31 August 2008

The Presidential Candidates: James H. McCall

The front page of McCall's website is admirable but redundant. It offers links to the complete text of the Declaration of Independence, the complete text of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The redundancy, of course, is that the Bill of Rights consists of amendments to the Constitution and is thus properly part of the "complete text" of that document. We'll give him a pass because it's never wrong to put these texts before the public.

"Shall we just be, or be all that we can be?" is the ultimate question posed on McCall's front page. His campaign is McCall's own way of living up to the challenge. "When the heart, the mind and the soul give impetus to the same purpose, the opportunities for success and achievement are the greatest," he writes. He's running because "I have a very strong need to express my thoughts, opinions, concepts, feelings, recommendations and proposals publicly. I need to positively influence desperately needed change in principle, meaning, style and result of government." So give him points for honesty and self-awareness.

What's in it for us? McCall explains: "I have the ability to lead and to direct, to teach what I know and to learn what I do not know, to set a prime example, to be your highest representative with honesty and diligence, to expect and to command top performance levels of all and to instill attitudes of cohesion and accomplishment."

The 65 year old McCall is an Air Force veteran and has been a truck driver, a retail and real estate salesman and a Pop Warner football coach. He's fond of making lists, going from A through L for "Values" and A through X on "Goals." In the latter category he includes downsizing government while increasing meaningful participation in it, especially by young people. He'll cut wasteful opulence in government, "reduc[ing] the lavishness of government functions to the minimum required by courtesy and consideration." That's really as specific as things get on his own page, but for Project VoteSmart he elaborated on specific issues.

McCall lists his top priority as suspending all immigration until the U.S. borders are secured. Everything else must wait, but that doesn't mean he lacks ideas on other issues. He refers readers to two separate sites, http://www.porkstopshere.com/ and http://www.onetax.com/, but both links actually take you to his own site.

Asked to name one thing he'd like to do before he dies, McCall names two, neither of which have to do with ending immigration: 'To appear before the entire Supreme Court to exclaim, "Out of the U.N.," "Guarantee our sovereignty," "Preserve our constitution" and "Ensure the value of U.S. citizenship." To appear before the entire Supreme Court to exclaim, "Never shall any world law or religious law usurp or supercede United States Constitutional Law".' McCall likes to exclaim, and the entire campaign, such as it is, looks like an excuse for him to vent.

The McCall campaign site is a work in progress. The most up-to-date part of it is his listing of press clips. These report that, while most else on the web hasn't been updated since 2006, he's been giving radio interviews and running ads in the Pennsylvania and Ohio area as recently as May 2008. He has also done the minimum a modern candidate of any stature can do, which is to post videos to You Tube. While I may seem to have disparaged McCall's efforts, I found this video a strong statement of the plight of all independent candidates, including some information I didn't know. The fact that four states in this union don't allow write-in candidacies should be a national scandal, and I thank McCall for bringing it to my attention.

On the other hand, his claim that 99% of the population in the late 1700s couldn't read or write is outrageously wrong. Politicians ought to know their history so they know what not to repeat.

Palin: Presumed Innocent

Conservatives got more proof of what they call "liberal media bias" when certain media personalities instantly pounced on Governor Palin as if she were Dan Quayle in drag. A need was felt to disparage her mayorship of a small town as if that was a handicap rather than a resume reference. To add to the negative impression, Keith Olbermann, for one, insisted on emphasizing that Palin, if elected, would be one heartbeat away from an office held by a 72 year old cancer survivor. Leaving Palin's actual merits and flaws out of the discussion for a moment, I find this unfair. She is the governor of a state, a position that's usually considered a prerequisite for the presidency that neither Senator McCain nor Senator Obama (nor Senator Biden) has held. She has already distinguished herself among governors by her willingness to fight her own party elders. Generally speaking, the more "experience" we demand of candidates means that higher office becomes even more exclusively the reserve of the American Bipolarchy. Leadership outside the political sector should count for something if we hope to put independents into higher offices. Palin doesn't necessarily have that kind of experience, but shouldn't it be presumed that anyone who's been elected either a governor or a Senator is "prepared" to join a national ticket unless vetting exposes incompetence? Instead, she is presumed "innocent" by liberal media, meaning inexperienced, a babe in the woods, etc.

Real scrutiny should focus on her relationship with the oil companies in Alaska and the truth behind the "abuse of power" charge regarding her firing of a state trooper. Less relevant but still of interest are her positions regarding creationism and abortion; it's appropriate to ask whether Palin is a creature of the Religious Right. In any event, everyone should remember that their primary vote is for or against Senator McCain, and should be determined by their judgment of his positions. If you worry that he is old and will die soon, that fact alone should be sufficient to lose him your vote regardless of who might replace him. We're entitled to four years' value for our votes. Vice Presidents are a bonus, with the bonus in this case being Palin's photogenic appearance. She might fairly be characterized as a "trophy veep," since the characterization reflects less on her than on McCain. Otherwise, she should be presumed "innocent" in the sense that she shouldn't be attacked before people bother to take a closer look at her record and her beliefs. In simples terms, look before you leap.

29 August 2008

McCain's Choice

If the report that Senator McCain has chosen Governor Palin of Alaska as his running mate is correct, then McCain has found a way to gamble while finding a partner who seems to be in sync with his own views. The gamble, of course, is that a female running mate will win over the dead-ender feminazis who won't reconcile themselves to Senator Clinton's defeat. It's a big gamble because Palin is pro-life, which is the one thing that could be a deal breaker for the PUMAs unless they are so determined to force in a female that they would compromise all their other principles.

At first glance, Palin seems an appropriate running mate for McCain. She has unimpeachable "maverick" credentials, having risen to power by defying Alaska's Republican establishment and confronting corruption within the party. She is an enemy of Senator Stevens, for instance, and dealt the deathblow to his "bridge to nowhere" project. In part, she was driven by thwarted ambition, having wanted a gubernatorial appointment to complete a Senate term, only to be denied in favor of the governor's own daughter. Palin later defeated that incumbent governor in a party primary. There may be a sense of grievance driving her that dates back to her second-place finish in a Miss Alaska beauty pageant back in the 80s.

Mr. Right tells me that his sources suspect that Palin was recommended to McCain by Senator Lieberman during the mysterious phone call he supposedly made to take himself out of the running. He claims that the "close friend" who advised Lieberman to make the call was Dick Morris, the Clinton fixer turned Fox News talker. These are early speculations that will most likely get sorted out over the next week. The most important thing will be to hear Palin speak, since my first hunch would be that she'd be helpless in a debate against Senator Biden if the topic turns to foreign policy. It will also be interesting to see if Palin's pro-life standing will be enough to get Republicans to the polls for McCain.

In any event, history of a superficial kind will be made in November, for as of January, either the President or the Vice President will not be a white man. It will most likely be strictly superficial, since neither Palin, as far as I know, nor Senator Obama proposes meaningful changes in government. But either outcome might mean real change if it convinces people that women's and racial minorities' claims on political power are not inherently subversive. Conversely, it could convince people finally that racism and sexism are not the most fundamental problems facing society. Even a right-wing victory, in this case, could end up moving the country to the left. Only time will tell.

28 August 2008

John McCain vs. ???

On Tuesday, Senator Clinton reproached her die-hard supporters by saying that the primary campaign was not about her. Tonight, Senator Obama, having received the nomination, also said the campaign was not about him. I suppose it's admirable for the senators to disavow the personal element in politics, but if the presidential election is not about Barack Obama, who is it about? Senator McCain? Then I guess it's going to be a negative campaign, no matter what Obama promised tonight.

While Clinton's speech was a reminder to her acolytes to get their priorities straight, Obama's struck me, at least in this section of it, as a slightly pathetic attempt to have people ignore those nagging questions about his background and his character. I've said below that these ought to be irrelevant, but for Obama to say it necessarily sounds like special pleading or, worse, an admission of weakness -- especially after retelling his life story yet again. I suppose I should see this as more of a commonplace, since politicians often say that their causes are bigger than themselves. But notice the difference: Clinton and Obama attempted to rhetorically erase themselves from the election. Is this, then, to be "the People" vs. John McCain? Is the alternative to McCain actually to be some form of true democracy in which the people rule directly? No? It isn't? Then it is about you, Senator Obama, as much as it's about McCain -- and it ought to be about Congressman Barr, Congressman McKinney, Ralph Nader, Chuck Baldwin, Gloria La Riva, and on down the list as well. Don't insult our intelligence by denying it.

Otherwise, it wasn't a bad little speech at all.

Vladimir Putin, Election Analyst

Prime Minister Putin's interview on CNN, as reported by the BBC, exposes a mind not fully in touch with reality. He has in effect blamed American provocateurs inside South Ossetia for provoking the crisis that led to Russian military intervention in Georgia. I don't doubt that Americans were in there, probably belonging to NGOs, and I don't doubt that, being Americans, they confronted Russians and their friends with big chips on their shoulders. But Putin goes too far, I think, to accuse these alleged provocateurs of acting on direct orders from the U.S. government, and he shoots out of orbit by suggesting that the main motive behind it all was to influence the presidential election. That would require President Bush and his colleagues to give a rat's patoot about the prospects of Senator McCain, and I doubt Bush could care less. Even neutral news sources, for the most part, have suggested that the Americans were trying to keep President Saakashvili from lashing out at South Ossetia -- in vain, of course. In any event, Putin's contention that "It should be admitted that [Americans] would [be in South Ossetia] only following direct orders from their leaders" shows a misunderstanding of how America works, even if the results are the same from his perspective.

I fear that McCain's enmity has gone to Putin's head, perhaps intensifying a paranoia about encirclement that is characteristically if not distinctively Russian. Readers of this blog will recall that I think that Georgia is none of America's business, and that remains my opinion. But that doesn't require me to think that everything the Russians say on the issue is right. It definitely doesn't require me to portray Putin as a good guy, or to ignore evidence that the de facto ruler of a superpower is a little bit nutty. It's been bad enough having our guy be screwy for the last seven years, but that doesn't mean Putin gets a pass when his opinions could affect the chances for peace in the future.

McCain + ??? The Suspense Builds

Senator McCain is supposed to name his running mate tomorrow. Early reports indicate that Gov. Pawlenty of Minnesota has cancelled appointments for that day, which some analysts take as a sign that McCain has summoned him for anointment. Meanwhile, Hobbyfan sends me a news item suggesting that a battle behind the scenes may not yet have ended. According to this account, Karl Rove has been waging a desperate fight against McCain's inclination to tap Senator Lieberman. Friends of the Connecticut senator say that Rove personally appealed to Lieberman to tell McCain to take him out of consideration, and that Lieberman flatly refused. Lieberman also denies a story from Robert Novak that had him telling McCain that their partnership would be "unrealistic."

Rove is reportedly a partisan of Mitt Romney, which means he's lost anyway if the rumors about Pawlenty are correct. More interesting is Lieberman's position at this late hour. We can read the statements from his camp in different ways. One way would be: all this talk about him still being under consideration and needing to be dissuaded is just silly. In this version, Rove's intervention is just silly and superfluous. The other version is: Lieberman is still under consideration, and still wants to be considered. This is a detail that hasn't been emphasized much, if true. There's been much talk, of course, about McCain's desire to choose Lieberman. There's been much less about Lieberman actually soliciting the choice. It's all an eerie echo of the legendary negotiations four years earlier between McCain and Senator Kerry, when the Arizona apparently considered joining Kerry's ticket.

McCain makes you wonder about the future of the American Bipolarchy. While small armies try to break it down from without, he might do more from within than all of them to subvert the structure by refusing to take it seriously.

Obama's Notification Day

At first something seemed unprecedented, and to some, disturbing, about Senator Obama's decision to give his acceptance speech at a Denver football stadium outside the convention hall. It was a departure from established form, and his choice hinted, as did his appearance in Berlin, that Obama enjoyed performing before the largest crowds possible. There was something demagogic about it, I thought, until I learned that tonight's speech will really only mark the final merger of traditional conventions with another tradition that had disappeared for many years.

Like Victorian gentlemen maintaining their double standard of sexual morality, American politicians one hundred years ago still pretended to despise politics. It was still considered bad form for any aspiring office holder to promote himself for the job. Accordingly, candidates didn't campaign much, letting surrogates speak for them as much as possible. It was also absolutely taboo for front-runners to appear at their party conventions. As a result, there were no acceptance speeches like those we expect today -- at least not at the convention.

Our ancestors were not unskilled in creating what we would call "media events." The way they did it in those days was to have conventions appoint notification committees whose job was to travel to the candidate's home and inform him that he had been nominated. Of course, the candidate knew this from the news wires within moments after the final ballot, but awaiting the notification committee, which might take a month before making its visit, gave the candidate time to polish his acceptance speech, and his town time to prepare a big blowout for the notification ceremony, from artillery salutes for the committee and parades through town to fireworks after dark when the speeches were done.

Before the advent of primary elections, conventions actually decided who the candidate was. It's now been more than fifty years since the last time a major party's nomination convention needed more than one ballot to choose a candidate. Primaries have only become more important since that time. They effectively decide who the candidate is. Inevitably, the convention itself has taken over the function of the old notification ceremony, the only difference being that Obama must still come to Denver instead of the Democrats and the media coming to him in Chicago.

But historical perspective doesn't entirely dismiss questions about Obama's apparent preference for oratory in front of mobs, as opposed to the more intimate style of electoral communication encouraged by television. Is this related to his apparently increasing reluctance to participate in what passes for "debates" in our sound-bite era of "gotcha" reporting? Is it related to the "aloofness" that narcissistic voters perceive in him, that quality or absence of it which led one Clinton supporter to say that Obama hadn't "spoken to me" yet?

I asked Mr. Peepers, a faithful Democrat, about this. I mentioned what the Clintonite had said on C-SPAN, and he exclaimed, "That's right!" He launched into a pantomime of Obama, keeping his head tilted upward, swiveling it back and forth and orating nonsense in a sing-songy voice. This was meant to illustrate that Obama did not make eye contact with people and didn't talk in a natural voice. He missed the more telegenic, intimate manner of speechifying of which he no doubt considered Bill Clinton the master. Most likely many other people interpret Obama's old-school oratory as "talking down" to them. If so, that would explain why the "elitist" charge seems to stick to him but never to the oratorically handicapped George W. Bush or the monotonous Senator McCain.

If there are more Democrats like Mr. Peepers who are already off-put by Obama's manner, tonight's performance isn't likely to win them over, no matter what the candidate ends up saying. What's sad about this is that the content of Obama's remarks doesn't seem to factor into these people's calculations of his likability or electability. The American electorate may have reached such a point of decadence that a candidate, not necessarily Obama, could talk perfect sense to them and actually offer correct answers to pressing problems, but still be rejected simply for the way he talks. Arguably it has already happened to the "haughty" Kerry and the "pompous" Gore, but why do we persist on blaming these defeats on the candidates' personality traits when the real problem seems to be with the people themselves? Can't we say that in a democracy? Then what are we supposed to say?...

27 August 2008

Reverse Psychology for Russia?

Hah! You Russians think you're strong now because you've beat up a bunch of Georgians, but that only proves that you're weak! A really strong nation doesn't have to throw its weight around like that....That seems to be the reasoning of an American undersecretary of state, according to the Washington Post. The diplomat makes it clear that the U.S. doesn't want Russia to have a sphere of influence in the Caucasus. The Bushies blithely assert this policy, probably without realizing how revolutionary it actually is. The Caucasus region has been a Russian sphere of influence for the last two hundred years or more. It remained that way throughout the Soviet era. It's not for the U.S. or any other power to say that Russia cannot have influence there; to the Russian mind, to say that is actually to take it away from them. That's why they perceive American moves to consolidate relations with nations like Georgia as an aggressive form of encirclement, despite the assertion of another American official that "it is not the U.S. that has done things to them; it's that they have done things to themselves."

This is not to say that their attitude is rational or even just. But every time I see a story like this online, I have to emphasize that it is hypocritical of the United States to assert that no other county has a right to a sphere of influence. If Americans want to stand on principle, let them renounce the Monroe Doctrine once and for all. That policy dates nearly as far back as Russian rule over the Caucasus, but is no more or no less legitimate by virtue of its age -- and definitely no more legitimate because we try to justify it ideologically as a defense of "freedom." If neither Bush nor McCain nor Obama is willing to renounce the Doctrine, then they may as well say that Russia is our enemy and that we oppose their assertion of influence in the Caucasus for no other and no better reason.

At least the assistant secretary doesn't completely whitewash Georgia. "Georgia is a flawed democracy, a democracy in construction." he told the Post, "You don't help them by whitewashing their problems or defending a bad decision. But you don't want it crushed," This isn't unreasonable, but it still remains to be seen whether Georgia is to be "crushed." From an objective perspective, suffering a punitive attack is bad enough, and it's worse for some Russians to echo American rhetoric about regime change, but fears of a complete Russian conquest of Georgia still seem exaggerated. Even in the worst case, however, protests should be left to those with higher ethical standing to judge from.

Democracy in Denver, Continued

The main group of protesters in Denver during the convention week calls itself "Recreate 68." They claim that the Denver police violated an informal truce by making what amounted to preemptive arrests Monday night based on a tip that the group wanted to confront delegates at various VIP events after hours. What the group intends to do on the understanding that a truce was broken remains unclear. The group's very name makes one wonder. To "Recreate 68" in my mind means that you want a re-enactment of the violence on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 convention. That violence was later described as a "police riot" and at the time was called "Gestapo tactics" on the convention floor. The "Recreate 68" group themselves cannot re-enact a police riot. Should we assume that they wish to provoke one? If so, that limits any sympathy I can have for them if they get their heads cracked. That sympathy was already limited by historical knowledge. Why should someone want to "Recreate 68" when the ultimate consequence of the chaos in Chicago was not a mass uprising against the establishment, but the election of Richard Nixon as President?

Actually, I get it. They want to recreate the "whole world is watching" moment of romantic memory, regardless of what impression it actually makes. Their plan begs a question: what should the whole world be watching? A bunch of people basically looking for an opportunity to get arrested, or a more material statement of the mass dissatisfaction with Democratic politics that these protesters profess to express? If these demonstrators are more interested in putting on a show than in taking meaningful action, how different are they, really, from the joyriding yahoos from earlier this week whose supposed conspiracy to shoot Senator Obama seems to have been nothing but a pathetic attempt to get attention with effective props.

If somebody wants to make a real statement in Denver, it will come as a surprise. I don't mean that it would surprise me if something actually happens, but that it won't be announced ahead of time. The surprise will be part of the statement, and would be a necessary component of it if the intent is to disrupt our complacency in a way that Recreate 68, for all their plans, will not.

Alaska: "Without Ted, We're Toast"

Is it wrong for me to suggest that the renomination of Senator Stevens of Alaska in yesterday's Republican primary shows something to be fundamentally wrong with representative democracy, at least as practiced in this country? The 84 year old, 40-year senator, currently under indictment for corruption and scheduled to face a trial during his re-election campaign, won 63 per cent of the Republican vote. This may be blamed in part on a failure of dissidents to unify behind a strong alternative; the remainder of the primary vote was split among six challengers. But even if you presume Stevens innocent until he's proven guilty, the mere appearance of corruption, on top of his national infamy as the promoter of the "bridge to nowhere," should have swayed more people against him. Instead, they appear to have been swayed for him by force of habit and TV ads that stressed Stevens's ability to bring home the bacon and warned Alaskans: "Without Ted, We're Toast."

Our legislative system encourages people to reward representatives for grabbing disproportionate shares of national revenue for projects of questionable national worth. Through this legerdemain, the representative can claim that he has created jobs and improved his constituency's economy, though he has often only made it a parasite on the rest of the country. Conservatives and libertarians have a point when they call this a consequence of "big government," but they don't offer a solution apart from "starving the beast" by reducing government to the bare minimum of a police state. There has to be an alternative system of appropriating funds for public works to prevent pork-barrel spending. If we are a nation, we have to be capable of determining objectively a national interest that justifies some proposals and rejects others. If this is impossible, and national politics is never anything more than self-interested horse-trading among regional interests, then representative government as practiced in a union of states and a legislature based on territorial representation is inherently corrupt. Fortunately, Alaskans have one more chance to redeem themselves at the general election. While I don't believe that people outside Alaska should influence the election by donating money to Stevens's opponents, we ought to make it clear through whatever national media are available that "With Ted, We're Toast."

26 August 2008

The Laurel Raid: They Didn't Get Them All

As far as reporters are concerned, the big story of the raid on Howard Industries in Laurel MS is the fact that hundreds of alleged illegal immigrants have been arrested, sparking a panic in their neighborhoods. But this is really only half the story. Those people were arrested because they're supposed to be breaking the law by working at Howard. So what about the people who hired them? Howard Industries is named after founder and owner Billy Howard Sr, who still runs the company with his family. Were they arrested? Their lawyers claim that the Howards have done all within their power to prevent illegals from coming to work. If so, their efforts have been laughably inadequate. The lawyers say what they're paid to say. Theirs should not be the last word. If undocumented workers are breaking the law in Laurel, aren't the people who hire them conspiring to break the law? Politicians talk about prosecuting employers who hire illegals, but are new laws really necessary? Let's see what the evidence tells us about how Howard hired these unfortunate folks, and deal with the Howards accordingly. Then you can say that justice was served.

Georgia Update

Russia has unilaterally recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.The real test of Russian clout will be how many nations follow them on this course. I expect some countries that hope for Russia to anchor an anti-American coalition (Venezuela, perhaps) to extend recognition, while countries loyal to the U.S. will join the Bush administration in its insistence on Georgian territorial integrity. China's attitude is hard to predict. Some expect the Chinese to oppose Russia's move on principle, on the premise that endorsing Ossetian "splittism" would send the wrong message to Uighurs, Tibetans and other restive elements in their own country. It's not clear, however, whether China conducts its foreign policy according to ideology or pragmatism. To the extent that the Chinese government values Russia as a partner in any "anti-hegemonic" or anti-American front, they might well happily play the hypocrites and recognize the new states to keep Russia's good will. On the other hand, if they begin to read this month's news as proof that Russia wants to play hegemon itself, they might throw their support behind the U.S. (and send a consistent message to their own people on splittism) in order to maintain a balance of power.

This MSNBC item will tell you more about the Russian decision and the American response, but I want you to notice the inherent bias in the reporting. The average reader would get an impression from this story that Russia is doing something extraordinary, even unique among nations, in throwing its weight around this way. An uninformed person might go away believing that Russia is the only nation that claims a sphere of influence in which its "clout" should predominate. I'd like to hope the writer would know better and reflect that superior knowledge in the story, but I don't know if I can assume it. If more people understood that other nations, including ours, have spheres of their own and have enforced them with force in the past, they might find Russia's actions more palatable, or our own less so.

Democracy in Denver Update

So much for peaceful demonstrations and respectful police. The AP reports that 100 people were arrested during a melee with cops yesterday about a mile from the convention hall. Meanwhile, in what looks like a separate incident outside a hotel, bystanders including an Albany county legislator were pepper sprayed as police tried to disperse a group determined to confront delegates. The protesters appear to be anti-war elements (some call themselves "anti-fascists" but appear to be in the wrong country). That makes the suggestion I was going to make an unlikely one: if they want to be left in peace, they should threaten to vote for Senator McCain.

PUMA = Feminazi

DENVER, CO: A diehard Clinton supporter makes a
last-minute appeal to superdelegates outside the convention center
to change their votes during the "symbolic" balloting on Wednesday.
The delegates later invited "Mrs. Rabbit" to a private coffee.
(photo by W. Brothers)

The acronym stands for "Party Unity My Ass," and it represents the dead-enders in the Clinton movement, those who won't listen to the candidate herself when she urges them to vote for Senator Obama. They are on the loose in Denver, though I doubt anyone is pepper-spraying them. One correspondent doubted whether they existed, but a stroll outside the convention hall revealed the truth. I had no doubts, but fresh confirmation came when I saw a Clinton delegate on C-SPAN's Washington Journal this morning. Her narcissism and tunnel vision were appalling to behold. There was nothing Clinton herself could say tonight to convince her to support Obama. She at least conceded that she hadn't decided who to vote for in November, but she insisted that it was up to Obama himself to convince her. He needed to do this by speaking "to me," the delegate said, in a way he supposedly hadn't done so during the primaries. I'm scratching my head, because I don't know what more Obama can say to these people.

These are people who no longer care what anyone else thinks, including their own favorite candidate. Their nickname is apparently self-selected and shows either indifference or tone-deafness to the impression it makes. When I hear "puma," in the context of a group of women, I can't help being reminded of "cougars," the name given (by who, by the way?) to women who aggressively seek younger people as sex partners. PUMAs openly equate themselves with predatory animals, which is not the impression to make when trying to influence political decisions. Also, it's a poor choice of predator. The only puma I know is Pete, perhaps the most ineffectual of all Bugs Bunny's antagonists in Warner Bros. cartoons. To Obama supporters and other sensible Democrats, I recommend asking these crazy people, "HOW MANY LUMPS DO YOU WANT?"

25 August 2008

The Presidential Candidates: John McCain

The Republican candidate sometimes seems as uncomfortable with the American Bipolarchy as most of his fellow candidates. His reported desire to recruit Senator Lieberman as his running mate, as well as his reputed willingness to at least discuss the idea of joining Senator Kerry's ticket in 2004, hint at some frustration with the polarization through which the Bipolarchy paradoxically strengthens itself. Likewise, his signature piece of legislation, the McCain-Feingold bill, reflects some fundamental distrust of the prevailing mode of electioneering. For all this, however, McCain has never seriously considered exploiting his fame and popularity following the 2000 Republican primaries to stake out an independent party as his own territory.

McCain's father and grandfather were admirals. He graduated from Annapolis and had his adventures in Vietnam, attended the Naval War College after his release from prison, and entered politics in the 1980s. He was elected to Congress in 1982 and jumped to the Senate after two terms. He became the front-runner for the 2000 presidential nomination after winning the New Hampshire primary, but faltered in the southern states. Reporters characterized this as George W. Bush turning the tide against McCain through shady tactics, but it's more likely that McCain simply had limited appeal in the reactionary South. At the time, he rather than Bush was the neocon candidate, embodying what was then called "national greatness conservatism" opposed to Bush's avowed aversion to "nation building" and his promise of "modesty" in foreign affairs. Many "paleo" conservatives have never embraced that agenda, and many still distrust McCain.

He was a very early front-runner for the 2008 nomination, but seemed to shrivel in the polls during 2007. He "surged" in early 2008, exploiting the split within the religious right between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee and the listless campaigning of Rudolph Giuliani and Fred Thompson. Our house expert on things Republican, Mr. Right, says that McCain only won the nomination because too many states hold open primaries. Had voting been limited to registered Republicans, he claims, Romney or even Thompson would more likely have won. In any event, McCain appears to have convinced himself that his stubborn support for the "surge" in Iraq was the key to his ascent, but it appears increasingly unlikely that he'll test this theory in the general election, as issues like energy policy, the rise of Russia, and economic conditions loom larger than the Iraqi question.

His website biography emphasizes McCain's enmity toward special interests and pork barrel spending, but devotes more space to his Vietnam adventures than to his legislative career. He boasts of his most recent re-election, having earned 77 % of the Arizona vote in 2004. McCain-Feingold goes unmentioned in this biography or on the interactive timeline at the website.

Do some digging at the site, under "On the Issues," and then under "Government Reform" and you find the familiar McCain viewpoint:

The American people have been alienated from the process of self-government by the overwhelming appearance of their elected leaders having sold-out to the big-moneyed special interests who help finance political campaigns.As John McCain has said, "Americans believe that political representation is measured on a sliding scale. The more you give the more effectively you can petition your government."

McCain concedes that "competitive elections in a free country require money. Since campaigns require spending funds to communicate with voters, they know we can never take money completely out of politics, nor should we." He adds, however, that "what most Americans worry about profoundly is corporations or individuals with huge checks seeking the undue influence on lawmakers that such largesse is intended to purchase." Here he still defies the conservative consensus that presumes that donors give money due to affinity with candidates' existing views, not in an attempt to influence them. McCain follows his idol Teddy Roosevelt in casting suspicion on corporate financing of political campaigns. His website promises that "As President, John McCain will see to it that the institutions of self-government are respected pillars of democracy, not commodities to be bought, bartered, or abused." In practice, as some critics have warned, McCain expects people to trust him based on his reputation and his self-image as a man above reproach.

The Arizonan's opinions on Iraq are already well known. Globally, "America confronts a range of serious security challenges: Protecting our homeland in an age of global terrorism and Islamist extremism; working with friends and partners overseas, from Africa to Southeast Asia, to help them combat terrorism and violent insurgencies in their own countries; defending against missile and nuclear attack; maintaining the credibility of our defense commitments to our allies; and waging difficult counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq." I'm surprised he hasn't updated this laundry list to include containing or deterring Russia, but he has a convention upcoming to make that point.

"He will ensure that the war against terrorists is fought intelligently, with patience and resolve, using all instruments of national power," the website says, "Moreover, he will lead this fight with the understanding that to impinge on the rights of our own citizens or restrict the freedoms for which our nation stands would be to give terrorists the victory they seek." That's nice talk, but people in the Bush administration would gladly and shamelessly echo it. It may be unfair to McCain, but Bush's practices require McCain to prove his own credentials with more than platitudes. He has spoken out against waterboarding at times, and is presumed to have special empathy on the question of torture, but how far can he depart from the established means if he's committed to the same ends?

Regarding the question of whether he considers a draft necessary to keep up our military obligations, McCain's website says nothing specific. It says that "For too long, we have asked too much of too few," but implies that the country could get more people to enlist by offering better incentives. Nevertheless, "John McCain believes we must enlarge the size of our armed forces to meet new challenges to our security," so we should not presume that restoring the draft is, as they say, off the table.

On the economy, McCain's site boasts a crawl of presumably prestigious economists who have endorsed the man or his plan. Whether any of them do so on the basis of an objective appraisal, or only because they are Republicans or conservatives themselves, one must guess for oneself. McCain makes it clear that he intends to govern on behalf of the employing minority as opposed to the employed majority: "Entrepreneurs are at the heart of American innovation, growth and prosperity. Entrepreneurs create the ultimate job security - a new, better opportunity if your current job goes away. Entrepreneurs should not be taxed into submission." Working people are warned that their jobs are at risk if their bosses are overtaxed. On the other hand, it's probably a good idea, as he proposes, to offer tax credits to business that actually invest in technological innovation. Unlike his Republican ancestors of 150 years ago, however, he doesn't believe that American innovation should be protected from foreign competition. He wants to lower trade barriers everywhere on the presumption that these harm American businesses disproportionately.

McCain also appreciates the need to retrain adult workers for new technologies and educate future workers for the next technologies. Converting unemployment insurance into a subsidized retraining program is a good idea, as is his commitment to "prepare the next generation of workers by making American education worthy of the promise we make to our children and ourselves. " He also talks about "the ability of all students to have access to any school of demonstrated excellence," but to the extent that that means subsidizing private schools through a voucher system, he would undermine the best instrument for preparing a generation of techie innovators.

On energy policy, McCain hopes to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs by building new nuclear power plants from components made exclusively in this country. He wants to use tax credits to develop wind, solar, and clean coal technologies, but also wants to pursue offshore drilling. Unlike many Republicans, he does suspect that price speculation is going on and wants a thorough investigation of the matter. He also believes that he can drive the price of oil down by convincing oil producers that we will wean ourselves off foreign oil within a set time, and by increasing the value of the dollar through his other economic policies.

Inevitably, because of the resources the Republican Party can throw into the project, there's much more material to examine at the McCain website, but I want to draw to a close before this looks like I'm giving more attention to the major party candidates. There are two important questions to raise about McCain: is he a maverick, and is he a warmonger? Unlike a committed Democrat, I'm not going to categorically deny that McCain has been or can be a maverick. Especially if he commits to a single term, he's very likely to govern as his own man, with maybe a minimal regard for his party's interests. This could be a good thing or very bad. It begs the question of McCain's true nature, not vis-a-vis the Republican party or the conservative movement, but as a person on his own terms. We're told that he's a gambler, and voters will have to gamble on whether McCain will govern above partisanship, as a partisan hack, as a conservative or neoconservative ideologue, or as an unpredictable egoist. As for warmongering, McCain's persistence on a stubborn neocon misreading of world conflicts, his fantastical insistence that every conflict is a struggle of Freedom vs Tyranny, puts the country in danger of overcommitment to entangling alliances worldwide, whether in Poland, Georgia or points beyond. His equally bullheaded but all too typically American insistence on seeing Middle East conflicts in moral terms puts us on a collision course with an Iran governed by similarly misguided people. In my mind, McCain seems very capable of stabbing conservatives in the back and governing domestically as a pragmatic moderate. But the stronger possibility that his ideological belligerence will get us into more wars makes the stakes too high to gamble that McCain is a safe man for the presidency.

Here's the website link again, with a note that McCain allows you to choose "Supporter," "Undecided" and "Unregistered" options in order to customize the pitch you'll receive. Below is our customary YouTube clip. There were lots to choose from, and I won't tell you I looked at even a lot of them. Most were the cheap shot ads that may come to define the 2008 campaign from both major parties, but here's McCain at a "town hall" two months ago discussing some of his energy policy ideas. I decided to show him discussing a relatively neutral topic in order to make him look neither deceptively benign nor selectively menacing. Anyone who wants to see more will find it easily enough.

Maggie Gallagher: Idiot of the Month?

It's been a while since I recognized idiocy in the media, so something special was needed to earn a special distinction for the entire month of August. I think I've found it in the newest column by Maggie Gallagher. She's been provoked to commentary by the California Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in the case of Benitez v. North Coast Women's Care Medical Group, which she reads as a blow against freedom of religion.

What was that blow? Guadalupe Benitez, the plaintiff, sought an artificial insemination. A female doctor at North Coast Women's Care refused to treat her. Gallagher explains the doctor's motive: "she was perfectly willing to help treat Guadalupe's infertility -- restoring a natural function of the body -- but she had qualms about impregnating (which is basically what the doctor does in these situations) a woman without a husband."

Benitez is a lesbian. Gallagher makes it sound as if the doctor objected to Benitez becoming a single mother, but notes earlier in her column that Benitez is, in her words, a "partnered lesbian." Gallagher can't bear to sully the word "married" by associating it with homosexuality. While Gallagher herself, based on past columns I've read, might object to inseminating a single mother of any sexual preference, the doctor at North Coast appears to have been motivated by religious homophobia.

Gallagher believes that the doctor has an unassailable, perhaps inalienable right to deny treatments to patients based on her religious scruples. She believes the court should have cut the doctor some slack because "We are not talking here about necessary medical care but an elective procedure -- artificial insemination -- that is obviously fraught with moral issues which are necessarily different from, say, the decision to have your appendix removed or a knee replaced."

By the same standard, the doctor ought to have kept her views to herself because, the issue not being one of life and death, there was no urgency to the consultation requiring her moral intervention. However, Gallagher believes that the doctor was exercising not merely her freedom of speech but her freedom of religion. I don't know what the doctor actually said to Benitez, but it can't have helped the doctor's lawyers in the state court if people believed, as Gallagher does, that her advice was an implicit form of proselytizing for a religious faith. But that seems to be exactly what the lawyers argued: the doctor was entitled by virtue of her faith to refuse artificial insemination to a patient on moral grounds.

Again, Gallagher tries to defend the doctor by trivializing Benitez's demands. "The sexual liberty at stake in this case was not the right of an individual to live as one chooses -- to be free from bullying, fear and harassment. It was the right to be protected by the government from the knowledge that one of your fellow citizens disagrees with some of the choices you have made." In Gallagher's mind the poor doctor is put in the same predicament as the protesters in Denver and Minneapolis confined to their "free speech zones" and denied the right to confront the very people whose policies they want to protest against. I say that, of course, not knowing whether Gallagher approves of "free speech zones" or not. But based on my recent reading, her opinion reminds me of Abraham Lincoln's belief that blacks had a natural right not to be enslaved, but not much right to anything else in white society.

"Equality trumps liberty in the eyes of our courts," Gallagher complains. This contemptuous sniffle suggests that Benitez has no liberty interest, so to speak, in seeking a rebuke of the doctor. Gallagher could not state more plainly that homosexuals have no real "liberty" that moral people are bound to recognize. I'm going to let her make the closing argument for her own idiot award: "I understand that irrational prejudices must be contained and stigmatized if we are to have a decent society. I do not understand how any decent society can deem a moral reluctance to create a fatherless child a hateful and irrational prejudice that must be stamped out."

* * *

It doesn't surprise me that she doesn't understand. Gallagher most likely thinks that doctors who refuse to inseminate lesbians should have the same protection that the Bush administration last week extended to doctors who refuse to perform abortions. I think we might actually resolve this issue if we think on the level of institutions rather than individual doctors. If a woman visits a hospital seeking an insemination or an abortion, any given doctor could opt out on moral grounds as long as the institution itself was required to have someone on hand at all times who was prepared and willing to perform the procedures in question. As long as abortion remains a constitutional right and artificial inseminations are legal, any medical institution that depends on government assistance, or any that is the sole institution in its community, must provide services that may be legally demanded. If that means firing someone and replacing her with a cooperative physician, so be it. If that means quotas in future hiring to ensure that patients seeking controversial procedures aren't burdened by long waiting, so be it. Beyond that, doctors have no right to attempt to dissuade patients from elective procedures on any but medical grounds. To the extent that doctors are scientists, they have no business telling patients that procedures they may legally demand are "wrong." If they can't suppress their moral impulses on these matters, they should find new lines of work or learn from Dr. King, who was always willing to pay the price in jail time for civil disobedience. I doubt that the doctor in this case is going to prison, so she ought, dare I say, to take whatever punishment she faces like a man.

Democracy in Denver

For this week I've revised the search parameters on my Google News gadget to pick up stories dealing with any protest demonstrations that take place in Denver during the Democratic convention and the security measures the city and the federal government have taken in anticipation of them. Keep your eye on the upper left hand corner of this page to stay up to date on whatever real debate takes place in the Mile High city.

24 August 2008

McCain pities Clinton

I don't want to get into the bad habit of analyzing each day's internet commercials for the presidential campaign, but I'm going to show you the new McCain ad lamenting Senator Obama's failure to nominate Senator Clinton as his running mate, only because there's a good follow-up.

I found out about this ad while watching Chris Matthews' program on MSNBC. Matthews's comment on it was priceless. If McCain thinks so much of Hillary Clinton, he suggested, why doesn't he pick her as his running mate?

Think about that one. Would it really be that different from picking Senator Lieberman?

Lincoln Vindicated? Conclusions

Once upon a time after the Civil War, sympathizers with the Confederacy had a more sympathetic viewpoint toward Abraham Lincoln than libertarians and certain conservatives hold today. You can see what I mean in D. W. Griffith's Birth of A Nation, as pro-Confederate a film as has ever been made. This racist epic includes a suspenseful re-enactment of Lincoln's assassination, Griffith's point being that the death was a tragedy for the South as much as for the North. In 1915, when Griffith released the film, Southerners were still licking wounds from the Reconstruction era, which saw freed slaves and white Republicans temporarily take power in the ex-secessionist states before a concerted terror campaign broke down the national will to punish the South. Reconstruction policies were blamed on a clique of "radical" Republicans who came to dominate the government after Lincoln's death. Opponents of Reconstruction could play patriotic by showing reverence to Lincoln and asserting that, had he lived, he would have been more moderate and forgiving toward the South than the radicals were. Lincoln could be an off-stage hero and "better angel" of the nation's nature when reactionaries were refighting the battles of Reconstruction, as Griffith and his source author Thomas Dixon were. Since Griffith's time, we seem to have backslid, and in some circles we're back to refighting the Civil War itself, or the political disputes that led up to it. In that climate, some authors have turned Lincoln into a villain.

For the new generation of reactionaries, Lincoln has replaced the mostly forgotten radical Republicans as the face of a character type that Thomas DiLorenzo calls the "Yankee." DiLorenzo is quick to remind readers of Lincoln Unmasked that he's a Northerner himself, but just as quick to disavow any identification with the Yankee ideology.

The word Yankee was attached to those New Englanders who were seen as arrogant, unfriendly, condescending, intolerant, extremely self-righteous and believing that they were God's chosen people," DiLorenzo explains (p.37). He endorses a colleagues judgment that "Hillary Clinton, born in Illinois and educated in Massachusetts and Connecticutt, is a 'museum-quality specimen' of a Yankee."

The "Yankee" is a close relative of the "Puritan," the character type H. L. Mencken described as suffering distress at the thought that somewhere, someone was happy. Both types can be called "busybodies," their sin being a compulsion to stick their nose in other people's business. DiLorenzo blames Yankees for offenses against America ranging from Prohibition to "compulsory government schooling." Reactionaries like DiLorenzo have a rather broad notion of what isn't other people's business. That's what makes the stakes so high in the modern debate over Lincoln's legacy.

Over the last 200 years, "Western culture" has seen a sweeping wave of democratization, followed by the growth in most places of "big government." The democratization process itself was fueled to a great extent by evolving notions of what politics is actually about. Whatever their commitment to human equality, the Founders had a limited view of what politics was about. That was why they could justify limiting voting rights. They could keep the vote from women because they thought politics had nothing to do with women. Women began to demand a voice in politics when they decided that political action was needed to solve moral problems that affected them as wives and mothers, e.g. the alleged role of alcohol in ruining men and their households. But every time people tried to broaden the scope of politics, conservatives would complain that politics was getting into areas that were none of anyone's business. Against suffragists and feminists, reactionaries would say that home life, the relation of man to wife, was none of the state's business, just as they say today that the relations of parents to children are none of the state's business.

Conservatives of all kinds can probably be united in a belief that there are some things in social life that are pre-political in nature and thus none of any politician's business. Maybe everyone can agree on that, though some would say it's true regarding sexual relations among consulting adults, and conservatives might disagree. In any event, the scandal of antebellum America was the Southerners' claim that slavery was nobody's business but the slaveholders', or at most the business of the slaveholding states exclusively. Slavery was part of the organic social heritage that defined each state as a sovereign entity before the Revolutionary War and before any ratification of the Constitution. By definition, for secessionists, the states could never cease to be essentially sovereign entities on the level of social relations like slavery; those relationships exactly defined the scope of state sovereignty as opposed to any political sovereignty that the Constitution called into being.

One big reason that the Southern states were so defensive toward the right of secession was because they felt their peculiar societies needed extraordinary protections from alien influences, including the votes of their fellow states in the Union. If you formed a union with slaveholding states, they had to be recognized as such and their slaveholding privileges embedded in the Constitution, including the right to get back fugitive slaves who crossed lines. That's why secessionists insisted that, whatever Jefferson wrote in the Declaration, the Constitution enshrined the specific rights claimed by the societies that formed the Union. That's also why they couldn't accept Lincoln's view that the Founders tolerated slavery out of necessity only, but meant for it to be put "in the course of ultimate extinction." For slaveholders, that would mean the Union was founded on a lie.

The evidence exists to show that many of the Founders, including the slaveholders, abhorred slavery and regretted its existence. They may indeed have envisioned a time when it would disappear, but that doesn't mean they set up a mechanism in the Constitution to guarantee that outcome. While the 1787 Northwest Ordinance barred slavery from the territory in question, there was no similar provision for future territory in the Constitution itself, which led to crises later. I'm not sure if Lincoln had a right to argue that the governing document of the country enacted the subjective preferences of some of its authors. That leaves his argument that the act of ratification changed the nature of the states as well as the Union, changing them from distinctly sovereign entities to governments that derived their just powers from the consent of the governed through the medium of democratic republicanism.

One recent author, Daniel Farber, thinks that the founding record supports both sides of the argument, but ultimately comes down against secessionism because it's philosophically inconsistent. As Farber sees it, secessionism was presented as a defense of minority rights, but secessionists didn't recognize the rights of anti-secessionist groups within the Confederacy to secede in turn. That argument wouldn't faze the real secessionists, since they'd claim that electoral minorities within the sovereign states didn't have and weren't entitled to the same protections that the states themselves demanded from the Union. The status of minorities was part of the pre-political social regime in the seceding states. It doesn't look fair or consistent to us, but the secessionists, and by extension their modern defenders, have never cared what other people think.

In a sense, one of the best arguments for secession was that it beat the alternative of giving in to the slaveholders again. Contrary to the implicit portrait from modern apologists who say they were simply trying to protect their property, the "slave power" was aggressive and expansive. It demanded stronger federal protection for slavery. It demanded that Northern states repeal "personal liberty laws" that impeded the capture of fugitive slaves. It demanded free and equal access to all territories acquired or to be acquired by the Union. It wouldn't be a big leap to envision them demanding the suppression of anti-slavery literature and anti-slavery speakers throughout the Union. If Lincoln had somehow convinced the slave states to stay on the compromise terms he offered, that would probably have been the beginning of the country becoming less rather than more democratic. The tendency of any privileged class fearful for its special rights within a democratic polity is toward dictatorship. Once you're convinced that you have a special right to what you have that transcends politics, you've effectively declared war on politics.

A slaveholder-dominated U.S. would not have been the libertarian paradise that wackos like DiLorenzo imagine, but more like South Africa in the worst days of apartheid, ultimately a police state. And whatever the Union would have looked like with slaveholders in control, the Confederacy would probably have been far worse, and a menace not only to the remnant Union but to the rest of the Western Hemisphere. If they seceded from the Union in the first place because they thought they were being shut out of the west, do you think they'd just give up on the west after seceding? Even if they did, there were other directions to strike in for new territory, following the example of William Walker and other "filibusters." The existence of a Confederacy would have made war in this part of the world more rather than less likely -- maybe not as bloody all at once as the war that was fought, but quite likely drawing in people who were spared our conflict, not to mention the European powers who would most likely entangle the Union and Confederacy in competing alliances. If I'm right about all these things, then secessionism is something that deserved to be strangled in its cradle, regardless of its theoretical rights.

As long as you don't think the co-existence of a Union and a Confederacy that perpetuated the existence of slavery beyond the year 1865 would have been a good thing, you have to conclude that Abraham Lincoln did the right thing. I felt this way before I read the books by DiLorenzo and Krannawitter, so perhaps I've wasted my time. But reading them convinced me that neither side can convince the other, and neither has irrefutable reason on its side. The Lincoln debate is ultimately a conflict of interests rather than ideas. The reactionaries and libertarians who condemn Lincoln hope to preserve the remaining pre-political zones of patriarchal power over other people from democratic political regulation. The neocons and Straussians want to use Lincoln to support their idea of energetic executive power, not to mention extraordinary emergency power, and they want to extend his "House Divided" principle to global level, claiming that the world cannot exist half-"slave," half-free. One side wants Lincoln to fight their modern-day political battles, while the other wants to use him as a straw man in training for the permanent war against "big government." Because their ideological biases are so obvious, neither author can be considered a true historian. Historians have a mandate to report what actually happened, and Lincoln did not preside over a civil war between neocons and paleocons. They ought to let the dead rest.

Ring Out the Olympics

The closing ceremonies haven't been broadcast over here yet, but the Beijing Games are over. The Chinese and the Americans can both boast, the host country claiming the most gold medals, the U.S. the most medals of all kinds. Some overcompetitive Americans won't even concede the one victory to China, arguing that, since the U.S. won more team events, more American athletes won gold medals than did Chinese athletes.

In America the biggest story has been the success of the swimmer Michael Phelps. For now, patriotism has probably muffled the otherwise inevitable question of whether Phelps was doping in order to accomplish his record-setting feats. Phelps reportedly submits voluntarily to extra testing on top of what the International Olympic Committee or his own government requires, but a skeptical mind might well wonder whether he's being too cooperative. That time will come, but for now he has a window of time to wallow in commercial endorsements.

Other highlights for Americans included the success of the basketball "Redeem Team," which reclaimed dominance in the sport America invented, and the deeds of our leading female gymnasts. Suspicions remain over whether the Chinese allowed underage gymnasts to compete, but the facts as I saw them suggested that the Americans would have beaten a team of Chinese eight year olds in the team competition if an American girl hadn't fallen on her butt during the floor exercise.

Sports reporters have lamented the failures of American sprinters and the perhaps irreversible decline in American amateur boxing. In the first instance, I wonder whether the truly best sprinters are avoiding competition to dodge doping charges, leaving screw-ups like Tyson Gay to stumble around Beijing. As for boxing, the American failure, with only one fighter getting as far as a semi-finial, may be a sign of social progress. Boxing is the only available route to fame and fortune, or out of the streets, for ever fewer Americans. Anyone big enough to have been a heavyweight boxer can try out for football and probably make more money with a better retirement plan. If so, it follows that Americans who do end up going out for boxing are the bottom of the barrel athletically. When pitted against opponents fighting for national pride above all, the Americans were almost inevitably doomed.

At the risk of dating myself, my first memory of any sporting event was of the Munich Olympics of 1972. I was aware of the hostage crisis and the killings, but my main interest was in the success stories of people like Mark Spitz and Olga Korbut. A great thing about ABC's old Olympic coverage was their willingness to make stars out of foreign athletes, even Communist bloc people if their deeds merited it. That cosmopolitan feel seems gone from NBC's modern coverage, especially when the broadcasters whine about biased judging wherever they think they find it. On top of that, the novelty of the once-in-four-years spectacle gradually wore off as I grew older and had seen more of them. The end of the Cold War may have taken the edge off as well, as we lost the artificial element of portraying athletes as exemplars of competing ideologies and social systems. The Games have become less exotic, especially as they've strayed from their original focus on track and field into trivialities like beach volleyball and BMX bike racing. I expected to have little interest in the Beijing Games, except to see if terrorism broke out, and what you see here probably sums up what I considered noteworthy in 2008. It isn't much.

23 August 2008

Biden His Time

The Democratic vice-presidential-nominee-designate (I think that's the right nomenclature) visited the republic of Georgia last weekend at the invitation of President Saakashvili. Here's how he described his findings.

"I left the country convinced that Russia's invasion of Georgia may be one of the most significant events to occur in Europe since the end of communism. The claims of Georgian atrocities that provided the pretext for Russia's invasion are rapidly being disproved by international observers, and the continuing presence of Russian forces in the country has severe implications for the broader region. The war that began in Georgia is no longer about that country alone. It has become a question of whether and how the West will stand up for the rights of free people throughout the region."

During the primary debates, I was impressed with Senator Biden's knowledge and sense of foreign policy issues. His answers seemed more substantive than the simple promises of other candidates, and from that point, knowing he had no chance for the main prize, I thought he'd make a good running mate for the eventual nominee. I still think that Biden is a much better choice than many others that were mentioned before the announcement overnight, but the quote above shows again that, however much the pillars of the Bipolarchy attempt to distinguish themselves from one another, there's not much difference when viewed from a certain perspective. As Senator Obama said: in times of "crisis" the nation speaks with one voice, and on the issue that's now most likely to define American foreign policy for the next four years, the two-party system does indeed speak with one voice. I've read Biden's entire statement on Georgia, and to no one's surprise there's not one word about South Ossetia beyond his implicit assertion that nothing really happened there before the Russians came in.

Looking back over the past week, I find a bunch of articles identifying Biden as the front runner on the strength of the Georgia trip, as if it reestablished the foreign-policy gravitas he displayed in the debates. His presence there, going ahead of Senator Lieberman, is supposed to reinforce Obama's supposedly questionable stature on foreign policy. We got a preview of this last Tuesday when Obama endorsed Biden's call for $1 billion in aid to Georgia. There was even some confusion about the impetus for Biden's trip, with many speculating that he was acting as some sort of emissary from Obama to Saakashvili, when the truth seems to be that Saakashvili invited Biden personally because he chairs the Foreign Relations Committee.

As late as Tuesday, according to MSNBC, Biden either didn't know he'd been picked or was lying to reporters.

As Delaware Sen. Joe Biden left his home a few minutes ago, golf clubs in tow, he was asked where he was going to be on Saturday. Biden replied, "Here" and pointed down to his driveway. As he pulled out of the driveway in the driver's seat of his car he then said to the press gathered near his gate, "You guys have better things to do. I'm not the guy."

Senator McCain's campaign anticipated the choice, and had a commercial ready to air showing Biden disparaging Obama and praising McCain.

But any campaign can put something like that together when the presidential nominee picks one of his primary opponents, and one can only imagine what the Obama campaign will show us should McCain pick Mitt Romney as his running mate. Here's some material they could use.

I think Biden will help Obama because he's a more familiar name than some of the other people who'd been mentioned over the past week. I hate to say it, but Obama needed to take a white man as a stabilizing choice; picking a non-Clinton woman like Gov. Sibelius would probably have made the ticket look "radical" to the yokels and patriarchs out there. Obama may lose votes from the feminazis who wanted Hilary or Nothing, but nothing short of his killing himself on the Denver podium would have pleased those people. I expect Biden to clobber whomever McCain chooses in the vice-presidential debates, even if there ends up being little to debate over on foreign policy. At this point, I don't think Biden makes me any more likely to vote for Obama, especially after his Georgia performance, but he doesn't really make me less likely, either. Any more definite judgment should wait for Biden to speak his peace later today and next week.

22 August 2008

The Price of Vice-Presidency

The news channel are all aflutter over the imminence of Senator Obama's announcement of his choice for a running mate, while speculation builds as to when Senator McCain will name his choice. With the race tightening, these choices now appear critical and dangerous.

In the office, Mr. Peepers was parroting the line of some pundits who say that Senator Clinton is now Obama's only hope for victory. Mr. Right was skeptical, and if anything I was more so. I told them that, if anything, choosing Clinton would guarantee Obama's defeat. When Mr. Peepers asked why I thought so, I said that it made Obama look like a puppet President. After he caved to Clintonite pressure and allowed the senator's name to be placed in nomination for president, and a roll call vote to be taken, accepting her as his running mate would look like a complete capitulation to her and Bill. That's what some Democrats long for, convinced that only the Clintons are capable of "fighting" in the manner necessary to beat a Republican. The Clintons themselves want vindication of Bill's administration as a golden age. They want power as well, of course. Obama might well take the senator on if he could relegate her to the ceremonial oblivion customary for running mates, but considering his apparent need for a fighting running mate and his own falling popularity, he may have to promise specific powers and portfolios to any potential running mate. In Clinton's case, to win over her die-hard acolytes he may have to promise on the convention floor that she would once more the co-president she seemed to be in her husband's regime. That may win over the Clintonites at last, but it will alienate nearly everyone else and undercut Obama's own identity.

On the Republican side, Mr. Right worried that McCain would commit political suicide if he followed his alleged inclinations and nominated Senator Lieberman as his running mate. My gut feeling agrees with Mr. Right, but McCain is a gambler. He might calculate that anyone from the party "base" who abandons him due to Lieberman will be replaced by an independent or disgruntled Democrat impressed by the appearance of a bipartisan or nonpartisan campaign. Never mind that a McCain-Lieberman ticket could only be labeled the War Party; some people are so disgusted with the Bipolarchy that they'd actually perceive this wedding of two pillars of it as some sort of demolition operation.

"If I had to bet money on it," Mr. Right added, "I'd say McCain will pick Mitt Romney, but I'd want to make sure I had alternate arrangements for paying my bills afterward." Romney is problematic because evangelicals have said they can't accept him on the ticket for various reasons. But some faction of the party establishment has always wanted Romney, for no better reason that I can tell than that he'd be a self-financing candidate. Evangelicals themselves are split. Mike Huckabee's candidacy exposed a rift between leaders who were willing to accept Romney and rank-&-file who didn't trust him. Huckabee himself isn't often mentioned as a McCain running mate because the fiscal conservatives don't like his record as governor of Arkansas. Added to this confusion, McCain has spooked Republicans by signalling that he'd be willing to choose a pro-choice partner. Perhaps it's escaped his notice (some things do) that the delegates at the convention get to vote on the vice-presidential nominee, and that quite a few, to make an appropriately conservative estimate, will never vote for a known pro-choicer. Frankly, there's almost no one he could name that would not get negative votes on the convention floor. If his main objective is a harmonious convention -- and it isn't clear that it is -- he's got to look past the first tier of familiar names and pick someone who hasn't alienated some large faction of the party. He also faces the same predicament Obama does: anyone he names, recognizing McCain's weaknesses, will demand specific powers and portfolios before coming on board.

The way things are shaping up, neither candidate might get a "bounce" coming out of the convention. That thought just amuses the hell out of me, but I had better wait and see.

Obama to South Ossetia: Drop Dead

During an American election campaign, the candidates will exaggerate every difference in their positions to the point that American voters must imagine that Democrats and Republicans come from alien worlds. In such cases, a foreign perspective might be clarifying. So here's Agence France Presse reporting that " Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama staged a rare show of unity with President George W. Bush Thursday by endorsing his approach to the crisis between Georgia and Russia."

Senator Obama says: ""The situation with Russia and Georgia is very serious. This is the first time that Russia has moved into somebody's territory since the collapse of the Soviet Union ... It indicates a new stage in the relationship between Russia and the West. We've got to be firm with the Russians, in alliance with our European allies, that this kind of behavior is intolerable,"

Of course, from a perspective of consistent commitment to national self-determination, Russia had already moved "into somebody's territory" when they suppressed Chechnyan secession. That episode proves Russian hypocrisy in the current episode, just as Kosovo proves American hypocrisy in dismissing South Ossetia's claims.In any event, all you might be able to tell from Obama's remarks are that Russia invaded Georgia for some reason or other, and probably not a good one.

"I'm supportive of what George Bush has been doing," Obama continues, "There will be a time later for politics. I'm a big believer that when you're in a crisis, America speaks with one voice," No wonder, then, that Obama supports Bush, since describing the situation as a "crisis" shows that he's succumbed to the same hysteria that possesses Senator McCain and the neocons. One symptom of the hysteria is a failure to recognize the existence of South Ossetia, not to mention Abkhazia, and as far as AFP reports, those regions got no mention in Obama's talk.

It's reasonable to conclude that the American Bipolarchy has made its opinion clear on the South Ossetian question. For the bipolarchs, the question is: "Are those people even for real?" There'd be nothing automatically wrong about this if American foreign policy was honest about its desire to restrain Russia by all means. Instead, Americans compulsively moralize diplomatic issues and constantly end up looking like hypocrites. Obama has joined the club.

21 August 2008

The Presidential Candidates: Joe Martyniuk

Martyniuk conveniently explains that his name is pronounced, "mart-nick." He makes his priorities pretty clear on his low-tech campaign page:

Joe thinks the number one problem in America is expensive gasoline. The number two problem is having to buy that gasoline from people who hate us and may cut off supplies. Unfortunately, the only proven technology that can solve both of those problems is turning coal into gasoline. Joe thinks we should sell $500 Billion bonds to build 200 plants over the next four years to turn American coal into $1 per gallon gasoline, even if coal can't be cleaned up.

Joe acknowledges that Senators McCain and Obama are "great Americans," but unlike him, they "don't know how to bring down the price of gasoline." Presumably they lack the vision to come up with Martyniuk's sweeping solution to the Iraq problem: "Hand out two million cell phones to families to call for help and turn in their neighbors. Two million handguns for self-defense. One million PC's for kids. one million generators, air conditioners, water, gasoline, and waste water tanks. 8,000 tanker trucks to deliver gasoline, water, and remove waste water. Use 10,000 tanker trucks to carry one million barrels of oil per day from the wells to the coast on the heavy duty construction roads to pay for this and temporarily reduce oil prices until America can start turning coal into gasoline. "

From his website I infer that preparedness will be one of the big themes of a Martyniuk presidency. He'll stockpile food and bird flu vaccine while encouraging everyone to "buy a gasoline generator, electric heater, 90 days of food, and own a handgun." He recommends grass-roots surveillance; people should be more observant of suspicious characters and likely targets around them. "You may not be able to prevent a terrorist attack. But you might be able to help catch the terrorists and prevent them from doing it again. " He expects the National Rifle Association and veterans' groups to take the lead in teaching survivalism to the general public.

On other issues, Martyniuk is libertarian on drugs, calling for "hardcore" stuff to be sold with prescriptions, and marijuana over the counter. Taxing them could finance enhanced healthcare and public education, he suggests. He has a compromise solution for illegal immigration, offering amnesty for the undocumented who remain in the country and pay a $2,000 "verification fee" after the border is sealed. He'll seal the border by hiring 5 million border guards and thousands more cargo inspectors with the revenue from a "$10,000 import tax" on the containers. He doesn't expect his policy to please anyone, but considers compromise necessary since neither extreme, unconditional amnesty or mass expulsions, has sufficient public support.

Martyniuk's main campaign activities have been selling bumper stickers and posting commercial-length videos on YouTube. The most recent of these appeared earlier this month, promising to reduce the price of gasoline to $2 a gallon, but here's one from last October in which the candidate plays his preparedness theme.

Here's another self-nominated candidate who, like many of the others, clearly has thought a while on some important issues. He's one of the more modest candidates, describing himself thusly: "He's short and dumpy. He stutters and stammers. All the bad things you hear about him are true." The tragedy for people like Martyniuk is that they seem to be thinking in a vacuum where the first and only logical step when convinced of a national crisis is to run for president. I give him credit for some seriousness, even if the bumper stickers make him look a little hucksterish, but I'd like to see people like him start to build local or regional networks where more people can discuss the issues together and perhaps discover a candidate in their midst in a really democratic fashion. Look at Martyniuk's website and decide for yourself if he belongs in the discussion.

McCain: The Meaning of Rich

Would you vote for a man who doesn't even know where he lives? Such a man is Senator McCain, who lost count of his residences during a campaign appearance today. Predictably, this provoked a fresh round of petty sniping from Senator Obama's campaign, to which the McCain people responded in kind. McCain and Obama have rarely been seen together so far this year, yet they already strike me as an old married couple finding cause to bicker and snipe at one another (not with guns!) at the drop of a hat. This election seems certain to set new benchmarks for pettiness, but let's not lose the lesson of McCain's confusion. Less than a week ago Rick Warren asked him to define the word "rich" in monetary terms. Married to an heiress, the Arizonan was uncomfortable with the question but offered $5,000,000 as proof that someone was wealthy (Obama chose a far lower number). Numbers can be adjusted for inflation, and the true value of any currency is always relative to other currencies, but having so many homes that you lose track of all of them seems like pretty solid, objective proof that McCain is a rich man -- or that he's just old.

Russia & America: A Thought for the Day

Words of wisdom from a non-Western perspective, from the English-language al-Jazeera website, courtesy of Marwan Bishara, a senior political analyst:

The geopolitics of Russo-American relations is best portrayed by an old Swahili proverb that says 'when the elephants fight, the grass gets crushed, and when elephants make love the grass gets crushed'.

20 August 2008

The Presidential Candidates: Brad Lord-Leutwyler

"Do they think we are stupid?" this candidate asks. "They" are the Democrats and Republicans presenting themselves as agents of change. To them, and to us, he says:

"CHANGE" does not mean replacing a republican with a democrat, regardless of their gender or race. That's not change, that's just more of the same. If we want "change" then WE MUST CHANGE.If we want something different, WE must ACT DIFFERENTLY. We need to stop falling for hollow slogans. We need to wake up and realize that the major parties created this mess and have a vested interest in perpetuating it.

Bradley Lord-Leutwyler is a former lawyer who teaches "Logic and Critical Thinking" at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He claims to be "the ONLY legitimate 'rock star' candidate," based on his experience singing and playing guitar, drums, and keyboard in various unnamed bands. His previous political experience is limited to twice getting elected a residence hall president at Oregon State, but he contends that "experience is a false issue.

"The experience that counts," he insists, "has nothing to do with coming to the table pre-corrupted." People who boast of their superior experience, he says, are exactly the people to blame for the nation's current predicament. Instead of appealing to experience, "A President should be SMART: Ultimately, he is the decision maker. A president needs to know what he does not know, and surround himself with people who are EXPERTS in their fields to supplement his knowledge base, and to educate the President."

BLL (forgive the abbreviation) makes a lot of the team he'll convene to advise him. "Our team will be composed of the smartest, most capable expert advisors," he promises, "ENERGY policy will be designed by EXPERTS, not oil companies, AND IT WILL NOT BE DONE IN SECRET! Science policy will be made by SCIENTIFIC EXPERTS, not religious fanatics. Military policy will be informed by the BEST military minds, not by life-long professional bureaucrats with defense industry ties. Laws will be enforced by the BEST LEGAL MINDS, not by people whose sole qualification is that they agree with the president about theology."

Maybe it'd be presumptuous of the candidate to tell us exactly who he'll invite to join his team. Maybe he expects that, once elected, any expert he thinks of will respond to his call. In any event, since he doesn't name the advisers he'll have, his candidacy must stand or fall on the merits of his own ideas.

On Iraq, BLL will initiate a swift withdrawal but will maintain American bases there. "Having a stick in the region which can provide measured, rapid-responses to conflagrations which ignite so quickly is critical: had we had a stronger presence in the Gulf region in the late 80's and early 90's, Saddam never would have invaded Kuwait in the first place. We need to make certain that the efforts of our troops are not thrown in the waste basket because politicians make specious arguments for false peace." Meanwhile, he'll pursue normalized relations with Iran while doing everything possible to prevent the country from acquiring nuclear weapons. Having a high regard for Persian culture, he would prefer to accomplish this peacefully.

BLL goes to the trouble of detailing how he'll respond if the country is hit by another major terrorist attack. He'll identify primary perpetrators and secondary conspirators, bringing the first group to justice "that they don't deserve" while subjecting the second to severe sanctions. He'll give those time to work before considering military options, equating his approach to treating a tumor until it goes into remission rather than poking at it to make it go away.

At his website he has an alphabetical list of issues, inviting readers to submit more as the campaign progresses. He hasn't yet posted his positions on some important issues, steering well clear for the most part from economic issues. On his homepage, however, he lists his priorities as "Provide universal healthcare -- Reform education -- Declare war on poverty -- Secure the borders [and] Reform the Tax Code."

BLL has decided to accept money from individual donors, and no more than $25 per person, which you can donate through PayPal via a link on his webpage. He has promised to go without health insurance as President until every American gets the same health plan the government itself enjoys.

Lord-Leutwyler's campaign blog hasn't been updated since last March. He appeared on a local NPR program earlier this month, but the link to it is currently down. The most recent sample of the man in his own words I can offer is this video from February.

Using Lord-Leutwyler's own logic, you could eliminate him from contention. Since he intends to depend on experts, why not ask the experts, if we knew who they were, who'd they like to see as the next President. Of course, experts are just as likely to be partisan as anyone else, but if we asked them to think outside the box we might get some interesting suggestions. I just suspect that none of them would name Brad Lord-Leutwyler. This isn't to penalize him for his lack of celebrity, but knowing him better now than the experts do, I have to say that he has nothing special to contribute by running. He's just another person acting on a reflexive response to the failings of the American Bipolarchy. Convinced that no alternative exists, he declares his own candidacy. There ought to have been another step: research into the possibility that he could make himself more useful by joining and shaping an existing movement. You can judge him for yourselves by looking here.

McCain and the Draft

Here's the exchange from Senator McCain's "town hall" in New Mexico that's gotten a lot of attention in the media.

I think this is an exploitable quote, but only to a point. The woman's comment can be interpreted plausibly as a proposition, in effect: "As long as the conditions I'm complaining about prevail, we'll reach the point where we'll need the draft to pursue bin Laden to the gates of hell, because when people see the way we're treating veterans, they won't want to volunteer." Unfortunately for McCain, while we can infer this meaning from the woman's comments, what she said literally was that we won't have troops to chase bin Laden unless we have a draft, and with this he declined to disagree. We could also excuse this as a sort of senior moment, or, to be more fair, we could suggest that McCain was already anticipating his answer, as we hear it, in the middle of the woman's remarks, and spoke before he had a chance to absorb the import of her last comment. Unfortunately again for McCain, this is purely speculative, while the fact is that he did not disagree with anything she said. Neither the Democrats nor any other anti-war candidate should refuse to use this quote, and the friends of Senator Obama especially, besieged by liars every day, should say at every opportunity that McCain supports a draft

Campaign Contributions, Then and Now

Senator McCain doesn't talk as much about campaign finance reform as he used to. That's because he needs the support of a Republican "base" that hates the idea and still distrusts him because he supported it. McCain hasn't renounced anything yet, but some observers have noted that, in promising to appoint Supreme Court justices on the Scalia-Roberts-Alito model, he'd probably be building a majority for declaring the McCain-Feingold law unconstitutional. Noting that, some question the sincerity of his promise, but it may just be proof of his surrender to his base.

McCain's hero is Theodore Roosevelt, another detail that makes the "base" distrust him. Roosevelt was too energetic a leader, too determined to govern corporations as well as ordinary people, for modern Republican tastes. He's a creature of the Progressive Era, during which one discovers a phenomenon that seems to be ahead of its time. During the 1908 presidential election, Democrat William Jennings Bryan and Republican William Howard Taft agreed to make public all donors and donations to their campaigns. The result was a significant drop in campaign donations for both parties.

My work involves research in early 20th century newspapers. At work today I found an editorial from one of my hometown papers commenting on the 1908 reform and its apparent consequences. It's worth looking at for what it tells us about attitudes toward campaign financing one hundred years ago and how one writer felt elections would or should evolve. This is the Troy Record for August 22, 1908:

The managers of both parties this year have been complaining with an asperity which is born of tact that they can receive no contributions for the conduct of the fight for the presidency commensurate with the needs of the situation. That is to say, those who have the duty of providing the funds have been unable to secure under the new system of publicity anything like the sums which were theirs under the old system of finance.

* * *
[T]he idea of publicity has frightened many of the large givers from the usual contributions. It is generally felt throughout the country that the sums raised, mounting up at recent elections to as much as [cue Dr. Evil] ten millions, is largely spent in enriching worthless men and in the purchase of votes. Men of high standing who might have winked at this under cover hesitate to place themselves in a position where they will appear to their fellows as defending the use of money in corrupting the electorate.Then again it is generally believed that no protection can be gained by any man or circle of men by large gifts this year. The moral sense of the nation is awake and would refuse to aid in any such agreement, even if only a silent one. In fact, any man who represented certain interests, if he gave to the campaign fund, would mark himself in such a way that he would be liable to invite the very attacks which he would wish to ward off. This, added to the decision of both parties not to accept gifts from corporations and their unwillingness to take large sums from anybody, has made the area of collection an arid desert.
Wall street ordinarily contributes the major part of the fund. This year Wall street is not kindly disposed to either candidate and cares very little which of them is elected. Either one of them would like to attack some of the methods by which the denizens of 'the street' win their fortunes.
The result is that the pockets of the campaign managers are not bulging with wealth. Mr. Bryan, after an attempt to raise large sums by dollar contributions, must be willing to admit that it is a failure if the figures published are true....The Republican party has done little better. While not advertising their failure specifically it is known that Mr. Sheldon [a GOP campaign manager] is quite discouraged at the results thus far and the prospects. It appears that there will be little money expended this year for the usual sideshows and the purchase of votes and extraordinary speakers. The day of long parades, political clubs, banners tossed in the breeze and constant excitement is over. The nation is getting out of its childhood.
And is it not a good mark of advancement in the development of a nation? Instead of trying to sweep the citizens of a country from their feet by means of every trick of professional stampeders, the political leaders are to appeal to voters by the more sensible method of public speech and printed circular. Instead of purchasing the electorate the present method is gradually working toward the honest conduct of elections. Instead of expending great sums for tin and tinsel the parties are coming to the conclusion that the only thing necessary is to present both sides of the question to every voter and let that voter decide.
That is the only way that pure government can be attained, and it does not cost the immense sums that were formerly spent on various foolish and showy exploits. This year the managers will be compelled from general poverty to approach to that ideal position. It will do no harm and may become the rule hereafter. Let us hope that the nation has reached a point in this matter from which there will need be no retreat.

Let history judge. I can't help but think that campaign spending, and hence campaign donations have skyrocketed beyond the numbers, even adjusted for inflation, that appalled this writer. I have to suspect that fundraising and its accompanying corruptions (particularly the abuse of funds through the creation of 'foundations' and nepotistic hiring practices) have reached new levels following the emergence of TV commercials as the main means of getting out your message.
Here are two questions: First, as a form of political speech, do TV commercials come closer to our writer's ideal of "public speech and printed circular ... present[ing] both sides of the question" or closer to the 'trick[s] of professional stampeders," the "tin and tinsel," and "various foolish and showy exploits"? Second, has the recognition by the Supreme Court in 1976 of campaign donations themselves as a form of political speech immunized big donors and fundraisers from the suspicion and shame that once surrounded them? Depending on your answers, you might try a third question: what's become of this country?