September 30, 2008

The Language of McCain's "Foreign Policy"

After the American Century

The recent debate between Senators McCain and Obama has been discussed widely in the media, and the consensus seems to be that while there was no clear winner, Obama strengthened his position. A Rasmussen Poll found that on all the main issues Obama improved against McCain.

The debate was supposedly about foreign policy, yet most of the world was entirely ignored. McCain did not say anything about the two most populous nations on earth, China and India, both of which have economies that have been growing far more rapidly than the US. Japan was also completely left out of the debate, as were all the nations of Latin America and Africa. Europe received cursory mention twice, but no nation there was actually discussed.

Instead, McCain focused on a few countries. McCain mentioned Iraq the most (18 times), but also was worried about Russia (17), Iran and Afghanistan (12 each), Georgia (9), Pakistan (7), Israel (6), and North Korea (5). The debate thus was not really about foreign policy at all, but about military policy. This is to a considerable degree the fault of those who made up the questions, but it shows how American political debate has been militarized. To hear it, one would think there are no problems between the US and most of the world, and that only 7 nations in the greater Middle East posed difficulties.

Since the debate was so narrowly focused, I learned nothing new about either candidate's views. But I did begin to notice that McCain's language was extremely bellicose. If one ignores the sentences and looks only at the words employed, he appears to be a man obsessed with combat. He frequently was thinking about strategy (mentioned no less than 17 times), and was deeply concerned about failure (12 times) and defeat (11). When giving particulars in his answers he often spoke of troops (11) and the military (6). He appears to think about the world in terms of confrontations, as he frequently spoke of fighting (10) and security (6). He seems deeply concerned about honor (6) and he wishes to appear proud (4) and tough (4). His world is dominated by a sense of danger (4) and crisis (5), as exemplified by 9/11 (5), which makes defense (8) his central concern. He is ready to kill (4) if necessary.

McCain thinks only occasionally and in the short term about success (4) and peace (5), because he lives in a world of threats (8), aggression (4), violence (2), and genocide (2), where war (8) is often unavoidable and which it is essential to win (7). In this mental universe love (1) scarcely matters, and it is seldom useful to negotiate (1). It is a world without hope (0), with no reference to the future (0) and no interest in global warming (0) or ecology (0).

McCain's choice of words reflects a martial outlook and indicates his lack of interest in the arts of peace or the friendly relations that might be created through trade (0), cultural exchange (0), or international educational agreements like the Fulbright Program (0). McCain's choice of words strongly suggests a mind ill-equipped to deal with subtlety or shades of gray. Couple that mind with an impatient temper and the result might be a man better suited to taking military orders than to wrestling with hard policy choices. Unfortunately, this world view is yoked to a personality that is impatient with authority and that delights in being unpredictable.

All this is highly speculative, based on the words he chose to use during one debate. Yet are not these words a key to understanding his mental makeup?

September 29, 2008

Republicans Divided Against Themselves

After the American Century

It was the great Republican President Abraham Lincoln who famously declared that a house divided against itself could not stand. On September 29, 2008 the House of Representatives showed that it was so divided that it could not come together to back a bailout plan to save the banking system. One hopes that some new compromise will emerge, but the House has already negotiated for days with the spotlight of the world press upon it. During these negotiations banks were failing all over the world. Both candidates for the presidency as well as the incumbent agreed that the bill ought to be passed, and still a majority of the House did not vote for it. The defeat demonstrates a comprehensive collapse of leadership.

Speaker Pelosi could not get her Democrats to vote for it in sufficient numbers, though a considerable majority did favor it. George Bush, as a lame duck president in the final days of his failed presidency, could not muster the needed support. Nor could John McCain. A shocking two-thirds of the Republican minority failed to vote for it. The 122 Republican votes against the President's bailout package is the core of the problem. The Republicans bear a special responsibility for the mess the banks are in, because they insisted on deregulating the banking system a decade ago, just as they also insisted on deregulating the energy business a few years earlier.

The Bush II era began with massive fraud and corporate failure, most famously the Enron debacle. The public has not entirely forgotten. Now the Bush II era is ending with massive bank failures. These are two examples of deregulation to the point of lax oversight and sloppy governance. Yet in the midst of a collapsing economy, the Republicans have learned nothing, it seems, and cry "socialism" when their own president tries to stop the financial bloodbath before it is too late. It seems the misguided Republican members of the House cannot give up their true religion, which is deregulation.

Understandably, the Democrats are not willing to bail out Bush, and then take the blame for the massive cost. They rightly want this to be a bi-partisan effort. More than 60% of them did vote for it, even so. The Republicans are now damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they continue to play hardball and refuse to vote for a compromise bill, then they will be blamed for all the evil that follows. And if they grudgingly give in during the next few days, the voters will not forget that they put ideology before necessity, and played politics with their future.

As for John McCain, these events have shown he cannot lead the Republicans. It was his chance to rally them into unity, and show he deserves to be president. But he did not unite them. He failed miserably, and not even one representative from his home state of Arizona voted for the bill. The Republicans are divided against themselves. Such a party cannot lead the country, much less anyone else. It cannot even follow. If Lincoln is out there in the great beyond, he must be deeply disturbed to see his party so split and so lacking in leadership.

The world was expecting to see a rabbit come out of the financial hat. Instead, it got instability, uncertainty, incredulity, and knee jerk ideology. Surely some will take what is left of their investments elsewhere, if they can find safer havens less devastated by these developments. This past week has been a sad spectacle fraught with danger. Quite possibly the worst is yet to come - depending on whether this crisis can be resolved. But a recovery bill delayed may turn into a recovery denied.

September 28, 2008

American Studies Research Engine

After the American Century

A new search engine is now available for all those interested in the culture, politics, history, and literature of the United States. It is the

Call it ASRE for short.

You can try it this handy tool immediately, as it is on the top right hand side of this page. Access more than 150 gateway sites that lead to approximately 25,000 web pages. These deal with all aspects of the United States, including collections in the Library of Congress, National Archives, Harvard University Library, Chicago Public Library, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and a great many specialized collections. There must be topics which it does not (yet) cover, but I have not been able to discover them.

This handy gadget is almost entirely free of commercial web sites, and it focuses largely on full texts. So, if you want to read a particular short story by Edgar Allen Poe or see original documents related to the building of Hoover Dam, for example, they are immediately available.

What has been left out of ASRE? All sites that want to sell you something. All sites that deal with other countries, other literatures, and most other subjects. Instead of getting 20,000 or 2 million sites to look over, which is impossible, ASRE provides a high-quality, selected list.

Using ASRE does not replace going into the library, and it does not replace using library data bases that are restricted to regular users, such as J-STOR, MUSE, and most newspaper indexes. In other words, ASRE is designed to cast a wide net that catches only good quality materials that can supplement what is available in library datebases. In many cases, such as finding materials for teaching or writing a short paper, it will be all you require.

I hope that this will be a useful tool for teachers and students and general readers. If anyone has suggestions for sites to include, please write to me at

September 21, 2008

Next President Weakened by Financial Crisis

After the American Century

The world stock markets have been in turmoil, falling drastically and bouncing back on the news that the US Federal Government will take over huge amounts of bad debt built up by irresponsible banks. Many of them, we now know, were lending out immensely more money than they had themselves, and often lending it to people who could not afford to meet the mortgage payments. Woody Guthrie once said that some men rob you with a six-gun, others with a fountain pen. The investment banks have robbed millions of Americans, not once but twice. First, by getting them into mortgages they could not afford, and second by dumping their mistakes on the taxpayer's doorstep. Elsewhere around the world, people and institutions who bought some of this debt were "only" robbed once.

Just how much this will cost taxpayers is unclear, but early estimates suggest $1 trillion. The US does not have a surplus in its coffers, nor does it currently have a tax system that can cover this sudden additional debt. Both McCain and Obama have been talking about reducing taxes on the middle class, but after this week that may not be realistic.

Foreign investment in US government debt has been keeping the country functioning. In July of 2008 Japan and China each owned more than $500 billion in US Treasury bonds, bills, or notes. Investors from oil exporting nations have bought $174 billion. (Click here for a full list.) Why should Chinese, Japanese, and Saudi investors still buy American debt? Why not buy European government debt which has a higher interest rate? Indeed, will there be enough buyers for $1 trillion in new US treasury bills and bonds? Keep in mind that because the dollar has weakened considerably during the Bush years, such investments may not be profitable.

I hope that I am wrong, but in twenty years historians may see that the autumn of 2008 was the moment when the US lost its leadership of the world economy, and argue that it was the time when the hegemony of the American century ended. Of course, it seems that the US government has just stepped in and saved the world's economy, after its reckless bankers almost ruined it. But the nation cannot emerge stronger than its rivals from this crisis. China, Japan, India, Brazil, and the EU likely will gain on the US. Their economies have not suddenly been burdened with $1 trillion extra debt on top of an equally large debt created by the Iraq War. (For more on this, see Niall Ferguson's thoughtful op ed piece in the Washington Post.)

Even before this crisis the US budget was severely out of balance. The sudden increase in debt means that the future president will have less scope in foreign policy. It will be - even more decisively than before - a debtor nation, one which cannot afford to offend its creditors. And should the next president want to start a new war or underwrite a new peace, how is he going to pay for it?

The added $1 trillion debt will also make it harder for the next president to fund social programs, such as extending medical coverage to all Americans. All of a sudden, there is a whole lot less money to work with. Borrow $1 trillion at, say, 4%, and just servicing that debt will cost $40 billion a year. That money will not be available for schools, research, creating a new energy economy, or roads and bridges.

The next president will struggle to move forward dragging a $1 trillion ball and chain. The investment banks have not only robbed the public twice; they have weakened the next president and diminished the US standing in the world.

September 17, 2008

McCain's Hypocritical Attacks on Wall Street

After the American Century

The Republicans have shown themselves to be reckless and irresponsible stewards of the economy, not just this time but in the 1980s as well. In each case, they overspent and undertaxed, weakening the economy and driving up the national debt. In each case, major banking scandals arose at the end of their eight years in office. Back in the first Bush presidency, it was the Savings and Loan Scandal, as more than 700 savings and loan banks went bankrupt. They had been deregulated - does this sound familiar? - by the Republican Administration. Capitalism freed of interference from Washington would flourish. Instead, a wave of mismanagement and corruption followed, and none was more flagrant that a certain Charles Keating. A Californian investor, he cultivated relations with five members of the US Senate. One of them was John McCain.

That deregulation debacle required a Federal bailout for the banks that cost the American taxpayer more than $120 billion. Senator McCain was involved, though he escaped indictment. For some reason, he does not talk much about this episode in his career. McCain was one of "The Keating Five," who were accused of improperly using their office to advance the interests of Keating's bank. In 1991 he was investigated by his colleagues in the US Senate. Though he was not found guilty of specific crimes, the Senate Ethics Commitee determined that McCain had shown "poor judgement" by being involved. Keating was found guilty of illegal activities and went to prison for five years.

A quarter century ago McCain had an up-close-and-personal look at the damange that deregulation can cause in the banking industry. But he apparently learned nothing from it, and today he advocates the same policies he did in 1990, the year before he was investigated. Keeping this episode in mind, what does he mean when he says, as he repeated in the midst of the current crisis, that the American economy is fundamentally sound? Is he naive? An apologist for the many bankers who have contributed to his campaign? Or possibly a fool when it comes to economics? You don't need to know economics to graduate from a military academy. And he was unable to manage the economics of his bid for presidency the first time around.

On the positive side, McCain has not flip-flopped on this issue, as he has on so many others. On banking regulation, he has held the wrong position consistently. And he has been quite willing to put the taxpayers' money to work bailing out the "free market" banks when they mismanaged themselves into insolvency. McCain is hypocritical when he attacks Wall Street. He has been in bed with the bankers during his whole Senate career. He takes their contributions and when they get in trouble, he bails them out. He is a hypocritical populist as well, because the Republicans ultimately bail out the banks, not the little guy facing foreclosure.

This should not surprise anyone. Bush II gave the largest tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. McCain criticized that policy in 2001, but then flip-flopped. Today he endorses the Bush tax code and wants to perpetuate it. If only it had been the other way around. If only he had flip-flopped on bank deregulation and maintained his 2001 position on taxes. Then McCain would have the same ideas about the economy as Obama.

The Republican Economy Needs a Federal Referee

After the American Century

Some months ago I criticized the Bush Administration's decision to give money to taxpayers across the board, rather than focus it where the real need was, in the mortgage market. It was clear to me, but apparently not clear to Republicans, that home forecloseurs threatened the whole economy. In the last week this truth has been demonstrated with frightening clarity. Two of the oldest and largest and once most respected investment houses in the United States have disappeared. Lehman Brothers has gone bankrupt and Merrill Lynch has been purchased by Bank of America. Both got into trouble because the Republicans refused to regulate investment bankers, which meant that a large part of the economy escaped scrutiny from the Federal Government. This created an uneven playing field, where regular banks played by different rules than investment houses that went into banking. A great many irresponsible mortgages were approved. A housing bubble emerged and expanded - and then popped during Bush II's second term.

Bear Stearns was the first big investment bank to collapse, and the Feds brokered a deal to sell it off for a fraction of what had been its value. Quite properly, the regulators did not bail it out. But the underlying problem of unregulated investment banks making risky loans did not go away. In fact, so many people had been encouraged to buy property that they could not afford,that the Feds soon had to rescue Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac, as the two giant mortgage companies were known. These had functioned without serious problems for generations before the Republican true believers in unfettered capitalism let the investment banks run wild. Like athletes on steroids, they bloated up rapidly and looked powerful, but a mere slowdown in the economy, not even a major recession, put them in trouble. The home owners who went into foreclosure ended up dragging down to ruin some of the (once) most respected banking houses in the world. The end is not yet in sight.

Last night the Federal regulators reluctantly came to the rescue of the American International Group, the largest insurance company in the US. A "loan" of$85 billion dollars. I call that welfare for the capitalists. If the Bush Administration followed the logic of deregulation, then it ought to let any such mismanaged company go into bankruptcy, as Lehman Brothers did. But no one dared. The economic truth is that the markets for insurance and investments and real estate are now tied together in so many intricate ways that a gigantic failure like that would start an avalanche that no later intervention could stop. It would be 1929 once again.

For the mismanaged Bush economy is by no means out of the mess that the Republicans have created, both as lawmakers against investment bank regulation and as the the party of Wall Street. If McCain were elected, one can expect more of the same mismanagement. He has never been a supporter of regulation, but rather when things go wrong he has intoned against "greed on Wall Street." Such moralism appeals to non-investors on small incomes, but it is hypocritical for McCain to pretend that the whole problem is due to a few greedy people. McCain and the Republicans generally, do not want to recognize the need for government. On the highway we need police to regulate traffic, so that reckless drivers do not cause major accidents. In the same way, Wall Street banks need some limits (try collateral) and safety controls (such as larger minimum cash reserves) so that foolish loans do not wreck the financial system. Instead, they are rushing in after the fact with an $85 billion bailout, guaranteed by the taxpayers.

McCain naively believes in "market discipline." That is like saying he expects football players not to be rough if there are no referees. Actually, McCain seems to believe in a system in which potential referees can accept payments from players. The New York Times reports that the McCain campaign has received large contributions from investment bankers, including more than $300,000 from individuals working for Merrill Lynch. His contributors are the very people he now condemns for being greedy capitalists.

Senator Obama, in contrast, back in March was calling for investment bank regulation. He has consistently done so. In the current economic meltdown, it is well to remember how well the economy was doing from 1992-200o, when the Democrats were in charge. More than one million new jobs were created each year during the Clinton Administration, and the budget was in surplus, with the national debt rapidly disappearing. In the Clinton economy almost everyone was better off. Obama is calling for a return to that tax system, which did ask wealthy people to pay more, but they ultimately also benefited from growth and a strong economy.

George W. Bush dismantled that system, which was working so well. Americans now have an economy where everyone is losing. Homes are losing value, stocks are falling, and jobs are disappearing. Bush will be remembered as a president who failed both domestically and in foreign affairs. McCain, who voted with Bush II 90% of the time, offers more of the same.

September 14, 2008

Sarah Palin Failed Her Oral Exam

After the American Century

Two weeks after she was unveiled as the VP nominee, Sarah Palin has done nothing to dispell fears that she knows little if anything about foreign affairs. She performed poorly in the only interview she has given the press, even though that interview was restricted to one journalist from ABC News, and even though the interview only dealt with the single topic of foreign affairs.

Palin had days to prepare herself for this interview, and she had access to experts to help her, including Joe Lieberman, who spent time with her. Either he was a poor teacher, or more likely, she was a poor student. For she showed herself completely unable to explain the Bush Doctrine or to say anything coherent about Russia and the crisis in Georgia. She was hardly being asked arcane questions. These are matters that any regular reader of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, or Washington Post should be able to talk about.

Palin had less knowledge about US foreign policy than my graduate students. They are Danish and speaking a second (or third) language. Palin only got a passport last year, has never lived or worked abroad, never met a head of state, never learned a foreign language, never been involved in anything international, and never said anything thoughtful or clever about foreign affairs. Had Palin been taking an oral exam for a course on American foreign policy, I would have failed her, and so would any other professor. She kept talking off the point. She did not know about major recent events, She obviously had not done any reading, and she was unable to offer any larger perspective on the issues raised. Like the ABC interviewer, I might have ended up going easy on her, not asking any really hard questions, so as not to destroy her self-confidence too much.

What can we conclude from the Palin interview?

(1) Palin does not know anything about recent developments in foreign affairs. She apparently thinks that we invaded Iraq to get the terrorists responsible 9/11. This preposterous lie was repeatedly told by the first Bush Administration, but has been discredited, along with the non-existent weapons of mass destruction. But it does seem quite possible that Sarah Palin herself could become a weapon of mass destruction, should she get her hands on the nuclear button. As she put it, "I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can't blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can't blink."

(2) Palin does not regularly read the newspaper stories about foreign affairs, she has almost certainly never read a book about any aspect of it, because she could not even recover her gaffe - not knowing the Bush Doctrine - by at least discussing the history or background of such a policy. She simply has no clue. This makes her quite dangerous as a national leader. Add to this that neither she nor McCain ever studied law, so they are ill-equipped to think about treaties, if they ever wanted to negotiate one rather than to intervene or fight.

(3) Palin apparently does not exactly know that she is unprepared. She appears to think that the rest of the world is not that difficult to grasp, and whatever knowledge necessary can be picked up on the run. The main thing, apparently, is, as she kept repeating, one must not blink. One must be tough. We have now had eight years of mostly mindless toughness. It is a failed approach - let us not pretend it amounts to a policy or a philosophy. Palin is so ignorant that it is only vaguely beginning to dawn on her that she knows nothing, and the immediate reaction seems to be to blame the media. How dare they attack her? How dare they embarras her? How dare they think that what they know is so important? And so forth.

(4) The McCain team have had good reason to keep Palin away from the press. She has also refused to answer any questions from the public off-the-cuff. Unfortunately for McCain, this is a long ways from the "straight talk express."

The Republicans have found, in Sarah Palin. the potentially most deadly form of mass destruction yet seen. In the last seven years they may not have found whoever sent that anthrax powder through the mails. In the last seven years they may not have caught Osama bin Laden. They may not have found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They may have run up the deficit and the balance of payments to their highest levels in history, destroyed the housing market and quite a number of banks. But surely the American public will not let a few mistakes like that undermine support for the Republican Party?

We must give John McCain and his fervent Republican supporters full credit for finding someone, right in the United States, who has the potential to unleash destruction on an unheard of scale. Her ignorance and self- assurance are perfectly combined. I feel confident that Sarah Palin is prepared not to blink if given the opportunity. I feel certain that, like George Bush, she will start a new war or use any means necessary to defend the world as she sees it. Having no law degree and filled with a sense of righteousness, she is not merely unqualified to be vice president; she is spectacularly dangerous, a real bombshell.

September 10, 2008

What the Press Must Find Out About Palin

After the American Century

Sarah Palin remains largely an unknown. But some disturbing questions have arisen since her nomination. She must be judged in the court of public opinion, like all other candidates. Voters have a right to know what a candidate actually stands for. All of the following statements now appear to be true, but we need further investigation by the press to be certain.

(1) Palin is a Prevaricator. She lied about her support for the Bridge to Nowhere, and actually did support it and ultimately did get the pork: $223,000,000 from the US Treasury that Alaska did not need.

(2) Palin attempted to censor the books in her town library, and to fire the town librarian without cause.

(3) Palin holds extremist views on evolution, global warming, and biological research, and would use her public office to promote her views, for example through giving large sums of money for conferences devoted not to scientific research but to promoting her views. [As governor she has given $2 million to a conference seeking to discredit the reality of global warming.]

(4) Palin has fired public officials guilty of no wrong-doing, misusing her power.

(5) Palin has little knowledge of the law, specifically the Constitution of the United States, and might not be a reliable guardian of its provisions concerning the separation of church and state.

(6) Palin and her husband have given support to a party that is working for Alaskan independence, on the grounds that its accession to statehood did not meet UN guidelines.

(7) Palin has been a member of an extremist church that holds views many other Christians would not find acceptable.

Again, these statements appear to me to be true, but the evidence is sketchy, and the candidate has not been forthcoming. To date, she has not given a press conference or a no-holds-barred interview. Such seclusion is inappropriate for a someone running for Vice-President.

For more questions rasied about Prevaricator Palin, see this piece in the New York Times. Or have a look at this editorial in the same newspaper.

Prevaricator Palin is a Pork-Barrel Politician

After the American Century

McCain and Palin are claiming that they are running against Washington and against pork in the budget, with the "bridge to nowhere" as their shining example.

Here is what Rueters says about it: "In the city Ketchikan, the planned site of the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere," political leaders of both parties said the claim was false and a betrayal of their community, because she had supported the bridge and the earmark for it secured by Alaska's Congressional delegation during her run for governor."

Palin only dropped her support after protest and ridicule was heaped on the project. But Palin still got the pork, $223,000,000. Without building the bridge she still got her hands on the money and spent it on projects in Alaska. Put this in perspective. Alaska has enormous oil revenues and charges its citizens not one dime in income tax, but instead sends them a sizable check every year. Yet Sarah Palin had her greedy hands out for $223,000,000, money that US taxpayers can ill afford to give away.

Alaska can afford to take care of itself, but Palin wanted to have it both ways. She wanted to strut around the stage in St. Paul claiming she stood on principle against that nasty bridge to nowhere, and yet at the same time she took a quarter of billion dollars in pork. So should we give her the name she deserves, Sarah "Pork-Barrel" Palin? Perhaps this has unacceptable sexist connotations, as does Sarah "Piggy" Palin. Therefore, in this space she will now be labelled in a more genteel manner, as Prevaricator Palin. Because she lied. She lied first to the people of Ketchikan, saying she supported the project and then did not. And then she lied to the American people, presenting herself as a reformer, when she is the worst sort of politician. The worst kind is the one who not only lies but double-crosses her supporters. That is what Palin did.

She cannot take the money and then say she is against pork. She claims to be running against Washington, but she was quite happy to rob the American treasury of money that Alaska did not need.

Prevaricator Palin is also rather coy about her past. We are still curious about her husband's membership in a political party that wants Alaska to succeed from the United States. We do know that she issued a friendly message to that party when they held a convention. Prevaricator Palin may not be aware of it, but there was a Civil War fought about this particular question. And here is a news flash for her: the right to succeed was not vindicated in that conflict.

We still do not know why she attended four different universities to get her BA.

We do not know why, as mayor, she build a sports center on land without clear title to it, costing the town large sums in legal fees.

We still do not know why she on several occasions asked her town librarian about removing books from the library. What books was she concerned about? Books about evolution? Why did she try to fire the town librarian? Did she abuse her office in firing other persons, both as Mayor and Governor? She did fire a number, and in at least one case it seems to have been a personal vendetta. What does Prevaricator Palin have to say about this?

I am counting on the American press to vet her, just as they have the other candidates. And I am counting on Prevaricator Palin to scream discrimination and sexism and who knows what every time the American press finds out anything about her. But news flash: that is how democracy works.

September 06, 2008

Who Would Win If the Election Were Tomorrow?

After the American Century

With less than two months to go, the presidential election still looks very close. According to a compilation of many polls made by Real Clean Politics, Obama has a very small lead. Their projection is that if the voting were tomorrow, Obama would get 273 electoral votes, just three more than needed to win. McCain would get 265. This is something of a worst case scenario for Obama, because it assumes that he loses Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida, while winning Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Colorado, and New Mexico. For McCain, such a map suggests that he should make a special effort to win New Hampshire and New Mexico, because as it now stands, getting either one would make him President. For Obama, it is equally clear that he should try harder in Virginia, Indiana and Ohio.

However, these polls should not be taken too seriously. The majority of the state polls that are the basis for this map are still from before either of the conventions. They do not reflect the Democratic show of unity or Palin's addition to the Republican ticket. More revelations about her background are possible, and newer polls will reflect the continuing exposure she receives. Given the lag time between polling activity and events, a better picture should emerge in about two weeks.

Nevertheless, the strength of the Republican ticket should be worrying the Democrats. They seem much further ahead of Republicans in the battle for House and Senate seats. Certainly, they cannot now assume they will win the White House in November.

Of course, there are also national polls focusing not on the electoral count, but on the percentage of support for either candidate. Neither has been able to rise above 50% in these polls. Three released yesterday all put Obama ahead, by 2% (Rasmussen), 4% (Gallup), and 6% (Hotline). Looking at these is a bit like reading tea leaves, but it struck me that the poll giving Obama the biggest lead also had the largest number of undecided voters, no less than 14%. The more voters were forced to make a choice, it seems, the better McCain did in these surveys. In other words, it looks as though about one voter in seven is uncertain, but if forced to choose, they go to McCain more easily than to Obama. The next 58 days both candidates will be fighting to win these swing voters, especially in the swing states.

Update: Since writing this, new polls made by Rasmussen put McCain and Obama in a dead heat, while at least one other poll suggests that McCain is leading after the Republican National Convention. Sarah Palin has emerged as the most popular of all four candidates, at least for the moment. This is a remarkable tribute to the gullibility of the electorate, and it illustrates the size and sheer stupidity of the right wing of the Republican Party.

September 05, 2008

Compared to Biden, Palin Beyond the Pale

After the American Century

Compare Sarah Palin with Joe Biden. He went to the University of Delaware, majoring in history and political science, and then completed a law degree at Syracuse University. He was elected to the Senate when just 29 and now has served there for 35 years. He has been fully vetted by the press, as a result. There is little likelihood that there are any skeletons in his closet.

In contrast, Palin's shorter life remains largely undisclosed. Several blogs back I said that she had attended the University of Idaho for her BA. This was what it said on her official website, and I was silly enough to believe it. In fact, she attended four different schools, moving five times in the space of five years.

Hawaii Pacific University fall, 1982, in business administration
North Idaho College spring and fall, 1983, general studies
(whereabouts unclear) spring of 1984
University of Idaho fall 1984, spring 1985, broadcast journalism
Matanuska-Susitna College fall 1985,
University of Idaho spring 1986 to spring 1987, broacast journalism.

It seems difficult to uncover good reasons for all this moving around. In my more than three decades of teaching, I have found that such peripatetic students are rare, and usually there is something wrong. A student who moves that many times cannot build lasting friendships and usually there is something amiss when someone never settles down for long . It can be problems at home, poor grades, a stalker, a death in the family, pregnancy, or any number of things. College students can have a huge range of problems. Palin studied for nine semesters over a space of five years to get a four year degree. So either she failed some courses or some of them were not deemed transferable. There may be good explanations for this moving around, but it would be nice to know what was going on before election day. Even if the explanations are convincing, her education could not have been particularly coherent, being a mishmash of courses from different curricula.

None of the schools Palin attended is an educational powerhouse. They lie on the outer edges of quality. There is some meaning in the ratings of universities put out by various independent organizations, notably Business Week. None of the places Palin attended is in the top 400 institutions of higher learning in the United States. To bounce around in this educational nether world is not encouraging. At the very least, it suggests merely average intelligence and lack of focus. Her record is quite a contrast to Joe Biden's, who completed both his BA and law degree in the minimum time - 7 years - attending just two universities, both of them well-regarded.

Imagine that you have a job to fill. Not something as exalted as Vice President of the United States, but a mid-level position at a fortune 500 company. Imagine that Biden and Palin applied, and imagine that the selection process was blind. All you have to go on is their educational transcripts, with no idea of whether the candidates are male or female, old or young, experienced or not. Which one of these applicants would set alarm bells ringing, and which one would seem a good prospect? Biden alone stands for stability, rapid execution, and quality. Palin stands for uncertainly, instability, slow execution, and mediocrity. Palin just doesn't measure up.

There is a clear connection between having a second-rate, mishmash of an education and many of the policy positions Palin holds. How many well-educated people think that "creationism" is a valid theory that ought to be taught in the schools? She does. How many well-educated people think that global warming is not a problem and that it is not caused by human activities? She does. How many well-educated people would agree with Palin that there is never a good case for abortion, even when the mother's life is threatened or even when she has been raped? She does. Is there any pattern here?

It seems unlikely that Sarah Palin actually has any ideas beyond what she reads on the teleprompter. She merely has opinions that she has received uncritically from others. She is passionate about unexamined notions, and she has the self-righteous certainty of a poorly-furnished mind. Putting her a heartbeat away from the presidency would be the worst mistake the American electorate ever made. (And I make that statement with a full knowledge of some impressive past mistakes.)

September 04, 2008

Sarah Palin's Clichéd Acceptance Speech

After the American Century

Many people felt that Huckabee was an inexperienced, right-wing, findamentalist Christian who would be completely unsuited to be President. Sarah Palin is Huckabee with less experience and wearing a skirt. But in her acceptance speech last night she downplayed her more extreme views to appeal to the mainstream. She did not say much in her 38 minutes, and indeed there was not a single idea in the first 17 minutes, as she introduced her children, her parents, and her husband, and presented herself as a typical "Hockey Mom" who got into politics at the local level.

She also presented herself as an opponent of the oil companies, who nevertheless pay most of Alaska's expenses. It is quite a good joke for the Republicans to pretend they are against big oil companies, who contribute to their campaigns. Both Bush and Cheney are former oil executives with close ties to the industry. But the current administration was erased from the speech. Were it the only document of these years to survive into some distant age, a historian would not be certain who was president or vice-president.

Palin presented herself as a fiscal conservative who kept the budget balanced. News flash: Alaska, like oil-rich Norway and Kuwait, has long had a budget surplus. She came close to claiming that the US could produce enough of its own oil and gas to avoid dependence on unstable foreign supplies. Not true, of course. As is typical of Republicans, her claim was that all the US needs to do is produce more and more power of all kinds. This failed "policy" has been the Republican mantra since Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Republicans always focus on enlarging the supply, forgetting about the far more easily achieved possibility of reducing wasteful demand.

Palin also attacked Obama, of course, the usual task of vice presidential nominees being to attack the other side. She said that having run a small town of 6,000 was more valuable experience than being a community organizer, because she had real responsibility. She did sink to a new low, however, in ridiculing the idea that people of accused of terrorism have legal rights. This sounds like the Bush approach to human rights. Of course she did not mention that she has at best a sketchy idea of law, having never been the law school. Obama has taught constitutional law at one of the finest law schools in the United States, the University of Chicago, and he was editor of Harvard Law Review. McCain finished in the bottom 2% of his undergraduate class and has no further education.

Palin accused the Democrats of preparing to raise taxes. She managed to avoid mentioning anything about the Bush Administration's large and unfunded reductions in taxes, most of which went to the wealthy. She managed to avoid any admission that the largest dificit in American history was created under the present Republican administration. Listening to her, it seemed that the Democrats actually were responsible for the deficit and unbalanced tax system.

In a particularly Orwellian moment, Palin presented McCain and herself and the Republicans in general as the enemies of special interests! But which candidate has accepted their contributions and filled his staff with lobbyists? Which candidate has voted with George Bush more than 90% of the time? It is absurd to pretend that McCain is an outsider who is against the establishment, against lobbyists, against Washington. His father was a 4 star admiral, he went to the Naval Academy, he has been a Senator for decades. McCain is the insider in this election, though you would not guess it from Palin's speech. And indeed, that is one of the reasons she was selected, because she is from the place farthest away from Washington. (Except Obama's Hawaii, of course.)

There was little content in Palin's 38 minute speech, often punctuated by wild cheering and sign waving, as is the custom. At the end she stood on the stage with all her children, holding her baby. The crowd loved it, and went completely wild when McCain made a surprise appearance on the stage.

Conclusion: this was a successful speech for the party faithful, but an empty Orwellian moment for anyone who thinks about it. There was not one new idea anywhere in that speech. Palin made it sound like the Republicans had not been in the White House the last eight years, and that she was running against the party in power. She scarcely mentioned the terrible state of the economy. She wrapped herself in the flag and ran against Washington. The old cliche is that when a politician has nothing else to offer, then it is time to campaign on God, the flag, family values and apple pie. That is all we got from Surah Palin.

Palin's speech illustates once again H. L. Mencken's aphorism, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the Ameican public." Palin will appeal to many precisely because she has no new ideas, because she repeats clichés with enthusiasm and apparent conviction, and because she has five children.

September 03, 2008

Was McCain the Bomber Pilot a Hero? Republicans and Vietnam

After the American Century

The Republican Party has never come to terms with the Vietnam War, as the McCain candidacy underscores. For as Ronald Reagan once put it, Vietnam was a "noble cause," to considerable right-wing applause. Standing at the then new Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, he declared, "who can doubt that the cause for which our men fought was just?" I can. What Reagan said was pseudo-patriotic nonsense. Which part of the Vietnam War was noble? Was it noble to pretend that the Vietnamese War was about communism, when it began as a nationalist uprising against the French colonial power? Was it noble to concoct a "domino theory" to justify the war, when area specialists at the time knew that it was not true? (Indeed, once the US lost the war, other nations did not "fall" into communism.) Was it noble to overthrow Diem and then support an unpopular South Vietnamese military regime? Was it noble to spray chemical defoliants, notably Agent Orange over large parts of the nation, poisoning both the habitat and US soldiers on the ground? Was dropping napalm on civilians noble? Was support for a wealthy landowning class against landless peasants a noble democratic aim? Was it noble to round up South Vietnamese into compounds and force them to live there rather than in their ancestral villages? Was it noble to be allied with a regime that at times shot prisoners, that was known to mistreat its prisoners, and even to throw them alive out of airplanes? Was it noble to bomb North Vietnam, attacking not only military targets but cities as well, killing thousands of civilians?

Let us focus on that last question, because the future Republican candidate John McCain was flying over North Vietnam in 1967. What was he doing there when he was shot down? People focus on McCain in a prisoner of war camp, but forget to ask why he was there, or whether the US war in Vietnam made any sense. Yes, he was shot down. Yes, he was mistreated. Yes, he suffered. But the Democrats have been reluctant to ask the real question: What was McCain's role in that unjust war, which was condemned by most European nations? Did he drop agent orange on agricultural lands? Did he drop napalm on villages? Did he bomb women and children? And just as importantly, what does McCain think of the Vietnam War today? Does he agree with Reagan's absurd idea that the war was a noble cause? Does he think that massive strategic bombing was a successful tactic? A morally defensible tactic? A good tactic in future wars? If so, then why did the US lose that war? Why did the US lose the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people? Has McCain, have the Republicans, any new ideas, or will they keep trying the same failed military "solutions"?

What does McCain think of the "shock and awe" bombing of Iraq? Does the United States want a president who jokes about bombing Iran, by intoning a Beach Boys tune as he warbles, "Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran?" This might sound like a joke, but the threat of strategic bombing is the essense of McCain's foreign policy. There is nothing heroic or noble about dominating the air space over a nation, whether Vietnam or Iraq or Iran, and carpeting it with deadly bombs. That is why McCain is a dangerous choice for president, just as the Republicans are a dangerous party to entrust with foreign policy.

After eight years of George Bush, where in the world is the US in a sronger foreign policy position than it was in 2000? Not in Europe. Not in the Middle East. Not in China. Not in Latin America. Where is it more popular than in 2000? It is hard to make a case for many places. John McCain has a millitaristic conception of foreign affairs, and he is accompanied by a vice-presidential nominee who thinks the Iraq War is a holy mission.

Vietnam was not a noble cause, but an enormous mistake. McCain and the Republicans have never understood it, and remain prisoners of a distorted sense of history. That is why they are unfit to hold power.

September 02, 2008

Republicans and Democrats: changing regional support

After the American Century

The Republicans have changed a great deal in the twentieth century. Back in 1901 they were led by Teddy Roosevelt, and he won reelection in 1904 with scarcely any support in the South. That was solidly Democratic, and remained so until the 1960s. Then in 1964 Barry Goldwater did poorly in the general election, but won several states in the Deep South. Richard Nixon took note, and made a concerted effort to win in that region, where Republicans had been anathema since the Civil War. The Republicans long were despised below the Mason-Dixon line, as the party of Lincoln and Reconstruction.

The sea-change that followed Nixon's 1968 triumph in the South was astonishing. It was as if two men who had been wrestling furiously until they emerged from their struggle wearing each other's clothing. The Republicans ended up switching regions, as it were, and today the so-called "red states" they tend to win are mostly the old slave states. Lincoln would be astonished to find that his home state of Illinois is solidly behind Obama, the Democrat, while his party is very strong in Mississippi and Georgia. Likewise, the Democrats are now strong in the North where they seldom could win electoral votes for generations after the Civil War.

By meeting in Minneapolis, the Republicans are trying to keep their brand national. At the party's birth in the 1850s it was strong in the Middle West, and stood for free labor against the slave South. But it has not been the party of affirmative action or the equal rights amendment. In my childhood, Republicans often called themselves "the party of Lincoln." One hears this seldom now. Where Black Americans once overwhelmingly voted Republican, they now vote almost entirely Democratic, often over 90%. Women likewise tend to vote more for Democrats, but by less dramatic margins. In 1992, had only men been allowed to vote, George Bush would have been reelected. Had only whites been allowed to vote, Bush also would have won. Blacks and women made Clinton president.

So the party that abolished slavery lost its Black support, moved its center of power from North to South, and embraced religious conservatism. Yet it also remained the party of businessmen. Ronald Reagan was able to remain popular with these somewhat contradictory constituencies, and he also kept the Republicans strong in California. Today, the Republicans are weak there, as well as in New York, however, and they tend to be stronger with businessmen in older, heavy industries than in the high-tech and computer areas.

Is the party still national, or has eight years with George Bush cemented its Southern identity? Certainly, it seems unlikely to win much in the Northeast or the West Coast. Holding the convention in St. Paul is designed to keep its brand visible. Indeed, the hope is that they might win Minnesota. Neither McCain nor Palin has Southern roots or a drawl, and clearly the GOP thinks it can be viable in many Midwestern and Western states. At the same time, Obama is attempting to compete in every state, hoping to break or weaken the Republican hold on such places as Nevada, Montana, North Dakota, Indiana, North Carolina, and Virgina, and keen to win back Florida, if possible.

Will the 2008 election be a watershed event like that in 1968? Probably not. But it may begin a process of realignment, as both parties try to win in new areas. Conceivably, if Obama does very well, the Republicans could lose much of their western base, and be reduced to a regional, southern core. Alternately, if McCain does very well, the Democrats might be reduced to the party of the Northeast and the West Coast, with little in between.

If the two parties remain roughly in their present positions, however, things will hardly be so neatly regional. The New York Times electoral map currently suggests that if the election were held tomorrow there would be 251 electoral votes for Obama, 229 for McCain, and 60 too close to call. Real Clear Politics thinks twice as many electoral votes are up in the air, a total of 125. Both agree, however, that six states are balanced on a knife edge and could go either way: Michigan, Ohio, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and New Hampshire. Not surprisingly, on Labor Day, Obama was in one of the largest of these: Michigan.