See you in a couple of weeks.
If you had told me ten years ago that a Democratic candidate for president would find himself defending the decision of the most conservative Supreme Court in several generations against a horde of Republican pols (including that party's candidate for the same office) who were condemning the decision as a betrayal of American security, I'd have told you you were nuts.
Chris Matthews adopted two other huge chunks of Republican framing yesterday afternoon. First, he asked his guests about John McCain's change of policy to support offshore oil drilling, announced yesterday afternoon in Houston (which was a terribly courageous place to make that announcement).
Last Wednesday, before
going to a Steely Dan concert that was a grand musical trip through my college
years and young adulthood, my best friend took me on a tour of the mineral
baths in Warm Springs, Georgia that Franklin Roosevelt visited to try first to recover
from and then to live with his polio, and of the nearby “Little White House”
that he retreated to as often as he could, both before and while he was
president (and where he died).
Spending time with both one of my historical heroes and one of my contemporary ones was great fun. It was also really fascinating, and there is a small but interesting museum on the grounds of the “Little White House” that contained numerous articles relating to FDR’s personal and political life, including a mockup of a small living room from a poor sharecropper’s cottage with an old radio playing a recording of one of FDR’s fireside chats.
It was a surprisingly powerful exhibit, conveying really well what it must have meant to millions of desperately poor Americans (many of whom were largely illiterate) to hear the reassurances and plans of their president in his own voice in their own living rooms, and I was reminded of it yesterday, while reading this brilliant article by Marc Ambinder in the Atlantic, which deals with the revolutionary nature of Barack Obama’s campaign for president and the transformational potential of an Obama administration (if he wins).
The whole thing is well worth reading, but the thesis of the piece is that every time there is a new medium through which to communicate with voters, it takes a few years before any politician figures out how to really make use of that medium’s strengths, and when one does, it precipitates major changes in American politics. He cites the example of FDR’s use of radio among other such changes, and says that Obama’s use of the Internet is not only a close but also a completely self-conscious parallel of that transformation.
I’ve written before about Obama’s use of the internet, and I think Ambinder is absolutely right about the potential for change in our politics, as is Micah Sifry in this piece on the Personal Democracy Forum’s techPresident site. Sifry’s piece takes particular note of the same phenomenon I have, that Obama’s organizational independence means big changes for the traditional centers of power in Democratic politics and new ways for candidates to go directly to the American people for support of both political aspirations and legislative muscle once in office.
Ambinder’s article uses JFK as the poster boy for the use of television’s transformative effect, and while that’s certainly the standard formulation, I think Ronald Reagan may be a better choice for the guy who really transformed politics through the use of TV. JFK looked great on TV, and the contrast in their debate appearances in 1960 certainly made Nixon look like a shifty-eyed crook (ironically, Nixon served as VP in an administration that was acutely aware of the impact of making a good impression on TV, and hired the first TV consultant to serve its political and policy aims), but it took St. Ronnie to show us real mastery of the medium to manipulate public opinion directly, and detour around the journalists handling the cameras.
The second piece of
Thursday foolishness on Hardball concerned the issue of John McCain’s age.
Other outlets bought into this story as well, but Hardball’s piece was the
silliest I saw. The premise of the piece (reported by David Schuster, who’s
usually better than this), was that the Democrats and particularly the Obama
campaign are beginning to make an issue (unfairly, it is implied) of McCain’s
age. Schuster cited lines from the Obama camp (and the candidate) about
McCain’s “losing his bearings” over Iraq’s religious differences a few weeks
ago, when McCain repeatedly confused Sunni and Shia factions over three days,
despite having been corrected about the confusion several times.
The piece also made note of several reactions to McCain’s comment on Tuesday’s Today Show that when US troops were withdrawn from Iraq was “unimportant” – Obama and various surrogates called that remark “out of touch” with American opinion, and said that McCain was “confused” about the situation in Iraq and “oblivious” to its dangers.
The piece concludes with the question of whether or not it will backfire on Obama to do this, a question asked without noting that the piece itself was a response to furious efforts at misdirection and damage control from the McCain campaign, which spent most of Wednesday and Thursday claiming that the media had taken McCain’s remarks out of context (they hadn’t) and is being generally mean to their candidate (it’s not).
I can certainly see why McCain would want to preempt criticism of their candidate as being suffering the consequences of advancing age. If elected, he’d be the oldest man ever to take the office, and polls consistently show that as a major source of voter concern about his fitness for office (particularly among older voters, interestingly).
I’m left wondering, though, how McCain’s campaign or the media who are parroting its talking points would propose that Obama criticize the steady stream of misstatements, inconsistencies, and bamboozlement emanating from McCain without using words like “confused” and “out of touch”. It seems to me that Obama’s being kind to McCain by suggesting that he’s confused, since the alternative is that he’s dangerously incompetent, spectacularly ignorant, or flat out lying to avoid having to address the dangerous flaws in his policy prescriptions.
Attacking the inconsistencies in McCain’s statements could conceivably cause a backlash of sympathy for him, but Obama doesn’t seem to have much alternative. McCain’s service in the Navy and his heroic resistance to torture in a Vietnamese prison camp unquestionably make him an American hero, but they are a long way from having turned him into a great strategic thinker, and it would be an abdication of his duty to the American people for Obama to simply ignore the factual errors and analytical flaws in McCain’s statements for fear that criticizing them will be interpreted as age bias.
McCain appears remarkably energetic for a man his age, and his confusion may not have anything to do with how old he is. Obama hasn’t actually said McCain is confused, oblivious, or out of touch because he’s old, and the reality is that the reasons for his confusion are unimportant to the country he wants to lead. What is important is the fact of those confused statements, regardless of the reason, and if McCain wants to see criticism of that confusion stop, he should explain it and stop using the misunderstandings it creates to try to advance his cause.
Thursday’s Hardball show on
MSNBC had an even higher concentration of idiocy that usual, and two segments
in particular deserve mention. The first example is actually shared by Matthews
and CNN’s Situation Room, as both ran pieces on the concerns generated by
foreign bids to buy several US assets (at fire sale prices produced by the
decline in the US dollar).
There is legitimate reason to be concerned about some kinds of national assets being owned by foreign investors. There were three examples of foreign purchases cited in the CNN piece; freight rail giant CSX, the Chrysler Building in New York, and the Anheuser-Busch brewing company. Of those three, the only one worthy of mention, it seems to me, is CSX. I can see valid, if somewhat paranoid, questions about the wisdom of putting a critical piece of national infrastructure in the hands of foreign investors who might conceivably not have the best interests of the US at heart. If the foreign investors who own CSX decided that it would serve their national interests to see the US freight rail system crippled, they would be in a unique position to cripple it. (Of course, it would be no less crippled if commercial interests in the US bought a huge stake in the freight rail system to dismantle it in service of their commercial interests – that’s part of what happened to the passenger rail system, after all.)
The second sale cited in the CNN piece was the Chrysler Building, and the risk seem to me to be pretty close to non-existent in that case. It’s a lovely piece of landmark NY architecture, but even if foreigners do buy it, they can’t take it anywhere, and in the highly unlikely scenario in which it’s allowed to crumble under a regime of malign neglect, the loss will be largely symbolic – there’s plenty of other office space in New York, and the real estate market will control the rental rates regardless of who owns the building.
Which brings us to the third foreign investment “crisis” in the CNN piece, and (naturally) the one featured in Hardball’s story – Anheuser-Busch. There’s apparently a $42 billion bid to buy the company from a Belgian brewing giant called INBEV, which owns, Bass, Becks, Stella Artois, and a host of other brands around the world.
You have to wonder what Matthews is worried about here – does he think Budweiser will get too good for American taste? Does he worry that the evil Belgians will deprive the nation of its passion for crappy beer? My only concern with this sale is the amount of cash it would put in the hands of the Busch family, many of whose politics would curl most Americans’ hair, but it is their company, and the nation has survived the presence of staggeringly rich, right wing whacko beer magnates before (indeed, it’s something of a national tradition), so I expect we’ll survive again.
Tim Russert died yesterday. He was the ultimate villager in Washington, and his reporting often reflected the conventional wisdom in that town, with all the failings that implies, but he had an infectious love of politics, he managed to convey it to the large audience who tuned in every Sunday for Meet the Press, and his questions of his guests were worth hearing the answers to as often as not. I often disagreed with him, but I usually watched, and always appreciated his zest for the subject matter.
CNN’s “Situation Room” yesterday afternoon ran a package from producer/correspondent Brian Todd about the recent
flap about lobbyists’ prominence in the campaigns of the presidential
candidates. The peg for the story was the flap about Obama’s VP vetting boss Jim
Johnson, and the gist of it was that Washington is full of lobbyists, that some
are lobbying for very good causes, that one can neither campaign nor govern
without having lots of them around, and that the concern about their influence
in Washington is both overstated and naïve.
It’s certainly true that Washington is full of lobbyists, and it’s also true that some of them are lobbying for good causes (the Sierra Club employs lobbyists, as do a variety of social justice movements, for example). I’d say that the assertion that campaigning and governing without them is impossible is dramatically overstated, though, and I strongly disagree that concern about their influence is overstated or naïve.
More to the point, the entire premise of the piece is flawed. Todd lumps all efforts by all lobbyists into a single type of effort, and says that on balance, it’s not so bad. That’s a little like saying that all in all, cutting people with knives is a good thing, without making any distinction between doctors who perform surgery on people to make them healthier and thugs who slit people’s throats to take their money. If we couldn’t make the distinction between the two, we might tolerate the thugs in order to get the benefit of the surgeons or we might not, but the point is that we can distinguish between them, so we don’t have to make such a devil’s bargain.
The same is true for lobbying. Some lobbying is done by citizen’s groups, who band together to see that their representatives note their views. Whether we agree of disagree with the specific agendas or arguments of the NRA or the Sierra Club (to pick two such groups who share few members), it’s pretty hard to make a case that they shouldn’t be allowed to present their cases to our lawmakers. The problem isn’t with the lobbying per se, but with who does it and why, and most importantly, with the methods they employ and the effect of those methods on our public discourse.
The nation’s pharmaceutical companies’ lobbying organizations are qualitatively different entities from the “Right to Life” movement. They are looking out for commercial interest, not public interest, and the extent to which the two intersect is purely coincidental – when the officers of a corporation begin to look out for anything other than pure profit, they are failing to serve their shareholders’ profit interests, and are therefore guilty of fiduciary malpractice. Not so the RTL bunch – they have no direct commercial interests at stake when they make their case, and they should therefore be received differently in the corridors of power (I would oppose their arguments, but I don’t quarrel with their right to make them).
In addition to the difference between the nature of different types of lobbying organizations, there is a critical distinction among the methods employed by different lobbyists. It’s one thing to make an argument for lawmakers to consider, and it’s entirely another to be so closely tied to a public official that you are writing policy for them, or so intimately involved with that official’s political and economic future that your views on policy form his or hers without your official involvement in their decisions. It’s these latter types of lobbying methods that have proved so corrosive to our policymaking process, and the eradication of which Obama has made a centerpiece of his campaign.
Whether or not Jim Johnson’s services to Obama’s campaign fall within the bounds of involvement that are cause for concern is certainly open to discussion (personally, I’m inclined to think that Johnson’s perfectly legal deals with Fannie Mae aren’t inherently problematic, but that they would have served as a distraction and that Obama was therefore right to let him go). However, Todd’s story for the “Situation Room” conflates these two types of lobbying methods (making a case vs. controlling a politician’s agenda) with one another, and also conflates the two types of lobbyists, corporate/commercial and citizens groups.
This afternoon, we got
treated to the spectacle of a Congressional committee calling the FDA on the
carpet for failing to prevent the spreading contamination of tomatoes with salmonella (over 225 people have now gotten sick, the number is growing, and the FDA is still not sure how it started).
The flap has to do with the privatization of the FDA’s testing operation, with Congress
people asking the FDA if the privatized companies have met their obligations in
protecting the public.
I’m all for safety in the food supply, and I can understand why Congress would want to hold hearings to find out what’s up with this latest outbreak, and see if there’s anything to be done to prevent it from happening again, but it’s a bit rich watching a Marsha Blackburn, a Republican representative from Tennessee, grilling the FDA representative and then scolding him about dereliction of duty, when years of Republican Congresses have eviscerated the FDA, EPA, OSHA, FTC, and dozens of other regulatory and public protection departments of government.
It’s too early to know if an FDA that hadn’t had its enforcement budget sliced to ribbons could have prevented this outbreak, as we don’t know yet how it spread. What we do know is that that enforcement budget has been pared down past the bone, as have the enforcement budgets of many other agencies. It’s all part of getting government out of people's way by drowning it in a bathtub, so let’s not lose sight of the fact that part of the solution, instead of berating civil servants who are trying to do their best with ever-dwindling resources, will be to drain the tub and let the drowning victim up for air.
John McCain addressed the
National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) this morning, and in that
address, he made two primary claims: that Barack Obama will raise taxes, and
that he wants to “unilaterally renegotiate NAFTA”.
Both of these claims are spectacularly disingenuous. First, leaving aside the actual pros and cons of renegotiating NAFTA for a moment, I have a question about the rhetoric itself. How does he imagine that a unilateral negotiation works? Where I went to school, negotiations are by their nature incapable of being “unilateral”, so this accusation is absurd on its face.
Aside from the silliness of accusing someone of wanting to enter into a “unilateral negotiation” (something only someone well schooled in George W. Bush’s foreign policy could even contemplate without their head exploding), McCain ignores the very real reasons that NAFTA needs revisiting. The agreement as passed had a number of provisions in it to protect American jobs and the environment from being the victim of a race to the bottom in cost-cutting, and those provisions have largely been ignored in the implementation of the treaty. That needs fixing, or the agreement’s a bad deal. Fixing those deficiencies, though, isn’t the same as scrapping the treaty altogether, and to equate the two is simply false.
Second, the tax increase McCain accuses Obama of talking about will affect exactly 3% of the nation’s citizens, and that 3% is part of the group that has seen the most spectacular increase in relative wealth over the last 20 years, an increase so significant that the differences between that group and the rest of Americans is now higher than it has been in almost 100 years (it’s no coincidence that this is the time period that saw the US’s rise to prominence as the world’s strongest economy, a status that is now under real threat for the first time since World War II).
The underlying claim here is that raising taxes on that group’s earnings will make it more difficult for people to find jobs and so deepen the recession, but even though it has been repeated so often that it has become accepted as a commonplace, there’s simply no credible evidence to support that claim.
By contrast, McCain wants to keep Bush’s tax cuts for that group that he found “unconscionable in time of war” only five years ago in place, and add to them a cut in the corporate tax rate that will add over a trillion dollars to the debt in short order, at a time when our infrastructure is crumbling, our Army and Marines are desperately trying to deal with the effects of an underfunded war in Iraq (the equipment replacement bill alone will be staggering and will take years to pay off), and public investment is the surest way to stem the tide of rising unemployment by investing in projects that will serve us for decades to come.
Obama answered McCain’s accusations by saying that not only was such a plan irresponsible, but that to call McCain’s “plan” a continuation of George Bush’s policy was unfair - to George Bush. He’s right – McCain’s economic policy owes less to George Bush than it does to another great Republican President.