Monday, October 13, 2008

Mob Rule

Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob. -- James Madison, Federalist No. 55

In This Week's Sift:
  • The Bailout Evolves. Secretary Paulson is coming around to a more progressive plan for the bailout. The government should get equity for its money, not just the "toxic assets" banks want to get rid of.
  • Ugly Campaign Excites Some Republicans, Turns Off Others. When your party starts to look like a mob, thinking people start to leave.
  • Voter Fraud: More Hype than Substance. Republicans are always trying to raise the "voter fraud" issue, which appears to have zero impact on elections. This week they succeeded.
  • Troopergate Report: Hockey Mom is Power Abuser. The McCain campaign failed to derail the investigation or muzzle its findings until after the election. Does it surprise you to find out that Palin did something wrong? Or that she's lying about what the report says?
  • Short Notes. Congratulations to Paul Krugman. And (for a different reason) to the state of Connecticut. Sean Hannity tastes his own medicine. Norm Coleman's flack has a bad week. And you can be a racist without knowing it.

The Bailout Evolves
We just had the worst week in the history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average: down 18%. (During the 1987 crash it dropped 22.6% in a day, but rebounded a little the rest of the week.)

The good news is the Secretary Paulson is beginning to see the light about how a bailout should work: The government should inject capital into the banking system by buying stock, and not by sticking the taxpayer with whatever worthless debt the banks want to get rid of. This change puts the U.S. in line with the British and the other Europeans. It just makes sense: If and when the banking system is actually saved, the government will own something of value that it can then sell.

Asian and European stocks started this week with a rally, and the Dow crossed back over 9000 Monday.

The Republicans won't give up on trying to blame poor people and Democrats for the economic crisis. Here's some more debunking. And here.

Hard times bring out some investment-community proverbs you don't usually hear. My favorite so far is attributed to Warren Buffett: "It's only when the tide goes out that you find out who's been swimming naked." (Translation: When the market is going up, everybody looks like a genius. But when it goes down you find out who calculates their risks and who doesn't.) But I also like this anonymous one about the relative worth of paper assets versus hard assets during an economic disaster: "Always own enough gold to bribe the border guards."

Ugly Campaign Excites Some Republicans, Turns Off Others
The polls have turned sharply in Obama's favor over the past two weeks, and the McCain campaign has gotten correspondingly uglier. McCain and Palin rallies have increasingly looked like angry mobs, where people yell out that Obama is a "terrorist" and make suggestions like "kill him" and "off with his head". (And it's not just one or two wackos. Check out this video of people waiting in line for a McCain rally.) While this mob energy electrifies some Republicans, others have found it frightening and a poor reflection on the party they once loved.

Either because he was becoming alarmed himself or felt that he needed to placate those who are, McCain took a step back Friday, correcting a questioner who said that Barack Obama is an Arab, and saying that Obama is "a decent person, and a person that you do not have to be scared as president of the United States." The crowd booed him. Think about that. When have you ever heard a candidate booed at his own rally? (And don't give McCain too much credit here. He's still not willing to step back from a Republican official likening Obama to Osama. And now his campaign is trying to tie Michelle to Ayers' wife.)

Rush Limbaugh is one of the people urging McCain to grab a torch and get in front of the mob: "You have a responsibility to defend this country. ... It's time to start naming names and explain what's actually going on. Because, Senator McCain, the people of this country are dead scared about what we face if you lose."

Obama supporters have a hard time grasping this fear, because we don't hear (or can't take seriously) the shadow narrative that's inspiring it, the one that McCain and Palin are plugging into when they ask: "Who is the real Barack Obama?"

What is it that people like Limbaugh think is "actually going on" that requires McCain to "name names"? Various pieces of the shadow narrative have been circulating in those untraceable emails that people forward to their friends: Obama is secretly a Muslim who  was educated in a madrassa and only pretends to be Christian. His birth certificate is fake, and he's not even really an American. Bill Ayers is Obama's mentor. No, wait, Louis Farrakhan is. Or the mysterious Khalid al-Mansour. Obama's Fight-the-Smears web site is devoted to debunking this kind of stuff.

But even those details don't get you to the "kill him" stage. For that you need the full shadow narrative, with all the dots connected. You can find it in the October 6 episode of Hannity's America on Fox News: An anti-American/terrorist/black-Muslim/socialist underground has been grooming Obama since college. His presidency will be the culmination of a decades-long plan and lead to some kind Hugo-Chavez-style takeover of America, turning us into a socialist dictatorship.

CNN's Glenn Beck puts forward the same basic notions (in a form he can claim is just humor) in his "Obama National Anthem" video.

OK, imagine that you've been hearing this kind of stuff from various people and weren't sure whether you believed it or not. Now you hear McCain ask, "Who is the real Barack Obama?" and see an ad saying that Obama is "too risky for America." Sounds different now, doesn't it? (This technique is known as the "dog whistle" -- a message that sounds harmless to one group of people, but says something very different to a group that has been prepped with another message.)

The attacks on ACORN and the trumped-up accusations of vote fraud (see the next article) now take on a different cast. If the election is close, if it hangs on a few votes in some key state, then an Obama victory won't be an election, it will be a take-over, a coup. The Republic will be in danger. Digby sums up:
what we are really seeing is the beginning of a right wing story line about the next president of the United States -- he is a drug user, a foreigner, a terrorist and a traitor. And the importance of that is that it gives permission to the right wing machine to do anything and everything to destroy him. He will not really be president, you see. He will be illegitimate -- a usurper.
It was not just liberals who got scared watching McCain play with this fire. A number of Republicans from the Dwight Eisenhower/Nelson Rockefeller/Gerry Ford tradition -- people who admired the John McCain of 2000 -- were horrified.

Some of the Republicans and conservatives who backed away from McCain this week:
  • Ex-Michigan governor William Milliken. "He is not the McCain I endorsed. He keeps saying, 'Who is Barack Obama?' I would ask the question 'Who is John McCain?' because his campaign has become rather disappointing to me." Millken also describes the prospect of Palin becoming president as "disturbing, if not appalling."
  • Ex-Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee (same link). He denounces McCain's swing to the right and his "divisive strategy" saying "That's not my kind of Republicanism." Palin? "Totally unqualified."
  • Christopher Buckley, son of conservative intellectual icon William F. Buckley. "This campaign has changed John McCain. It has made him inauthentic." On Palin: "What on earth can he have been thinking?" He used to admire McCain, but laments that if he goes out "losing ugly" it will be "grafitti on a marble bust."
  • Columnist David Brooks focuses his ire on Palin rather than McCain, but he turns the standard conservative "class warfare" charge back on the Republican Party itself: "What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. ... No American politician plays the class-warfare card as constantly as Palin. Nobody so relentlessly divides the world between the 'normal Joe Sixpack American' and the coastal elites."
  • Christopher Hitchen, who isn't an across-the-board conservative but describes himself as a "single-issue voter" whose issue is terrorism, is supporting Obama now.
  • Senator Hagel's wife and President Eisenhower's granddaughter are planning to endorse Obama Tuesday.
  • Frank Schaeffer, an author who worked for McCain in 2000. "You have changed. You have a choice: Go down in history as a decent senator and an honorable military man with many successes, or go down in history as the latest abettor of right-wing extremist hate."

John Deeth reports a very weird prayer at the beginning of a McCain rally Saturday in Davenport, Iowa: "There are plenty of people around the world who are praying to their god, be they Hindu, Buddah, or Allah, that (McCain's) opponent wins. I pray that you step forward and honor your own name." So this election is sort of like Elijah competing against the prophets of Baal or something.

This Obama-in-a-turban billboard is on U.S. Highway 63 in Missouri.

Asked about the mob mentality at McCain rallies, campaign manager Rick Davis starts talking about McCain being a POW.

McCain's ads have become almost 100% negative, compared to a nearly even positive/negative mix for Obama. CNN points out that since Obama is outspending McCain about 2-1 on advertising, the sheer number of negative ads is about the same. But it's hardly fair to equate a negative Obama ad to a negative McCain ad. Take this Obama ad: Unravel. It's negative; it tells you why you might not do well under McCain's health care plan. Compare that to McCain's Ayers ad, or the other "too risky for America" ads. They mention no Obama policies, but instead try to raise your anxieties about Obama as a person. It's a little like the difference between criticizing your haircut and calling you ugly.

Voter Fraud: More Hype than Substance
This week has seen a lot of coverage of the voter fraud issue. Fox News always hypes it before an election, but it's also getting attention on CNN and the other networks. CBS reported:
Whether simple error or outright fraud, the charges surrounding ACORN are already raising doubts about the integrity of the upcoming election in key parts of the country.
ACORN is a liberal-leaning independent group that registers a lot of voters, and is the focus of Republican voter-fraud charges, including a police raid on its offices in Nevada.

I was going to write a long deflation of this voter-fraud hype, but fortunately Josh Marshall already did. The key point: Although some bogus voter registrations do slip through the system, they hardly ever result in actual fraudulent votes. (You think a joker who registers as Mickey Mouse is going to show up at the polls, identify himself as Mickey Mouse, and try to vote?) The Bush Justice Department has pushed hard to get arrests and convictions on voter fraud, and has come up empty. That's largely what the U.S. attorney's scandal was about: firing Republican appointees who weren't working hard enough to push bogus or trivial voter-fraud cases.

A closer-to-the-ground view comes from Will Reynolds, who has registered voters in Arkansas and Illinois for Project Vote, which sometimes works with ACORN. He explains where bogus registrations come from.

My office didn't pay on a per-registration basis, but we did require people to be fairly consistent about how many registrations they brought in on a work day. Otherwise you're paying people to do nothing. ... We warned workers about the consequences of submitting false registrations often enough that most people didn't try. But, I did have to fire one person for falsifying forms.
False registrations, in other words, are frauds that lazy workers perform against organizations like ACORN, not frauds ACORN perpetrates against the voting system.

Even if ACORN suspects a registration is a fraud, by law it has to submit the form. (Imagine if they didn't: Your real name sounds bogus, and you think you've registered to vote, but ACORN threw out your registration form.) So it's easy to write an ACORN-submits-bogus-forms story. You don't even have to sift through ACORN's forms to find the bogus ones: They deliver the ones they think are suspicious in a separate pile.

Troopergate Report: Hockey Mom is Power Abuser
Ten minutes after Sarah Palin was first announced as John McCain's VP,
anybody who knew how to use Google knew that she was under
investigation by the Republican legislature -- for misusing the power
of her office to pursue a personal vendetta against her sister's
ex-husband. But McCain apparently either didn't know, thought he could
suppress the investigation until after the election, or expected the investigation to clear Palin.

Guess again, John.

Friday, after the Alaska Supreme Court rejected a last-ditch attempt to stop the investigation and the Republican-dominated legislative council voted 12-0 to release the investigation's 263-page report, the report was released on schedule. The upshot: While the governor has the right to fire the public safety commissioner for whatever reason she wants, pressuring him to enlist in her personal vendetta is an "abuse of power" that violates the state ethics law.

Hilzoy pretty much nails my reaction:
This is, at bottom, a story about the rule of law, and the rules governing the exercise of political power. ... If you don't accept the rule of law, you might think that taking political power allows you to take any kind of vengeance you want on anyone who crosses you.
And isn't that just the mavericky attitude we need from our vice president? Or did we get enough of that already from Dick Cheney?

From Time's more cynical perspective, the shocking thing the report reveals is how amateurish the Palin administration is. "Disturbingly so." Again and again, the report presents Palin aides who seem not to understand their jobs. The head of personnel needs to be reminded that personnel matters are confidential. Monegan has to warn the attorney general that their conversation about Wooten has legal implications. And apparently nobody tells Todd Palin that he's not an official of the State of Alaska. The report "paints an extralegal role for Todd Palin that would have made the Hillary Clinton of 1992 blush."

And how does Palin respond to the report's findings? By lying about them. She appreciates "being cleared of any legal wrongdoing or unethical activity at all." And what color is the sky on your world, Governor?

Oh, and let's not forget those problems with the Palins' tax returns.

After watching the first McCain/Obama debate in a bar (and presumably seeing Joe Biden on all the networks afterward), where did Sarah Palin watch the second debate? A pizza place.

Short Notes
On October 28, Connecticut will become the third state (after Massachusetts and California) where same-sex couples can marry. Friday the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled the state's civil-union law unconstitutional. “To decide otherwise," wrote Justice Richard Palmer, "would require us to apply one set of constitutional principles to gay persons and another to all others.”

California's proposed Proposition 8 (up for a vote in November) would end same-sex marriage in that state. The polls are close, but I think the same-sex-marriage defenders have found a good slogan: Don't eliminate marriage for anyone. But the anti-gay forces are working hard. Whatever happens in November, the long-term trend is clear: After five years, the sky has not fallen on Massachusetts. The longer that goes on, the harder it is to keep telling scary stories about same-sex marriage.

Al Franken is supposed to be the comedian in the Minnesota Senate race, but last week a spokesman (Cullen Sheehan) for his opponent (Republican Senator Norm Coleman) had two press briefing so bad they're funny. In the first, Sheehan responds (or rather, doesn't respond) to the rumor that a rich friend buys Coleman's suits. In the second, he goes round-and-round with reporters who want him to resolve an
obvious contradiction in Coleman's statements about Social Security. It would be amusing enough if these were examples of the attack-dog liberal media harassing a hapless conservative operative. But in each case, the reporters are literally begging Sheehan to stop making such a fool of himself.

Here's how you turn the tables on Fox News. Sean Hannity's account of Obama's community organizer days leans heavily on Andy Martin, labeled "Author & Journalist" at the bottom of the screen. Hannity made no criticism or challenge to Martin, and even promoted Martin's book about Obama. Well, it turns out Martin is a well-known anti-Semite who once ran for office on a platform pledging to "exterminate Jew power in America."

After Tuesday's McCain/Obama debate, Hannity interviewed Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs. Hannity decided to ignore the topics discussed in the debate and instead go straight to the Bill Ayers guilt-by-association stuff. Gibbs gave it right back, and used guilt-by-association to accuse Hannity of being an anti-Semite. Fox News is not about debate, it's about theater. Gibbs gave a great performance.

From now on, when I quote economist Paul Krugman I'll have to quote Nobel-prize-winning economist Paul Krugman.

Nicholas Kristof had a great column about unconscious racism and its effect on voting. Unlike much of the talk about racism, Kristof mentions actual research. In one experiment, whites witness what appears to be a medical emergency. When they were the only bystanders, they called 911. But when there were other bystanders who might make the call, they called 75% of the time for a white victim and only 38% for a black victim. Most of the people who would call for a white but not a black express no conscious ill-will towards blacks. In another study, whites were more impressed by the resume of a white applicant than by the identical resume of a black applicant. Those who didn't recommend the black found reasons -- like his lack of experience -- that didn't bother them about the white applicant. Quite likely, they had no idea racism was involved.

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