The Most Awesome Political Strategist Ever

John McCain’s comeback from loosing the nomination in 2000 and being so far down in this primary that people were talking about him dropping out before Iowa because he didn’t even have the money to gas up the Straight Talk Express to now having won New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida and the presumed winner out of Super Tuesday is nothing short of amazing. It shows what an incredibly strong candidate he is — and has been all along.

The thing that this determined comeback suggest is that McCain was the rightful Republican candidate in 2000. He had the potential to be a national and a unifying candidate. And were in not for the balls to the wall tactics of Karl Rove, he would have been.

Not just that: Al Gore was the anointed successor to a President Clinton leaving office one of the most popular in history, at the end of the longest uninterrupted economic expansion in history. By all rights, Al Gore should have been the 43rd President of the United States.

And for all his weaknesses, John Kerry was running against what was widely perceived at the time to be a sure looser. If you look at George W. Bush, Jr.’s approval ratings, they had dropped below half well before the 2004 election. He had a loosing war and a weak economy on his hands. He was a draft-dodger running against a purple-hear winner. But then, late in 2004 he bumped slightly above 50 percent and won a second term by one of the narrowest margins in hstory.

The thing that strikes me, seeing how tough a contender John McCain is, is that Karl Rove is the most awesome political strategist of his generation.

As bitter as John McCain must be at Mr. Rove, if he gets the nomination — or whoever gets it — they should beg, borrow and steal to get him to at least consult on their campaign. He may be tainted, but he is like the giant Antaeus from Greek mythology: since he draws his power from sleaze, the further into the mud he gets ground, the stronger he becomes.

Afterthought: Karl Rove is the highest attainment of sophistry: three times he has made the weaker argument appear the stronger to world-historical consequences.

Selective Lesson Taking

After Iowa there was a lot of commentary about what it meant that both parties had repudiated their establishment candidates. The Clintons and their DLC positions are the Democratic party today. Governor Romney represents the continuation of the Reagan coalition, whereas the other candidates are all the triumph of one faction of it over the rest. For Senator Obama to win on the Democratic side and Governor Huckabee to also win on the Republican side shows that dissatisfaction with the status quo runs across both parties.

But early primary victories by anti-establishment insurgents aren’t the only course of events that mean something. When ultimately Senator Clinton and Governor Romney secure their respective parties’ nominations, people should be ready to interpret those events as well. Anti-establishment idealism is all fine and good, but people should realize that in the end the empire always strikes back.

Bipartisanship After 20 January 2009

Senator Barack Obama’s win in South Carolina was exciting from a horse-race perspective. His speech was, in my opinion, much better than his Iowa one. But I still find his whole “changing the tone in Washington” shtick hopelessly naïve. I don’t know if he buys his own bullshit — maybe he knows better and it’s just a campaign ploy — but it suggests to me a candidate completely unready for the pain of the general election and the realities of governing a divided nation.

Consider the agenda for a Democratic president their first year in office. The top line issues will be doing something about Iraq, passing some sort of healthcare legislation, fixing the federal budget and, depending on how the economy plays out in the next year, managing the recession. I also imagine that about a week after a Democratic President is sworn in Ruth Bader Ginsburg will announce her retirement from the Supreme Court. All these issues seem daunting and perhaps the sort of thing that could hobble a new president right out of the gate.

Policies in Iraq and the war on terrorism are prerogatives of the president and the sort of things that can be accomplished without any input from Congress. But Iraq is an intractable situation. I don’t think anyone — no matter how confidently they may promulgate their whitepapers — knows what to do here, but a wrong move or two could be catastrophic. There are many powerful people in D.C. whose worldview is deeply connected to the Iraq war who will be watching and waiting to parade a Democratic president’s every plausibly wrong move down Pennsylvania Avenue and across all the television talk shows. Americans constantly tell pollsters that they want out of Iraq, but it is a position that is a mile wide and an inch deep. As soon as they are faced with the rhetoric of the consequences of withdrawal, they could seriously turn against a President actually implementing their previously desired policy. There are too many reasons that the Republicans will want to paint the Democrats as the party that lost the Iraq war — not least to get this albatross off the neck of the Republicans and onto that of the Democrats. No amount of speechifying is about to change this. This stands to be a real lesson for a President Obama in the unchangableness of the tone here in Washington, D.C.

However much they promise on the campaign trail, healthcare reform more significant than bureaucratic twiddling around the margins will be a next to impossible task. I think that a Democratic administration should hand this issue off to a blue-ribbon commission or some sort of consensus-building or stakes-raising body to let it simmer for a few months to a year, but I suspect that for reason of some by-gone precedent they will make it a part of their first hundred-day agenda. Everyone in Washington, D.C. believes that early successes build momentum and political capitol for a President. Therefore Republicans, right-leaning Democrats and related interest groups will be eager to hand the new President a momentum-stunting defeat on healthcare. Success in this issue will consist almost entirely of cajoling Congress and Republicans will seek to make it the first firebreak. Political-strategic considerations aside, the amount of money riding on this issue is just going to be too much for opposition groups to avoid going apocalyptic on this issue. Whoever grabs this wolf by the ears is going to have to be prepared for a lot of snarling and snapping in the general direction of their throat.

On the issue of fixing the budget, it can’t be done without raising taxes. If nothing else, the next President will be faced with whether to allow the sunset provision of the 2000 Bush tax cut to kick in. Nearly the entire Republican caucus has signed onto Grover Norquist’s No-Tax Pledge and the party leadership is serious about enforcing it. Additionally there are a lot of right-leaning Democrats or Democrats from sensitive conservative districts that tend to vote with the Republicans. Passing a Democratic budget will be dependent on maintaining a high degree of party unity, shaming Congressmen on the margin and taking the message to the citizenry. Since such a budget will probably come down to a straight party line vote, this will mean pressuring and humiliating Republicans in front of their constituents. In other words, some standard partisan tactics are what is called for here.

Regarding a Supreme Court nominee, I imagine that the Democrats will be surprised to find that their willingness to compromise on President Bush’s two appointments not reciprocated. A Democratic President may have to insist that Harry Reid actually call Mitch McConnell’s bluff and hold a real filibuster. And to win it, again, making the Republicans look the obstructionist assholes in front of the nation will be required.

When Barack Obama rattles off one of his standard litanies of the problems that can’t be solved owing to gridlock and partisanship, they aren’t initiatives that the Republicans want to advance too were it not for some mysterious bureaucratic bickering getting in the way. The items not achieved on Senator Obama’s list aren’t failures to Republicans, but accomplishments. Partisanship doesn’t emanate from some mysterious origin lost to the mists of time, but comes about owing to day-to-day real word differences on policy as well as the tried and true methods for advancing your own agenda while thwarting that of your opponent. Unless Barack Obama thinks that his smooth words have the power to evaporate this underlying reality — and Americans for Tax Reform, the American Enterprise Institute, Cato, The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal editorial page and hordes of corporate money are going to do everything they can to see to it that he fails — then he better have a plan B.

The First Casualties of Gentrification

I suspect that the first real consequences of the gentrification of Columbia Heights are starting to hit Mount Pleasant. I was walking home tonight when I noticed that the Mount Pleasant Super Market was closed with the usual signs up in the windows. A peep through the grates revealed ransacked, bare shelves. My personal favorite grocery store, the Super Save Market has been locked up tight for probably two weeks now, but with no explanation and all the merchandise untouched — suggestive of a landlord locking them out rather than an orderly loosing of the lease.

I have to wonder when the International Progresso Market, Los Primos and the Samber Market are next. All three appear to be just barely hanging on.

The survivor will probably be BestWay which irritates the hell out of me. It’s the biggest of the grocery stores in the neighborhood, but also the most inadequate. First of all, they close way too early. Since the Super Save Market closed I have redirected to BestWay, but am already reminded why the Super Save Market was my favorite. About two thirds of the time that I head over to BestWay I find them closed. And they keep on ratcheting the hours down. It used to be that they closed at 9:00, but the floors were already mopped, the place stinking of whatever foul substance they put in their mop buckets and someone at the door trying to intimidate you from entering at 8:50. So they recently made the closing time 8:50. But everyone has adjusted accordingly. Now the place is mopped and you’re not welcome at 8:40. I frequently don’t even leave the office until 8:30. A grocery store that closes at 8:40 is a store at which I will never shop.

And then there is BestWay’s strange monomania regarding stock. BestWay is the one most like what most people think of when they think grocery store. Most of the stores in Mount Pleasant are weird hodgepodges of products heavily skewed toward the ethnicities of the neighborhood piled on improvised and mismatched shelves in a shop that doesn’t even approach ADA standards. There is a lot of minding your manners, jostling and backing down an isle only wide enough for one. BestWay is large, well stocked and has enough space for people to pass in the isles. But it’s only well-ish stocked. They have most things you would want and offer variety in nearly all product categories, but for some reason never vary the products according to the factors that matter. In the canned vegetable isle they devote a couple of feet on two shelves to tomatoes. That’s quite a lot of tomatoes — as would be expected as people eat a lot of tomatoes. But it’s all a couple of different brands of only 28 oz. cans of whole stewed tomatoes; no 14.5 oz. cans and no diced or sliced. Who makes anything with whole tomatoes? There are like five different brands of catsup — Heinz, Hunts, Del Monte, RichFood, Value Brand — but only in small bottles. But for some reason they carry vinegar in industrial quantities.

As this list may suggest, Mount Pleasant is an over-groceried neighborhood and maybe overdo for a shakeup. It’s a tiny nook of the city with multiple grocery stores in which the norm is huge residential tracts without a grocery store for miles.

I just hope Samber Market isn’t next. It has become my late night fallback now that Super Save Market is closed. It is run by an older Japanese couple and I go there because they are both so overwhelmingly pleasant. They are both very good looking, always dressed like they consider their job at the till to be very serious work, and seemingly happy to see me every time. The man holds up each item as he rings them up and gets a certain look of pride at each one — especially a bottle of wine — like he were serving the community and providing for his family with each sale. Often a boy, I presume their grandson, but maybe their son — they could go either way — is in the store roller-skating laps or climbing the taller shelves way too rambunctiously, but unimpeded by his grandparents.

They must sleep in the stock room on top of pallets of Top Ramen given the expense of living in D.C. Hopefully they’ll survive the winnowing. Hopefully this won’t end up another neighborhood without a grocery store.

Update, 27 January 2008: Yep, it’s confirmed. I walked past the Super Save Market on Friday night and there was a notice up from the D.C. Tenant Court saying that the tenant was in arrears $14,000. They had been making all sorts of upgrades to the store lately and I thought it was because they were finally making a bit of a success of themselves. I guess that it was actually some last ditch gamble to attract more business. The tragedy is that the fancy new shelves probably cost a month’s rent.

Last Days of the Bush Administration

Today the countdown begins: only 366 days left of the Bush administration (2008 is a leap year). On this day a year from now we will be swearing in a new president — provided that Dick Cheney’s office doesn’t dream up any new emergency powers of the presidency between now and then.

It’s amazing the degree to which President Bush has become a non-entity, given the collapse of the Bush Doctrine, the scuttling of their Iran agenda and the death of their domestic agenda as long ago as the defeat of the Bush Social Security privatization program in 2005. Of course, given the power and prerogative of the presidency, he could precipitate a crisis at any moment.

The turn of Bush & Co. to an announced program of peace in Israel — after seven years of neglect — is transparently unserious. Such efforts may play to a domestic audience, but, as in so many other issues, the administration seems unaware that the parties to such a peace have national security establishments of their own, bristling with salaried employees whose job it is to detect insincerity and deceit on the part of foreign powers. I imagine that whatever playing along the Israelis and Palestinians do is entirely diplomatic nicety.

A president truly committed to peace in Israel-Palestine would have to make it a top line issue for the duration of their administration and probably be prepared to hand off some unfinished business to a successor. And they would have to expend a significant portion of their political capitol on the issue. That means both time, travel and a willingness to take a lot of heat from the religious right and Israel lobby alliance.

Between campaign pandering to Christian Zionists and lame duck legacy hunting, the transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a substantive international relations issue, into domestic opportunity for atmospherics is one of the most dangerous capitulations on a very serious foreign policy blight. All roads to peace in the Middle East lead through Israel-Palestine, but in the indispensable nation it has sunk to the level of ethanol subsidies or a commencement address at Bob Jones University.

Romney on the Way to the Nomination

On Wednesday Matthew Yglesias pointed out that that Mitt Romney is the Republican leader, having won a slight majority of allocated delegates. His pie chart here is illustrative (“Romney’s Big Lead,”, 16 January 2008). After South Carolina, Mr. Yglesias points that this trend continues (“A Small Point,”, 19 January 2008):

This morning, Mitt Romney had more delegates than John McCain. Following today’s primaries, Romney’s lead has grown even larger because Nevada has more delegates than South Carolina and Romney won a larger proportion of the vote in NV than McCain got in South Carolina.

Here’s a little table that I pulled together of raw vote count in the Republican primaries to date.

19 January 2008, Republican Primaries Raw Vote Count

Throw in the electoral college and things get more complicated, but right now, counting state victories is hiding the underlying reality that Governor Romney is the leader.

I think that for the other candidates the best outcome of future primaries will be mixed. There’s reason to believe from here on, the race will tip in favor of Mitt Romney. Plus he has raised more money and is the establishment candidate. He’s the obvious leader. Everyone is just oblivious.

J. M. W. Turner at the Smithsonian

J. M. W. Turner, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps, 1812, oil on canvas, Turner Bequest, Tate Britain, London

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps, 1812, oil on canvas, Turner Bequest, Tate Britain, London

From 1 October 2007 through 6 January 2008 the Smithsonian had a historic exhibition of 164 works of J. M. W. Turner. I first came to know Mr. Turner on a brief visit to London in 2003 — I’m a bit of a philistine — when I saw Ulysses deriding Polyphemus (1829) and The Fighting ‘Temeraire’, tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838 (1839), and probably a few others that didn’t stick with me, on display at the National Gallery of London. Since that time he has only grown in my esteem. Getting to see Ulysses deriding Polyphemus again was like visiting an old friend. I went to see the exhibit twice in its three months in Washington, D.C., but still our time together was precious and passed altogether too quickly.

I think that a lot of art historians would say that he is not, as many amateur admirers would like to interpret him, some avant guard Twentieth Century painter, a sort of pre-Impressionist, mysteriously displaced in time. Obviously if you take the announced theme of his paintings, they are very much of their age. They aim at the sublime in nature, classical historical stories, moral edification, the contemplative and the visually soothing and pleasing. I just don’t know whether Mr. Turner would actually like us to consider the depicted event, or quickly brush past it as pretext to get to the real matter of painting, which is light, color, material — painting as the primitive actions of composition, application of material, seeing and pleasure in the most basic elements pf perception, prior to the engagement of the higher cognitive faculties.

Look for instance at Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps (pictured above). It’s a massive black swirl pushed up the side of a mountain, against a frothy, creamy snow. Anything that might constitute “the action” or the narrative of the painting is in the lower quarter of the frame, and even then only impressionistic. A lone silhouette of an elephant against an illuminated sky in the far distance is the only obvious sign of what is, at least ostensibly, being portrayed. It is a painting of the cloud, the sky, the light. The rest is pretext. It’s not even really that, I suspect. It’s a painting of the way colors interact and an experiment in what is pleasing to the mind, unbounded by depiction and representation.

From a distance the paintings may be depiction, but take a step closer. They are elaborate exercises in color and the application of paint. Your eye can cover square inch after square inch without coming upon a single recognizable feature — just differing layers of color and paint. I’m thinking here of Snow-storm, Avalanche and Inundation – A Scene in the Upper Part of Val d’Aouste, Piedmont (1837). Clip off the lower right corner and strip the title and it would be a wholly modern painting. Or some of his watercolor studies for the two Burning of the House of Parliament are depictive in title only.

In favor of this interpretation, Mr. Turner follows a trajectory similar to the Impressionists and Surrealist that would come later, in that he starts out making very realist, representational paintings in the 1790s and early Nineteenth Century, only gradually and experimentally becoming more abstract later. In the years 1810 through the 1830s you start to get these mixed representational and abstract paintings. After 1840 he starts to produce paintings that no longer have a narrative slice or corner that allows the field of abstraction to plausibly be interpreted as something — a stormy sea, a particularly tumultuous cloud — but rather entire fields of abstraction with but a shadow of depiction somewhere in the midst. Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhon coming on (1840) approaches this. Snow Storm — Steam-Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth … (1842) or Yacht approaching the Coast (1850) show the full fruition of this development.

There is no substitute for being close to these paintings. The way that Turner depicts the effects of the sun on the layers and layers of cloud and other water vapor is not something that lends itself to flat, twentieth scale ink reproduction. The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire (1817) is a perfect example. You will never see what he does with the sun and the flurry of clouds above, or the way that the same light infuses the entire painting.

It’s worth noting that Mr. Turner was not a one trick pony. Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore (1834) and Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute (1835) were quite a surprise to come upon late in the exhibit. After so many paintings listing abstract, two of such clarity of line and distinction of color was almost a shock to the senses. Obviously I wasn’t the only one with such a response as I overheard a number of other museum-goers comment to the same effect.

The painting that was missing from the collection was The Fighting ‘Temeraire’, tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838. It is perhaps his most romantic and nostalgic painting. As a part of the National Gallery collection, it was of a piece with my original acquaintance with Turner. If seeing the exhibit was like visiting old friends, it was like a visit where one of your ranks was not present.

It will be on display again in my neck of the woods at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from 24 June – 21 September 2008. I may have to get up for one last peek before this once in a lifetime assemblage disbands for good.

Elections as Signal II

I realize that there is a significant debate around whether Bob Kerrey is a cat’s paw for Clinton campaign race bating directed at Barack Obama — and the Clinton campaign has had some perfidious truck with the right-wing sewer. But again, there’s debate about whether what he said was sincere or really a backhanded compliment (see e.g. Kleiman, Mark, “Kerrey and ‘Barack Hussein Obama’,” The Reality-Based Community, 16 December 2007). I think there’s reason to think that he’s sincere, but whatever the case, since he expresses the internationalist potential of Obama qua icon — or as Frank says, as signifier — so well, I’m going to excerpt it at my own risk:

I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There’s a billion people on the planet that are Muslims, and I think that experience is a big deal.

Kevin Drum wrote a very well expressed explication of this sentiment at the time (“Fighting Terrorism,” Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 17 December 2007):

Kerrey wasn’t suggesting that electing Obama would have any direct effect on hardcore al-Qaeda jihadists. It wouldn’t. But terrorists can’t function unless they have a critical mass of support or, at a minimum, tolerance from a surrounding population. This is Mao’s sea in which the jihadists swim. Without it, terrorists simply don’t have enough freedom of movement to be effective, and their careers are short. It’s why the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany lasted only a few years, while the IRA in Ireland has lasted decades.

What Kerrey was getting at was simple: in the long run, the only way to defeat the hardcore jihadists is to dry up their support in the surrounding Muslim world. And on that score, a president with black skin, a Muslim father, and a middle name of Hussein, might very well be pretty helpful.

For today’s jihadists, the answer is hard power. There’s no other way to stop them. But for tomorrow’s jihadists, the answer is soft power. As long as a substantial fraction of the Islamic world supports or tolerates jihadism, we’ll never stop the production of new terrorists or seriously reduce their effectiveness. But if that support dries up, we can win. This is where our foreign policy should be focused, and the fact that it hasn’t been for the past six years — that, in fact, we’ve gone backward on this score — is by far the most calamitous aspect of George Bush’s disastrous war on terror.

One of the amazing things about the six years since 11 September 2001 is that the importance of tamping down support for extremists among moderate Moslems is something that George W. Bush, at least in speech, understands. When it comes time to execute policy, it all goes out the window — actually a common feature of the Bush presidency. It’s time to address this central shortfalling.

The Election as Signal to the World

Over the Christmas weekend Frank advanced an argument in favor of Barack Obama that remains to my mind the top-line argument in his favor: that the simple fact of his election president of the United States will have a dramatic effect on the world’s perception of the U.S. Born in one of the middle provinces of the American empire (Hawaii) to a Kenyan father and a white mother, doing part of his growing up in Indonesia, with a name like Barack Hussein Obama, may people of the world may look at the new U.S. president and see something of themselves and of an America beyond the arrogant frat-boy entitlement of the Bush administration.

On the first episode after being strong-armed back from the writers’ strike, Stephen Colbert had Andrew Sullivan on to make the same argument (Colbert Report, Comedy Central, Monday, 7 January 2008):

If you show just that face of Barack Obama on television to some teenager in Lahore, Pakistan who has this vision of America that has been determined by the Bush-Cheney years, suddenly more than any word his opinion and view of this country will change. We have a chance to win those people over and make the world love America again.

With his cover feature in last month’s Atlantic Monthly (“Goodby to All That,” vol. 300, no. 5, December 2007, pp. 40-54), Andrew Sullivan perhaps the Senator’s most outstanding booster in the commentariat. But he is also about the most naïve of the astute political commentators, prone to enthusiasms that in retrospect look premature so I’m going to keep my own counsels.

The campaign for the presidency doesn’t end at the convention and the presidency is not just election night. After convention one has to face the Republican machine and after the inauguration there are another 1,460 days and I just don’t know that Senator Obama has what it takes in either arena.

Considing that the entire world expected a repudiation of George W. Bush on election night in 2004 and that we did not deliver, a more dramatic gesture is now in order. I like John Edwards because he is the most liberal of the top three, but with a woman and an African-American within striking distance, it would be a shame to send another white man to the White House.