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution be repealed. We further urge that the personal income tax, alternative minimum tax, inheritance (death) tax, gift tax, capital gains, corporate income tax, and payroll tax be eliminated. We recommend the implementation of a national retail sales tax

There is no substitute for Victory! We commend and support the Bush Administration’s current policy regarding our military operations fighting the War on Terror and confronting radical Islamist terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries around the world. ... There should be no “time-table” applied to the withdrawal of our forces. ... We oppose any plan to close Guantanamo

Our [Israel] policy is based on God’s biblical promise to bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel ... We should not reward terrorism by allowing a Palestinian state carved out of historical Israel.

We demand Congress stop funding the IMF and any other international financing agencies. ... We ... urge our Texas Senators to unalterably oppose any agreement or treaty that seeks to establish an International Criminal Court (ICC) ... We urge Congress to evict the United Nations from the United States and eliminate any further participation.
These statements are scattered throughout the document, but aren't taken out of context in any way. The ellipses (...) are honest. I'm picking a few items from long lists, and grouping related items that may not be next to each other in the original. But the subjects and predicates really are intended to go together.

One reason Democrats lose is that we consistently allow Republicans to tell one story to their extremist base and another to the swing voters. Not just John McCain, but Republicans all over the country need to be asked about statements like the ones above. Do they repudiate the extremist Republican base, or do they support it?

Short Notes
Sophia Nelson writes a black professional woman's perspective on Michelle Obama for the Washington Post. Obama's treatment from the media comes as no surprise to Nelson, who presents a world in which stereotyping is the norm. If you're noticed at all, then you're seen as either a vixen or as angry. "This society can't even see a woman like Michelle Obama." To Nelson, Obama represents the have-it-all vision: "an accomplished black woman can be a loyal and supportive wife and a good mother and still fulfill her own dreams." Nelson reports that 70% of black professional women are unmarried, and that they're five times more likely than white women to be single at 40. From that point of view, Michelle really is a revolutionary.

Netroots Nation -- the annual gathering of liberal bloggers that was called YearlyKos last summer -- happened in Austin this week. (I wasn't there.) The Washington Post coverage dripped with condescension. "If the Netroots can be compared to high school ..." it said in the first paragraph, and continued the metaphor throughout the story. If you want to make your own judgments, the online video is here.

Media Matters turns that metaphor around while discussing the mainstream media's attempt to create an issue around Obama's "likability" or his ability to "connect with regular people" when polls consistently fail to find any such problem. The MSM pundits are like the middle-school in-crowd telling you who it's OK to like. "Like cliquish teens, the D.C. pundit class is all too happy to make up a reason why you should dislike a candidate if a real reason fails to present itself."
Frank Rich is one of the few mainstream journalists giving McCain's statements any scrutiny at all:
In February Mr. McCain said he would balance the federal budget by the end of his first term even while extending the gargantuan Bush tax cuts. In April he said he’d accomplish this by the end of his second term. In July he’s again saying he’ll do it in his first term. Why not just say he’ll do it on Inauguration Day? It really doesn’t matter since he’s never supplied real numbers that would give this promise even a patina of credibility.

I just finished George Soros' short new book The New Paradigm for Financial Markets. Basically, Soros has One Big Point he's been trying to make ever since he wrote The Alchemy of Finance in 1987, and every few years he writes a book interpreting the current crisis in terms of that Point. The OBP: If you're inside the system you're modeling, and if your ideas are going to take off, then your model needs to account for its own effects.

The mortgage crisis really is a good example. The people who created the complicated packages of mortgages (that are blowing up now) were counting on two facts about the real estate market: (1) It was generally stable, and (2) each local market had its own cycle. So a package of geographically diversified mortgages should have been super-stable, stable even if the individual mortgages that made it up were a little shaky. It didn't work because the mortgage packages themselves linked and destablized the local real estate markets. They created a flood of cheap financing that produced an unsustainable across-the-board boom, and made a path by which problems in one local market could propagate to the rest.

Why am I not reassured by this? The ultimate domino that could fall in the mortgage crisis -- after the U.S. government eats the sins of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, who ate the sins of various mortgage lenders -- is that foreigners might stop wanting to own dollars or buy our government bonds. The argument that this won't happen is that just as the government considers Fannie and Freddie too big to fail, the foreign big-money types consider the U.S. too big to fail. They'll keep loaning us money because the alternative is too dire.

We're #12! A consortium of foundations has computed the "human development index" of the fifty states and the U.S. as a whole. The HDI was designed by the UN to boil a lot of development statistics down to one big number, as a general evaluation of the progress of developing countries. But what if you apply it to the developed countries? Turns out the U.S. is 12th in the world for 2005, the most recent year for which numbers are available. In 1990 we were second. But because we're fat and uninsured, our life expectancy -- one of the component numbers of the HDI -- has slipped to 42nd in the world, behind places like Costa Rica. We also lead the other 30 richest nations in children-in-poverty and people-in-prison.

The BBC posts a state-by-state map of the HDI. It bears a striking resemblance to our political map: The Northeast and California are highly developed, the South poorly developed. It's no wonder Colorado and Virginia are getting bluer, they have high HDIs compared to the neighboring states.

This week's internet animation: Snuggly the Security Bear explains the FISA compromise. Scott Bateman animates and anotates Bill O'Reilly talking with Karl Rove about defying a congressional subpoena -- it's really no worse than turning down an invitation to appear on O'Reilly's show.

Interesting piece in the NYT by Gail Collins about how uncontroversial same-sex marriage is becoming in Massachusetts. The state senate just approved a bill allowing out-of-state same-sex couples to be married in Massachusetts -- by voice vote, without objection. Collins comments: "There is no greater force against bigotry than the moment when something becomes so routine that you stop noticing it."

All of which leads up to my I-told-you-so moment. One of the first things I ever blogged about was the Massachusetts Supreme Court's decision allowing same-sex marriage in November, 2003. The final paragraph of that essay was:
Personally, I expect the same-sex marriage issue to follow the same course as interracial marriage. After a few years of Chicken-Little panic, the vast majority of Americans will recognize that the sky has not fallen, and that the new rights of homosexuals have come at the expense of no one.

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