Saturday, August 09, 2008

McCain Catches Break with War

Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain is lucky a war broke out yesterday. Otherwise, more people would have noticed that he took a couple of hits from the media today.

In a real surprise, the Wall Street Journal's MarketWatch published a tough opinion piece on how mediocre McCain would be as a president. Author Rex Nutting ripped McCain for his Naval Academy career, fighter pilot performance, running for Congress as a carpetbagger, legislative record, economic ignorance, and relentless self-promotion.

Here's a sample:

McCain says he doesn't understand the economy. He's demonstrated that he doesn't understand the workings of Social Security, or the political history of the Middle East. He doesn't know who our enemies are. He says he wants to reduce global warming, but then proposes ideas that would stimulate -- not reduce -- demand for fossil fuels.

McCain has done one thing well -- self promotion. Instead of working on legislation or boning up on the issues, he's been on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" more than any other guest. He's been on the Sunday talk shows more than any other guest in the past 10 years. He's hosted "Saturday Night Live" and even announced his candidacy in 2007 on "The Late Show with David Letterman."

In my opinion, a McCain presidency would be even worse than that. But I have to wonder why this kind of hit piece is appearing in an outlet of the reliably Republican Wall Street Journal. There's lots of possible explanations and several of them could be applicable at the same time. It may be that the business community is becoming more politically diverse and Market Watch is speaking to the Democrats among its customers. There's also a chance that Nutter's article is payback for McCain's efforts against the tobacco industry, Bush's initial tax cuts, and pork-barrel legislation.

But I wonder if the corporate sector as a whole has decided that the Republicans aren't good for big business. The Bush administration's economic policy was mostly limited to tax cutting and deregulation while they've allowed health costs and oil prices to balloon, the deficit to spiral out of control, the dollar to lose much of its value, and the housing market to become a flimsy speculative bubble.

Business might have decided that the Democrats are likely to do better.

The second hit piece came from Arizona reporter Amy Silverman who views McCain as being more of a dishonorable, lying kind of politician than most office-holders. Silverman's major piece of evidence is the way McCain sandbagged Arizona governor Rose Mofford and then gleefully lied about it afterward.
Now, Mofford had been governor for only eight days . . . She was not familiar with the particulars of federal water law. Nor did her staff think she'd be expected to be — just then. But, apparently, Senator James McClure, a Republican from Idaho, did . . . McClure asked Mofford a series of questions that would leave any water expert's mouth dry. Her staff jumped in to try to answer, but even so, ultimately they had to file an addendum to the testimony . . .

"During lunch, McCain said, almost with mischievous glee, that he had slipped some highly technical questions to [James McClure] to ask Mofford — questions she wouldn't be prepared to answer or expected to answer.

"Flabbergasted, I asked McCain why would he want to sabotage Mofford's testimony, when in fact the CAP was the nonpartisan pet of Republicans and Democrats . . . since its inception.

"His reply, as near as I remember, was, 'I'll embarrass a Democrat any time I get the chance.'

"The lunch continued in strained chit-chat. We then walked back to McCain's office, where a few reporters, all of them from Arizona papers, as I recall, were waiting. One said there was a rumor McCain had tried to sabotage Mofford's testimony, to which he said something like, 'I'd never do anything like that.'"
According to Silverman, it's McCain's ability to adapt a self-righteous posture precisely when he was lying about a bit of his own nasty work that makes him a despicable character. She also writes about McCain's nasty jokes about women, McCain's betrayal of Barry Goldwater, and manipulation of his relationship with the dying Mo Udall for political purposes.

All in all, it's an ugly picture of John McCain as a man and as a politician.

For now, the WSJ Market Watch article and Amy Silverman's profile aren't going to have any impact because of events in South Ossetia.

But they may still come back to haunt McCain as media attention begins to focus on the question of whether John McCain is qualified to be president.

Short-List Joe

According to the Financial Times, Joe Lieberman is on John McCain's VP short list and being vetted.

No surprise there.

In many ways, Joe Lieberman is exactly that McCain wants in a VP candidate. More than anything else, Lieberman is a loyalist who McCain can count on to carry his water. Lieberman also has national name recognition that Tim Pawlenty, Bobby Jindal, and Sarah Palin don't have. He has experience in a national campaign from the 2000 and 2004 campaigns. Finally, Lieberman is very smooth with the mainstream media.

It's easy to envision McCain using Lieberman in an unorthodox way. Instead of Joe campaigning on his own like other VP candidates, McCain could have Lieberman travel with him and serve as chief surrogate, minder, and friend all at once. Like Richard II, McCain "need[s] friends" and needs to have them by his side. McCain tends to get off track with his campaign principles and talking points. But he can count on Lieberman to stick with the McCain line even if he himself can't.

The only reason McCain hesitates with Lieberman is that Joe is a Democrat whose liberal social views (pro-choice on abortion, etc.) would set off a firestorm among social conservatives.

But it's not as if McCain either likes or respects social conservatives.

So, it could be Joe.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Obama's Moving Goalposts

Commentators keep moving the goalposts on Obama.

Newly converted to the Obama cause out of his disgust with McCain, Joe Klein of Time is worried that "the zeitgeist of the race is headed toward sewage and mockery" Obama "has been [too much] on the defensive since he returned from his overseas trip."

Hey, I'm worried about that too.

Klein also wants Obama to do a series of townhall meetings with McCain and claims that "if Obama is going to win, he's got to demonstrate, in the most dramatic forum possible, that he has the brains and disposition to be President."

But all that adds up to is moving the goalpost for Obama.

Most commentators assumed that Obama couldn't beat someone with Hillary Clinton's name recognition, reputation, and organization. But Obama out-organized her, outhustled her, and won.

A lot of people were worried that Obama would be derailed by the revelation of Jeremiah Wright's incendiary sermons. But Obama's landmark Philadelphia speech on race showed that he had tremendous crisis-management skills.

McCain started abusing Obama for not having any experience and not traveling to Iraq for two years. But Obama was so successful with foreign leaders and had such a huge event in Berlin that McCain had to start abusing Obama for being a "global celebrity" instead.

Everytime someone has set up a new goal post, Obama has kicked the ball through. Now Joe Klein's setting up townhall debates as another new goal post and claiming that Obama has to crush McCain if he wants to show that he's got what it takes to be president.

But here's the injustice of it all.

Klein's right. Obama's relatively new, relatively inexperienced, and relatively African-American. If Obama wants to "prove" that he's qualified to be president, he should not only agree to the townhall debates, he should seek out every opportunity possible to prove himself against John McCain.

In other words, Obama has to make up his mind that he's going to kick the political football through the goal post every time McCain and the media move it.

It's not fair and it's not a good way to be chosen president. But it's the only way that Obama is going to make a cautious, aging, majority white nation feel "safe" with him as president.

John Edwards: Sanctimonious To the End

Having lived in North Carolina during the late 70's and early 80's, I always thought that John Edwards reminded me of Jim Bakker, the defrocked PTL (Praise the Lord) minister and television host who ended up in jail. There was just something smarmy about Edwards that gave me the creeps and I never considered supporting him even though I agreed with a lot of his "Two Americas" themes.

With the revelation of his affair with Rielle Hunter, it's becoming obvious that I was right to think of Edwards as a sanctimonious creep. It's not so much the affair itself. That's kind of understandable. Top-level married politicians are exposed to a lot of temptation. They travel constantly, spend a great deal of time in hotel rooms, and meet lots of single women who are smart, attractive, and think guys like them are the most interesting people in the world. I know that the affairs of politicians cause tremendous pain for their families, but there's a way in which I don't particularly blame Edwards and other political figures for taking advantage of romantic opportunity, giving into temptation, or whatever it is that gets them into bed with women they're not married to.

What bothers me about Edwards though is that his confession statement about his affair is full of the righteousness that makes him such a questionable character to begin with.

In 2006, I made a serious error in judgment and conducted myself in a way that was disloyal to my family and to my core beliefs. I recognized my mistake, and I told my wife that I had a liaison with another woman, and I asked for her forgiveness . . .

In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic. If you want to beat me up feel free. You cannot beat me up more than I have already beaten up myself. I have been stripped bare and will now work with everything I have to help my family and others who need my help."

I translate this statement as "if you want to beat me up feel free, but I'm going to be just as smug a jerk tomorrow as I was before my tawdry affair blew up in my face."

Thanks John, but I'm rather hoping that you'll just disappear now.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Quarterbacking the Obama Campaign

THE CHATTER. It appears that the Democratic chattering classes are nervous about the Obama's response to last week's barrage of negative advertising from John McCain. It's hard to see why. Obama still has his small lead even though McCain got a short-lived bump in the tracking polls. But psychologist Drew Westen has an article in HuffPost about Obama's need to frame a narrative about McCain. New York Sen. Chuck Shumer is less intellectual but equally emphatic that Obama should "respond to John McCain's personal attacks with an equally personal slap." That also seems to be the opinion of a group of "Democratic strategists" interviewd by the Washington Post.

"Democrats are worried," said Tad Devine, a top strategist for Kerry. . . "We've been through two very tough elections at the national level, and it's very easy to lose confidence." Obama's latest ad may be his toughest yet, using words and images to link McCain to President Bush and concluding: "The original maverick? Or just more of the same?"

But Democratic strategists said that it is nothing like the character attacks by McCain, and that the response could be far nastier, perhaps raising McCain's ethical scrape in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal, mocking his family wealth and designer shoes, or highlighting his age. After McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm suggested that the United States has become "a nation of whiners," Democratic strategists said Obama should have immediately started an ad blitz.

THE OBAMA RESPONSE. The Obama campaign's response to Democratic carping is a great deal more dismissive than their response to McCain.

Consultants close to Obama say the Democrat has good reason not to risk his own campaign by following McCain's lead. Because McCain has accepted public financing for the general-election campaign, he must spend all his primary campaign money before the party conventions. Obama is focusing on turning out voters, while airing a mix of positive ads and responses . . . Because Obama opted out of public financing and the spending limits that come with it, he will be free to swamp McCain with television spots in the fall. If he needs to become more negative at that point, he can -- knowing that McCain would be hard pressed to reply. "This is a classic Washington story, anonymous quotes from armchair quarterbacks with no sense of our strategy, data or plan," [the Obama spokesman said].
In other words, the Obama campaign wants to husband their resources and keep their powder dry. Obama's plan is to let McCain attack for now and limit his responses to blunting little firestorms like the Republican "tiregauge" stunt. Then, they'll roll out their full campaign after the party conventions when they'll have a big financial advantage. From the perspective of this "armchair quarterback," it looks like a "landslide strategy" in that Obama is mostly trying to maintain his small lead now with the goal of increasing their lead substantially in September and October.

THE ARMCHAIR PERSPECTIVE. I can see the campaign's perspective. The Obama people have a lead and that lead might be bigger than the polls say because they have had a lot of success in registering new voters. They're working on introducing Obama to a national audience, registering even more new Democratic voters, and preparing the ground for the big fall push. Why should the Obama campaign be unduly distracted by McCain?

The Obama campaign could also argue that McCain pretty much shot his bolt last week. There wasn't much of an effort to follow up on last week's controversies, no striking new anti-Obama ads, no fresh attacks. The Republican consensus is that the McCain campaign needs to keep up the pressure on Obama. But the pressure seems to have eased.

But the armchair quarterbacks still have a point.

As armchair quarterbacks like Shumer point out, the Obama campaign is largely on the defensive. This hasn't been for the Obama campaign as it was for Kerry and Dukakis because Obama himself is an effective counter-puncher. His response to the GOP tire gauge stunt--"It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant."--was devastating.

At the same time, being on the defensive means that the Obama campaign has not been able to break through the media clutter to promote their own message about a "new kind of politics," "change," "hope," and "responsibility."

Perhaps the Obama campaign would be able to do better at promoting their own message if they could also find a way to keep McCain on the defensive. This doesn't mean that the Obama people have to carpet bomb McCain with attack ads. That would be the old politics. But the Obama campaign could stick with their political uplift message as the "major theme" of their campaign while also establishing a "minor theme" of criticizing McCain's ideas on the war in Iraq, cutting taxes on corporations, and privatizing social security. Being more specifically critical of McCain might open up some space for Obama's own message.

Another problem for the Obama campaign is their "surrogate deficit." The Obama campaign has a complex surrogate problem. On the one hand, Obama has fewer surrogates than McCain and the deficit shows in that there are fewer people definding him. McCain has campaign surrogates like Carly Fiorina, Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, and Mitt Romney. But the Bush administration and the conservative media are serving as surrogates for McCain as well. The Obama campaign has fewer of its own surrogates and John Kerry and Tom Daschle are relatively weak personalities compared to the McCain surrogates. Obama has also worked to prevent Democratic-allied groups from doing any advertising. Another problem is that the Obama campaign provides their surrogrates with talking points that sound great when they come from Obama but pretty bland when they're coming from Kerry and Daschle. The Obama people could use more aggressive surrogates and they need to give their surrogates more independence.

Finally, this armchair quarterback still thinks that Obama should nominate Hillary Clinton as his VP candidate. I know that the chances of her being nominated are miniscule and that she's hard to associate with the "new politics" and that Bill Clinton is a big problem. But Hillary still strikes me as the best person for the VP job.

In relation to the presidential campaign, there's a lot of roles Hillary could perform. Hillary is very disciplined and measured and could be a highly effective surrogate for Obama. Certainly, she could be Obama's best attack dog on McCain in the sense that Hillary could use her massive policy expertise to advocate Obama positions and her gravitas to dismiss Republican snark. Hillary could also be the lead surrogate in defending Obama against McCain's attacks and be much more effective at it than Obama's current surrogates.

Finally, Hillary would be a big asset in Obama's efforts to reach out to non-Obama democrats and independents. Obama's way of doing things was exciting enough with several constituencies that he beat her in the primaries. Adding Hillary to the ticket would make Obama more universally appealing to Democrats and independents.

Certainly, Obama needs to follow his instincts and not change his core campaign strategy to meed the concerns the Monday morning quarterbacking of Democratic politicians, unnamed strategists, and bloggers.

But perhaps adjusting at the margins wouldn't be a bad idea.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Favre to Jets to Oblivion

It looks like Brett Favre is going to sink into oblivion while playing for the New York Jets. The Jets just don't have the (cue deep voice) Lambeau Field cache of the Green Bay Packers.

They don't have the cache of the Tennessee Titans either.

The Jets are a perennial so-so team. True, the addition of Favre will make them a little less so-so the same way Joe Montana made the Chiefs less mediocre way back in the day.

But Favre won't make the Jets good enough to be interesting.

So what's Favre going to do if he wants to keep up the media attention. And, as his "retirement" shows, Favre really wants to keep up the media attention.

Here's where I can help.

If Favre wants to stay in the limelight, Favre should leave his wife for a famous actress, singer, or model.

Let's see. Madonna's taken by Alex Rodriguez. Mariah Carey's about Brett Favre's age, but she'd have to dump her rapper husband.

What about Christiane Amanpour. She's famous, good looking and kind of exotic in an unkempt way.


Yeah, Brett Favre could divorce his wife and take up with Christiane Amanpour. That's the only way he could stay vital and interesting even though he's playing for the Jets.

Maybe Brett should call Lance Armstrong for tips.

Tanning--Not Just for Humans Anymore

Maybe they get tired of our bird seed, but the RSI family doesn't see much in the way of robins after the spring months. There's plenty of jays, cardinals, finches, and chickadees bumping each other off the bird feeders, along with the stray woodpecker or two. I almost forgot about the crows flying in and out of the woods. We can hear an owl hooting from in the trees as well.

Our property is a regular little society of birds. But the robins stay pretty much to themselves.

Maybe they just don't like the company.

That's why I've been surprised lately to sometimes see two or three robins with their stomachs on our driveway with their wings spread out over the gravel. It only happens on sunny days and the robins look for all the world like they were trying to catch some rays.

Tanning. It's Not Just for Humans Anymore.

UK Dismisses Quarterback

The University of Kentucky football team dismissed junior quarterback Curtis Pulley from the team yesterday. Pulley had a couple of minor scrapes this summer, getting busted for pot and driving with a suspended license.

But according to UK coach Rich Brooks, "new facts" emerged that made it necessary to give Pulley the boot.

It's too bad.

Pulley reminds me of my nephew Vinnie Soprano in my hometown of Waverly, NY (and yes, I am related to the Sopranos). Vinnie constantly got into little scrapes and my sister had to take endless trips to the high school to work out the consequences of his latest misdeeds.

But people in the family never worried much about Vinny because he was a really nice kid. We all agreed that we had done much worse things than Vinny but that Vinny seemed to get caught every time he did something wrong or illegal.

That seems to be the case with Pulley. From all appearances, he's an ok guy who just gets caught a lot.

GOP: Still Time to Nominate Paris

Paris Hilton has a funny video out about John McCain's "Celeb" ad. Actually, it's mostly funny at John McCain's expense.

But the video raises a question. Now that conservatives have decided that being "funny" and "irreverent" is the most important qualification for being president, shouldn't they think about dumping John McCain and nominating Paris for president?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Entering the 51-49 Zone

"On a clear day you can see forever." Unfortunately, today is a murky day in the presidential race. The McCain campaign seemed to gain the initiative with their flurry of negative ads last week but Obama hit Republicans hard today when he said that "these guys take pride in being ignorant." Who knows whether the McCain punches or the Obama counter-punches will have more effect? Looking at the polls doesn't help either. Of the three polls released today, two have Obama in the lead--one McCain. There don't seem to be any debates, foreign tours, important speeches, or other big events on the horizon either.

But the murkiness is much deeper than that. It's a murkiness in the minds of the growing number of swing voters who will ultimately decide the election.

In other words, it seems that many voters have entered the "51-49 Zone." When political observers use the term "51-49," they mean that the last two American presidential elections have been so close that the U. S. has become a "51-49" country. In many ways, the elections are even closer than that because such a large number of voters have trouble making up their minds about the candidates. In other words, a healthy percentage of voters are "51-49" in their own heads as they head into the booth on election day and still aren't very sure of themselves even after they've voted. That's the "51-49" zone.

Given the general unpopularity of the Republican Party, there was a broad expectation that there would be a swing to the Democrats among voters as a whole.

But it appears that more voters are entering the 51-49 zone instead.

The main evidence for this concerns the attitudes toward Obama among white voters. According to Juan Williams, a recent Washington Post poll shows that:
thirty percent of all voters admitted to racial prejudice, and more than a half of white voters categorized Mr. Obama as "risky" (two-thirds judged Mr. McCain the "safe" choice). Yet about 90% of whites said they would be "comfortable" with a black president. And about a third of white voters acknowledged they would not be "entirely comfortable" with an African-American president. Why the contradictory responses? My guess is that some whites are not telling the truth about their racial attitudes.

The numbers are a mass of self-contradiction. "Thirty percent of voters admit to racial prejudice," 90% of white voters "would be comfortable" with a black president, but a third would "not be entirely comfortable." It's a mess and Williams thinks that white voters are lying about their opinions concerning Obama.

I imagine some of those voters are lying. But I also think it's more appropriate to conclude that white voters as a whole have not made up their minds about what they think about race or Obama. Voters will admit to racial prejudice but they also don't like to think of themselves as prejudiced. So 2/3rds of those who said they were "prejudiced" also told pollsters they would be comfortable with an African-American president. But they contradicted themselves on that score as well and many of them admitted that they wouldn't be "entirely comfortable."

In other words, they're not entirely comfortable or entirely uncomfortable.

Of course, the murkiness in the Washington Post poll just applied to race. But July polling indicates that the number of undecided voters has been rising. Quinnipiac and CBS/New York times viewed the number of undecided as increasing from 6-8% to 12-14%. Other estimates were much higher. Gallup estimated that the number of swing voters was 23% and David Moore of thinks the number of swing voters might be over 40%.

Perhaps voters will move one way or another after the party conventions at the end of the month. Some gaffe, blow-up, or major event could move voters to swing toward Obama or McCain as well. I don't think anybody knows what's going to happen. My own current guess is that Obama will pull out a close race for two reasons. The first reason is that Obama is running a more controlled and mature campaign than McCain. As a result, Obama has fewer mistakes, gaffes, and self-contradictions to cast him in a negative light. The second reason is that McCain's campaign is vulnerable to bad news out of the Bush administration and there is generally a steady stream of bad news coming out about Bush scandals, torture, large-scale bankruptcies, and general recession. All of that bad news helps Obama and hurts McCain.

Republican Jesus?

Interesting to see what Republicans are all about. Some enterprising person downloaded the Facebook page of University of Dayton college student Justin Shaffer. Young Mr. Shaffer is the 19 year old son of Rep. Bob Shaffer, a Republican candidate for the Senate in Colorado.

Just in case someone didn't think of Republicans as warmongerers, Justin Shaffer has the above poster of Jesus on his Facebook page. Big gun, hand on trigger, plenty of ammo, Confederate flag--Jesus looks like he's ready for battle in Iraq or Afghanistan.

But is he?

Given that Jesus is wearing a white shirt, a tie, and a jacket, it also would be easy to say that Jesus is ready to take a meeting.

Maybe the Republican Jesus is more about looking tough on Facebook than actually contributing to the military.

Is the Republican Jesus a chickenhawk?

What is Revisionist History?

Recently, Mother Jones used a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain a copy of a Pentagon study of four historical empires--"Military Advantage in History".

The studies can't have been very good.

Dartmouth historian Pamela Crossley describes the section on the Mongols as "an accumulation of popularly transmitted misconceptions."

Of course, any history other than "popularly transmitted misconceptions" is usually seen as "revisionist history."

What Republicans Do Best!

Congress has gone home for an August recess so that members can campaign for re-election. But about a dozen House Republicans are staying behind to occupy the House floor so they can score publicity points for their "Drill Here, Drill Now" energy agenda.
Continuing with their guerilla tactics from last week, House Republicans will be back on the floor Monday to talk gas prices, even though Congress is in recess, and they may stay there all week.
This kind of stunt is pretty clever. There's also a cleverness to Republicans using tire gauges as symbols for ridiculing the moralistic dimension of Obama. John McCain's "Celeb" and "Moses" ads are also ingenious in the ways they use racial stereotyping to make fun of Obama.

And, as usual, the Democrats are slow and uncertain in their responses.

But the last couple of weeks have also witnessed the Republicans at their absolute peak. This kind of humorous publicity-seeking stunts, ridicule, and stereotyping is what the Republicans do best.

When it comes to campaigning, the Republicans are always taking the initiative, clever, funny, and nimble.

But Republican campaign skills have not translated well to running the government.

In fact, one of the defining qualities of the Bush administration has been disinterest. The Bush people just weren't very interested in administering departments like the Department of Justice and Department of Agriculture, managing important programs like FEMA, or seeing after the work of government more generally.

That's a big reason why the Bush administration did such a poor job with Katrina.

As a result, one of the big questions of this election is whether the party that runs a really clever campaign is actually capable of governing.

Monday, August 04, 2008

More Taser Torture Toys in Kentucky

Kentucky State Police are budgeting $170,000 for the purchase of new tasers this year.
Kentucky State Police have spent more than $170,000 on Taser devices and cartridges that troopers will be using by September. The purchases come amid a revenue shortfall that has forced the law enforcement agency to implement cuts, including a reduction in highway patrols to save gasoline and the elimination of driver education manuals that have traditionally been provided free to Kentucky teens.

I've guess the Kentucky State Police have heard about how much fun police can have with tasers. Here's an account from The Root of the death of Baron Pikes who was "tased" nine times before dying.
The grisly details of Baron Pikes' violent death are remarkable. There's the fact that Officer Scott Nugent jammed his Taser into the unarmed 21-year-old nine times in 14 minutes. There's the fact that Pikes was handcuffed during each of those 50,000-volt shocks. And there's the fact that witnesses heard Pikes, who was supposedly resisting arrest, plead to Nugent, "You all got me. Please, don't Tase me again . . .

Nugent joined the force not long after his dad's suicide and has been responsible for 10 of Winnfield's 14 Taser incidents in the last year—12 of which involved black residents like Pikes. And there's more: Pikes is first cousin to Mychal Bell, one of the black high school kids in the Jena 6 who were initially prosecuted for attempted murder in a schoolyard fight that started with white students hanging a noose in a tree.