July 26, 2008

Barack & the Bradley Effect

Barack Obama's triumphant tour of Europe and our various theaters of war has now come to an end, and he returns to this buzzkill report from the always-respected Quinnipiac poll: Quinnipiac University/Wall Street Journal/ Washingtonpost.Com Poll Finds --- COLORADO: McCain 46 - Obama 44 MICHIGAN: Obama 46 - McCain 42 MINNESOTA: Obama 46 - McCain 44 WISCONSIN: Obama 50 - McCain 39.

Any lead is welcome in the Obama camp, of course, but a different issue is at play in this year's election, namely, the so-called "Bradley Effect," which calls into question the validity of any polling at all, and more on that below.

The above results are for the so-called "swing states," those schizophrenic electorates which bounce between red/blue, Repub/Dem, conservative/liberal. As we all know, we do not actually have a national election, per se; rather, the election of a president essentially boils down to the tallies in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, with a few crucial swing states in play to offset the loss by one of the candidates of one of these decisive states. Almost all the other states (Alabama, Georgia, California, New York, Utah, etc.) really do not need to hold elections at all. A great deal of money could be saved if the two parties would simply stipulate, for example, that California will vote Democratic and Texas will vote Republican. Living in California, I don't think I've ever seen a presidential candidate's ad on TV. I hear about them, if they're especially outrageous, but candidates don't waste their money here. For Obama, California's in the bag and for McCain, he's got less than an ice floe's chance in the Arctic summertime. And despite all the talk of a "50-state" strategy, I doubt seriously that Barack is going to spend a lot of time in Wyoming and Utah.

By doing the sort of superficial research for which bloggers are famous, I have discovered, as I suspected, that all 43 Presidents to date are of just seven nationalities: English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Dutch, German and Swiss. I actually don't know who the Swiss is, but I don't think that really counts as a separate "nationality." Whatever. The overwhelming majority are of the first three British derivations, and even some of the "Irish" are no such thing but Scotch-Irish, which is really UK, not Irish. Like John McCain, for example. The Dutch are easy to spot: Van Buren, the two Roosevelts. Eisenhower's the German. There was one Catholic, as we all know, and all the rest were Protestants, which leaves us with an almost unbroken line of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. No Jews, no Italians, no Greeks, no Poles, no Asians, no Hindus, Muslims or Zoroastrians. Mostly just guys from the Northeast with names like Bush, Wilson, Madison, Lincoln and Adams, and a few Southern crackers like Lyndon Johnson, Carter and Clinton.

Then we got Barack Hussein Obama. The Bradley Effect, as I've noted before, refers to the stunning defeat of Tom Bradley in the gubernatorial race against a nonentity named George Deukmejian in the 1982 California election. Bradley was comfortably ahead in the election eve polls but lost by a slim margin. Pollsters hypothesized that voters were reluctant to answer questions honestly where their real criterion for decision was racially based. However, Obama might take solace from this most recent study of the effect:

"A 2008 study of 133 gubernatorial and Senate elections from 1989 to 2006 found that the effect had largely disappeared by the mid-1990s. It concluded that, 'As racialized rhetoric about welfare and crime receded from national prominence in the mid-1990s, so did the gap between polling and performance.'"
But as we've been musing, a nationwide study is not really directly germane to the question at hand. If we look at things from a macro-perspective, Obama has a large lead, as big as 9 points, at the national level. This data point, however, is almost meaningless; it takes into account his huge leads in the most populous states of California and New York. As I've said, California and New York could save money which they increasingly don't have by drawing straws and then sending a representative group of 1,128 (Gallup can give us the exact number) of their citizens to the polls on election day to lock up the electoral delegations for Obama.

The question is whether the Bradley Effect has any residual currency in states such as -- well, not states such as, the states of --Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. If Obama loses all three of these states, he can't win the election. The problem is, he may very well lose all three states because of the Bradley Effect, and if I were going to pick three populous states where such an effect might come into play, those are the three I would choose. It does not surprise me that Hillary Clinton won Ohio and Pennsylvania handily, and doubtless would have carried the day in Florida by a double digit margin if the primary had not gotten derailed.

So anyway -- on election night, I'll be interested, as I am every four years, to see which candidate Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida elect as their president this time. I don't mean to be too uncharitable, but I have not been too impressed with their choices over the last 30 years or so, with a couple of exceptions. I hope they realize the awesome responsibility they carry, not just to their fellow Americans but to the world at large.

July 24, 2008

The Rock Star Candidate

I watched Barack give his speech in Berlin this morning. He was careful not to pander to his German audience, or to invite comparisons to John F. Kennedy's speech at the Brandenburg Gate, by using German phrases or greetings. Anway, it's not really necessary to speak German to the usually trilingual Berliners, who are in general educated to a level far beyond their American counterparts. This is especially true among German youth, who seemed to dominate the crowd in the Tiergarten.

The speech itself, of course, was mostly content-free. Barack actually seemed a little off his game; the rigors of a long trip were taking their toll. Missing a few words here and there, stumbling, his energy level a little low. It lacked the soaring oratory and accelerating finish his speeches usually feature. Still, it's hard to go too far wrong with anodyne tales of the Berlin airlift or the defeat of Communism when you're speaking to Germans in modern Berlin. Barack reaffirmed his commitment to good things, like international cooperation and an end to oppression. I'll go out on a limb and say I'm for those things too. He took a few swipes at the American unpopularity caused by Bush's intransigence on global warming, the war in Iraq and the torture regime, but they were mild and elliptical. Obama is always a smooth operator; he's more Sugar Ray Robinson than Joe Louis. Beats you on the accumulation of points rather than the knockout punch.

I recall, long ago, an interview with Peter Yarrow, the Peter of Peter Paul & Mary, who has always been a very thoughtful (and talented) singer/songwriter/musician. He was comparing the standing of PP&M to such super-groups as the Stones or the Beatles. "Let's face it," he said, "their magic is bigger than our magic." Gracious and simple in the admission of the obvious. That's the deal with Obama; his magic is bigger than your magic, bigger than John McCain's, bigger than Hillary Clinton's. It doesn't really matter whether he says anything substantial; Bush, with one or two tweaks, could have given the same speech today, or could if it were not inevitable that boos would drown him out. It isn't difficult to be for good things like justice and freedom. You're for 'em, right? Yeah, me too.

I think it's telling that modern campaign honchos use the word "brand" now to talk about candidates and political parties. While it's meant to be hip, I'm sure, it's also a recognition that anything sold by means of mass media winds up subject to the invariant laws of mass marketing. Obama's a product, in this sense, and his style (in some ways connected to his "issue positions," but not essentially) is his "brand." His brand can take a hit when he seems to take a position a little off the public grok of his persona - such as on telecom immunity in the FISA debate, for example. It would be like Pepsi-Cola claiming to be the "Real Thing." Or Avis shouting, "We're No. 1!" A carefully developed marketing campaign can go off the rails with too many variations. Hillary thought she should win by dint of her policy positions and wonkish presentation of detail, and indeed I don't know too many people in American politics with her command of the specifics, or who has such a carefully designed set of solutions to real problems. Thing she never figured out? Her brand's kind of, you know, so '90's, and she never got how much things have changed since 1992 (neither did Bill). That grasping for the job, that trying so hard. Not rico-soave like O.

Obama's brand is cool, hip, smart, young, in touch with the modern world and its problems, connected, multi-cultural, intermarried, integrated, inclusive. That's the way things are moving, in the global village of the Internet and television. That's what his speech was about, this sense of international nexus and breakdown of barriers (his coolest rhetorical flourish was to compare the breaking down of the Berlin Wall to these modern trends). His brand makes a fascinating contrast with John McCain, who is old-fashioned (in fact, old), out-of-touch, unconnected (it's here where his incompetence with a computer is most telling - he really doesn't know what's going on out there), corny, belligerent, fearmongering, us vs. them, reactionary, and with his major issue continuation of a war which most Americans and almost all of the world see as a mistake from the beginning.

One of these two brands will carry the day in November. I suspect that if Obama does not win, it will be simply because he arrived on the scene a little too soon, a bright star who went supernova in a country not ready for him. There is an old, crotchety, out-of-it America which clings desperately to ideas about the country which have come and gone, and there may be enough of them left to determine the outcome: racists, homophobes, religious zealots, xenophobes, those who think the world can still be kept at bay by bombing the hell out of it. Obama represents what the rest of the world hopes America has become. Maybe. There's no question he could be elected Mayor of Berlin, but here on Main Street, USA, it's still very hard to tell.

July 23, 2008

Why Is McCain Upset About Winning the War in Iraq?

So did the surge work? How would I know? If a chicken crosses the road on South Padre Island in Texas and Hurricane Dolly hits one hour later, did the chicken cause the hurricane? I assume that all of the major media, the MSM, would assume that the chicken did, for such is their trenchant level of "analysis."

As I followed the war in Iraq, it always seemed to me that there would come a time when Iraqi insurgents would "mature out" of their desire for armed conflict, much as crime rates fall as a population ages. It takes a lot of energy to cause trouble. Let's face it: that's a draggy way to lead your life. Holed up in hovels, hiding ammunition, building bombs, getting blown up by American helicopter attacks or shot down in the street. I suspect that Muqtada al-Sadr reached an accommodation with the Ungrateful Nouri at some point and decided to cool it with his Shia militia brigades. If you look at the casualty count over on the right and scroll down to April, 2008, you'll see that in that month of militia uprising in Basra and elsewhere in Shiite Iraq, American casualties resumed their "pre-surge" levels. I suspect also that General David Petraeus is a crafty tactician and used other means to reduce the incidence of IED violence, such as walling off enclaves at the border of sectarian neighborhoods. And of course that most trusted of American methods: we bought off the Sunni insurgents by putting them on the payroll. Petraeus was hired, after all, because of his record of success up north in Kurd country. He's good at his job. These factors seem more important than 30K/130K = 23% increase of American troop levels, especially if we recall that General Shinseki pegged the correct level of troops to control insurgency in 2003 at somewhere around 300,000, and was fired for his trouble. He was right, and a lot of Americans died because the Bush crew does not like inconvenient disagreement.

Yet Petraeus has obviously done good work. Maybe too good. Now John McCain is fulminating because he thinks Barack Obama is proposing to accept defeat when victory is within our grasp. I doubt that victory is ever going to look more permanent than it does now. As I was saying yesterday, I think the Bushies got punked by al-Maliki. I was amused to read a Maureen Dowd column today in which she continues the MSM trope that Maliki is a marionette. In haec verba: "McCain is hopping mad that the surge that he backed, and Obama resisted, has now set the stage for the Bush puppet Maliki to agree with Obama’s exit strategy." No, Maureen, I don't think Nouri is a "puppet." Haven't you been paying attention? [Dear Readers, you really should write your own blog; the great pleasure is in talking back to these self-appointed know-it-alls, and since their stuff is mainly read on line and for free, you have the same access to the public they do and in the same way.] Why would Maureen Dowd think that a guy with perpetual 11 pm shadow who persists in saying things Bush doesn't want to hear is his "puppet." Doesn't Maureen Dowd even want to try to make sense?

Never mind the "surge" and other phrases devoid of content, like "aspirational goals" within a "time horizon." The simple fact is that the Iraq war played out too fast for John McCain's purposes. He wanted there to be carnage, bloodshed, American casualties, chaos, and political divisions right through the election season. That isn't going to happen, and that's what he's mad about. Maureen Dowd completely misses the point. [Seriously, go to Blogspot and get started. You'll love it.] McCain is now in the same position as the liberals were in the heyday of the insurgency; kinda hoping for another bomb in some Baghdad market area.

Which is the true tragedy of Iraq. It's a cynical exercise in pointlessness, used by political factions for domestic advantage. Bush started the war to assure his reelection in 2004; McCain wanted the war to get worse so he could win in 2008. Bush's defeat comes about because Nouri outflanked him on the oil issue, borrowing our army to solidify his own grip on power long enough to build a police state to take over after we leave, while stalling cleverly on any oil concessions until our departure became inevitable. And now McCain has to run on some other issue. And what the hell would that be? His economic leadership? His gas tax holiday? His sexist jokes? His pledge to pacify the Iraq-Pakistan border?

July 22, 2008

The Bush Countdown, and End of an Era

As I write this, George W. Bush has about 181 days left in his dubious tenure as the 43rd President of the USA. I'm beginning to think that no more terrible things are going to happen while he's in charge, other than the playing out of things which his presidency has already set in motion. For example, the kangaroo court trials in Guantanamo, with their corrupted rules of evidence, admissibility of hearsay and coerced confessions, and juries comprised strictly of military officers who can convict with a 2/3 majority. Oh well. No one ever explained to my satisfaction why Zacarias Moussaoui, who by government account was actually involved in the 9/11 plot as a principal, was tried and convicted in open court in the regular federal court system, using all the normal rules, while Osama bin Laden's chauffeur must be tried under these medieval procedures. It doesn't make the country look particularly good. It is this strange arbitrariness in everything the Bush Administration does that is so unsettling, such as arresting and denying all due process (assistance of counsel, confrontation of accusers, speedy trial) of three American citizens who were placed in solitary confinement in a Navy brig in South Carolina carefully chosen for its location in the most reactionary federal judicial district in America (the Fourth). The British Home Secretary has now issued this great ally's official report stating categorically that President Bush is "not to be trusted" when he states that the United States does not engage in human rights abuses such as the torture of detainees.

We've come a long way, baby. Still, we're miles ahead of such countries as Russia and China when it comes to basic civil liberties. Let there be no doubt about that. Russia has sunk into a kind of fascist oligarchy again in a country ruled by ex-KGB agents. China remains one of the world's most repressive tyrannies. I wouldn't write a blog like this if I lived in either of those places, of that I assure you. Americans are free to express their opinions here, mostly without official hassling other than the enhanced possibility you'll be unable to print your boarding pass at home. Ah hell, the airlines are going out of business anyway.

The truth is, like a lot of amateur socio-political critics on the Internet, I feel an odd kinship with ol' W. We would not exist without him. He is the font from which all satire flows. He is maybe the most intellectually and temperamentally unsuitable man ever to occupy the Oval Office. The irony of his reign is stupendous. At a moment when the country, and the world, most needed a visionary, brilliant, dynamic leader to deal with environmental stresses and an emerging new world order...we came up with him. So we devoted those eight years to one thing, and to one thing only. Not to dealing with the energy crisis, nor dealing with the increasingly terrifying specter of global warming and ocean acidification, nor revitalizing America's declining economic base -- no, none of that. Our goal was, first, last and always, to assure the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. That's it. That's what the last eight years were about.

And in that one project, W painted himself into a corner. Would you like to know how Iraq is going to turn out, what that "victory" John McCain insists upon will actually look like? Okay, here goes. First, there is no one in this country who really has the street-level background of Nouri al-Maliki. All of our guys, like Bush, Cheney, Obama, McCain, are typical American softies. We love our nice cushy life. It's why 95% of the country pays no attention to Iraq; it's a bummer, dude. To play in Nouri's league, you have to live Nouri's life, and that doesn't happen here. So how has Nouri played this situation, and us? Very simple. He's said, "Thank you very much, now get the hell out of here." Bush really has no comeback. Isn't he the one who's insisted Iraq is a "sovereign nation," the "world's newest democracy," where the joyous citizens hold their purple fingers up high? Yes, Bush is the one. So Nouri now says, no long-term deal on a Status of Forces Agreement, and as soon as the U.S. military is gone (along with all of those "permanent" military bases we've spent a fortune building, which will now be expropriated by the Iraqi Army), al-Maliki will do what all the oil-rich countries do: he'll create a "sovereign wealth fund" based on Iraq's oil patrimony. He will nationalize the oil industry. He will cut deals with Russia, China, anyone else who wants to play ball his way. Eventually, he'll be in a position like his Gulf neighbors to buy Manhattan skyscrapers. Will Iraq be a "democracy?" Kind of. A Shiite theocratic regime with "elections," just like Iran. Massive corruption. Sporadic sectarian violence, ruthlessly suppressed, as it is now.

The only uncertainty is the fate of Kurdistan, up north. Their blessing, and curse when it comes to Nouri, is that they also have a lot of oil around Kirkuk. How autonomous will the Baghdad, Shiite government allow them to be? Will they crush the Kurds, as Saddam did before them?

So what did we get out of this? With our 4,100 dead, our multiple tens of thousands of wounded, amputees, blinded, brain-damaged? Our $540 billion spent so far? "The world's a better place without Saddam Hussein." Yep. It would probably also be better without Putin in Russian, the junta in Myanmar, Assad in Syria, Musharraf in Pakistan, Mubarak in Egypt, Quaddafi in Libya, Ahmadinejad in Iran, Kim Jong Il in North Korea. Mugabe, killing squads in Darfur...we could go broke making the world a better place. In fact, maybe we did.

July 21, 2008

Lost on the Iraq-Pakistan Border

"Asked by ABC's Diane Sawyer Monday morning whether the 'the situation in Afghanistan is precarious and urgent,' McCain responded:

"I think it's serious. . . . It's a serious situation, but there's a lot of things we need to do. We have a lot of work to do and I'm afraid it's a very hard struggle, particularly given the situation on the Iraq/Pakistan border," said McCain, R-Ariz., on 'Good Morning America.'"

I agree with Senator McQueeg on one point: it's a serious situation, alright, very serious. It's a very serious situation that McCain is running for President. McCain has now turned his geographical expertise east of modern-day Czechoslovakia to focus on the turmoils in South Asia, or as he calls it, the "Middle East."

First, I'd like to reassure the addled and chronically out-of-it Senator about one thing. There is not now and never will be a situation on the Iraq/Pakistan border. We should be glad about that since McCain would have tried bombing it otherwise.

Anyway, I'm not really writing this for McCain's edification. The reason for that is that McCain doesn't know how to use a computer.

How serious is such a gaffe by one of the two main candidates for President? In the first place, I don't think it should be considered in isolation. Not even George W. Bush thinks there's a border between Iraq and Pakistan, nor thinks that Czechoslovakia exists, nor (now) believes that Sunni insurgents in Iraq would travel to Shiite Iran for training in terrorism. McCain thinks all of these things.

I don't see how a president could possibly have any sort of coherent geopolitical grasp if he's not just conversant, but absolutely grounded, in these basic details. It would be like hiring a chemist who was not familiar with the periodic table or a physicist who doesn't know what "force" is.

It makes you wonder whether the Republican Party might be kidding by running this guy. Is it some sort of unprecedented, bigger-than-life, meta-joke? Is the GOP slyly asking Americans, having fallen for the gags with Reagan and the two Bushes, how about this one?

July 20, 2008

Obama and the Brandenburg Presumption

In the Deep South where I was born and not raised, there were many colorful, pithy aphorisms which neatly summed up that worst of all offenses against the Scots-Irish, white trash ethos: the putting on of airs. Thus, such phrases as "being educated beyond your intelligence" or, more apt for our immediate purposes, "getting above your raising" (you can drop the g's in the gerunds if you like, for more down-home authenticity).

Lately I have noticed a new style of attack against Barack Obama from certain Right Wing pundits that proceeds along just such lines. It is the presumption meme. His tentative plans to give a major address in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (since dropped) on his current Big Tour afforded an opportunity for another salvo. Take, for example, Charles Krauthammer's column in the Washington Post on Friday:

"Americans are beginning to notice Obama's elevated opinion of himself. There's nothing new about narcissism in politics. Every senator looks in the mirror and sees a president. Nonetheless, has there ever been a presidential nominee with a wider gap between his estimation of himself and the sum total of his lifetime achievements?"
Well, let me start by answering Mr. Krauthammer's question: Yes, I know of such a candidate. Ronald Reagan, your hero. His prior experience consisted of a career as a B-movie actor and of running California into the ground as its governor. His policies of deregulation and fiscal irresponsibility have brought the U.S. to the brink of economic disaster. But on to Krauthammer's ("cabbage kudgel?") true, snarky point: has Obama gotten above his raisin'? Or, what Charles really wants to ask but can't because he's a serious commentator: is Barack just one of them uppity n----r's?

First of all, how the hell does Charles Krauthammer know (a) what Americans are "beginning" to notice and (b) what Obama's "estimation of himself" actually is? His entire premise, therefore, rests on dubious assumptions. He literally doesn't know what he's talking about. Has there ever been a wider gap between a columnist's estimation of his comprehension of a situation and the shittiness of the column he produced for a major newspaper? Maybe. I'd have to look at some more of Krauthammer's columns. Anyway, a candidate has to meet Constitutional requirements to run for office. At least thirty-five years of age, native-born American citizen (criteria which John McCain does not meet). Beyond that, there is no requirement that a candidate meet the notional qualifications of the Washington Beltway class. Increasingly, those people are just in the way. What people have begun to notice is that Congress and the White House are lousy at getting anything done, and unlike Krauthammer, who bases his opinion on what another reactionary said at lunch, I base my idea on consistent national opinion polls which show Congress's approval ratings at figures consistently below 20%. The less acculturated a politician is in the utterly corrupt and inbred politics of Washington, the more "hope" there is for "change."

Then there's the always hapless, always wrong William Kristol of the New York Times, the true piƱata of American letters. Needing a topic for one of his irrelevant columns and finding nothing, coming up empty because of the essential sterility of his political outlook (can we invade another Middle Eastern country or not?), he decided to dilate on that most crucial of all dilemmas facing Americans: should we wear flag lapel pins? Barack wasn't wearing one at the time and it bugged Bill Kristol to distraction because flag pins are neat, they mean you're patriotic and powerful, you're in the club of people who care, and nationalistic icons are always a good idea to cement solidarity, sort of like the Death's Head insignia worn by the cuddly Schutzstaffel. Plus, Kristol's always been nervous about how he's perceived by Americans whose fathers were not Trotskyists. (Just think: Billy came that close to being a Red Diaper baby.)

So Billy wrote a whole column about why Barack doesn't wear a flag lapel pin. People in the country are beginning to starve, tent cities are springing up, many workers can't afford to gas up and drive to work, the economy is hemorrhaging jobs, and when winter hits we will see many cases of death by hypothermia in those areas where Hugo Chavez does not provide free heating oil. Nevertheless, Kristol is fixated on that most crucial of all problems: to wear or not to wear a flag lapel pin? Look, he doesn't care so much whether Barack wears one or not; it's how he explained not wearing it:

"What’s striking is that Obama couldn’t resist a grandiose explanation. Obama’s unnecessary and imprudent statement impugns the sincerity or intelligence of those vulgar sorts who still choose to wear a flag pin. But moral vanity prevailed. He wanted to explain that he was too good — too patriotic! — to wear a flag pin on his chest."
There it is again. Grandiose. Vanity. Too good. See a pattern? He's talking about a guy wearing a decal, but he was "struck" by Obama's explanation because this stupid-ass issue means so much to Bill. Oh for crying out loud. If Obama hadn't explained it one way or another, if he'd said, "Because I don't feel like it," then Kristol and Krauthammer (they need one more "K" to form their own columnist brigade in that same old Deep South tradition) would write two columns each going on and on about Barack's disdain for the flag.

I realize this was bound to happen once a genuine minority ran for President. The effrontery. It's like an exchange student from Bangladesh running for student body president of Andover Academy. These clowns think they own the Establishment, and the idea of a pretender speaking in front of the hallowed shrine of Brandenburg Gate drives them nuts. Although, question for you, Chuck, Bill: hallowed shrine for whom? Reagan? Don't think so. It's not a movie set, really. Hitler's the one who used it most effectively for propaganda. It's a block from the old Reichstag building, built to honor the old Prussian emperors. Give it a rest and write another rave for the Sixth Beach Boy, singin' John McCain. No pretension there. Nothing else either, but that's what you guys like.