December 2003 Archives


Monday, December 29, 2003

The Great Divide. What is it that really separates Democrats from Republicans? Is it a disagreement about the size of the government or of its deficits? In the last twenty-three years the Democrats have demonstrably been better at shrinking government than the Republicans have been. Does that mean that the Republicans are really the liberal spenders and the Democrats the flinty fiscal conservatives? It doesn't matter what they say. Look at what they've done.

Is the real difference about values? Is it that the conservative Republicans are for traditional American values whereas the Democrats are libertarians? But aren't principled conservatives against governmental social engineering projects? Don't they want to keep government uninvolved with what should be the proper domain of the churches and other institutions in the private sector? But how else should the moralistic, quasi-theocratic program of the religious-right Republicans be characterized if it is not governmental social engineering?

Does the difference lie in foreign policy? When Clinton went into the Balkans, the Republicans objected. When the Republicans went into Iraq, the Democrats objected. It's almost as if the difference between the two parties has more to do with the way one roots for the Yankees or the Red Sox. It's not what one does or thinks; it's that one just hates what the other does because, well, they're the Yankees. Whatever they do is just wrong.

Is it about the economy? What did the Republicans really object to about Clinton's economic policies in principle? Was it NAFTA? Was it his support of free trade and the WTO? Just what was it? Or was it just that Clinton was on the other team?

The truth is that principle or philosophy has very little to do with it. It has to do with interests. The Republicans have traditionally supported the interests of big money and the Democrats the interests of labor, minorities, and the environment. It used to be that big money wanted small government because the smaller the government the less powerful any potential opposition to prevent it from doing what it pleased. But if big money can control big government and make it do what it wants, there's nothing wrong with big government anymore.

It used to be that the Democrats represented the interests of ordinary working people, but since the gradual diminution of the power of unions since the eighties, the Democrats have slowly drifted into the orbit of big money. Clinton supported NAFTA despite intense union opposition. Even business-minded independents like Ross Perot were further to the left on that than were the DLC Democrats.

For this reason a lot of people have come to see that there is very little difference between Democrats and Republicans. There is no longer any counterweight to the influence wielded by big money. And the bottom line has been since Reagan, that if big money isn't for it, it won't happen. If big money is for it, it will.

The central issue of our time is not the divide between Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives--it's the divide between power wielded by a relatively small, relatively unified group of people with enormous wealth versus a second, far broader range of people divided by all of the numberless things that fragment American society.

I don't, of course, think that the first group has engineered the social fragmentation that afflicts contemporary American Society, but social fragmentation clearly serves its interests. The political leader that will be the greatest threat to the interests of big money is the one that can unify the second group.

That's not going to happen soon; there are just too many obstacles in the short run. Howard Dean or any of the other Democratic hopefuls are unlikely candidates to fill this role. Dean's small-donation internet fundraising and his apparent shift from what had been center-right DLC positions as Governor of Vermont to a more populist-progressive call to "take back America" is a hopeful sign.

But the best that can be hoped for in the next presidential election is to buy some time, to slow down this inexorable shift toward plutocracy until more people in the second group catch on to what's happening. And then, it is to be hoped, a popular movement will arise to redress the balance.


Tuesday, December 23, 2003

The X-Factor. Beltway conventional wisdom holds that Dean doesn't have a chance against Bush next year. It could be right. Here's a good summary of that position:

In order to win the White House, Democrats have to show they're tough on terror and not allow themselves be typecast as arrogant or morally permissive, which is how Republicans painted Gore. This requires them to put some emotional distance between their nominee and the hard-core socially liberal, antiwar base. The concessions it requires are less substantive than symbolic.

But that's just what Dean cannot do. His high-profile association with civil unions, fierce antiwar stance, obvious discomfort with religion, make Dean highly vulnerable. (In the general election, that is. In the primary, all those things have helped him, including his railing against "the fundamentalist preachers.") Moreover, all evidence suggest he doesn't want to adopt the New Dem strategy. Dean constantly repeats arguments made by party liberals against the DLC during the 1980s--that Democrats should concentrate on exciting the base rather than persuading the center; that he can win over culturally conservative voters simply by changing the subject to economics; and that conceding anything to the Republican position constitutes a moral and strategic capitulation. Dean seems convinced that his own magnetism, or the power of the Internet, will suddenly render unnecessary all the compromises that liberals find so distasteful. Sadly, it may take an electoral drubbing to knock some sense into them.

I think the x-factor here, the thing that makes the Dean candidacy less predictable than conventional wisdom might think, is the strength of the outraged opposition Bush has galvanized in his turning out to be anything but the compassionate, centrist Republican he presented himself to be during his 2000 campaign. Dean himself is an example of this outraged opposition. He's no radical, despite how the Republicans want to paint him. He's someone who represents a fairly broad constituency of people who are genuinely alarmed at the direction that the Republicans, with DLC compliance, are taking the country.

Dean correctly identifies DLC types like Lieberman as belonging to the Republican wing of the Democratic Party. What puts them there is their acquiescence to the Republican dismantling of the New Deal /Great Society system, and of their (anti-populist/progressive) acquiescence to the "reality" that the K-Street corporate special interests call the shots in Washington.

Lieberman, Evan Bayh, and other Democratic Leadership Council types are what used to be called moderate Republicans. There's really no such thing as a moderate Republican anymore, so the DLC is filling the vacuum created by the Republican lurch to the right. In doing so the DLC has created another vacuum left of center that Dean is trying to fill. Gore recognized this and tried to do what he could to support Dean's attempt to fill it by his endorsement of Dean a couple of weeks ago.

This center-left hole is why people like me feel alienated from the political process and feel that we don't have a choice in most national elections. It's a hole that needs to be filled by somebody, and I think that the candidate who effectively does so will find that there is a lot of support among ordinary Americans for the positions a candidate would take should he position himself there. Right now I'd say there are three areas where Dean, if he runs as a candidate filling the center-left hole, needs to articulate what he stands for:

First, he needs to deal with the basic values question. A center-left position is one that all fair-minded, non-fanatic Americans should be able to feel comfortable with. It affirms traditional American values such as hard work, self-reliance, fairness, compassion, decency, respect for rights. If handled in a clear-headed, non-defensive way, the gay civil unions issue can be finessed as question of basic rights and fairness. This can be done without appearing to be endorsing the flakier elements in the far left. Then change the subject to the second and most important piece:

The economics question. This is where the "Take Back America" theme I wrote about yesterday comes in. Or another way of putting it is "Who owns America?" I think that there is enormous latent power in this theme, and if the Dean campaign can find a way of catalyzing and directing the frustration that so many Americans feel about it, they will have found an x-factor that Beltway punditry hasn't anticipated or been able to take the measure of yet. And I think it's this x-factor that will be the key to Dean to victory, if there's to be one.

Foreign Policy/Security is the third area. Terrorism will continue to a threat, and Dean will have to show that he's serious about dealing with it. Again, there's a strong case to be made here that the Bush strategy has been counterproductive. This misadventure in Iraq has been a misallocaton of human an financial resources. It's been a diplomatic disaster. And the bottom line is that it has forced us to take our eye off the ball, which is the much bigger threat posed by superempowered terrorists like bin Laden, not tyrants like Saddam. The real threat is al-Queda, not Iraq. He will also have to make a compelling case for a sensible multi-lateralism in dealing with terrorists and rogue states.

In my view if Dean can succeed in making a compelling case for the basic approach along the lines of the one I've outlined here, I think he can win. The key is filling the center-left hole that's gaping open right now on the left-right political spectrum. If he can do that effectively, I think there will be a potency in his campaign that will surprise a lot of people. More on this as we go along.


Monday, December 22, 2003

Disgruntled Republicans. There was a thoughtful post in my local Seattle P-I from a lifelong Republican who is asking the right questions. An excerpt:

I initially supported the war in Iraq, but now I must admit that if it were my son killed in that helicopter crash, patriotism is not the only feeling that I would be experiencing. The wars we have fought lately have not instilled in me a belief that these people are dying for their country as much as for their president's agenda -- and I wonder why I am so willing to support a war that is justifiable enough to risk the lives of other people's children, but nowhere near justifiable enough to risk the lives of my own.

You see, in addition to the 5-year-old twins, I have a 16-year-old stepson still asleep in his room. Would his death in a war like this leave me feeling patriotic or just angry? Call me unpatriotic, un-Republican or even un-American, but I can't find many things about this war that would validate in me the loss of my child.

I remember the Kosovo war and the frustration Republicans felt when we exposed thousands of soldiers to danger with no exit strategy. Though I don't think it would be smart to leave Iraq before we are finished, I would like to know if someone I voted for has any idea when we will be finished.

I've been a Republican my whole life. When it comes to the issues, Democrats still don't represent my beliefs, for the most part. I am used to that, but I'm not used to the Republicans also failing to represent my beliefs.

What do you do, when faced with a ballot, and nobody on it represents you? Still, we wonder why 50 percent of us never vote.

Near the end he puts his finger right on the question I've been addressing in my columns and on this website, namely, why aren't ordinary Americans presented with political choices that represent the issues that they really care about? The writer quoted is probably an American with traditional values who just doesn't feel comfortable with what he perceives to be the left-liberal social values of the Democrats. But the Republicans, whose social values he does feel comfortable with, don't pursue policies on the ground that represent his real interests, either.

Why? Because the political process has been almost completely coopted and therefore corrupted by special interests who have the money to amplify their voices in a way that drowns out the concerns of most sane Americans.

When I hear Dean's slogan, "Take back America," that resonates with me. Ordinary people need to take back the political process so that it represents their needs rather than the needs of those who could care less about the common good. Whether Dean is a guy who can deliver on that is still an open question for me, but Bush has already proven that whatever his rhetoric to the contrary, he's a toady for big money and that if he's allowed to continue in office, he will continue to pursue an agenda which is designed to give big money more and more unregulated freedom to do as it pleases.

We've been there, done that--during the gilded age of the robber barons after the Civil War through the 1920s. And the progressive movement arose around the turn of the century in a much needed effort to balance the interests of ordinary Americans against the interests of the few who had money and power enough to do pretty much what they pleased. They could do what they pleased because there was no vehicle powerful enough to stop them. And what they were pleased to do had very little to do with the interests of most ordinary Americans.

I understand business's frustration with regulation and government bureaucracy. A lot of it is silly and counter-productive. But the deregulation and privatization policies being pursued by the Bush Administration are not just about making common-sense adjustments to a workable system in order to make it work better. This administration's agenda is radical in its intent to dismantle the system, and the result will be to return us to the age of the robber barons. It's no coincidence that Enron is based in Texas. (See Michael Lind's book Made in Texas if you need it spelled out for you.)

The administration's agenda is pretty clearly designed to shrink a government that is in the long run the only protection the ordinary people have against the depredations of the powerful. Government had to grow in size and power to counterbalance the size and power of the corporations. If government isn't big enough and powerful enough to protect the common good, what other vehicle will ordinary Americans have to protect it?

In an ideal world we'd all be self-reliant, small-scale entrepreneurs who would use the political process to work out whatever conflicts there might be between the interests of one relatively small group against another. In an ideal world all government would be local, small scale, manageable. But we don't live in an ideal world; the real world is driven by big money, and big money cares only about big money. And the rest of us need big government to keep big money in check.

But there's a problem now which is that big government is in the hands of big money, and this is an alliance that will lead us to disaster if left unchallenged. That's why we need a resurgent neopopulist progressivism. It's time for ordinary Americans to take back their government.


Friday, December 19, 2003

Making Progress. "Invoking emergency powers, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a fiscal crisis in California on Thursday and said he would bypass the Legislature to impose $150 million in spending cuts.decisive action Arnold slashed spending by $150 million in an effort to reduce California's devastating $15 billion dollar projected deficit for next year," reports the NY Times today.

It's lonely at the top when you have to make the tough decisions.

Now I can't claim by any stretch of the imagination to be a fiscal expert, but according to my math, that leaves $14,850,000,000 in cuts to go. In fact this $150 million covers, what, about 3% of the $4 billion in lost revenues from Arnold's sticking to his promise to repeal the vehicle license fee increase imposed by Gray Davis.

Excuse my skepticism, but if there are any grownups in California, can you please explain to me how Arnold is going to put a dent in this deficit without raising taxes?


It's Miller Time. What's with Dennis Miller? I'll give him credit for having an independent mind and saying what he thinks no matter what the fashion in the show-biz circles he travels. He's a bright guy and sometimes funny. But he has a rather bizarre way of connecting the dots. In a Time magazine interview, he's asked about the connection between the war in Iraq and 9/11, and he says,

Like there's no chance that the secular state of Iraq and Islamic fundamentalists cohabitate? They both think we're Satan. How about that as a nice point of departure for them car-pooling? I wish there was a country called al-Qaedia that we could have invaded, but there wasn't. (Saddam was) the only one who had a home address.

So the thinking is as follows: Party A hits us. We can't locate Party A, so let's hit Party B because, well, they don't like us either.

Primitive doesn't even begin to describe the level at which this type of thinking is taking place. But as Miller says later in the interview, "I feel more politically engaged than I've ever felt in my life because I do think we live in dangerous times, and anybody who looks at the world and says this is the time to be a wuss—I can't buy that anymore."

I guess before his 9/11 conversion experience, Miller thought that the world was a smiley-face kind of place and it was ok to be a wuss.

Why do I even spend a minute talking about this kind of nonsense? Because it's representative thinking justified by even the brightest people since 9/11. Miller and a lot of other self-absorbed and overly insulated Amercans woke up to the fact that the world is a place where nasty things happen. This points to one of the most annoying characeristics of the conservative mind: It thinks that it has a more realistic understanding of the world, that it represents the thinking of the grownups who understand how things really work. In fact their understanding of things is childishly naive and simplistic.

But the most annoying thing about Miller's style of militarism is its being steeped in a quasi-hysterical if not infantile need to feel safe. Daddy, wipe out those mean nasties who woke me from my nice dream. How curious that this is what it means for Miller to not be a wuss.


Thursday, December 18, 2003

Rhetoric vs. Reality. Several weeks ago I compared two speeches given within a few days of one another, one by Albert Gore and the other by George Bush. I commented on their interesting juxtaposition since Bush's speech was a very eloquent articulation of America's vision of freedom and democracy for the world, while Gore's was a laundry list of things the Bush administration has done to undermine freedom and democracy at home.

The Republicans have developed masterful technique when it comes to telling everyone what they want to hear and then doing something else. Sure, this is the way all politicians operate to some extent. Clinton did it too, but the Democrats aren't in power now. When they come back, if they ever do, we'll call them on it. But the Republicans are in power now, and they are saying one thing and doing the other with a level of cynicism that is disturbingly Orwellian.

Perhaps they justify it to themselves in paternalistic Straussian terms: We have high moral ends and the people aren't sophisticated enough to understand the means to achieve them. But their simply saying so doesn't make it so. And as was pointed out in the Renana Brooks article I excerpted the other day, we Amercans want to think well of ourselves and don't deal well the the cognitive dissonance that results when the facts don't support our moral self-image. When confronted with unpleasant facts, we understandably want to disregard them, or if that's not possible, we seek to find some way to justify them enough so that we can live with them. Cognitive dissonance leads to self delusion.

But the rest of the world doesn't buy into the delusion. Jay Bookman in his column today talks about a discussion he had with foreign nationals who work in American embassies around the world who have come on an educational tour of the United States. In this excerpt from what he had to say about this experience, one of the visitors tells Bookman:

"We watch the American government be friends with this dictator over here and support him, because he will give you the oil or minerals or something that you want," one person stood up to say. "But then with this other dictator over there, who is not so friendly and cooperative, you will start talking about democracy just so you can get rid of him. This is so hypocritical, to use democracy this way, like a weapon. Do Americans think that the world does not understand what it is you are doing?"

The more important question might be how many Americans understand what we are doing. Bookman continues:

Our discussion took place Monday. That very day, 80-year-old Heidar Aliyev, the longtime ruler of Azerbaijan, was being buried in the capital city of Baku. A former KGB general who had run Azerbaijan when it was part of the Soviet Union, Aliyev had continued his harsh rule as dictator after the country became independent in 1993. His funeral was attended by his successor as president of Azerbaijan -- his 41-year-old son, Ilham Aliyev.
The younger Aliyev had been "elected" president in October with 80 percent of the vote in an election that international observers dismissed as a sham. Afterward, street protests were brutally suppressed, opposition figures tossed in prison and opposition press muzzled. And yet, shortly after the fake election, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Baku to congratulate Aliyev on his victory, express support and, according to Azerbaijani officials, to negotiate the stationing of thousands of U.S. troops on bases in Azerbaijan.

Why? Because Azerbaijan possesses enormous reserves of oil and natural gas, hosts a strategically critical oil pipeline and shares a border with Iran. It's a troubling echo of events that occurred 20 years ago this week, when Rumsfeld traveled to Baghdad to greet a man named Saddam Hussein.
Rumsfeld's 1983 visit came mere weeks after Iraq had used chemical weapons against Iran, a crime against humanity that Rumsfeld was polite enough not to mention to Saddam. In 1984, after Saddam used nerve gas against the Iranians, the United States punished Iraq by restoring full diplomatic relations. In 1988, when Saddam used poison gas against his own people, U.S. officials at first tried to shift public blame to Iran, then squashed a Senate resolution condemning Saddam. A little while later, we gave Saddam $1 billion in agricultural credits.

That history is unfamiliar to most Americans, but the rest of the world knows it all too well. They know that when we finally moved against Saddam, it was not to advance democracy or human rights, but because it suited our national interests, just as today it suits us to back a dictator such as Aliyev. They know, because they watch what we do with the same intensity that you would watch a 600-pound tiger locked in the same room with you. They watch every move, and they remember.

That explains, I think, why Americans are so often surprised when other countries express resentment, distrust and even anger at U.S. policies. We look at ourselves in the mirror and see a decent citizen of the world, strong but fair and devoted to the cause of democracy. But increasingly, even our friends look at us in dismay at our capacity for self-delusion.


Wednesday, December 17, 2003

The Pragmatists vs. the Ideologues. An interesting perspective on Iraq from a Fox News military analyst Army Special Forces Major Bob Bevelacqua in David Corn's blog. An excerpt:

The Iraqis don't want to see anyone else send in troops. We have to use the Iraqi people, use their police force, win hearts and minds. It has to be peace through prosperity. We have to give them jobs. The large contracts may have to go to places like Halliburton and Bechtel, but there should be a law that they only can subcontract to an Iraqi company. Let these Iraqi firms team up with foreign companies if they have to, but Iraqi companies should be making the biggest gains from rebuilding their countries.

I spoke to a German who got the contract to restring power lines from Baghdad to Jordan. He said he was going to use Indians, not Iraqis, to restring the lines. He was then told by a prominent Iraqi that the Iraqi people would not stand for this, that Iraqis would be shooting the Indians down from the towers. He had to reconsider. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what is needed. We need to use cross-cultural communication skills to understand the environment and create peace through prosperity. We need the Iraqis to do their own intelligence network, their own security, their own rebuilding.

Q:Why don't they share your view at the White House and the Pentagon?

Ignorance--they just don't know how unconventional war is fought. And arrogance--an inability to listen to the suggestions from others. And there is some professional jealousy. The civilians in the Pentagon don't want to see the Special Forces guys handed another mission.

I thought going to war in Iraq was a good thing. But we are screwing it up. If we change our policies and truly work with the Iraqi people, things can change. If they do not change, we will have another Beirut, another Somalia. We will end up leaving, and it will implode. And that will give us negative PR in the eyes of 1.6 billion Muslims. This is the Super Bowl. Look, we trained and advised the Afghanistan mujaheddin [who battled the Soviet Union in the 1980s] and some of them managed to fight against us later. Our ability to screw things up is immense


Monday, December 15, 2003

The Character Myth. Very interesting article by psychologist Renana Brooks about how the character theme plays out in Republican political strategy. Something to look for in the coming months as the campaign unfolds. Here's an excerpt from a much longer article:

Bush's handlers project the President as a man of character. His team has carefully crafted an image of him as a man who is strong and moral, someone who sticks to his principles and is capable of making tough decisions. This phenomenon was foretold by media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who warned: "Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be."

Theory soon became reality. Ronald Reagan was the first American politician to demonstrate the power of what I call the character myth, a project launched by his speechwriter Peggy Noonan, whose biography of him was titled When Character Was King. The character myth relies on the psychological phenomenon that a person who speaks frequently and passionately about morals is generally regarded as a moral person.

According to the character myth, a person who demonstrates that he has "character" need not present any evidence in support of his policies or decisions. They are simply assumed to be correct, since they come from a person with the ineffable quality known as "character." Even though Reagan was divorced and many of his Hollywood friends hardly saw him as a paragon of morality, he managed to present himself in politics as an exemplar of "family values." Reagan was seen as having character for sticking to his principles. He was widely viewed as someone who cut taxes, even after actually raising them. Americans simply ignored all data that did not fit the myth.

Similarly, Bush's handlers use the rhetoric of morality to bypass people's resistance to his ideas and to convince them that they should not go beyond their core belief that "Bush is doing the right thing." This imagery of strength and morality is inspired by the ideas of conservative philosopher Leo Strauss, who has strongly influenced many within the inner circle of the Bush Administration. . . .Strauss feared the mediocrity that he believed was inherent in democratic societies. He argued that when a strong political leader explains his policies he should develop a mythology for the consumption of the general public that hides his true motivations, because the people will not accept the boldness of the leader's initiatives if they are presented in an unvarnished fashion. This mythology should use the language of morality to mask the candidate's real interests, which are his own survival in power and his ability to continue to exert dominance over the populace.

Psychologists have long understood that people who hold views that are mutually inconsistent, or who perform actions that depart from their values or that threaten their positive self-image, will experience discomfort. This is known as cognitive dissonance. People naturally choose to remove the discomfort through rationalization, thus repairing their self-image as people who are reasonable and moral and act in ways consistent with their values. Bush's leadership style and use of language essentially have created cognitive dissonance in the electorate. The more that Americans observe the Bush presidency pushing policies they do not support, and would normally question, the more they confront the choice of whether to oppose him actively or rationalize away their discomfort.

Many Americans have chosen the latter because the President has convinced them that the situation is desperate and that only he can handle the continuing crisis. The more they depend upon Bush, the more they rationalize away any objections they may have to his specific ideas and policies. In this manner, Bush has forged an emotional, visceral relationship with the nation, successfully bypassing conscious resistance and stripping away any sense that he needs to answer to a higher legal or constitutional authority beyond his personal moral force.


Saddam's Capture. I don't have anything to say that hasn't been said by others better. Here's a pretty good summing up (scroll down) by University of Michigan Mideast expert Juan Cole.

Seeing a captive, disheveled Saddam on television this morning released a cascade of memories for me. I remembered the innocent Jews brutally hanged in downtown Baghdad when the Baath came to power in 1968; the fencing with the Shah and the Kurds in the early 1970s; the vicious repression of the Shiites of East Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala in 1977-1980; the internal Baath putsch of 1979, when perhaps a third of the party's high officials were taken out and shot, so that Saddam could become president; the bloody invasion of Iran in 1980 and the destruction of a whole generation of Iraqi and Iranian young men in the 1980s (at least 500,000 dead, perhaps even more); the Anfal poison gas campaign against the Kurds in 1987-88; Halabja, a city of 70,000 where 5,000 died where they stood, their blood boiling with toxic gases, little children lying in heaps in the street; the rape of Kuwait in 1990-91; the genocide against the Shiites that began in spring of 1991 and continued intermittently thereafter; the destruction of the Marsh Arabs; the assassinations, the black marias, the Fedayee Saddam. Yes, the United States was not innocent in some of this. Perhaps they cooperated in bringing the Baath to power in the first place, as an anti-Communist force. They certainly allied with Saddam against Iran in the 1980s, and authorized the purchase of chemical and biological precursors. But the Baath was an indigenous Iraqi phenomenon, and local forces kept Saddam in place, despite dozens of attempts to overthrow him.

A nightmare has ended. He will be tried, and two nations' dirty laundry will be exposed, the only basis on which all can go forward towards a new Persian Gulf and a new relationship with the West.

Friday, December12, 2003

Bush Hating. I think Krauthammer in his column today misses what's really driving the Dean campaign. He says about it:

The story of this campaign is the energy and anger of the Democratic base. It is the reason an unknown and undistinguished former governor of Vermont is now the front-runner. He captured and then bottled the anger.

The anger appears odd, given that George W. Bush is fairly mild-mannered. He is no Richard Nixon. Democrats did not hate him in 2000. Yet many hate him now because of 2000, because they believe his entire presidency to be illegitimate.

CK seems to be genuinely perplexed about why so many people don't like his good 'ol boy. So he had an epiphany this week after Gore endorsed Dean: "That's it! All this senseless, incomprehensibile Bush hating is about the 'stolen' 2000 election!"

Oh, please. It plays a role, but a minor one.

A more likely explanation why so many people are upset about Bush is the way the country has taken a wild swing to the right in the last three years. If Bush 2's administration were like Bush 1's, in the moderate traditional Republican mold, no matter how controversial the circumstances surrounding his election, this would be a ho-hum election season. Nobody would care, and some ponderous, traditional liberal like Kerry would be the Democrats' front-runner.

Krauthammer seems to believe that this administration's policies are "normal". He's clearly been living in the Beltway too long where the weirdest things can after a while seem normal. This administration is not normal; it's radical. And it's this that has gotten normal people who are paying attention so riled up and has galvanized their opposition to it. Dean is the focus point because among the serious Democratic candidates, he's the only one who has forcefully refused to accept the Republicans' right-wing definition of normalcy.

It's hardly a referendum on GWB's innocuous personality. He seems like a normal, likable guy, but what his administration is doing is hardly normal or likable.


Thursday, December 11, 2003

Neo-Populism: An idea whose time has come? Big government is not going away, no matter what the principled conservatives might want. It grows even larger when Republicans are in office than when Democrats are. The question is whom does it serve? From the Des Moines Register:

[With] the GOP in full control of both the White House and Congress, the government is growing faster than ever.

So maybe we can stop having the tiresome argument over Big Government vs. Small Government.... The argument was always a little off-point anyway. The size of the government matters, but not as much as something else - whose side the government is on. Does it work for the general public or the favored few?

Government didn't get big in a vacuum.... Government started to grow in the age of the robber barons when people demanded an ICC to protect them from being gouged by the railroad monopolies. Then came such things as antitrust laws, banking regulations, a progressive income tax, wage and hour laws... all intended to look out for the interests of ordinary Americans who, as individuals, were powerless against big guys who might be tempted to gouge them, cheat them, underpay them, overwork them or pollute their environment....

It took a while, but the big guys eventually figured out a way to fight back. They began pushing the philosophy of small government. If the government were smaller, it would bother the big guys a lot less.

The movement was couched in terms such as "deregulation" and "getting government off our backs" and "cutting taxes." It has had great success....
Here's the interesting twist: The small-government advocates ended up in full charge of the government - yet it keeps growing. Perhaps they discovered they really didn't want a small government. They just wanted a government they could co-opt. Such a government doesn't get in their hair and can be milked for billions in subsidies.

So ordinary Americans now, arguably, have the worst of both worlds. They have a big government that has been taken over by the very same big guys the government was originally enlarged to protect them against.
That's one way of looking at things, anyway.

And, in varying degrees, it is essentially the interpretation of events being offered by the Democratic presidential contenders.

That's what front-runner Howard Dean's slogan - "take America back" - is all about.

If that interpretation continues to resonate, the Democratic mantra of "It's the economy, stupid" may be replaced by "Hey, stupid, whose side should the government be on?"

This points to an important stategic consideration for Democrats regarding how the economy issue plays during the campaign. The business cycle worked in Clinton's favor in '92, and it looks like it will work in Bush's favor in '04. So the real question about government responsibility for the economy shouldn't be are we in a downturn or upturn, but whose economic interests does the government serve? The Democrats need to find a way to keep the Republicans' defense on the field dealing with this question.


Wednesday, December 10, 2003

I've been sruprised at how big a deal all of punditry seems to be making of Gore's endorsement of Dean. Here's Andrew Sullivan's take:

. . . the Gore endorsement is, I think, a Very Big Deal. Above all, it reveals the real struggle within the Democratic Party. In 2000, Gore broke decisively with Clinton and the center. Some say this was pure expediency or just Shrummery. I actually think it was genuine. Gore has emerged in these last few years as a real left-wing populist. He wants to soak the corporations, enlarge the welfare state, raise taxes and stand up for minority civil rights. He's also a Bush-hater for understandable personal reasons. A man who has spoken for MoveOn is a natural Dean supporter and his endorsement, when you think about simply the issues, is an obvious one. What you are seeing among the Democrats right now is therefore a classic right-left split, with the Clintons representing the right (and the party establishment) and Dean emerging as a left-wing threat to their power (using the web to foment his peasants' revolt). Gore ran against Clinton last time (it's what lost him the election, in my view); and it makes perfect sense for him to join the anti-Clinton insurrection now. Hillary's positioning as a hawk might even have been a pre-emptive strike against Gore-Dean. So we have a real ideological split here, and the future of the Dems as a mainstream party is at stake.

Sometimes I wonder what planet Sullivan is on. He was telling us well into the summer to just wait, all those Bush haters are going to be so embarrassed when they finally find the WMD. And now he's trying to paint Gore as some radical left whacko. And the proof of it is that he's endorsed the radical leftie Dean.

Come on. Among the Democratic candidates, the only one to the right of Dean is Lieberman. The only "left" thing that Dean has done has been to oppose the war. And his doing so was simply common sense, aided in his case by his mind not being bent by whatever happens to people when they enter the twilight zone otherwise known as the Beltway.

The "future of the Dems as a mainstream party is at stake"?! Kristol (just below) sees Dean much more clearly. I don't know whether Sullivan is disingenuous or just naively sincere in his consistent misreading of the situation. I suspect the latter, but I'm surprised he's taken as seriously as he is.

And what exactly does "wanting to enlarge the welfare state" mean these days to people like Sullivan? Trying to come up with some kind of sensible national health care coverage like the rest of the civilized world? What a whacko left-wing idea that is.


Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Can Dean Beat Bush? Neocon Bill Kristol thinks so. In a column exhorting the the GOP team not to get overconfident, Coach Kristol makes the case that Dean is no Dukakis. My point exactly. I think the GOP should be nervous. Key paragraphs:

And President Bush will be running for reelection after a two-year period in which his party has controlled both houses of Congress. The last two times the American people confronted a president and a Congress controlled by the same party were in 1980 and 1994. The voters decided in both cases to restore what they have consistently preferred for the last two generations: divided government. Since continued GOP control of at least the House of Representatives seems ensured, the easiest way for voters to re-divide government would be to replace President Bush in 2004. And with a plurality of voters believing the country is on the wrong track, why shouldn't they boot out the incumbent president?

But is Dean a credible alternative? Was Kansas State? Dean has run a terrific primary campaign, the most impressive since Carter in 1976. It's true that, unlike Carter (and Clinton), Dean is a Northeastern liberal. But he's no Dukakis. Does anyone expect Dean to be a patsy for a Bush assault, as the Massachusetts governor was?

And how liberal is Dean anyway? He governed as a centrist in Vermont, and will certainly pivot to the center the moment he has the nomination. And one underestimates, at this point when we are all caught up in the primary season, how much of an opportunity the party's nominee has to define or redefine himself once he gets the nomination.


Monday, December 8, 2003

Bowling Alone? Not if you're working for the Dean campaign. Strange article in the NY Times Magazine yesterday that focuses on how the Dean campaign recognizes a need many people have for communities of interest, like bowling leagues, the kind of thing that Robert Putnam in his famous book Bowling Alone says has evaporated in American social life since the fifties and sixties. An interesting idea, but the Times writer makes Dean headquarters sound like ground zero for the Lonely Hearts Club.


So Gore endorses Dean today. It looks like all the early momentum is going Dean's way. He's a candidate with liabilities, to be sure, but not as many and as big as those George Bush has. I don't think Dean the problem the Democrat insiders think he is. If the Republicans are so eager to face him next Fall, why are they putting up ads against him now? You'd think they'd have a huge line item in their campaign budget to do whatever they could to insure he gets the Democratic nomination.

I like that Dean is tough, aggressive, intelligent, and candid. It's these personal characteristics make him very different from previous losing Democratic candidates like McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, and even Gore, who were all kind of wimpy or stiff in terms of their personal affect. There is definitely a negative side to Dean's strengths, and the Republicans will do their best to exaggerate them. But my hope is that his toughness and aggressiveness are just what is needed at this time to stiffen Democrat resolve. These dudes have just been doormats for the last three years.

But hope is all it is at this point, because I don't really know how Dean's candidacy will play in that amorphous American middle that swings elections one way or the other. Will he be made to appear too aggressive and emotionally unbalanced? Making him lookk that way will be at the heart of the GOP strategy. I think if he and his campaign have any political skill at all, they should be able to fend off the accusation he's Jane Fonda; he's just not. His stance against the war should position him in the coming year as someone who has more common sense and political foresight than most everyone else.

But the bottom line is that anybody the Democrats put up would make a better president than Bush. But while the Republicans have the weaker man, it doesn't matter because he works within their system so well. Doesn't matter who the quarterback is; it's the coach calling the plays, and it's the system that wins the games. And the GOP has a much better system than the Democrats. I think the election will come down to whether the Democrats attacking, innovative style will be able to out maneuver the GOP machine. It's not clear that it will but there is reason to hope.

The GOP knows how to play its guy, and it's his very good-'ol-boy innocuousness and malleability that makes him hard to beat; he's putty in his handlers' hands. Bush won't make many mistakes during the campaign--the system won't allow him to. But you can count on Dean making some pretty bad mistakes, because he's figuring things out as he goes along. Making mistakes is part of innovating, and that can make him appear inconsistent and at times to be something of a loose cannon.

So if I'm a Republican strategist that's what I'll be waiting for--the "mistake." And I'll be looking for ways to bait him into making it. That's where I believe it's going to play out. Will Dean be savvy enough to avoid the traps that will be laid for him and wily enough to extricate himself if he gets caught? But more important, will he have an offensive game plan that can force the GOP to play on its heels? Whoever forces the other side to keep its defense on the field longest wins.


Thursday, December 4, 2003

Alternative Narratives. Marshall McLuhan and JRR Tolkien were both interesting conservative (and devout) Catholics. I think that the impetus for much of their creative work came from their Catholic sensibility and the profound revulsion with the degradation of culture in late modernity. This caused both of them to look elsewhere for relief--Tolkien to the past, McLuhan to the future. I want to talk about Tolkien some time soon, but will probably wait until after the release later this month of The Return of the King, the last installment of Peter Jackson's film version of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. But as with Tolkien, McLuhanite fantasy isn't just pure fabrication. It's informed by a relgious humanism that is peculiarly Western. Here's an excerpt from an inteview McLuhan gave in 1969:

I do see the prospect of a rich and creative retribalized society--free of the fragmentation and alienation of the mechanical age--emerging from this traumatic period of culture clash; but I have nothing but distaste for the process of change. As a man molded within the literate Western tradition, I do not personally cheer the dissolution of that tradition through the electric involvement of all the senses: I don't enjoy the destruction of neighborhoods by high-rises or revel in the pain of identity quest. No one could be less enthusiastic about these radical changes than myself, I am not, by temperament or conviction a revolutionary; I would prefer a stable, changeless environment of modest services and human scale. TV and all the electric media are unraveling the entire fabric of our society and as a man who is forced by circumstances to live within that society, I do not take delight in its disintegration.


There are grounds for both optimism and pessimism. The extensions of man's consciousness induced by the electric media could conceivably usher in the millennium, but it also holds the potential to realize the Antichrist--Yeats' rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Cataclysmic environmental changes such as these are in and of themselves, morally neutral; it is how we perceive them and react to them that will determine their ultimate psychic and social consequences. If we refuse to see them at all, we will become their servants.

It's inevitable that the world-pool of electronic information movement will toss us all about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens to us and what we can do about it, we can come through.

Personally I have great faith in the resiliency and adaptability of man, and I tend to look to our tomorrows with a surge of excitement and hope. I feel that we're standing on the threshold of a liberating and exhilarating world in which the human tribe can become truly one family and man's consciousness can be freed from the shackles of mechanical culture and enabled to roam the cosmos. I have a deep and abiding belief in man's potential to grow and learn, to plumb the depths of his own being and to learn the secret songs that orchestrate the universe. We live in a transitional era of profound pain and tragic identity quest, but the agony of our age is the labor pain of rebirth.

I expect to see the coming decades transform the planet into an art form; the new man, linked in a cosmic harmony that transcends time and space, will sensuously caress and mold and pattern every facet of the terrestrial artifact as if it were a work of art, and man himself will become an organic art form. There is a long road ahead, and the stars are only way stations, but we have begun the journey. To be born in this age is a precious gift, and I regret the prospect of my own death only because I will leave so many pages of man's destiny--if you will excuse the Gutenbergian image--tantalizingly unread. But perhaps, as I've tried to demonstrate in my examination of the postliterate culture, the story begins only when the book closes.

Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Republicans really big-government liberals? The record speaks for itself, no matter what they say contrariwise. It's just that their exorbitant liberality extends mainly to a relatively small group of friends. See E.J. Dionne's column today for a concise summing up of their recent record.

Repbulican fiscal irresponsibility has got principled conservatives pretty upset about the Medicare bill rammed through last week. See also David Brooks' column Saturday in which he voices a resigned pessimism that this is just the way it works within the Beltway. To the victor go the spoils. To hell with principles.

My next column coming soon will be an attempt to understand the mind of the principled conservative, which, agree with it or not, is worthy of respect insofar as it is informed by a genuine moral seriousness. The problem lies is in that the Republicans give lip service to the ideals, and then play the power and greed game with a ruthlessness the Democrats haven't figured out yet how to defense.


Going in Opposite Directions. Wondering what the deal is with Canada these days? An interesting article in today's NY Times about the cultural divergence between te US and Canada. I have to admit that I don't know much or think much about Canada, but after seeing Roger Moore's Bowling for Columbine last year, I've been wondering more about why things should be so different there. An excerpt for the Times article:

To many commentators the two countries seem to be exchanging their traditional roles, one founded in America's birth as a revolutionary country and Canada's as a counterrevolutionary alternative.

During the Depression, under the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States was the progressive force, while Canada stubbornly held on to conservative economic policies.

By the mid-1960's, though, Canada shifted to a far more activist government, moving to a national health insurance system. Not long afterward, the Vietnam War began siphoning popularity from the Great Society experiment of President Johnson. The trends have only widened since.

They can afford to be flakes; we can't--we've got the world to save. Or rule. One or the other. Whatever.


Fun with Electoral Politics. Second Guess the campaign coaches. Monday-morning quarterback each primary contest, and keep score on Superbowl Tuesday. Check Dave Leip's Electoral College Calculator or this page from the Swing State Project. Found both of these through poll watcher Ruy Teixeira's Donkey Rising site, which is worth checking in on regularly.


Novermber Posts