Monday, January 21, 2008

Sad but true

Marc Ambinder: "For enough Democrats, Clinton represents enough change... Obama represents more change, certainly, but the perfect isn't the enemy of the good when there are other factors to consider."

It's frustrating that so many Democrats believe the party's second-most enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq War represents "enough change." It would seem to call into question just how important the war is as an issue, despite all the polls that until recently had it #1. But people seem to think of her as a foreign policy dove no matter what she does. A poll in December found that Democrats in the three early states trusted her the most on Iraq. The most, despite her obviously disingenuous insistence that she doesn't bear any responsibility for enabling it.

How stupid are Democrats? Polls say very.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Foreign investment: Not that bad

A lot of people seem to be under the impression that every time a Middle Eastern sovereign wealth fund buys a stake in an American bank, the baby Jesus cries.

MoDo's column this morning, entitled "Red, White and Blue Tag Sale," is dedicated entirely to the phenomenon:
China and Arab countries have a staggering amount of treasury securities. And the oil-rich countries are sitting on so many petrodollars that they are looking beyond prestige hotels and fashion labels and taking advantage of the fire sale to buy eye-popping stakes in our major financial institutions.
The Democratic candidates were asked about this at their most recent debate in Las Vegas. Here's Hillary Clinton's response:
Brian, I’m very concerned about this... I think we’ve got to know more about them. They need to be more transparent. We need to have a lot more control over what they do and how they do it. I’d like to see the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund begin to impose these rules, and I want the United States Congress and the Federal Reserve Board to ask these tough questions.
I suppose she deserves credit for being the only candidate who actually answered the question, but boy what a horrible answer. The Federal Reserve? She can't possible think it's really their job to oversee who invests in what.

What I wanted Obama (or Edwards, but fat chance) to say was: "You know what? I actually agree with George Bush on this issue. The bigger problem would be if these funds weren't investing in our banks."

It would be perfect for his strategy of rejecting Bush-hatred, and would have the added benefit of being true. These are large stakes, yes, but they are nowhere near controlling stakes. The most recent Merrill placement didn't have voting rights at all. Meanwhile, our banks really need the money. Beyond the losses they've already taken in mortgage-related securities, they are holding other kinds of debt that's insured by companies like Ambac and MBIA, which are in very real danger of bankruptcy.

Demanding "more transparency"? Yes, let's demand that foreign investors undergo an extensive audit before we give them the privilege of putting billions of dollars in cash into our floundering banking system!

For all the hand-wringing about the size and supposedly favorable terms of these equity deals, Citigroup stock is down 50% in the last six months. Sure, if and when the banks recover as they did in 1992, some of that value will accrue to already-rich oil states, but at the moment they are taking a lot of pain.

In short, while it would make sense to regulate outright acquisition of major banks by government-controlled foreign entities, it makes no sense to make it harder for banks to raise capital wherever they can find it. The underlying problem that created this desperate need for capital had nothing to do with swarthy foreigners, and petrodollars look just like regular dollars on a balance sheet.

Friday, January 11, 2008

"Mets New Leaders in Santana Sweepstakes?"

That's the Yahoo headline I've been waiting all winter to see pop up in my RSS reader.

Instead I've been getting steady doses of Angel Pagan news and the thrilling drama of the Torrealba-Schneider musical chairs at catcher (the result of a Lastings Milledge deal which made them look stupid for not dealing him when he was still a glamor prospect).

Our pitching staff as currently constituted is an utter shambles. I'm on record saying that if we don't get Santana or at least two other decent arms, we will struggle to stay above .500 next year. But mostly what we need to do is get Santana. At any cost. This story reports that Omar was reluctant to trade Gomez and Martinez in the same deal. My response to that is "Tough shit." Pedro, El Duque and John Maine just cannot be counted on to hold down the fort.

Just give them what they want.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Clinton wins NH

Oh man. Catastrophe. Utter catastrophe.

Edwards was my first choice but it's over. He needs to endorse Obama. In his concession speech (which was nearly identical to the one he gave in Iowa) said he would stay in the race because too many people haven't had their votes counted... Sure, but hundreds of thousands of people have had their votes counted and it doesn't look like Edwards is going to win the nomination. Frankly he's also starting to disappoint me with this Poor Natalie Whatever-her-name-is schtick. I know it's merely an exaggerated form of his stump speech, but in a concession speech it repeatedly associates him with pathetic victim figures.

Also, is it the best idea to have one of the male actors on "Desperate Housewives" standing behind him? (Note: I only know this because it was pointed out to me.) If I were a right wing pundit I would definitely be coming up with witty jokes like: There are two desperate housewives on that stage! I bet there's something to that effect over on the Corner right now, but I won't give them the traffic.

Just overheard in Hillary's acceptance speech: "I want you to come join us at!" It is to be an internet phenomenon. Look for a dyed-blond Bill under a white sheet screaming Leave Hillary Alone!

This is just utterly effing depressing.

Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson?


Matt Yglesias passes along one theory: Hillary was disadvantaged in the Iowa caucuses because married women caucus with their husbands, not wanting to have to sit by themselves for hours. Sounds plausible enough to me.

"Maverick No More?"

Interesting that the first major news outlet to display an ounce of critical thinking about the resurgent McCain campaign is the Wall Street Journal.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Obama's Strategy and the Netroots

From Al Gore’s concession of the 2000 election to today, January 5, 2008, I have been awaiting the day of reckoning for the Republican Party. I was sure it would arrive in November of 2004, but it didn’t. The worst president in American history won re-election, and it appears he will serve out his full two terms, leaving the White House in disgrace but without having been impeached. The scope of the devastation he will leave behind is not merely political, economic or social. It is global, and surely would have been interplanetary had the technology been available to him.

He is widely disliked now, yes, but it’s crucial that the most pernicious theories that he relied upon (making them up where necessary) to advance his agenda have been sufficiently discredited to prevent them from becoming permanent fixtures in American government. That’s what needs to happen, and it hasn’t yet. We need to salt the earth that he sprang from so that nothing ever grows again.

Which is why I have to think long and hard about how I could possibly support a Democratic candidate whose stump speech includes the following:

“You know that we can’t afford four more years of the same divisive food fight in Washington that’s about scoring political points instead of solving problems; that’s about tearing your opponents down instead of lifting this country up.”

As Corrente’s Lambert writes: “What’s going on in politics today is a little bit more complicated — and much more important — than a “divisive food fight.” Indeed, the very phrase itself trivializes both the scale of the problem, and the efforts of those progressives who are fighting for solutions.”

It’s been obvious since well before his campaign began that Barack Obama did not intend to reprise Howard Dean’s role as the insurgent firebrand of the liberal base. It was obvious from his world debut convention speech in 2004 that that was not his style.

A few excerpts:

“And fellow Americans, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, I say to you tonight: We have more work to do.”

“People don't expect government to solve all their problems.”

“John Kerry understands the ideals of community, faith, and service because they’ve defined his life.”

As for the speech’s most searing indictment of Bush:

“When we send our young men and women into harm’s way, we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they’re going, to care for their families while they’re gone, to tend to the soldiers upon their return, and to never ever go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world.

Now -- Now let me be clear. Let me be clear. We have real enemies in the world. These enemies must be found…”

So Obama’s rules for when (not if) we send our young men and women into harm’s way seem to include not lying about why we’re doing so and making sure we send enough of them. With McGovernite pacifism like that, it’s no wonder he felt compelled to make sure everyone understood he wasn’t saying that we have no real enemies in the world.

Of course, those were not his only objections to the Iraq War, but in a speech endorsing John Kerry, it would have done no good at all to call attention to the fact that unlike the candidate he had opposed the war. So while it was much less a call to arms than a call to hugs, clearly nothing in this speech can be used as evidence that Obama was consciously downplaying his opposition to the Iraq War, or distancing himself from antiwar Democrats.

But then in March 2006, and apparently of his own volition, he endorsed Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Senate primary:

"The fact of the matter is, I know some in the party have differences with Joe. I'm going to go ahead and say it," Obama told the 1,700-plus party members who gathered in a ballroom at the Connecticut Convention Center for the $175-per-head fundraiser.

"I am absolutely certain Connecticut is going to have the good sense to send Joe Lieberman back to the U.S. Senate so he can continue to serve on our behalf," he said.

It goes without saying that most Democrats do not simply “have differences” with Joe Lieberman, but revile him as the Democrat who not only did the most to lend the all-important bipartisan stamp to the Iraq War, but also repeatedly suggested that those in his party who criticized it, or any other measure Bush deemed necessary, were effectively committing treason. Just one example:

“It’s time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander in chief for three more critical years and that in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril.”

Yes, Joe Lieberman said that in December 2005, three months before Barack Obama expressed his certainty that Connecticut (Republicans) would “have the good sense” to re-elect him. Despite the fact that Obama himself knew enough not to trust Bush on Iraq before the war’s stupidity had been demonstrated, and before the manipulation of the evidence for it had been fully exposed.

As evidence that Obama was more cynical office-seeker than man of deep conviction, this was stronger stuff than his appeals to unity and bipartisanship, and when he did it I figured he was at least considering a presidential run (why else, Barack?) and highly suspicious that he would be a candidate I’d want to see win.

On one hand, an Obama candidacy would be “serious,” in the positive sense of being shrewdly run and having a measure of support from the party establishment. But I dreaded the prospect of the campaign becoming Very Serious, which in the liberal blogosphere refers to the apparent inability of war advocates to lose their exalted status among elite opinionmakers, no matter how crazy and flatly wrong their arguments or how disastrous the results they help bring about. Examples include John McCain, Michael O’Hanlon, Joe Klein, Bill Kristol, and of course Joe Lieberman. The “unserious” people include the likely suspects: Howard Dean, Paul Krugman, Ted Kennedy, Dennis Kucinich, Russ Feingold, and anyone else who didn’t have the wisdom, foresight, or moral fiber to argue for the invasion of Iraq.

One article of faith among the Netroots, many of whom are about my age and thus have only really cared about the 2000 and/or 2004 elections, is that Democrats lose because they fear the attacks of the Republican machine. They fear being tarred as profligate spenders or soft on defense, so they go to great lengths to emphasize their moderate economic policies and sound tough on defense, which instead of winning them the approval of the Republican machine, only gives it more fodder for its attacks on Democrats as spineless panderers who don’t stand for anything. A less charitable gloss on this tenet comes from Netroots antagonist and notional Democrat Mickey Kaus: “We don’t have to do anything differently to win elections besides be meaner.” Thus, there is a harmonious convergence between our desire to see Democrats win elections and our attraction towards candidates who openly thirst for Republican blood.

Though Obama never appeared a match for Edwards in this department, it wasn’t until fairly late in his campaign that the he first signs of real tension arose. Paul Krugman attacked Obama’s health care plan (or rather, the way he went about defending it), the Obama camp fired back hard, and things developed. Not many liberals, or people in general, know enough about insurance mandates to have a had a real beef with Obama on the subject. But Paul Krugman is one of them, and if he smells a rat, the savvy Democratic primary candidate does not respond by “Fact Checking” Krugman with previous statements of support for his plan and the accompanying charges of hypocrisy/flip-flopping. At least not one who’s at all concerned about pissing off the liberal blogosphere, which loves Paul Krugman, and now actually includes him.

Steve Benen of the Carpetbagger Report wrote on January 2, the day before the caucuses:

“It’s been brewing for quite a while, but over the last couple of days, a lot of prominent Democratic bloggers have been hammering Barack Obama for using “conservative frames” to advance his candidacy. It’s counter-intuitive, of course, given the circumstances — Obama is a top challenger for the Democratic nomination, so one assumes he’d be running to the left, not the right.”

He then lists a series of examples of Obama appearing to run to the right, with their egregiousness measured in Liebermans. He does not include Obama’s 2006 endorsement of Joe Lieberman, which would have presumably rated highly.

There is a popular notion that while Obama might very well be filled with righteous anger at the Bush administration and Republicans generally, his ascent to the presidency requires that he not show it. Because while America might elect a black man, the odds that we would elect an angry black man are not as good.

Though that sounds at least plausible to me, I also think this is a little convenient for the Netroots. It lets us write off a candidate who, by just about any reading of his biography, career, and legislative record, is very much on board with all the remedies to Bush governance we have been asking for. Why? Because his inability to give us all high fives, even though we’re sure he totally wants to, will doom him in the general. Rather than have to take it personally that he speaks of us as a liability to the party (and actually, the country), we get to attribute such comments to racial self-hatred and blame those damn bigots for keeping a good man (who’s surely as mad as we are, deep down) from speaking his mind. Because it couldn’t be that he’s a committed liberal but at the same time disagrees that the road to the White House goes through the Daily Kos straw poll. We know know that Democrats need a fighter. Someone who, to quote Lambert again, “will destroy the Republican brand and cripple the Conservative Movement.”

Mark Schmitt makes the case that Obama is a man of deep liberal convictions but departs from this Netroots orthodoxy that the most effective way to defeat the Republicans and achieve our policy goals is to rally around the blue flag and launch a frontal assault:

“Suppose you were as non-na├»ve about it as I am -- but your job wasn't writing about politics, it was running for president? What should you do? In that case, your responsibility is not merely to describe the situation exactly, but to find a way to subvert it. In other words, perhaps we are being too literal in believing that "hope" and bipartisanship are things that Obama naively believes are present and possible, when in fact they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure. Claiming the mantle of bipartisanship and national unity, and defining the problem to be solved (e.g. universal health care) puts one in a position of strength, and Republicans would defect from that position at their own risk.”

In his book “The Big Con,” Jon Chait describes a poll taken during the Clintons’ effort to reform health care. Every element of the proposal enjoyed majority support when it was presented individually, but when people were asked about the “Clinton health care plan,” support dropped precipitously as the set of people who support the proposals but oppose the Clintons defected.

This is the problem Obama plans to solve. Democrats hold the popular advantage on virtually every major issue, but tribal loyalty makes otherwise persuadable Republicans less likely to give them a fair hearing. So if a Democrat wants to win power and see their agenda enacted, he or she must not present this agenda as Democratic, or its enactment as a Democratic victory. Because even though the brand is on the rebound after seven years of Bush, it’s still the case that Republicans benefit more from party solidarity than Democrats do. Universal health care is now a more mainstream position than it was in 1993, and the best tactic its few natural opponents have is to cast it as a socialist plot by statist Democrats like Hillary Clinton, because Democratic lawmakers want nothing more than to exert control over your medical choices.

Of course, the Republicans are already using that tactic, and have been from the outset. Those attacks will regardless of who the nominee is. But when John Edwards talks about the issue in terms of corruption and greed, Republican voters will naturally rush to their preferred explanation for/defense of the current system: that free markets are the best path to prosperity. Then they will remember why they like Larry Kudlow so much (he makes them feel good about opposing wealth redistribution), and suddenly they find themselves much less concerned about the plight of the uninsured.

And if it’s Hillary Clinton championing the cause, they don’t even have to bother examining their position. There is simply nothing she could do dispel the narrative that she is back for her vindication, to finally triumph over the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, but this time with the office to herself.

Obama sets himself apart from the other two by offering the whole country, Bush voters and all, the opportunity to claim universal health care as an achievement of bipartisan cooperation. That whole period where Republicans kept insisting that we have the finest health care system in the world and anyone who says otherwise was a Communist? Water under the bridge. Yesterday’s news, even if the current Republican candidate – no doubt a fine man - happens to still be saying it. Barack Obama isn’t in this to score points.

It’s appealing, but there are a couple things about this that worry me. The first one is best summed up by Atrios: People disagree about stuff. For all the broad (but clearly not universal) rhetorical appeal of blaming the country’s problems not on any one person or party, but on partisanship as such, it’s fundamentally dishonest. It implies the existence of a national consensus that, on all the pressing political issues of the day, does not exist. If there were consensus, then by definition it wouldn’t be a pressing political issue.

In practice, the exultation of bipartisanship can go beyond vacuous and become dangerous . It is just a demand made by the majority to the minority that they put aside their objections and get with the program, in the interest of national harmony. Of course, this doesn’t sound so bad when the minority is defending health insurance companies from legislation which will diminish the profitability of their business. But when the Republicans demanded support for the Iraq War, we needed a lot less eagerness by Democrats to reach across the aisle and a lot more eagerness to find out whether it was necessary.

That’s a fairly widely understood problem with Obama’s rhetoric, which most would agree is deployed to soft-pedal the idea that his “bipartisanship” is ultimately indistinguishable from “support for my policies.” But there is a more serious problem that I see this causing for him should he win the nomination: It will be extremely hard for him to beat on George W. Bush. I’m sorry, but that is a promising avenue of attack. He’s a big piniata with lots of votes in him, but Obama’s strategy depends on leaving him alone and telling people just to think about the future. I don’t think Obama will have trouble steamrolling John McCain, but what if he can’t? As soon as he has to go negative, they’re going to call the Hillary play: “What happened to the politics of hope?”

Also, by presenting himself as a uniquely uniting figure (which he seems to be in fact), he leaves himself more vulnerable to personal attacks. If any skeletons get out, we have a problem. His pitch is very high-minded and sanctimonious. I’m sure he’s smart enough to have background-checked himself extensively by now, but if the campaign is going to be all about him and not about the institutional uprising of the Democratic party, he better be so pure he floats.

But it seems to be working incredibly well. Republicans aren’t going after him at all. Edwards is not attacking him from the left, which on the one hand might be a pretty flatttering complement to the expected Clinton attacks from the right, but on the other hand gives the impression to Edwards supporters that Obama is a tolerable outcome.

I’m still supporting Edwards, but I’ve been convinced that Obama’s electoral strategy is sound, doesn’t involve him running away from liberal policies (just liberal advocates), and has a message which will be very tough for any Republican, especially John McCain, to defeat.

“[I]t must be a peace without victory…. Victory would mean peace forced upon the loser, a victor's terms imposed upon the vanquished. It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently but only as upon quicksand. Only a peace between equals can last. Only a peace the very principle of which is equality and a common participation in a common benefit."

- Woodrow Wilson, 1917