Monday, September 29, 2008

Debate Ephemera

I haven't posted my reactions to the debate yet, mostly because it was soooo boring. The most interesting issue of course was the fiscal crisis (which I don't really understand) but it was guaranteed that neither candidate would say much about it because of the ongoing negotiations in Congress.

However, I chided Obama for promising to go over the budget line by line in his speech in Denver. In the debate Obama was quite sober on this topic as McCain launched into his obsession with earmarks. A Senator who wants to invest his energy into fighting with the Air Force to save a few billion dollars on a deal for aerial tankers is really doing the American people a service. For a President to do the same is a huge waste of time. McCain wanted to freeze non-defense discretionary funding. The problem is that this represents something less than a third of the budget. Even a 10% cut would not resolve the fundamental issues and the earmarks themselves are less than $20 billion - a lot of money, but less than 2% of the entire federal budget.

The real fiscal action is in the non-discretionary spending (those enormous entitlement programs.) A Senator taking those on alone is Quixotic. These are the kinds of big issues that, while not easy, are on a scale that only the President can lead.

The McCain campaign would probably argue that the earmarks are an ethical issue, showing the growing corruption in Congress and their power to perpetuate themselves in office. Maybe, but not really. This Congress is probably not the most corrupt in history and generally the American people have assumed throughout American history that Congress is a corrupt, venal institution.

If McCain hopes to lead a massive struggle to reduce the federal government's role in the economy, more power to him. There is massive frustration among the Republican rank and file that the reformers they sent into office over a decade ago have presided over a massive increase in federal spending. But if McCain believe he make Congress a less self-serving institution then he is hoping for a change in human nature and that is more of a liberal project.


For a good overview of how the candidates stand on Pakistan, a particular interest of mine visit this fine, balanced entry at The Pakistan Policy Blog.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Clash of Styles: Pre-Debate Thoughts


Black-jowled, swaggering, snarling, fighting against age and an overwhelming weariness, Old Burleigh Grimes took fame by the throat today and claimed her for his own.
This overwrought passage by sports-writing legend Red Smith describes the1931 St. Louis Cardinals World Series victory over the Philadelphia Athletics. But somehow I keep inserting the name John McCain. His career was made when, under duress, he was stripped down – past rank, background, and personality – to raw character. This is his stock-in-trade. He presents himself without nuance as unpackaged and raw. The Presidency is hell, but someone has got to do it and – as a man who has already been there and back – he is the man we can trust to take this on this awesome responsibility. He will make the tough calls, no matter

McCain is formidable in small groups and will be a skilled debater. But he is a lousy speaker. Despite a career in politics, he still struggles with the teleprompter. His speeches are free of artifice and come off as unvarnished truth and this, perhaps, is the greatest artifice of all.


Biden was pilloried for calling Obama “clean” because it carried the implication that for an African-American to be hygienic was somehow remarkable. But I think I know what Biden was trying to say. Obama is clean the way DiMaggio at the plate or Willie Mays patrolling centerfield was clean. Their motions were stripped of the herky-jerky of regular life, and focused and suited to the purpose at hand. DiMaggio’s swing was elegant, a word which can mean both simple and refined. Another word might be neat or graceful or clean.

Obama walked, with no apparent effort, into the national scene and to the nomination. Where Bill Clinton could read a grocery list and have such a good time that the listener enjoyed it too. From Obama’s lips the grocery list would be somehow uplifting.

The speed of Obama’s rise and the ease of his eloquence are deceptive. Willie Mays worked hard to control centerfield, his natural talent and grace only making it appear easy. Obama too has a hard core of real stuff to him.

What We Want

Do we truly expect to learn anything about their policies from this debate? Most people who follow politics even casually have a pretty good idea what each party seeks to do and what it believes in.

We also don’t really know what makes for an effective President. In some ways, the most we can do is try to eliminate the people who are not up to the job. The multi-year obstacle course we force our Presidential aspirants to traverse is an attempt to do this. I once heard boxing described as “running a marathon, doing trigonometry, and playing chess all at the same time.” Cubing that description perhaps gives a sense of what it takes to run for President.

The debate is just another obstacle. Part of it is stamina. Can the candidate stand their, head to head with their opponent, with the world watching, and not get flustered. Because if they can’t they aren’t up to the job. And then, with all that pressure, what do we see. Do the candidates show a flare of temper or condescension, a telling stumble, or a flash of wit or graciousness?

It is, in so many ways, an awful system. But I remember Churchill’s aphorism, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others.”

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Insider Picks

At a recent debate between surrogates for the two Presidential candidates the biggest applause line was when Obama's surrogate said that McCain's selection of Palin says it all about McCain's judgment.

What strikes me as interesting, in light of the Insider/Outsider paradigm that shapes the selection and roles of Vice Presidents, is how Palin she fits into the pattern of picks by insider Presidential candidates.

Overall, the VP picks by outsider candidates, starting with Carter, have been awfully Presidential. It includes Mondale, Bush 41, and Gore. Cheney was well-regarded when he was selected, and Biden (although some have their reservations) is also generally considered a good choice who leavens some of Obama's weaknesses. The one outsider candidate who lost, Dukakis, chose Lloyd Bentson - who most polls showed was the single most appealing figure on either party's ticket. On the basic issue of whether or not the VP was considered "Presidential" by the general public - all of these selections were successful. Six for six.

Now consider the VP picks by the insider candidates. Muskie, Kemp, and Lieberman were all generally considered sound, if - in the cases of Muskie and Kemp - unremarkable. Then there was the McGovern fiasco. McGovern had two choices, first Eagleton who then withdrew after it was revealed that he had undergone electro-shock therapy. Then McGovern picked R. Sargent Shriver, who had never held elected office before. Strictly, speaking, Eagleton was actually a solid pick based on resume - but he did end up becoming a problem for the campaign. Ford also had two picks, first his choice when he succeeded Nixon the Presidency and then his choice when he ran in 1976. Rockefeller was chosen in great part because he was considered eminently qualified to be President. However, he ended up not working out, and when Ford was nominated he chose Bob Dole. Based on his resume Dole was a sound pick, but he blew it in his debate with Mondale.

Then there are a series of picks which were made for extremely political purposes. In this, Nixon (unsurprisingly) takes the cake. He chose Agnew because he was an "ethnic" and held onto him as impeachment insurance. When Agnew resigned, Nixon chose Ford a sounder choice on the whole, who actually did serve, reasonably well, as President.

Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro, a three-term congresswoman from New York. It was a historic pick. But for some it looked like a transparent attempt to appeal to women voters and, because the National Organization of Women had lobbied hard for a female running mate, it made Mondale look like he had caved under pressure.

Four years later, Bush chose Quayle. In fairness, based on resume Quayle was not a bad choice, he was into his second Senate term and had served two terms in the House beforehand. However, Bush reportedly choose Quayle figuring that a young and good-looking running mate would lend a certain appeal to his ticket. Whatever his virtues, Quayle appeared callow on TV and was generally considered a liability. In 2004 Kerry chose John Edwards, who had served a single undistinguished term in the Senate. Edwards did not make any missteps that would register on the Quayle scale. But he spent a fair amount of effort trying to convince voters that he was not too inexperienced in his 2008 run (and that was against Barak Obama...)

And then there is Sarah Palin.

Out of 13 VP picks by insider Presidential nominees, seven had serious credibility problems with substantial components of the general public.

Certainly one can quibble with some of my calls. Maybe John Edwards or Ferraro were regarded as solid picks. Sill, even with the most generous judgments of the insider's choices and more critical judgments of the outsider candidates' selections the the discrepancy is outstanding. There have been no outsider candidate choices equivalent to Agnew, or even Quayle and Ferraro.

The overall trend appears that outsider candidates think very carefully about who they want to work with and who could become President. The insider candidates want to get women to vote for them.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Debate Coach for Palin?

Reviews of Sarah Palin's performance in her interview by Charlie Gibson have been split, pretty much as would be expected. Those who did not care for Palin thought she appeared uncertain or ignorant of international affairs. Those who liked Palin praised her and called Gibson condescending. In that vein, the formidable Ruth Wedgewood (a leading scholar of international law and professor at SAIS) writes in National Review Online:
Most women, even now, are quite familiar with being talked over and not so subtly demeaned when they venture an opinion. It happens at dinner parties, in Washington and New York, where Gibson reigns as a network anchor, and even in educational classrooms.

It can happen to students who venture to Ivy League colleges without the benefit of a private preparatory school. They may never have heard about a “Nash equilibrium” or “Pareto optimality.” It doesn’t mean they are stupid or without cunning.

There was no evident need to demand of Palin three times in a row how she could consider herself to have the necessary qualifications for the vice presidency.
But Prof. Wedgewood goes beyond issues of style and takes Gibson to task on his badgering Palin to define the Bush doctrine:
But Gibson is wrong to suppose that the right of anticipatory self-defense began with George Bush. Indeed, it was put forward early in the history of the American republic, by Secretary of State Daniel Webster, in the so-called “Caroline affair” in 1837.

And strangely enough, this doctrine was carved out in the frozen North. In the middle of winter, American sympathizers crossed the Niagara River to help Canadians in their rebellion against the British Crown. The British burned their boat and sent one man to his death over the falls. Daniel Webster conceded that the British were permitted to use force because the "necessity of that self-defence” was “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”

It would have been delicious if Governor Palin had responded with the name Daniel Webster. But she had the idea, and one may excuse even a national television anchor for not knowing the doctrine’s real origin.
Delicious indeed - is Wedgewood applying to be Palin's debate coach? The McCain campaign could do far worse.