Tag Archives: Presidential Politics


McCain and Obama are evidently locked in a monumental pissing contest battle of political wits over the appropriate response to our mounting economic crisis. McCain wants to call off Friday’s debate and suspend campaigning to formulate a bi-partisan recovery plan. Obama begs to differ. Unlike, say, Ezra Klein, I don’t think either candidate can claim the moral high ground here. McCain, down in nearly every poll, has a tremendous incentive to do something dramatic – the proverbial “game-changer” (How I loathe electoral colloquialisms) – while Obama’s comfortable lead is an eloquent argument in favor of him staying the course.

That said, I do think Obama is right on the merits of the issue. In the midst of our self-inflicted crisis, does McCain bring some vast reserve of financial expertise to the table? Ummm, no . . . Aside from vague mutterings about “protecting the taxpayer,” has McCain put forward any constructive alternative to the proposed bailout? Not even close. I’m more convinced than ever that the McCain camp has seized on the bailout debate as a strategic opportunity. The proposal will inevitably get rammed through the legislature in some form or another, but McCain will get to posture as the taxpayers’ guardian at the expense of real oversight. Given the fact that one of these men will take the reins of government within a couple of months, voters should probably get a chance to actually evaluate their respective economic proposals. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to do that if both candidates stop talking.

It’s also worth noting that if McCain really believed the financial crisis merits a pause in the campaign, he would have approached Obama privately instead of making histrionic public announcements. Any statement that “calls on” Congress and your opponent to follow your lead is transparently self-interested.

UPDATE: C’mon Rod Dreher – don’t fall for this hokum! You’re better than that!

UPDATE II: Time’s Amy Sullivan raises a good point about low-information voters and the importance of the debates.

UPDATE III: Marc Ambinder is en fuego uhhh clearly in the tank for Obama.

UPDATE IV: National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru says what I said, but better.

UPDATE V: I just can’t quit you, Sullivan. Nice catch, though.

UPDATE VI: The Weekly Standard says the move plays to McCain’s strengths:

Policy aside, however, this is McCain’s ballgame. Though I have not often agreed with the ends for which he has brought together both sides of the aisle in the past, if there’s one person who can form a coalition to pass something acceptable, he’s the guy. The picture of McCain at work on the Hill on a truly tough problem in a truly bipartisan way will likely put independents in mind of the McCain they like.

The atmospherics may be favorable, but “mavericky-ness” is a value-neutral characteristic. If McCain uses his legislative voodoo to railroad through $700 gazillion in corporate welfare, will conservatives still praise his independent streak? I think we’ve seen how this movie ends . . .



Filed under Economics, Presidential Politics

Lil’ Barack

Gene Expression highlights Barack Obama’s response to “The Bell Curve,” Charles Murray’s infamous tome on IQ and race. The whole thing is well-worth reading, but two excerpts really jumped out at me. First, Obama’s aggressive take to the book’s central thesis (emphasis mine):

Now, it shouldn’t take a genius to figure out that with early intervention such problems can be prevented. But Mr. Murray isn’t interested in prevention. He’s interested in pushing a very particular policy agenda, specifically, the elimination of affirmative action and welfare programs aimed at the poor. With one finger out to the political wind, Mr. Murray has apparently decided that white America is ready for a return to good old-fashioned racism so long as it’s artfully packaged and can admit for exceptions like Colin Powell. It’s easy to see the basis for Mr. Murray’s calculations. After watching their income stagnate or decline over the past decade, the majority of Americans are in an ugly mood and deeply resent any advantages, real or perceived, that minorities may enjoy.

Second, Barack’s proposed solution to the racial achievement gap (again, emphasis mine):

I happen to think Mr. Murray’s wrong, not just in his estimation of black people, but in his estimation of the broader American public. But I do think Mr. Murray’s right about the growing distance between the races. The violence and despair of the inner city are real. So’s the problem of street crime. The longer we allow these problems to fester, the easier it becomes for white America to see all blacks as menacing and for black America to see all whites as racist. To close that gap, we’re going to have to do more than denounce Mr. Murray’s book. We’re going to have to take concrete and deliberate action. For blacks, that means taking greater responsibility for the state of our own communities. Too many of us use white racism as an excuse for self-defeating behavior. Too many of our young people think education is a white thing and that the values of hard work and discipline and self-respect are somehow outdated.

Obama may have refined his message since 1994, but his core themes haven’t changed much. He attributes residual racism to economic stagnation, which is extremely reminiscent of his comment earlier this year about how voters “cling” to guns and religion because politicians fail to address their economic concerns. His emphasis on personal responsibility also echoes his rhetorical nods to social problems within the black community in both his convention speech and his response to the Reverend Wright controversy. Here’s Obama on social responsibility in the wake of Wright:

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Obama’s transactional view of politics – we give you social programs, you clean up your act – strikes me as both eminently reasonable and totally unrealistic. It’s an attractive rhetorical package, and it effectively co-opts the conservative message of personal responsibility (Obama admits as much in the Wright speech, calling it a “conservative notion”), but it’s basically wishful thinking. People don’t embark on a journey of self-improvement because they’re receiving goods and services from the government unless the assistance is conditions-based, and even then there’s no guarantee.

To be fair, one could argue that an African-American president wielding the bully pulpit to emphasize social responsibility would have some impact on cultural norms. That’s a lot more likely to work than government bribery, but I’m still not entirely convinced.

UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coates has some similar thoughts.

UPDATE II: For what it’s worth, Murray wrote one of the more thoughtful responses to Obama’s big race speech at National Review.

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Filed under Presidential Politics, Race

Assessing Sarah Palin

She’s cool, I suppose. Despite some exaggeration, her reformist credentials are actually fairly impressive, although pork-busting has never really inflamed my political passions. I also like her unorthodox biography and odd political quirks. Her charisma has managed to sway a number of reformist/dissident conservatives whom I respect and enjoy reading. Then again, her candidacy has also prompted Pat Buchanan to declare cultural jihad . . .

The political virtues of the Palin pick are well-known and appear to be paying dividends, but why would she persuade an otherwise undecided voter (particularly a disgruntled conservative) to vote for McCain? Her biography is certainly remarkable, but given her relative inexperience and unfamiliarity with national politics, I doubt she’ll exert much influence on McCain’s legislative priorities. Her speech to the convention was rhetorically powerful but otherwise straightforward small government-national defense boilerplate.

Here’s Palin on war and civil liberties:

This is a man who can give an entire speech about the wars America is fighting, and never use the word “victory” except when he’s talking about his own campaign. But when the cloud of rhetoric has passed … when the roar of the crowd fades away … when the stadium lights go out, and those Styrofoam Greek columns are hauled back to some studio lot – what exactly is our opponent’s plan? What does he actually seek to accomplish, after he’s done turning back the waters and healing the planet? The answer is to make government bigger … take more of your money … give you more orders from Washington … and to reduce the strength of America in a dangerous world. America needs more energy … our opponent is against producing it.

Victory in Iraq is finally in sight … he wants to forfeit.

Terrorist states are seeking new-clear weapons without delay … he wants to meet them without preconditions.

Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America … he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights? Government is too big … he wants to grow it.

Pretty standard stuff, despite the effective delivery. Hardly something meant to instill hope in those of us disillusioned by the Bush Administration’s national security over-reach. And here’s Palin on the economy:

Taxes are too high … he wants to raise them. His tax increases are the fine print in his economic plan, and let me be specific.

The Democratic nominee for president supports plans to raise income taxes … raise payroll taxes … raise investment income taxes … raise the death tax … raise business taxes … and increase the tax burden on the American people by hundreds of billions of dollars. My sister Heather and her husband have just built a service station that’s now opened for business – like millions of others who run small businesses.

Less disagreeable, perhaps, than her commitment to the national security state, but nothing to write home about. What’s more, she doesn’t spend time laying out a specific economic platform or promoting a reformist approach to middle and working-class families. And while the conservative reaction has been euphoric, her talking points haven’t deviated much since the convention. The core of her appeal seems rooted in the same type of identity politics Republicans so often decry.

Over at the American Conservative, Daniel Larison compared Palin to the Harriet Miers nomination. I’d go a step further and suggest that Palin could become the female equivalent of George W. Bush. Her cultural resonance with the conservative base will allow her to sell McCain’s alarmist worldview much more effectively than McCain ever could, and four years as McCain’s understudy may well remove any trace of her unorthodox political upbringing. So while there’s a lot to like about Sarah Palin, I fear that four years in the national spotlight will completely ruin her.


Filed under Conservatism, Presidential Politics

Enough is Enough?

Via Glenn Greenwald, I see that Obama has responded to the “Lipstick Pigs” controversy:

I actually find this pretty persuasive, but, as Greenwald notes, it’s not altogether unprecedented. Here’s Michael Dukakis’s response to George H. W. Bush’s attack ads in 1988:

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I’m fed up with it. Haven’t seen anything like it in 25 years of public life. George Bush’s negative TV ads, distorting my record, full of lies and he knows it. I’m on the record for the very weapons systems his ads say I’m against. I want to build a strong defense. I’m sure he wants to build a strong defense. So this isn’t about defense issues. It’s about dragging the truth into the gutter. And I’m not going to let them do it. This campaign is too important. The stakes are too high for every American family.

Dukakis, of course, was roundly condemned for running a weak-kneed campaign that never effectively responded to Bush’s aggressive tactics. To be perfectly honest, however, the first thing that the Obama clip reminded me of wasn’t the Ghost of Democratic Candidates Past; it was the final speech from “The American President.” To wit:

And here’s the money quote:

Bob’s [Senator Bob Rumson – the President’s Republican rival from the film] problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it! We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character.

We’ve got serious problems, and we need serious people, and if you want to talk about character, Bob, you’d better come at me with more than a burning flag and a membership card. If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I’ll show up. This is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up.

Now, I like “The American President,” but the entire film is basically an exercise in liberal wish fulfillment. I think that intellectuals engaged in politics assume that issues of culture, character, and values are just background noise, and that if you scream loudly enough about “the issues” the People will reward your righteousness at the ballot box.

Tragically, the real world doesn’t work that way. Voting is as much about intuition and identification as it is about issues, if not more so. The media – God bless ’em – isn’t going to cut Democrats any slack because our insatiable news cycle provides a structural incentive to gin up controversy at a moment’s notice. Obama may think he can win by appealing to our better angels, but I wouldn’t count on it.

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Filed under Culture, Presidential Politics, The Media, Uncategorized