Monday, September 1, 2008

Conventional Thoughts

This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In this week's sift:


Democrats: the Convention
The speeches are all on the convention web site, including the ones that the network talking heads ignored. (I had to download a plug-in to watch the video, but it was painless.) A bunch of them are also on YouTube. So don't take my word for what happened. Watch it yourself, if you haven't already.

The Democratic Convention had three questions to answer:
  • Would the party come out of the convention united?
  • Could they present a compelling case for electing Obama over McCain?
  • Would Obama get a convention bounce in the polls?
Party Unity. This question was way over-hyped by the networks, who again and again searched out the most distressed Clinton supporters, without making any effort to quantify how few people they represented.

Yes, Hillary Clinton aroused exceptionally strong loyalties, particularly among women of her own generation. But it's not like 1968, when Gene McCarthy's people didn't trust Hubert Humphrey to end the war. Every issue Hillary stands for -- equal pay, choice, health care, getting out of Iraq, looking out for working people, preserving Social Security -- will do better under an Obama administration than a McCain administration. The vast majority of Clinton supporters understand that, and they're not going to stay home or vote for McCain out of spite.

In the end, though, the Democrats made lemonade out of this lemon. The ginned-up conflict got people to watch, and the convention made a good case for Obama. As an Obama supporter, I wanted a huge rating for Hillary's speech, and also for Bill's. They're good speakers, good Democrats, and sensible professional politicians. The idea that they might sabotage Obama made compelling TV, but not much sense.

Making the Case. Obama's speech (video, text) was just right -- not a soaring piece of oratory for scholars to praise decades hence, but an effective presentation of his case here and now. And more than 40 million people watched -- double John Kerry's audience in 2004, and more than the Oscars or any night of the Beijing Olympics. (God apparently rejected Focus on the Family's prayers for rain. We can only hope he'll reject the parody prayer request of johnfromberkeley as well. Of course, I can't help noticing that a storm of Biblical proportions is disrupting the Republican convention. Is God displeased?)

Obama gave a positive statement of his own policies -- fleshing out what "change" means. (I'll focus on this next week.) And he framed the attack on McCain in ways that I think will resonate through the fall.

Best lines: "America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this."

"The record's clear: John McCain has voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time. Senator McCain likes to talk about judgment, but, really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush has been right more than 90 percent of the time? I don't know about you, but I am not ready to take a 10 percent chance on change."

"For over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy: Give more and more to those with the most, and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the 'Ownership Society,' but what it really means is that you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck, you're on your own. No health care? The market will fix it. You're on your own. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, even if you don't have boots. You are on your own. Well, it's time for them to own their failure. It's time for us to change America."

The Bounce. There was a bounce, but not a game-changing one. 538 still rates the election as extremely close.


Republicans: The Palin Pick
McCain's VP pick was always going to be more significant than Obama's. Not just because he's 72, but because there have been two John McCains. His VP would indicate which one is real.

McCain-2000 often sounded like a reasonable moderate post-partisan. He seemed to understand the liberal point of view even when he didn't agree with it, and the divisive social issues didn't interest him much. McCain-2008 has been a dogmatic conservative, and has kowtowed to all three of the GOP's power bases -- theocrats, plutocrats, and neocons. McCain-2008 is strongly anti-abortion and anti-gay-rights, he wants more tax cuts for the rich, and he has promised more wars. Only on one or two issues -- global warming, for example -- does the pragmatic, results-based, evidence-considering McCain-2000 seem like he might be peeking out.

They can't both be real, so was McCain-2000 an act that he put on to appeal to Independents? Or is McCain-2008 an act to win the Republican nomination that escaped him in 2000? Picking Romney would have kept the guessing game going, because he also has two masks -- the moderate one he wore when he ran for governor of Massachusetts and the right-of-Reagan one he put on for his presidential run. Lieberman was a neocon favorite, but would have been a big screw-you to the theocrats because of his pro-choice record. If McCain-2000 was still in there somewhere, he'd probably go for Lieberman. (Pawlenty, the other name frequently mentioned, was the safe pick, and would have meant that McCain thought he was winning. By contrast, choosing a wild card like Palin says that he believes he's losing. That's why Charles Krauthammer and Dan Gerstein aren't happy.)

Choosing Sarah Palin says that McCain-2008 is in charge. Palin has one of the most extreme anti-abortion positions possible -- no exceptions for rape or incest. Even the threat of a debilitating injury isn't sufficient. The only excuse for an abortion is if "the mother’s life would end if the pregnancy continued." (On page 188 of The Political Brain, Drew Westen recommends framing the no-rape-exception as "guaranteeing every rapist the right to choose the mother of his child.") She doesn't believe that global warming has man-made causes, to the point of suing to prevent polar bears from being classified as an endangered species.

Conclusion: McCain is serious when he says he's against abortion, but he's not serious when he says he's against global warming.

The Female Factor. Everybody's first thought was that Palin was a play for the disgruntled Hillary voters. I doubt this, because I don't think McCain's that dumb. Or else he thinks Obama is even dumber.

The right comparison here is Clarence Thomas in 1991. Thurgood Marshall, the legendary lawyer who won the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, had just retired, making the Supreme Court all-white again. President Bush the First was feeling pressure to replace him with another African-American, so he responded with what was essentially a parody of affirmative action: If there's a one-seat black quota on the Court, and if no other qualification matters, then why not Clarence Thomas?

According to a study by The Newspaper Research Journal, Thomas' initial support was lower among blacks than among whites. But it grew after the Anita Hill attacks.
the lines were not so much between black liberals and black conservatives but between the seemingly condescending whites in the U.S. Senate and the nation's African Americans. This allowed the black press to paint the heretofore different issues as not liberal versus black but as black versus white--with the U.S. Senate as the chief villain.
Expect the same pattern here. If the Obama campaign is stupid enough to attack Palin in a misogynistic way, then women will rally around her. But if not, then Clinton's female supporters are going to feel insulted by this pick, just as blacks were insulted by the idea that Thomas could replace Thurgood Marshall. Former Clinton supporter and Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz had the exactly right response: "I know Hillary Clinton, and Sarah Palin is no Hillary Clinton." Women Hillary's age are bound to see this as yet another case where a powerful man promotes a young, pretty woman over the heads of older women who have paid their dues, like Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison or Susan Collins. Early polls bear this out.

Attacking Obama. It wasn't until I watched the video of the Palin introduction rally in Dayton that I started to get what McCain was thinking. McCain has been pushing three themes against Obama. The first is the scurrilous, lie-based one that stays just under the radar: Obama isn't like you. He's black, he might be Muslim, he's not patriotic, and he's not really even an American. The second is the inexperience theme: Obama isn't ready. And the third looks like the first, but is actually different: Obama is an elitist. (See below.)

By picking Palin, McCain is giving up on the inexperience theme. That's smart, because it wasn't going to work much longer anyway. You see, experience is really a quick substitute for two other questions: "Does he know his stuff?" and "How does he handle himself under pressure?" A thin resume makes you grill somebody harder in the interview, but if he keeps his composure and proves that he knows his stuff, the problem goes away. In order to make the inexperience theme stick, McCain would have to demonstrate in the debates that he has a deeper, richer grasp of the country's challenges than Obama does. Or that he can make Obama lose his cool under the harsh lights. That was never going to happen, because actually it is McCain who is more superficial and more likely to get rattled.

But Palin is great for the other two themes. In the rollout rally, she was Mrs. Middle America. She's good looking without being too good looking. She's a Mom. She fishes and shoots a gun. Her husband belongs to a union. She's not the kind of Christian who hates gays and other sinners, but the kind who honestly feels bad that they're going to burn in Hell. (I'm extrapolating. She didn't say that; she just reminds me of people who do.) Her son is on his way to Iraq -- deploying on September 11, no less. She didn't have an abortion even after she found out that her fetus had Downs Syndrome.

In other words, Palin says to a lot of people: I'm like you. Or I'm like you would be if you had the energy and luck and determination to be what you really can be. She makes Michelle look so ... black. Both Obamas look very Ivy League compared to her journalism degree from Idaho. By picking her, McCain is expressing his faith that all you really need is a good heart, not some kind of expertise that ordinary people will never have. If something happens to John, God forbid, we can count on Sarah to make the right choices in Iraq because she's got a son there. It doesn't matter whether she knows who's Sunni or Shia, or the history of what the British or the Ottomans did there, or even the difference between Kurds and whey. Her heart is in the right place. She'll do fine.

This is nutty, I hope you realize. If we should have learned anything from the last eight years, it's that you really do want your leaders to know things and understand things. Think Katrina, Iraq reconstruction, Monica Goodling's Justice Department. Expertise matters.

How to Attack McCain/Palin. Obama and Biden are going to have to handle Palin very carefully. Because even though there's no evidence that Palin has expertise in anything, she might. You can never tell just by checking a resume. Ideally she will look like an amateur all on her own, without any Democrat's help.

That's starting to happen. She apparently thinks the founding fathers wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, and that "under God" was in it. She admits that the Iraq War is about oil. What she and McCain are claiming about her opposition to the Bridge to Nowhere doesn't stand up. And she's already in the middle of a scandal.

The other appropriate tactic is not to attack Palin, but to attack McCain's judgment in choosing her. (You'd think he might have investigated enough to find out that Palin's unmarried 17-year-old daughter is pregnant. Don't attack Palin or the daughter -- but why didn't McCain know?) What other bizarre, unvetted appointments might we expect in a McCain administration? This theme connects Palin with stories like Phil Gramm's statement in July that we're "a nation of whiners" because we're not happy with the economy. And there's a new example that's even better: According to Wednesday's Dallas Morning News, McCain health-care advisor John Goodman thinks that access to an emergency room is enough health insurance for Americans:
So I have a solution. And it will cost not one thin dime. The next president of the United States should sign an executive order requiring the Census Bureau to cease and desist from describing any American -- even illegal aliens -- as uninsured. Instead, the bureau should categorize people according to the likely source of payment should they need care. So, there you have it. Voila! Problem solved.
Paul Krugman elaborates. Palin, Gramm, and Goodman are examples of bad judgment, of a candidate who surrounds himself with people you either shouldn't trust or can't count on to know what to do.


Who's an Elitist?
On the surface, the charge seems so ridiculous that the Onion News Network made a joke out of it: A grey-haired black college professor says, "In the past blacks were seen as ignorant or dangerous. That today a black man is seen as too good for people is a huge step forward."

Gore, Kerry, and now Obama have all been portrayed as elitists. A true patrician like George W. Bush was not, and neither is John McCain, who is the son and grandson of admirals, and married an heiress with gobs more money than the Obamas. What's up with that?

Why the elitist charge sticks is only a mystery if you interpret it in a literal sociological way, and don't realize that it's code for something else entirely. Let me illustrate with a story. One morning when I was in graduate school, I was on an elevator with a workman who was coming in to do some maintenance on the building. He unwrapped a Butterfinger, and then he looked at me and said: "I bet you don't approve of eating a candy bar for breakfast." At that point in my life I was undoubtedly making less money than he was, my diet was nothing to brag about, and I hadn't been paying any attention to him or his candy bar. But still, to him I represented all the people who think they know how he's supposed to be living his life.

In politics, that's who the elitists are -- the people who make you think bad thoughts about yourself, the people who might have some reason to think they know better than you.

They're not the billionaires or the social-register types. The person who really makes you feel inferior is the sister or cousin or childhood friend who came from the same trailer park you did, but now she has her masters degree, a nice husband, a house in the suburbs, and beautiful children. She doesn't smoke or drink much and she always looks like a million bucks -- and if that bitch ever starts telling you how to live or what to do or how to raise your kids, you're really going to let her have it. The elitist is the guy whose accent changed after he went to Princeton. He actually understands all this stuff they talk about in the newspapers, to the point that you're afraid to talk to him about any of it, because he might just say, "What do you know? You should just shut up." Or even if he didn't say that, you'd know he was thinking it.

That's how Obama is an elitist, even moreso than Gore or Kerry. He's a smart, well-informed guy who really could look down his nose at you, if he were so inclined. On all sorts of issues, Obama would have every right to say: "You don't know what you're talking about."

You can almost picture him saying it. That bastard. Who does he think he is?


Short Notes
Electric cars. They're energy efficient if they're done right.

DailyKos has a totally cool election-map tool. If you want to try out all the "What if McCain takes Florida and Obama gets Ohio?" scenarios, this is the place to do it.

After swearing up and down that all the problems with Premier (old name: Diebold) voting machines were either non-existent or due to human error, the company finally admits the programming error that's been there all along.

The Onion News Network coaches you on how to pretend you care about the election. And if you're looking for a party that really responds to your concerns, check out the Republicrats.

Hullabaloo's dday reports on the police-state tactics Republicans are using to keep down the protests in Minneapolis. Apparently it takes nine police cars to pull over one school bus of protestors. Glenn Greenwald:
Just review what happened yesterday and today. Homes of college-aid protesters were raided by rifle-wielding police forces. Journalists were forcibly detained at gun point. Lawyers on the scene to represent the detainees were handcuffed. Computers, laptops, journals, diaries, and political pamphlets were seized from people's homes. And all of this occurred against U.S. citizens, without a single act of violence having taken place, and nothing more serious than traffic blockage even alleged by authorities to have been planned.

1 comment:

DavidW in SF said...

Women Hillary's age are bound to see this as yet another case where a powerful man promotes a young, pretty woman over the heads of older women who have paid their dues, like Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison or Susan Collins.

Apropos of this, another funny for your "Short Takes":

John McCain's wandering eyes (Link to YouTube footage from McCain's Palin announcement. And here's the link to the author's page on JedReport.)

All I'm saying is, given all that wandering eye in public and desperate tugging at the mighty weight of his wedding ring, if I were Cindy McCain I'd have the lawyers checking out just how watertight my pre-nup was. That is, if she were observant enough to insist on one.

Of course, this will all be responded to by the McCain camp with the standard "POW POW POW - I can't be held responsible for anything" card.