31 January 2008

Conservatives: What Do You Want?

It's not surprising after last night's dispiriting debate at the Reagan Library that many conservatives remain unhappy with having to choose, as they now see it, between McCain and Romney. The show actually left me briefly feeling sorry for Mitt Romney because of the way McCain treated him over the ridiculous "timetable" issue. There was also something disturbing about McCain's naked contempt for Romney's businessman credentials. But feeling sorry for Romney made me feel no more sympathetic toward his policies. If anyone won the debate, Huckabee did, but his "God's standards" speech outweighs any evening's success. Ron Paul may as well have stayed home, not only because CNN mostly ignored him, but also because he's run out of things to say. So if conservatives are uninspired right now, that's understandable, though it remains hard to understand how Fred Thompson inspired any of them.

But I begin to tire of conservative whining. Mr. Right showed some maturity by deciding several weeks ago that he would hold his nose for the Republican nominee whoever it was, but his idols, Rush Limbaugh especially, have been stuck in a perpetual tantrum for the last few weeks, as if by crying over the radio they could make the Republican field disappear and bring Reagan back to life. It sounds to me as if they're afraid of losing their influence as they discover that they can't veto a McCain or Romney candidacy. The 2006 elections destroyed the myth that the radio and TV talkers could manipulate public opinion infallibly. The 2008 primaries threaten to destroy the myth that they are kingmakers within the Republican party. The outcome will force a question on them: what do they really want? Do they want an ideologically pure conservative party, or do they want power? Do they want their principles to win, or do they want to be on the winning team? If they actually believe in their beliefs, and if they're the bold risk-takers they claim to be, then they should take a chance and recruit Thompson or someone similar to run an independent campaign. Would they win this year? Probably not, but could they lose worse than Goldwater did in 1964? And don't they take inspiration from that devastating defeat because it laid the foundation for 1980? Or are these entrepreneurial spirits afraid of starting from scratch? Can they only imagine taking over the Republicans again like most of today's so-called entrepreneurs simply take over other businesses? It shouldn't surprise us if this is the case. By definition conservatives abhor imagination and mistrust innovation. They will probably prefer to stay in the basement ranting at their parents over striking out on their own because they still expect to inherit the house. Fortunately for them, the Republicans will be happy to have them stay where they are.

30 January 2008

The Media and the American Bipolarchy

We're down to two-way races in both major parties now. John Edwards has quit the Democratic race, making it a plain two-person campaign, while Rudy Giuliani's retreat from the Republican campaign leaves McCain facing Romney with Huckabee as McCain's extra piece on the board and Paul as an interloper trying to play his own irrelevant game. Giuliani is being treated as one of the great blunderers of modern political history, while Edwards seems more like a victim of circumstance, but their fortunes are really quite similar. Both men tried to shape their own campaign narratives, only to see them overshadowed and finally obliterated by the narrative constructed by the media.

Giuliani hoped to render Iowa and New Hampshire irrelevant, convinced that his celebrity would win him votes across the country. He presumably hoped for no clear front-runner to emerge from the first weeks of voting; he needed the media to say "deadlock" before he charged in to rout the competition. It didn't happen that way, and this wasn't all the former-mayor's fault. He did the right thing by attending the debates, keeping himself in the public eye. But when Huckabee won Iowa, the media said, "Front-Runner!" and when McCain won New Hampshire the media said "Front-Runner!" and when Romney won Michigan and Nevada the media said "Front-Runner!" Despite the reality of the situation, as far as the media were concerned there was never not a front-runner, and the front-runner was never Giuliani. The media may have had an interest in a long, competitive campaign, but each component of the media also has a selfish interest in scooping the rest by picking a winner. As a result, none were really interested in the Giuliani narrative, which required a void where the front-runner should be for him to fill in. Once Giuliani failed to fit the media narrative, he was doomed.

Edwards is a simpler story because he didn't try a risky strategy. He went out and competed and got honestly trounced every time. But this had to be in part because the media had constructed a polarizing narrative for the Democratic campaign that inevitably ruled out anyone but Clinton and Obama. Here also, all the media entities were quick to cry "Front-Runner!" whenever Clinton or Obama gained an advantage, which left Edwards further and further behind in most minds until the perception that he didn't have a chance trumped the reality of the situation. In this case the media might not be so much to blame because Clinton and Obama would probably have polarized Democrats in any case, but it'd be naive to say that the media did nothing to shape Edwards's fate.

This commentary has more to do with the media than the Bipolarchy itself, but the moral of the story for both men, in my opinion, is that they might have been better off today had they run as independents instead of seeking major party nominations. Doing so would have made more sense for Giuliani if he really did believe that Iowa and New Hampshire didn't matter and really wanted to reach the whole nation directly. In Edwards's case the media built a narrative around the Democratic race that excluded him, regardless of his merits. Thanks in part to the media, the Democratic party itself became a bipolarchy, putting Edwards in the position of a "hopeless" third party within his own party. In any event, for each man it was the media, not the majority of party primary voters, who pronounced the death sentence.

Realists can say that had Giuliani or Edwards run as independents, the media would have immediately ignored them. I'm not so sure. One man was the Mayor of 9-11, and the other was nearly elected Vice-President four years ago. Such people can't be so easily marginalized, or so I'd like to think. I'd also like to think that, the more viable personalities choose to stand outside the American Bipolarchy, the more the media would have to acknowledge that the Bipolarchy was crumbling. The Bipolarchy depends to a great extent on the media (and the two parties' ability to pay them) for its sense of exclusive legitimacy, but the media need not feel any reciprocal dependency. They can take anybody's money, as the system stands today, and they can tell a year's political story in any way that pays. If they thought they could prosper by preaching (or better, predicting) that the two-party system was falling apart, they would do it. This isn't to say that the media alone or any handful or rich insurgents could end the Bipolarchy, which also feeds on brand-name loyalty among the masses, but it'd certainly make a difference if the media said it could be done instead of saying it can't. People like Giuliani, given his standing a year ago, or Edwards, given his standing after 2004, might have given the media more reason to say that it can be done than Mike Bloomberg ever will this year. The fact that neither dared probably reflects the same lack of imagination, or maybe the same cowardice, that leads them now to leave the political stage.

29 January 2008

Hillary: Let's Change the Rules!

This was bound to happen: Sen. Clinton is reportedly agitating to have delegates from Michigan and Florida seated at the Democratic National Convention. These states were penalized for rightfully defying the party's asinine scheduling rules. The presidential candidates were not to campaign in either state, but lo and behold, Clinton was in Florida a few days ago for a "fundraiser," and here she is in Florida after winning tonight's "beauty contest" holding a victory rally that dare not speak its name. Now that she expects both states to be loyal to her, she wants them fully represented in Denver. Apparently this will be up to the already-seated delegates at the convention, so if a majority votes in Clinton and the two states' favor their delegates will probably be redundant anyway. But if the Democrats go into Denver without a nominee, and Edwards delegates hold a balance of power, they should resist any temptation to be fair to Michigan and Florida. If you're going to be a party stooge, and you're going to make bad rules for yourselves, you may as well have enough honor to abide by them. As for the two states, my advice remains what is was back in the fall: if you feel that way about Sen. Clinton, on the one hand, and about the Democrats, on the other, then put Hillary on your November ballot, and if someone else is the actual Democratic nominee, keep them off or make them collect some signatures to get on. States, not parties, determine election laws. If the politicians in Michigan or Florida had the courage to do something like this, they might set an example for other states.

GOP: Back to Square One?

Does no one learn? The word before Florida votes was that evangelical leaders were telling their congregations that "a vote for Huckabee is a vote for McCain," and were again urging their flocks to vote for Romney. Wasn't this how Huckabee grew strong in the first place? Wasn't there a rank-&-file rebellion against leaders who seemed to be selling out principles, if not the faith itself, in favor of the infidel Romney? And why exactly should the evangelical rank-&-file fear even a vicarious vote for McCain? I think they know that McCain's beef was with the leadership all along, and that McCain-Feingold will never ruin their day. But this is all moot so long as Huckabee has a separate line on the ballot. I bet McCain, who's struggling to keep ahead of Romney as I write, would like a vote for Huckabee to be a vote for him. He's probably waiting for Huckabee to quit soon because the Arkansan will probably endorse him, but for now, Huckabee is an impediment that prevents either of the two strongest candidates from claiming a majority anywhere. McCain seems smart enough not to complain about Huckabee, while Romney's friends have never stopped complaining, thinking somehow that the Mormon is entitled to the Christian Right vote. For good or ill, many of the faithful will never accept that, and the more the Romneyites insist, the longer Huckabee will probably keep on going.

28 January 2008

Democratic Endgame

I know some people who will be unimpressed, or negatively impressed, by Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Senator Obama, and I admit that it sounds strange to hear the old man of Massachusetts speak against the "patterns of the past," but let's look at this as a Democrat might. For good or ill, Sen. Kennedy embodies the history, if not the "soul" of the party. To the extent that John Kennedy remains an idol of the party, Ted has a better claim to represent John's (and Robert's) spirit to the faithful. The Kennedys represent what the party presumes to stand for, so it's not just a dynastic squabble when most of the Kennedys come out against the Clintons -- and make no mistake, you can't merely endorse Obama without repudiating Sen. Clinton, despite Ted's own disclaimers. For the Kennedys to come out against the Clintons forces Democrats to decide what their party stands for. It means that it cannot be the same party as it thought it was if Hillary prevails. If she's the nominee, then the Democratic party stands for the "third way," for "triangulation," and for the Clintons' special entitlement to rule.

To be honest, much of what the Kennedys stood for was mythical, and Ted Kennedy himself was guilty of the same sense of entitlement in 1980 that Hillary has now. But once beaten, Ted has stayed chastened, and has long since renounced any claim on the White House. The Kennedys' own interests are advanced by this endorsement only insofar as it reinforces Ted's claim to be the elder statesman of the party (Jimmy Carter being apparently uninterested). Also, if he's grown indignant at Bill Clinton's antics, then more power to him. Someone needs to slap down Mr. Clinton at this point, and Kennedy has the stature among hard-core Democrats to do this. Both Clintons are so clearly acting on a presumption of personal entitlement that they're a menace to the American political system. People across the political spectrum should cheer if the Democrats can stop them.

Republican Endgame (already?)?

The media are now treating the Republican primary campaign as a two-man race. They're leaving Giuliani for dead, victim of his own suicidal strategy, marginalizing Huckabee, and ignoring Paul, to focus on McCain vs. Romney. It would seem that Mr. Right was right about Romney being the stop-McCain candidate, if only because only Romney can afford to block the popular tide. According to this item, both men are reduced to calling one another "liberals." The problem is, too many movement people already believe both sets of charges. But it may be that self-styled conservatives (those who are trying to define an orthodoxy by excluding others) are more willing to hold their noses for Romney because they buy his claim that business expertise qualifies someone for the Presidency. The problem with this viewpoint, as I've told people since Ross Perot's time, is that you can't fire the American people. Meanwhile, McCain is apparently trying to cater to Giuliani's base by blustering about the war on terror being the primary issue in the primary. My hunch is that if Giuliani quits, either he'll endorse McCain or his supporters will go to him on their own. If others share my hunch, there will likely be some pressure on the former mayor to stay in the campaign. He should at least stay on until next week to see if his name recognition and possible fatigue at McCain-Romney negativism help him out on Big Tuesday. There's still opportunity for Huckabee to collect plenty of Southern delegates as well, so I think the media are premature in announcing the final round in this race.

27 January 2008

"Real Change Takes More Than Words"

The above is the cover copy for a flier distributed to AFSCME members, one of whom lent a copy to me, endorsing Senator Clinton for the New York Democratic primary. Ironically, the document is itself only so many words, none of which make a persuasive case for the Senator's exclusive claim on AFSCME's votes. We're told that she fills our need for "strength and experience to change this country because "she has never stopped fighting for New York's working families." The proof of this is that she "successfully fought" to raise the minimum wage -- along with hundreds of Democrats, of course, and that she "stood strong" against the privatization of Social Security -- along with hundreds of Democrats then, too. The union boasts of her sponsorship of numerous bills supporting workers and working families' rights without informing readers that bills like these have scads of co-sponsors. If you're meant to believe that only Hillary can defend your rights as a worker, the case is made only by omission. I suppose this is better than saying that Edwards and Obama are enemies of the working class, but since the union says "How you vote is a personal decision," fairness might have obliged them to make some representation of the other Democrats' positions rather than imply negatively that Clinton's rivals have done nothing for unions.

Meanwhile, the Albany Times Union has endorsed Clinton. Instead of strength, the Hearst paper cites the Senator's "intelligence and experience," characterizing her as "a workhorse who can transcend partisan differences and get things done." Perhaps this transcendence takes place within the corridors of power, but out of doors we see little of it.

"This is not to dismiss her chief rival," the editorial writer says before dismissing Sen. Obama. After reviewing his "appealing qualities" and noting his lack of "polar negtives," the writer opines that "at this juncture in history, the country needs more than an inspiring persona. It needs a proven leader who can begin to clean up George Bush's mess." Since the argument ends there, you're left to figure out for yourself that fourth-year Senator Obama is an unproven leader, while eighth-year Senator Clinton has proven her leadership, on no evidence provided here. Edwards is dispensed with in a paragraph that expresses impatience with his "populist mantra," which might have made him more viable "at another time, and in another field," but pales when "Hillary Clinton ... stands above all others."

The most absurd section of this endorsement comes, as you might expect, when the spotlight turns to Mr. Clinton. Because Bill was able to repair "an economy that had gone sour under a clueless President George H. W. Bush," and the Senator will have to do something similar, "that makes former President Clinton more of an asset than a liability to her campaign." Tell that to South Carolina.

So the battle lines are forming for February 5 in New York. Friends of Obama have opened up a campaign headquarters in Albany, while nationally the Kennedys stand poised to weigh in on his side. Yesterday I saw a couple of Clinton sign-wavers at the corner of Colonie Center where Ron Paul's people performed weeks ago. Was there some turf war fought and won, or do they all take turns now? The Paulites remain active in Troy, where they're recruiting volunteers for door-to-door work next week. There's no sign of the big Republican guns yet, but now that Giuliani is vulnerable, McCain and Romney will likely establish local beachheads after Florida votes. Things should start to get interesting around here shortly.

24 January 2008

The Debate We All Want to See

The latest Republican get-together was a dry affair, with everyone on their best behavior. Instead of a dog-pile on McCain, as I expected, everyone, even Ron Paul, seemed to be more statesmanlike tonight. I give everyone but Paul another demerit for continuing to support the Iraq war, and Huckabee gets another on his own for his crack about "so-called assault weapons." But McCain gets extra credit for his late announcement that he was going to send Sylvester Stallone, his newest celebrity endorser, to "take care" of Chuck Norris in reprisal for Norris's disrespectful remarks about McCain's age. That encounter should be shown on all news networks simultaneously, with no holds barred, Gov. Schwarzenegger as the ref-- er, the moderator, and subtitles provided for people who don't understand Mumble. Let's make this happen, people!

Poor Dennis

Rep. Kucinich has made his abject exit from the presidential campaign, well after he was consigned to the wilderness by MSNBC, in order to save his strength for his re-election to Congress. I'm sure he'll serve his country better there, because he never had a chance to be president.

Some people will say that Kucinich's poor performance is further proof that the primary system needs to be reformed. So convinced are these people of their hero's virtue and the justice of his views that they can only blame his failures on an inefficient system. We can make a case that there needs to be a better system, but not for Kucinich's sake. The long debating season gave him a fair chance to catch people's imagination, as Huckabee did among many Republicans, but Kucinich couldn't exploit the opportunity. This can't be blamed solely on money or celebrity, or Kucinich's lack of either. Democratic voters didn't want what he was selling, and I doubt that any further shifting of the rules would help him much.

I'd like to argue that Kucinich could best help himself by forming an independent party and trying his luck in the general election, where in the current climate his earning even 2% of the vote might make a decisive difference. But if he ran as an independent from the start, he would have been denied a place at the debates from the start under current rules. The debate process took a step in the right direction this cycle by giving an insurgent like Huckabee a chance, but the process needs to become even more inclusive. Ideally, there should be a series of non-partisan debates, not necessarily with every single candidate at every single debate, but a rotating cast in a round-robin format that assures every sane candidate a minimum of public exposure. Such a system would enable someone like Kucinich to reach a broader audience that might offer him more support than the Democratic rank and file, but it still wouldn't guarantee him mass support. In a democracy, like it or not, that's still up to the American people.

G.O.P. -- Time to Hold Your Nose?

Mr. Right was enumerating John McCain's faults, conceding that he was an honorable man but condemning him for McCain-Feingold and other offenses against a certain conservative orthodoxy. Fred Thompson's withdrawal from the race had left Mr. Right in a gloomy temper. I remarked to him that he was down to two choices if he hoped to stop McCain, and he wasn't thrilled with either of him. He went on about Mitt Romney's willingness to say whatever he needed to get elected, while Rudolph Giuliani's flaws were presumably too many or too obvious to elaborate upon.

In light of reported comments from other quarters, it's worth noting that Mr. Right emphasized that, come November, he would most likely hold his nose and vote for whoever was the Republican nominee. Having said that, he wasn't willing to name a preference for the rest of the primary season. So I asked him if he thought the conservative establishment would rally around someone to stop McCain. He answered with unexpected certainty that McCain would be stopped. By whom, I asked? Romney was his answer.

He was also quick to dismiss any notion of a conservative third party movement. He predicted that there'd be no significant third-party candidacy, except maybe for "that idiot in New York," Mayor Bloomberg. So here was another self-styled free thinker in the grip of the American Bipolarchy. There's two reasons for someone like Mr. Right to keep voting for Republicans even when they offer him such disappointing choices. One is the simple desire that he shares with most voters to be on the winning team. The other, explaining his willingness to hold his nose if necessary, is the threat of the monolithic evil of the Other, the Democrats. He's as much in thrall to the Republicans due to fear of Democrats as the typical Democrat is enthralled by her fear of Republicans.

No one third party can break this spell. There has to be a third and a fourth party, and a split in the ranks of both great parties, before people will start to think differently. Therefore, no one movement with a particular political agenda can hope to break the Bipolarchy. The object must be to encourage dissension in all ranks for its own sake. To declare this agenda so blatantly is to risk distrust, but we only have everyone's best interests at heart. Whether people agree with us or not, we want everyone to be able to vote for a candidate without having to hold your nose.

22 January 2008

Poor Fred: The End

All that needs to be said on this subject is: If you want to convince voters that you're a reluctant candidate responding to the spontaneous call of the masses, you might be more convincing if you weren't getting into everybody's face all over the campaign trail making that claim. If you want to play the reluctant candidate, stay home and let other people make commercials and websites about you. Otherwise you look like an idiot when people ask themselves: "If he doesn't really want the job, then what is he doing here?" F.D. Thompson will be spared history's harsh judgment only if Florida and Feb. 5 prove Rudolph Giuliani to be an even bigger idiot.

21 January 2008

Is McCain Inevitable?

The Democratic presidential candidates seemed to be jumping to conclusions tonight when they all touted themselves as the person best capable of debating John McCain during a general election. Apparently being a full-time politician doesn't immunize you from falling for media hype. In this case, McCain is now the Republican front-runner, apparently, because he got one-third of the vote in the South Carolina primary, barely beating Mike Huckabee, on the same day that he trailed Ron Paul in the Nevada caucuses. Yes, there are polls that put McCain on top nationally, but what have we learned about the Republican campaign? All we need is for Mitt Romney to win something again and he'll be the front-runner once more, and if Rudolph Giuliani actually wins Florida, he might become the front-runner, and Huckabee still has a chance.

We can't expect the Republicans to rush to crown McCain, because many of the same elements who have desperately opposed Huckabee also oppose McCain, and possibly with more vehemence. That'd be because McCain has a longer record of heresy in daring to speak out against corporate influence in politics. Some conservatives appear to require a groveling attitude toward corporations. George Will represents this faction as well as anyone, and in the column that appeared in today's Albany Times Union he anathematized McCain for daring to question corporate profits. For Will, the case is simple:

McCain's evident aim is to reduce pharmaceutical companies' profits. But if all those profits were subtracted from the nation's health care bill, the pharmaceutical component of that bill would be reduced only from 10 percent to 8 percent -- and innovation would stop, taking a terrible suffering and premature death.

Do you understand? If corporations can't maximize their profits, people will die! Consider all the people who would not be living today, Will invites, if not for corporations.

Republicans are supposed to eschew demagogic aspersions concerning complicated economic matters. But applause greets faux 'straight talk' that brands as 'bad' the industry responsible for the facts that polio is no longer a scourge, that childhood leukemia is no longer a death sentence, that depression and mental illnesses are treatable, that the rate of heart attacks and heart failures has been cut more than in half in 50 years.

Notice that this faction of conservatives must even downgrade individual achievement in order to give due praise to the great and good corporation. When I was a kid, we were taught that Dr. Jonas Salk was responsible for the end of the polio scourge, but George Will would have us understand that he was only a cog in a necessary machine, without which no worthwhile medical innovation would have emerged, and we might have spent our childhoods in iron lungs. Somehow this sounds like communism to me, which may only go to show that all ideologies eventually converge.

A few weeks ago Will was emptying similar rounds at Huckabee for similar sins. Who in the real world doubts that McCain or Huckabee would be better friends to corporations than any of the Democratic candidates with the possible exception of Senator Clinton? And yet because they show insufficient love for their betters, Will suggests that McCain specifically should join the Democratic party. No doubt Rush Limbaugh feels the same way about the Arizonan. Their great hope was Fred Thompson when Huckabee was their great fear. I don't know who they'll choose to save them from McCain, -- their choices seem to be down to Romney and Giuliani, -- but I can't imagine that they'll concede the nomination to him without a bitter fight. The Democrats better be careful of whom they train for.

19 January 2008

At the Polls

South Carolina is reporting returns from the Republican primary as I write, and it's too close between McCain, who has led so far, and Huckabee for any news network to declare a victor. It'll be between Romney, who took the Nevada caucuses, and Thompson for the bronze. If third is the best Thompson can do in South Carolina, when he should have been the natural conservative alternative to the alleged apostates McCain and Huckabee, that fact is damning. I begin to believe that he's now staying in the race only to take votes from Huckabee. He was DOA in Nevada, where it looks like Ron Paul will actually take second place with approximately 13% of the vote. The story of Nevada should be that Romney whipped the field and got an outright majority, but because the GOP still has a large field, Paul will probably emerge with renewed "viability," despite what looks like a poor performance in South Carolina, because he can say he finished second out of six candidates -- Duncan Hunter having finally given up. None of the six, not even Thompson, should think about quitting until "Super Tuesday," because the number and diversity of states voting on Feb. 5 could drastically redraw the game board. Having said that, I expect Thompson to be the next to retire.

As for the Democrats in Nevada, who wait until next week in South Carolina, the caucuses demonstrate that the campaign is now almost completely polarized between Clinton and Obama. Edwards's position is now hopeless except if he can win some Southern states as a regional favorite son. Clinton got another close victory thanks (the exit polls assert) to women, Hispanics and older voters. We are told that the "party faithful" are rallying to Clinton, which to me is an indictment of party faith, since that seems to involve a belief that the Senator from New York is "due" despite the emergence of arguably a more electable candidate.

It's becoming more apparent, to me at least, that it is imperative for Clinton, if she wins the nomination, to ask Obama to be her running mate. He might not enjoy the prospect, and would probably be breaking a promise if he accepts the offer, but Clinton will be even more handicapped than before if Obama (and by extension his supporters) appear to be shut out of the ticket, and Obama would have to appreciate that he'll be needed if Nominee Clinton is to drive the Republicans out of the White House. I don't feel the same way about the opposite prospect. I don't think Nominee Obama needs to put Clinton on his ticket, and I think she'd be even less likely to accept such a deal. I just have a hunch that women will be less likely to sulk and stay home than black voters, especially if women are made to believe that abortion rights depend on Democratic victory. Thanks to the abortion issue, feminist women are probably even more taken for granted by Democratic leaders than blacks claim to be. That gives Obama more leeway to choose a running mate more to his liking, should he prevail, but I won't begin to speculate about his choice until it looks more likely that he'll get one.

And as I finish writing, it's still too close to call between McCain and Huckabee.

There Will Be Blood

In an article I read recently, an author whose name I don't remember expressed a feeling of giddiness at watching P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood because it showed the two chief constituencies of the conservative movement, businessmen and evangelists, at each other's throats. That left me wondering whether that was an intentional effect of the film. I would find out this afternoon at a packed Spectrum Theater in Albany.

The film is based (loosely, I hear) on a novel by Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author of The Jungle. I haven't read Oil!, so I can't say if the principal characters, the oilman played by Daniel Day-Lewis and the evangelist played by Paul Dano, are the same in book and film. Sinclair was an American-style socialist, so I'm sure he saw neither man as a positive character. The dynamic of their relationship in Anderson's film does seem as if it was constructed to be understood in 21st century political terms, because the theme of the businessman exploiting the believer (no hero himself) is one of the few elements that holds the film together.

Compared to Anderson's intricately plotted earlier films like Magnolia, TWBB seems relatively loosely assembled and overlong, although it's nearly half an hour shorter than Magnolia. The film drags in the middle as it takes up the storyline of a man who claims to be the oilman's long-lost brother. You wonder what the point is, apart from again showing that the oilman is rotten, until you get to the controversial ending. Without giving away details that have outraged some reviewers, the ending echoes the earlier scenes with the alleged brother, since by then the evangelist is also declaring himself to be the oilman's brother. Part of the point of the film seems to be that the oilman is no man's brother, in either a genetic or a spiritual sense, but this is a theme that becomes apparent only at the end, when the oilman, arguably, plays Cain.

The film is more of a character portrait than a tightly-plotted story. It's a rare showcase for Daniel Day-Lewis, who brings old-school thespian power to his performance the same way he did as Bill the Butcher in Scorsese's Gangs of New York. He deserves all the kudos, nominations and awards he's gotten so far, especially since his acting is the glue that holds the film together. Also exemplary is Paul Dano as the evangelist (and briefly as his twin -- add that to the brother theme). As an actor Dano is unafraid to look pathetic and weak and scream like a girl when the role demands it.

For his part, Anderson parallels the Coen Bros. by doing away with his stock company (P.S. Hoffman, J.C. Reilly, P. B. Hall, etc.) in order to strike a fresh, somber note in his work. He has a masterful sense of landscape and creates an utterly convincing period piece. His only lapse comes at the end, when the evangelist says he's been wiped out in the stock market crash in a scene dated on-screen as 1927. The first hour of TWBB is probably the best pure moviemaking I've seen from 2007, especially since much of it is done without dialogue. Overall, though, I think it has to rank behind Magnolia and about equal to Boogie Nights among his best films.

About the ending: the Spectrum audience responded to it with what I took to be appreciative laughter, although the intent isn't comedic. I think filmmaker and audience alike saw it as an opportunity to let off steam. It serves as a final condemnation of both protagonists, rendering both of them pathetic before ending with abrupt brutality. To come back to where I started, you can definitely make a case that, by ending it as he did (and not, as I'm told, how Sinclair ended his novel) Anderson is making a contemporary political point. The oilman had already rendered himself utterly despicable by his last scene with his adopted son, so all that needed to be said about him had been said before the evangelist appears. While audiences may well see what follows as a rightful comeuppance for another despicable character, or (as some have) as a moment of senseless, shark-jumping excess, I think a political interpretation is the only one that justifies ending the film as Anderson did. I can envision Mike Huckabee leaving the theater (he'd go because there's only one mild swear word and no nudity in the picture) nodding his head slightly in affirmation, if he actually understood it as some have.

Despite my reservations, I strongly recommend There Will Be Blood for anyone who appreciates sweeping film style and brilliant acting. It definitely ends up in my Top 5 for 2007, but I haven't sorted out the final arrangement yet.

17 January 2008

Heritage of Evil

Here's another illustration of how the American Bipolarchy allows the two leading parties to shapeshift and contradict themselves in pursuit of power: after the Civil War, when Republicans nearly monopolized the White House for 60 years, one of their favorite tactics was called "waving the bloody shirt." This consisted of pandering to your base of Union Army veterans by evoking the sacrifices of wartime and reminding them that the Democrats were the party of secession and Copperheadism. The thought that, in the 21st century, any Republican might be found singing the praises of the Confederate flag would have driven a 19th century Republican mad. But here we are, and here's Mike Huckabee in South Carolina, and for the sake of balance, here is John McCain.

Let's note that Huckabee did not repeat the defensive notion that the Confederate flag represents "heritage," but he's clearly catering to those who feel that way. "Heritage," in this context, never has anything to do with slavery, as if Southern culture as we know it could have existed, or the Civil War would have been fought, without slavery. In a way, the defense of the Confederate flag is like the activism against American Indian sports mascots. In each case, a faction within a cultural group tries to tell the world that they alone will decide what their symbols represent. In the case of the Confederacy, the Southern states lost that right in 1865.

History has ruled that slavery is the pre-eminent heritage embodied in the Confederate flag. History is unimpressed by distinctions people try to draw between the state flag and battle flags, because Lee and all his generals and all his boys in gray were fighting for slavery. They broke with the Union because a plurality of its people and a majority of Electors chose a candidate who would not let slavery infest new territories. That was unacceptable to the plantation masters, so they declared the Union dissolved. Ever since then, there's been talk and research about why the common white man fought for the Confederacy, but I don't care to know about their personal motives. They had a self-evident duty to resist a conspiracy to break up the Union simply because one particular party won an election. Most of them failed in this duty and enlisted in defense of slavery, which was the real meaning of the defense of secession on this particular occasion. To defend the secession movement of 1860-61 means either that you endorse a completely value-free idea of secession that allows you to break up the country on any and every pretext, or you're defending the plantation masters' alleged right to spread the plague of slavery on new lands. Enjoy your choices.

If public education should have any purpose of indoctrination, one thing that should be indoctrinated should be hatred for the Confederacy and the Civil War it called down upon itself. Children should be taught to despise every version of the Confederate flag, and to condemn every Confederate general and civilian leader as a villain. To admire any of them is, at best, to admire militarism for its own sake. Mike Huckabee says it isn't the country's business to pass judgment on those flags. I know that he can fall behind on some subjects, like the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, but he should have caught on by now that the country passed judgment on this matter nearly 150 years ago. Maybe he's been waiting for God's verdict on the question. I refer him to the words of an American prophet:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. . . If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

16 January 2008

Excerpts From A Conversation with Mr. Right

1. "Domination"

Mr. Peepers believes that it's not a good thing for the Republicans to have a lively season of debates and a highly competitive primary campaign. It was a good thing for him as a loyal Democrat, however. As he was explaining to Mr. Right, the current dissension only showed that the Republicans were split among many factions, while the narrowing Democratic contest showed that that party was closer to unity. He was listing someof the GOP factions, and got to Neocons when Mr. Right asked, "Do you even know what a neocon is?"

Kibitzing until then, I offered that I had never read two matching definitions of who neocons are or what they stand for, except that they support the Iraq War.

"They want to dominate the world," Mr. Peepers clarified.

"Well, who do you think should dominate the world?" Mr. Right challenged. Mr. Peepers didn't seem to have an answer, so Mr. R. pressed his point: "I'd rather have the U.S. dominate the world."

"The correct answer would be Nobody," I suggested, but Mr. Right feels that someone has to dominate the world, so it may as well be the U.S. He claims that our country can be trusted with dominance because of its superior moral record. This moral superiority is quantitative in nature. Conceding slavery and the oppression of American Indians, he insists that the U.S. has done more than any other country to feed hungry people around the world and free oppressed ones. Today, however, he was concerned that we misunderstood what he meant by dominance.

"I'm writing a story right now about the home team's last game," he said, "I have it in writing right here that they dominated their opponents during the first period. What do you think I meant by that?"

He clearly didn't mean that the home team ruled the other team. "So by dominate you mean you want the U.S. to be powerful enough to beat any opponent, and that's all?"

If that was so, then score one debating point for Mr. Right.

2. Envy

Like many conservatives, Mr. Right is fond of attributing any criticism of corporate wealth to "envy." He has a notion that many Americans who are not registered Republicans agree with conservative Republicans on moral issues and the war on terror, but refuse to join the GOP due to force of habit and "envy." We were discussing a political article he'd recently written when the subject came up again. It's one I particularly resent.

"What would you say," I queried, "If I attributed conservative beliefs to greed, or selfishness, or bigotry?"

"You'd be wrong," was his immediate response, to which I replied, "Well, I'd imagine you'd want to challenge me to prove it, so you should give me some evidence to back up your claim about envy."

To be fair, that would be hard to prove empirically even if it was true, so I adopted another line of attack: the Socratic method.

"What is envy, anyway?" I asked, to which he answered by example. "It's the mentality that says, why should the guy down the block make $300,000 a year when I only make $30,000?"

"That's envy? . . . Well, you're a sportswriter. Have you ever criticized a professional athlete's salary?"

He had. So was that envy? He was honest about his feelings. "When I hear about another big free agent contract, I do feel envious of the natural talent that those athletes have."

"But do you envy the money they make?"


"But you do think the money they make is excessive?"

"In a lot of cases, yes."

"And that's how a lot of people feel about corporate CEO salaries. Does that mean those people envy the CEOs?"

Mr. Right has worked for our company longer than I have. He well knows that our controlling corporation is a poor role model for capitalism. He conceded readily that the bonuses our corporate overloads gave themselves were both excessive and unmerited, and added his own observation that a competitive market for the recruitment of top CEOs was driving salaries up even further.

"And the same thing applies in sports due to the free agent market, right?"

He admitted that one of his favorite teams was guilty of inflating the market in their hunger for free agents.

"So you'd agree that, in some cases, the marketplace inflates salaries beyond a point that can be justified by merit."

He did. "Is that envy?" I asked. He could not say that it was. Score one for me.

3. Conservatism Defined.

The conversation turned to the subprime mortgage crisis. He didn't downplay it, but he thought it reflected a certain media bias that everyone talked about the people who were losing their homes but no one wanted to talk about the people who were losing their jobs as subprime lenders went under. Their stories needed to be told, he urged, because, as he understood it, they had been compelled by the government to offer subprime mortgages to people who had been denied standard mortgages due to low income or other factors.

"What do you think is the moral of the story?" I asked.

"The moral is that you can't legislate fairness and equality," Mr. Right answered, "If you try, you only make things worse for everybody."

Earlier in our chat, he had tried to convince me that opposition to taxes was a sine qua non of conservatism. I had countered that there was no automatic hostility to taxation in philosophical conservatism, and that free-market capitalism itself would not have been considered conservative 200 years ago. His answer to that was to say that now it was conservative because conservatives themselves had discovered that individual liberty matters more than anything else, except maybe for traditional morality. But now, as I had to get ready to catch a bus for home, Mr. Right had tapped into authentic conservative philosophy: you can't legislate fairness. Whether that's a pretty sight or not is up to each of you.

15 January 2008

Huckabee Blows It.

Mike Huckabee would seem to be some sort of liar. Last month, he told Tim Russert that people who fear his religious convictions should note his record in Arkansas, where he didn't turn the capitol dome into a church steeple, nor did he hold tent revivals on the lawn of the governor's mansion. His message was that no one should assume that he intends to set up a theocracy as President. That message doesn't exactly square with what he said last night.

Did Huckabee think there was a constituency for such talk in Michigan? I guess there is -- 16% of the Republican electorate according to the latest returns. Fortunately, that's far from enough to get the nomination. It will be interesting now to see if he can get above 20% anywhere outside the South. He certainly doesn't deserve that anywhere after this outburst.

Does the Arkansan even realize that "God's standards" is almost perfectly synonymous with the rhetoric al-Qaeda uses, at least as it's translated into English, when they call for the imposition of sharia law in Muslim countries? That reminds me to ask: which standards, Mr. former governor? The Qur'an would seem to be more up to date, but even more up-to-date would be the books of syncretic faiths like Sikhism and Baha'i which incorporate elements of Judeo-Christian tradition? Voters should insist on a clarification before they send Huckabee up Salt River.

For some reason I've gone out of my way to defend Huckabee. He had me fooled for a while on his theocratic leanings, and he has definitely been treated unfairly by his rivals regarding his Foreign Affairs article. Since I'm interested in exposing the rhetorical thuggishness of Republican candidates, I may yet defend Huckabee from further unfair charges. But any notion that he'd somehow be the preferable Republican candidate in the general election is now quite dead.

The 1st Amendment vs. Dennis Kucinich

Less than an hour before the Democrats began debating in Nevada tonight, MSNBC was in the Nevada Supreme Court desperately battling for their 1st Amendment right to exclude Dennis Kucinich from the event, in defiance of an earlier district court ruling. I kid you not. Note the basis of the 1st Amendment claim: MSNBC contended that as a private business, it had every right to set criteria for debate admission and exclude candidates accordingly. In other words, limiting the number of voices and choices voters can see on TV is an expression of free speech.

MSNBC won the case. The court ruled that Kucinich could not claim breach of contract on the strength of the invitation he received before the network changed its criteria for participation. So Nevada didn't necessarily endorse the peculiar interpretation of the First Amendment described above, it certainly didn't reject it.

In an ideal country, there would be debates rather than commercials. That would be the only way I could support free air time for politicians, but it would also make the networks or the FCC into gatekeepers with an arbitrary power to exclude candidates. I find the trouble MSNBC went to to keep Kucinich out alarming, not due to any enthusiasm for the Ohio congressman, whose campaign is hopeless, but because that hopelessness is up to each voter to decide for himself, and not for a network to declare unilaterally.

Some of you are bound to say: if the networks can't exclude anyone, how can they keep debates to a manageable format? I'll leave the issue for now with one word: decentralize. You can mull that over for a while until I return to the topic.

Vampira (1921-2008)

Maila Nurmi didn't have many breaks in life. In later life she was reduced to selling hand-made jewelry to make ends meet. That was a far fall from the high life she claimed for herself, when she supposedly dated James Dean, Orson Welles and who knows who else. Still, she had her longevity, until this week, and there'd be the occasional trip to a convention to meet with the people who fondly remembered her, and those born too late to see her in her prime, too late even to see reruns of her TV show, since all copies are lost. Still, there were plenty of photos from back in the day, and there was Plan 9 From Outer Space, which presents the closest approximation of Maila Nurmi in the years of her glory, except that she doesn't talk. Already by 1957, that was the best she could do, three years after her TV show captivated Los Angeles and a Life magazine photo introduced the nation to Vampira.

Once upon a time it made perfect sense for local TV channels to have old movies introduced by station employees, on the assumption that the host did as much to sell the show as the movies themselves. Maila Nurmi was one of the first classic horror hosts in a lineage that extends to Elvira (whom Nurmi sued unsuccessfully for plagiarism) and a few surviving local characters. They dressed in weird outfits, strutted about on creepy or faux-creepy sets, and often mocked the very movies they were showing. Some hosts extended their outlook to the wider world, embodying the "sick" humor of the era. After the fact, many fans of horror hosts realized that they'd been given their first taste of satire. Characters like Vampira in Los Angeles, Zacherle in New York, Ghoulardi in Cleveland, helped introduce a note of irreverence at the alleged height of Baby Boom conformity. Some people might even claim that horror hosts were formative influences on the hippies to come.

At the same time, the horror hosts had an odd effect on the movies they played. For some fans at least, those films were not diminished by the hosts' antics, but came to share in the hosts' transgressive qualities. They came to be perceived, in the word of one big fan of Ghoulardi, as "psychotronic," signifying a quality that transcended low budgets and bad acting and exalted the sheer experience of watching outrageous scenarios. To that extent, the horror hosts are responsible for the concept of the cult movie, and for a certain way of seeing movies in general at a critical distance from mainstream standards of quality -- the sort of viewpoint that might name Grindhouse rather than Atonement, for instance, as the year's best film. All this begins with Maila Nurmi, for whom one fan, poaching from Plan 9, posted this tribute on You Tube. Take a look:

13 January 2008

The Democratic Race

Senator Clinton tried to make a point about "experience" vs. "hope" recently by emphasizing that Lyndon Johnson's political savvy was necessary to realize the civil rights reforms that Martin Luther King dreamed of. She claimed on Meet the Press this morning that she was deliberately misinterpreted by Senator Obama's faction, who allegedly tried to accuse her of some form of racist condescension. The problem with this narrative is that Obama's people now claim that they never made any such assertion. So by accusing Obama of playing the race card, was Clinton trying to do so herself?

She'd be on more secure ground defending her husband. He apparently caught some grief from his comment in New Hampshire about Obama's "fairy tale." If I remember correctly what I heard, Bill Clinton specifically accused the Illinois Senator of telling a fairy tale about his record on the Iraq invasion. The former President was on shaky ground here. He challenged Obama's claim to have opposed the war all along on the evidence of a 2004 interview in which Obama said that he didn't know how he'd have voted on the war if he knew only what the public knew about Iraq in 2002. He also said, as cited by Mr. Clinton, that he did feel that the government hadn't really made the case for an invasion. So to say the least, albeit in retrospect, Obama was leaning against the invasion. But any expression of ambiguity, according to the master of ambiguity, disqualifies Obama's claim of consistent absolute opposition. However dubious Bill's argument was, however, he appeared to limit his critique to the specific issue of the war. He's had to do damage control since then because some took his remarks to disparage the entire concept of the Obama campaign as a fairy tale, which could be described as racist condescension.

This all goes to show again how bitter politicians can get when they perceive someone to be stealing their moment. That attitude explains the viciousness of many Republican attacks on Mike Huckabee, and you see it in the Clintonites' reaction to Obama's audacious attempt to usurp Mrs. Clinton's long-planned-for moment of destiny. You'll notice that not all politicians, even among presidential candidates, act this way. Consider how Mr.Edwards has not attacked Obama with the same fury as the Clintonites, and how Senator McCain, for instance, does not join in the attacks on Huckabee. Ambition doesn't automatically come with a sense of entitlement, though Hillary Clinton clearly brings the latter to her campaign, as do Mr. Romney and the supporters (at least) of Mr. Thompson. The jury's still out on whether that sense of entitlement makes a positive or negative difference. Edwards is floundering, but McCain is still gaining strength, but the latter has a foil in the form of Romney against whom he can show the sort of "passion" that primary voters may need to see.

But going back to Clinton vs. Obama, what does race have to do with it? It's been pointed out that the "Bradley Factor" didn't really apply to New Hampshire, because Obama got the percentage of votes that most polls predicted. The fault of the pollsters was their failure to predict how many more people would come out to vote for Clinton. Her late support seemed to be strongest among women, the relatively poor, and the less-educated. Remember, too, that Obama nearly won another state with a small black population. His advantage has been that he isn't perceived as stereotypically black -- he's no Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. There'd be no benefit to his playing a race card, but there might well be loose cannons in his camp that haven't lost old habits. It'd be to Clinton's short-term benefit if she can find a way to make white voters fear Obama the same way they might fear a Sharpton or any preacher of reparations, but she'll need black votes in the general election, so playing a race card during the primaries might not be worth the risk to her. Accusing Obama's people of playing the race card is probably her best option if she really wants to go that way, but it seems that she still thinks "experience" is her trump card. On the other hand, what does it tell us if she thinks out loud that other people think the experience argument is subtly racist? A guilty conscience, perhaps?

10 January 2008

The Next Round

The Fox News Republican debate from South Carolina is under way as I write. So far, for all that I've dismissed Ron Paul recently, he's come off strongest so far, but since I'm not a South Carolina Republican, I don't know how much good my opinion will do him. I think the moderator was playing dirty when he basically challenged Paul to order those of his supporters who espouse the "truther" buncombe to renounce it. He had to know that Paul was certain to say that he had no right to give such orders, but the candidate did go so far as to deny any "truther" beliefs of his own, and he advised supporters to tone down the rhetoric if they cared for him. If anything, McCain got in a cheaper shot at Paul when he responded to the libertarian's call for trade with all nations with the crack that "I don't want to trade with al-Qaeda." I've neglected to emphasize my dislike for McCain, but his belligerent rhetoric and his notion that no one will mind if we stay in Iraq for 50 years as long as our soldiers aren't killed make him a must to defeat.

Also, for all that I've dismissed Fred Thompson recently, I feel that I have to dismiss him even more. He's given the most despicable performance so far (McCain's being only the most wrongheaded), gratuitously insulting Huckabee at every opportunity and basically announcing his intention to make Pakistan a complete puppet state of the United States. Asked to comment on the fact that 2/3 of Pakistanis want President Musharraf to step down, he sneered at them and boasted of his own contempt for opinion polls. No, Fred would keep Musharraf, but in return the president must do everything that a President Thompson would ask of him, including freeing the people he's put in jail -- presumably so they can continue to protest Musharraf and get put in jail again. This Thompson: I think I could really hate him.

I sign off as Huckabee attempts to parry a question about his endorsement of a Southern Baptist document affirming women's submissive role in marriage. He's right to say it has nothing to do with the Presidency, but his assertion that marriage isn't a 50-50 partnership, but a 100-100 one, because each spouse gives 100%, sounds a little like fuzzy math to me.

09 January 2008

New Hampshire: Who Knows?

Now there is a mystery: why did Senator Obama lose the primary when all polls showed him with a sizable lead? Adding to the mystery are they myriad of theories thrown at the wall. Did women suddenly empathize with Senator Clinton's desperate appeal of Monday, or did they remember the feminist priorities that the women of Iowa forgot? Did the young people fail to show up in the expected numbers, and did the old rally to "experience" to spite "hope"? Is it true that the stats show that the less wealthy and less educated you were, the more likely you were to vote for Clinton? Did Mr. Clinton, who would have beaten his wife (pun intended? you tell me) in a theoretical election, carry the day with his peculiar glamour? Or was the so-called "Bradley Effect" a reality -- did people lie to pollsters about supporting the black candidate out of fear of being called racists, only to vote against him yesterday? Did Obama actually lose because New Hampshire had a secret ballot, while in Iowa the people caucused in the open and might shame one another for abandoning the Illinois senator?

The biggest mystery of all is more than fifty years old, and that's why this little state should matter so much. At least in the past the Granite State could claim a kingmaking role because no one had lost the primary and gone on to win the White House, but Bill Clinton and George W. Bush rendered that fact a myth. They still pretend that New Hampshire gives a candidate decisive momentum, but they make the same claim for Iowa, and Obama and Huckabee will tell you what good Iowa did them yesterday.

The primary and caucus schedule as it exists reminds me of the traditional bowl games that end the college football season. There's a certain romance and tradition to them, but they're no rational way to choose a champion or a party nominee. There's no good reason why there shouldn't be a national primary. Some say that would favor the more moneyed candidates, but money hasn't really flourished this year, particularly on the Republican side. The long haul of debates has done much to counteract money's influence, because, for all their faults, they present the candidates' views more objectively, and sometimes more objectionably, than commercials do. They've succeeded in allowing at least one insurgent candidate, Huckabee, to emerge from the pack, while until recently they've also been scrupulous in allowing less popular candidates to participate and giving them the chance to catch fire. A similar sequence of debates culminating in a national primary, or indeed a general multi-candidate election, might actually become a system that works. But what works will always depend, in the eye of the beholder, on the results you desire. Some people will want to keep tinkering with the system until Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul can win, but no one is hiding them from the public, at least until very recently, so for those disappointed factions, the American people, not the system, is probably to blame.

08 January 2008

New Hampshire: Poor Hillary?

Was that a sympathy vote the Senator from New York received tonight? Did her tears and her wispy-voiced mewling of the day before win over people who somehow thought that now they had seen her true face? Did they decide that she'd been treated meanly and contemptuously by those who would throw her under the Obama bandwagon? Did some remember that they had maybe recently thought it a good idea to have a woman president? Did others buy into the notion that a United States Senator is somehow unequipped to become the President, and that being a President's wife is a better credential? What the hell is going on here? We cannot know until other states tell the rest of the story. So I fall back on what I said after Iowa, which was pretty much nothing. Except that below, I consign two of tonight's losers to nothingness.

Poor Ron

Money has no demographics. It doesn't translate as one dollar, one vote. You can raise it all over the country, but you can't concentrate it into one state, one county or one ward. It will not buy you any more voters than you've already persuaded -- or at least it doesn't buy as much as easily as it used to. Therefore there was always cause for skepticism whenever Ron Paul's people crowed about the money they'd raised. They were mistaking money for a mandate, just as they were mistaken their affinity networks in cyberspace for an actual electorate. Now it turns out he's doing worse in New Hampshire, the reputed libertarian stronghold, than he did in Iowa.

The rise of Mike Huckabee and the resurgence of John McCain finished off whatever chance of progress Ron Paul ever had. Huckabee gave Republicans another outlet for protest voting without requiring them to take positions they would have found eccentric or abhorrent. McCain's revival in New Hampshire made him for one more moment the cool maverick candidate. In the end, to vote for Paul you had to be a true believer, not merely a protester, and there were never going to be enough of those. Worse, Paul was a partly unwitting prisoner of a campaign that had grown up around him and had elements in it that he didn't necessarily endorse, from white supremacists to "truthers," but which probably turned off many possible supporters. Finally, too many Republicans still believe in the War on Terror and join Giuliani and others in regarding Paul as an isolationist if not an appeaser or a plain fool. This last bit is unjust to Paul, but he should have known better before running for the Republican nomination. This is the price the would-be rebel pays for pursuing the path of least resistance: oblivion.

Poor Fred, Part II

One percent in New Hampshire. There's no excuse for that for someone who claims to be a serious candidate. Even if you don't campaign actively, you supposedly still have a national reputation. You've participated in debates and everyone knows who you are. You have some people hinting that you're the real conservative in the conservative party. If you have any credibility, you should get at least a certain minimal level of support, well above one stinking percent of the vote. Giuliani at least got nine percent -- and looks to finish ahead of Ron Paul in what looked like Paul's strongest state. If you are Fred Dalton Thompson, the actor and ex-senator, the hope of the conservative establishment, and you get one percent in New Hampshire, and you're running equal with Duncan frickin' Hunter, then you have no credibility and no viability whatsoever. Sure, Thompson may do better in some Southern states, though Huckabee will be there to plague him all the way, but tonight's performance, if it can be called that, should end Fred's dream as completely as Iowa ended Biden and Dodd's. It's a wake-up call of the kind that tells you it's time to go back to your regular job.

07 January 2008

Poor Fred

Mr. Right was back from a vacation and some time spent following one of the local teams on a road trip. In his latest political column, he took a break from his usual practice of condemning alleged liberal hypocrisy to list the faults of leading Republican presidential candidates. This led to a tepid endorsement of Fred Thompson -- tepid because he lamented the former Senator's failure to campaign passionately, and predicted failure should Thompson not fire himself up.

He was explaining his endorsement and his pessimism to another sports staffer as I passed through. I suggested that Thompson's dispassionate manner might simply reflect that conservatism of character that Mr. Right admired. Might it not be an authentically conservative attitude to disclaim ambition, as Thompson has? Back in the day, all candidates shared Thompson's now-singular affectation, protesting that they were dragged reluctantly from productive business or rural retirement in patriotic obedience to the summons of their fellow-citizens. It was so much bull back then, for the most part, but maybe the old actor and corporate lawyer liked the way they played the role in those days.

Mr. Right may have agreed, but he remained convinced that Thompson needed to get out of his shell to sell himself. I thought I saw a problem in the ex-Senator's approach from a quote that Mr. Right had included in his column. In the excerpt, Thompson expressed a desire to lead the whole country, including the Democratic party, away from the influence of the "Left." I could see how this appealed to Mr. Right, but I also saw why this wasn't helping Thompson much.

"You may not like it," I advised my colleague, "But Thompson needs to spend less time attacking the Left and more time going after his immediate rivals."

Mr. Right seemed to agree. He felt in particular that Mike Huckabee had snatched away much of Thompson's natural constituency because of the latter's apparent apathy, but was certain that Thompson could win them back if he would make his case with some passion. After all, he asserted, Fred Thompson was the best Republican on the issue of limited government.

Wait a minute! Hadn't he forgotten someone?

"You know, when you say limited government, the first Republican I think of is Ron Paul," I told him.

"Ron Paul is not a real Republican," Mr. Right protested.

"Don't you think he's a conservative? Granted, there's a difference between limiting government and eliminating it, but Paul is probably more conservative than the typical libertarian if that's what you mean."

"On some issues, sure. Most libertarians take some conservative positions, but Ron Paul simply is not a real Republican."

He didn't get to explain his point any further because he was needed elsewhere in the department. By our standards, it was a cordial chat. I hope he appreciated that I had an objective interest in the Republican struggle. He actually confirmed somewhat my impression that much of the opposition to Huckabee on the part of "establishment" conservatives is based on a sense that he stole Thompson's moment. Even as Mr. Right acknowledges that Thompson really fumbled the moment, or held his hands sullenly in his pockets as it dropped, still Huckabee seemed blameworthy to him for an act of usurpation. To his credit, Mr. Right didn't show the hysteria that other conservatives (Rush Limbaugh, George Will) have displayed toward the Arkansan, but it was clear from his manner that he, too, believed that Huckabee was somewhere he didn't rightly belong. All the more reason to wish Huckabee continued success in the weeks to come.

06 January 2008

Making Mischief for the American Bipolarchy

As I write, I'm listening to CNN's rebroadcast of yesterday's ABC Republican debate. A few minutes ago, by my time, Mike Huckabee failed an intellectual test when he insisted that the rights of Americans derive from God and not from government. One would like to ask him, then, why we have a government. He might find himself compelled to answer that God, for all his omnipotent reputation, has proven a poor guarantor of human rights in this world. Statements like that have disqualified Huckabee in many minds, and a while back I myself claimed that Huckabee had disqualified himself by committing to a national abortion ban. Realistically speaking, he had only disqualified himself from my vote, which he was never likely to get. Now, I find myself more willing to overlook the occasional disturbing remark, because I want the Arkansan to go a long way in the Republican race, and that's because I think that the closer he gets to the nomination, the closer we get to schism in the conservative movement, if not the Republican party itself.

George Will published a hysterical column on Huckabee this weekend. He equates the former governor with John Edwards, calling both of them populists, which from the pen of George Will is like your neighbor's word that you're a child molester. The columnist is in a naked panic over the possibility that "Social conservatives, many of whom share Huckabee's desire to 'take back the nation for Christ," will shake off the leadership (described by Will as a collaboration with) "limited-government, market-oriented, capitalism-defending conservatives who want to take back the nation for James Madison." I'm not sure to whom Will thinks he's referring, since the only Republican I know who might literally express such a desire is Ron Paul. It becomes clear that Will himself is unsure of what he means. Check this out:

Huckabee fancies himself persecuted by the Republican "establishment," a creature already negligible by 1964, when it failed to stop Barry Goldwater's nomination, The establishment's voice, the New York Herald Tribune, expired in 1966.

To repeat: there is now, and has not been for 40 years, any such thing as a "Republican establishment." In which case, why does George Will expect anyone to listen to him, or any paper to publish him, or ABC to let him share air with George Stephanopoulos? Yet here he is in my Sunday paper, and on my television, saying: nobody here but us grass-roots! I think Huckabee's people have a better sense of things. They might well paraphrase the old Pogo comic strip and say to Mr. Will: We have met the enemy, and he is you -- you and Rush Limbaugh and anyone else who says we aren't real conservatives, anyone who presumes the right to say who's a conservative or who's a "populist" or whatever scare-word they want to hang on us. If the big tent of modern American conservatism collapses, it isn't because Huckabee is pulling out the poles.

To George Will, populism is anathema to conservatism. Philosophically, I might agree with him, except that modern American conservatism has always piggy-backed atop a strain of populism that rouses the rabble against an alleged cultural elite. But I suppose that would be cultural populism, if we can draw such distinctions, while Will's beef is with economic conservatism. Just as Mitt Romney and others have affected outrage because Huckabee dared to ascribe an "arrogant bunker mentality" to the Bush administration, so Will would excommunicate the Arkansan for failing to show the proper reverence toward the rich. As an objectively recognizable conservative Republican, Mike Huckabee hasn't been an especially militant class warrior, but he's apparently said enough to disgust the august Mr. Will, who has this answer to laments for the "shrinking middle class":

Economist Stephen Rose, defining the middle class as households with annual incomes between $30,000 and $100,000, says a smaller percentage of Americans are in that category than in 1979 -- because the percentage of Americans earning more than $100,000 has doubled from 12 to 24, while the percentage earning less than $30,000 is unchanged. "So," Rose says, "the entire 'decline' of the middle class came from people moving up the income ladder."

As Chico Marx is said to have said: Who are you going to believe? Me or your own eyes? For the record, Stephen Rose is not a right-winger but a "progressive" who apparently wants to help Democrats find new ways to appeal to voters. Here's a sample of his output that features stats similar to those Will cites. I leave it to economists and statisticians to refute them, but I doubt they'll have much difficulty. In any event, there are plenty of Democrats who also abhor populism because they associate it with forms of bigotry. What this tells us is that, for good or ill, populism is one of the forces most likely to tear either party in the Bipolarchy, or both, apart.

Coming back to George Will, he closes the case against Huckabee by revealing a sense of outrage at expressions of religiosity that I had not noticed much before:

Huckabee says "only one explanation" fits his Iowa success, "and it's not a human one. It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people." God so loves Huckabee's politics that he worked a Midwest miracle on his behalf? Should someone so delusional control nuclear weapons?

Granted, it sounds a little egotistical on Huckabee's part, but the man is running for President, after all. But to be fair, he's only expressing the same faith in divine favor that you hear from the old lady whose arthritis was cleared up by Jesus Christ. Neither Huckabee nor the old lady likely thinks that they enjoy God's particular favor. But don't you wonder what Will makes of the present President, who is known to believe himself particularly favored by God? Any argument made against Huckabee on this ground has go to go double against W, who does control nuclear weapons. Shall we impeach him, Mr. Will?

The punch line of this hilarious column is that it ends with a ringing endorsement, of a kind, for none other than Barack Obama. To an extent, Will is rooting him on the way I'm rooting for Huckabee; as the Arkansan makes mischief for the GOP, Obama makes mischief for the Clinton dynasty. Better yet, in Will's view, Obama is "refreshingly cerebral amid this recrudescence of the paranoid style in American politics. He is the un-Edwards and un-Huckabee -- an adult aiming to reform the real world rather than an adolescent fighting mock-heroic 'fights' against fictional villains in a left-wing cartoon version of this country."

We'll hold Will to that opinion should Obama continue on to the general election. Should Huckabee be Obama's opponent, would Will endorse the Democrat? That possibility is another reason to wish for such an event. Frankly, I want anything that would unsettle old unquestioned loyalties and throw traditional party affiliations into question. Barring the emergence of a powerful alternative-party movement, that's the best outcome we can hope for in 2008, but believing this shouldn't stop us from pursuing all alternatives, and encouraging everyone else to do so.

04 January 2008

Campaign '08: Think About This

If Mike Huckabee continues to succeed, it's because he's the Barack Obama of the Christian Right. Discuss.

* * *

It may not seem that way right now, given the hysterical way in which some people, most of them Republicans, are reacting to his ascendancy, but it's probably no accident that Huckabee and Obama are rising at the same time. It's easy enough to say that both have succeeded in packaging themselves as outsiders and embodiments of change. But in Obama's case, people acknowledge that an important factor in his success is that he's a black man who doesn't seem "black." He doesn't fit stereotypes and isn't burdened with the predictable "black" political agenda. Consider Huckabee by analogy. People are trying to scare us about him, and other people are doing a good job of scaring themselves. There may indeed be good reason to worry. Consult the resurgent Fundagelical Watch blog for a selection of reasons. But consider Huckabee directly. Watch him talk or read his Foreign Affairs article. Note his gaffes if you must. But on the evidence especially of his Meet the Press interview, Huckabee has done much to position himself as the Christian Right candidate who doesn't seem "Christian Right." He simply doesn't seem as threatening as his precursors have, unless you make assumptions based on his identity or judge him by those who endorse him. If anything, Huckabee has suffered more from "prejudice" than Mitt Romney has. In this, his experience may seem different from Obama, but at last some voters have spoken, and the results are famously similar.

Bear in mind that I can't imagine ever voting for Huckabee. He supports the war and the surge, opposes women's sovereignty over their own bodies, and regards certain consensual sexual relations among adults as sin. For all that the "conservative" establishment has condemned him as some sort of apostate, he probably comes too close to Ronald Reagan on economic issues for comfort, for all his occasional populist rhetoric about corporate greed. If the general election comes down to Huckabee vs. Obama with no decent third-party candidate, I'd have to go with Obama. Having said all this, I say again that Huckabee is still something different, at least in manner if not in matter, from what we've seen before in his patch of the political spectrum. If Iowa means anything, it has told us that some people, at least, are looking for choices rather than confrontations. Obama vs. Huckabee would definitely be the most interesting general election possible, especially if Ron Paul ran independently and could join them in debates, and they could all be joined by a genuine candidate of the left. Even if we're left with the first two, I suspect that they might comport themselves differently from Democrats and Republicans past -- but I also suspect that I may be taking my speculations a little too far now. On to New Hampshire.

03 January 2008

The Iowa Harvest

The only definite conclusions to be drawn from the Iowa caucus results are that Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Duncan Hunter, Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson are no longer viable candidates. The Democrats have a three-person race, while the Republicans still have five to choose from. Iowa has crowned no one as a presumptive nominee, but it has done its part in the process of elimination. Anyone who thinks that Obama or Huckabee has clinched a nomination tonight is foolish. Anyone who thinks that Romney, Clinton or any of the other survivors are mortally wounded is jumping to conclusions. Recently history tells us that it's simply too soon to tell how the party campaigns will end. We've probably learned more in the run-up to the caucuses than in the immediate event, just as we'll learn more in the days between now and when New Hampshire votes than on the night of the primary. This isn't much to say, but then again, I don't have to fill air time on a 24-hour news channel. If you're still watching one of those as I write, you're probably wasting your time, unless you're storing up sound bites to make the anchormen and analysts look like fools in the future.

02 January 2008

Things To Come

This may be just about how Iowans are experiencing the night before the Caucus:

In all seriousness, I saw Things To Come for the first time in quite a few years when Turner Classic Movies broadcast it last night. Artistically it holds up better than I recalled. Seeing it now, I'm especially impressed by the rapid-fire editing in the sequence you can see above. Thematically the film has always been an oddity. The latter utopian part is quite campy, but H.G. Wells did seem to be on to something, anticipating a reactionary sort of aesthetic objection to a society bent on progress for its own sake. As represented here, Wells's vision is not unlike Gene Roddenberry's, as his heroes take Captain Kirk's side in favor of perpetual striving against lotus-eating stagnation.

Sadly, the hopeful vision of a possible future presented in this 1936 film probably reminds people more of the totalitarian fantasies of Hitler or Stalin than of Wells's beneficent ideal. The majority today, one suspects, has bought into the view of the movie's artistic reactionaries who see the technocratic government merely imposing its will and its values on everyone else. But the idea that there is ever social progress without coercion of some kind is even more utopian than anything Wells ever wrote.

Who Is A Conservative?

"I've warned you that one of the things that concerns me most about all this is how conservatism is going to be redefined so as to fit whatever the current crop of candidates said it is."
Rush Limbaugh has not endorsed any Republican candidate for the Iowa Caucus, but he today issued, in effect, an anti-endorsement of Mike Huckabee and John McCain. The radio talker's attempt to read both men out of the conservative movement leaves one wondering whether there's anything left to be called a movement at this point.

Struggling to define the movement to his own satisfaction, Limbaugh appears to insist on a certain complete package of positions, and to exclude anyone who claims conservative credentials on a single-issue. McCain apparently can't claim to be conservative just because he supports the Iraq occupation. According to Limbaugh, he is not a conservative because he opposes the torture and indefinite confinement of suspected terrorists, has voted against some tax cuts, has supported "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants, and authored the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill.

Huckabee, in turn, is denounced as a single-issue pseudo-conservative who is actually guilty of practicing "identity politics." By that Limbaugh means that the Arkansan has allegedly positioned himself as the "Christian Leader" and rightful candidate of anyone who loathes abortion. This isn't enough for Rush. The following comes from the official transcript of today's program:

There are some people who will overlook every aspect of Governor Huckabee that is really something in total opposition to most of their beliefs, because all they will see is the Christian characteristic, particularly if it fits right with the abortion issue. Now, my friends, I'm sorry here. I haven't spent a lifetime, and particularly the last 23 years on radio, advocating conservative principles only to throw them away to embrace some candidate. I don't support open borders and amnesty, as does Governor Huckabee. I don't support the release of hundreds of criminals. I don't support repeated increases in taxes. I don't support national health care. I don't care what you call it, whether it's in the name of the children or not. I don't support anti-war rhetoric that sounds as if it was written by Nancy Pelosi. And yet I'm being asked to put all that aside in the midst of a Republican primary.

Limbaugh fails or refuses to acknowledge that Huckabee reaffirmed his support for both the occupation and the surge during his Meet the Press interview. Like many reactionaries, Limbaugh feels a vicarious insult whenever he recalls Huckabee's infamous remark about the president's "arrogant bunker mentality." In practice, Huckabee's position on the war could not be further from Speaker Pelosi's, but mere agreement with the president doesn't suffice. He must positively demonstrate his loyalty to the leader with words of praise. Regrettably, Huckabee himself has knuckled under a little, performing a little last-minute boot-licking today. But it is probably too late for him. Republicans are slow to forgive. Like Limbaugh, they haven't forgiven McCain for the 2000 primaries. Huckabee has said too much against Bush (and against the rich, to an extent) to be fully trusted again.

But what right does Rush Limbaugh have to say Mike Huckabee isn't a conservative? Has Huckabee no less right to question Limbaugh's credentials? Limbaugh has offered a litmus test that may be no more than his own personal principles or preferences. What makes them definitively conservative apart from his own advocacy of them? He's certainly right to say that no one issue is make-or-break, but where is the line drawn, and why?

Limbaugh, Huckabee, and the whole lot will have to face the fact that 21st century American conservatism is not a coherent ideology. Like the Republican party itself, the conservative movement is increasingly strained by the contradictions churning within the would-be big tent. Limbaugh looks to Ronald Reagan as his guiding star, while others look farther back in time, and others yet belie any conservative pretensions in their fealty to the creatively destructive power of laissez-faire capitalism. A case can be made for a certain philosophically consistent conservative habit of mind that would be the same if you lived in America or ancient Greece, but any given conservative political movement is inevitably influenced by the circumstances of its birth to conserve the peculiarities of its own culture, whether that culture can be considered conservative in philosophical terms or not.

In simpler terms, we may have come to a moment where conservatives must debate amongst themselves exactly what they want to conserve in the immediate future. Some will opt to save their purportedly Christian culture. Some will run to the rescue of supply-side economics. Others will concentrate their fire on foreign enemies. Confusion will reign. The Republican party may well continue, persistent beast that it is, but the conservative movement that has controlled it since the 1980s may soon come to an end. Under the American Bipolarchy, that may be the best we can hope for. The prospect clearly alarms Rush Limbaugh, who doesn't understand why we cant have 1980 or 1994 all over again. Whether that should alarm Mike Huckabee or anyone else is another matter.

01 January 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

I didn't let my distressing mail (see below) deter me from my New Year's Eve custom of going to a movie last night. It's a peculiar tradition of mind that reflects both my normal anti-sociability (I go alone and am not partying with others) and my occasional desire to be among people in a public place. Movie theaters are places where people still acquire the components of a shared culture, and I'll consider it a sad day when each little group watches a DVD in its own isolated home-theater and never knows the thrill of a collective response to a work of art or artifice.

Anyway, you will have noticed that I went to Mike Nichols' film of the non-fiction bestseller Charlie Wilson's War. It's the tale of a Texas congressman who became a leading fundraiser for the Afghan mujaheddin during the Soviet occupation. The wonder of it is that Wilson appears not to have been an ideologue or even a particularly determined Cold Warrior. In the film, we are shown that he's sort of sleazy, and the best parts of the story show Wilson juggling his plans to fund the Afghans with his efforts to fend off a federal investigation by an offscreen Rudy Giuliani. But sleazy is probably an exaggerated description of Wilson as Tom Hanks portrays him. In the film, the congressman is a standard-issue lovable rogue. Hanks portrays this part well, even though it disturbed me to see that his face has come to look as if it were made of putty rather than flesh. Early on especially, there's a good amount of early-80s grunginess as Wilson cavorts with bimbos in a hot tub and puts them on his staff -- pun intended, I guess. But once Wilson is cleared by Giuliani's investigation, the film turns into a mere sequence of events, punctuated by some cheesy looking scenes of Afghan warfare. Finally, Wilson is shown failing to win even minimal funding for Afghan reconstruction after the Soviets fled the country, with the clear implication that thus the seeds for September 11 were planted. The Afghans as a whole are portrayed as sympathetic victims of Soviet evil, but Ned Beatty as another congressman gets to mouth reservations about Muslim fundamentalism that are supposed to resonate after the show is over.

The best I can say for the movie is that it makes me want to read the book. There's a genuine mock-epic story here, but you get the impression that the relatively short feature is only skimming the surface of it. I was left wondering what really made Wilson tick, even though it may prove that he really was just a vapid character. I was even more curious about the "sixth-richest woman in Texas," the Christian fundamentalist she-devil portrayed by Julia Roberts as a Machiavellian bimbo. The historian in me suspects that she could be a movie unto herself, since it was people like her who helped put modern-day Republicans into power. I wanted to know why she was as we saw her, but this film had no time for explanations. I was less interested in the brusque CIA man played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, since his part seems to have been inflated to give the actor more opportunities to rant. The real man was probably more important to the real story, but once the movie ceases to have an actual plotline, Hoffman seems increasingly superfluous.

Since the film is informative in its own right, I would recommend it for people who never plan to read the book, but I can't count it among my favorite films of 2007. Zodiac still tops my personal list, with Grindhouse and No Country For Old Men virtually equal behind it. We're getting There Will Be Blood later this month, and I expect that to rank near the top, and In The Valley of Elah will probably make my final cut as well. Charlie Wilson's War would probably make my top ten list simply because I didn't see more than ten movies in the year just past, so it's nothing the filmmakers should be proud of.

Postscript: If you think mine was a killjoy review, here's a pretty dogmatic one from the History News Network, with a link to a happier assessment from neocon military historian Max Boot.

A Reflection on Kenya

The latest from Kenya is that thirty people have been burned to death in a church in an incident assumed to be related to the country's election controversy. Violence has followed a vote in which the incumbent claims re-election while his challenger cries fraud. Their political parties have been described in the western media as if they are merely vehicles for tribal interests. This makes it easier, I suspect, for people to view the violence as a tantrum of sore losers. That would make Americans look good by comparison, perhaps, because a lot of us thought an election had been stolen and we didn't riot in the streets. Instead, we extolled the statesmanship of Al Gore, who would not have wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis by challenging the Electoral College. But let's step back a second. It seems that, if you're convinced that an election was stolen, the constitutional crisis is already upon you. If so, then without calling for churches to be burned, I would still ask you what you intend to do about it? And I would think that, without people being murdered, there might still have been civil disobedience of some kind. Instead, everyone took their cues from Gore, who may well have determined to his satisfaction that the election had not been stolen in any actionable fashion. If that was the case, then there's no cause to call him a coward. Nevertheless, there are many people in the United States who to this day claim that the 2000 presidential election was, in one way or another, stolen, and all they've ever done about it, as far as I can tell, is write books and magazine articles. In effect, they have capitulated as completely as Al Gore did. The Kenyan opposition has not capitulated. Whether they're entitled to their refusal remains to be seen, but until the evidence is in, if it ever will be, we shouldn't let some people's tactics disqualify the general complaint.