Deliver Me From These Awful Debates

I’m the kind of person who gets wound up over the State of the Union Address like it were the Super Bowl, but both these debates bored the life out of me. I was looking at the clock and whishing for it to be over. I blame it on the Senate: it’s too insular a world. When Senator McCain said that he had written a letter to the Treasury Secretary that Senator Obama had not signed, that he whishes we could see that letter, I was one impressed customer. You wrote a letter. I’ll bet the Treasury Secretary wound up the entire department and wrote one back. God! If the next president would just write a letter to Wall Street or to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I’ll bet they would write letters back too.

And John McCain’s jokes were such insufferable stinkers. His stilted humor is the perfect analog to his person. And what was up with that bizarre attack on Tom Brokaw?

And where is the Barack Obama of the prepared statements? Take away rehearsal and he’s just another quibbling, rambling Senator lost in the shuffle. In the last debate when he stammered for what seemed like two or three minutes trying to get out the name of that thing we did with those other countries about those big bombs I couldn’t believe it. “The Nuclear … uh … uh … Proliferation … uh … Agreement.” It’s a treaty. What’s so hard about that?

Tom Brokaw was a dud of a moderator. Where the hell did he dig up that completely arbitrary non sequitur about holding Congress to a two year deadline to reform Social Security? Why not the proverbial first hundred days?

People who say that one candidate or the other won are either spin-meisters or possessed of higher levels of discernment than me. I think that these debates are completely inconsequential for the outcome a month from now.

Capitalist Systematics and Individual Freedom

In his economic speech on Monday Senator McCain had the following to say about the present financial crisis:

The top of our economy is broken. We have seen self-interest, greed, irresponsibility and corruption undermine the hard work of the American people.

Then on Tuesday morning he said to Joe Scarborough:

Wall Street has betrayed us. They’ve broken the social contract between capitalism and the average citizen and the worker. … This is a result of excess and greed and corruption. And that’s exactly what is plaguing Americans today.

I imagine that a lot of people would call me a leftist and a socialist, but from these two comments it seems to me that John McCain must have a pretty contorted idea of what exactly capitalism is underneath the rhetorical hood.

What’s happening on Wall Street isn’t a corruption of capitalism. It’s not that people are angles and in capitalism we’ve finally found an economic system equal to ourselves. The genius of capitalism is that people are greedy, self-interested wretches and capitalism is a system that channels their greed into social good. What’s wrong with what’s going on with the financial system in recent weeks is not that financiers are greedy, or even excessively greedy, but that the system is rigged wrong.

When Democrats call for a new regulatory regime, this is what they are calling for: a different arrangement of the system. Different prohibitions, different incentives, different inducements. It’s the Nudge approach. Align the incentives right and then laissez faire.

The alternative to systematic change is the reengineering of the human heart. And proposals to change the hearts of men are not very conservative. This is why capitalism and liberalism are so closely conjoined. Capitalism is indifferent to the characteristics of the corpuscles that comprise the system. It is the economic system most compatible with self-determination because it doesn’t require people of any particular character to function. It’s even sufficiently robust as to be compatible with extremes of behavior. Other systems less fault-tolerant and rely for their sustainability on the virtue of their participants. As such other systems maintain an interest in the condition of the souls of their members. Some see this as a virtue of these alternate systems.

Recent weeks don’t argue my case very well. It would seem that capitalism is in fact not very robust and in need of quite a bit of extra-systematic shoring up. But that’s owing to fifteen years of willful neglect. Professed admiration for capitalism on the right is not so compatible with the sustainability of capitalism. If you get the system right, you don’t have to worry about the character of the people.

But this is one of the things that’s distinct about Senator McCain. He isn’t that into leaving people alone. He’s a proponent of a particular type of civic virtue and is interested in cajoling people, even cajoling them rather convulsively, into demonstrating his brand thereof. And on the right more generally opposition to business regulation is so inflexible that social engineering is the acceptable alternative.

The Palin Speech

After the pounding that McCain-Palin have taken over the last week I think that a lot of people tuned in to Sarah Palin’s speech for a spectacle. And she got off to a start that suggested a neophyte out of her league, but she rapidly adjusted and delivered a real stemwinder. As many have commented, she is a mastermind of the caustic aside.

I think that just about everyone in the country saw what was going on all at the same time. All week long the analysis of the Republican VP choice is that it was an attempt to drive a wedge between the Hillary Clinton and the Barack Obama supporters. About a quarter the way through her introduction of her family it dawned on S. and I the true case for her selection by the McCain campaign. When her speech was over and MSNBC cut to Chris Matthews, his opening point was that analysts have been misreading the Palin pick all week long, that it was a culture war move; it’s aim was the elitism narrative. I feel like the knife has been held just outside my field of vision and only in the midst of the speech last night did I catch the first glint of whetted steal.

The whole clan is too much. The candidate herself is unmistakably an aging beauty queen. Her husband, a fisherman, a union member, an Alaskan Men cover model, a “snow machine racer” is right out of central casting. The son solemn and stern in anticipation of shipping out for Iraq. The daughter, starting to show, is too fast on the heals of Jamie Lynn Spears and Juno (the damn film and its namesake are even named for and Alaskan city). Contrary to the Republican mythos, the “heartland” is plagued by degeneracy and altogether too many of these people will be able to identify. The down syndrome child is clearly dog whistle politics. It’s a lesser-known subject of discussion that almost no down syndrome children are born anymore and on the right it dovetails into the strawman connection between reproductive freedom and eugenics. To flout one is a clear symbol to the illuminati about Ms. Palin’s position on abortion. As Peggy Noonan inadvertently said, Governor Palin is narrative, not policy or capability.

From this speech it’s clear that the coming election will be the culture war all over again. It’s going to be a rerun of the 2004 election and it’s going to be nasty. It’s really amazing that the Republicans have only one script.

It’s completely dismaying the degree to which the future of the country is in the hands of a fairly unsophisticated media. If on Monday Time, Newsweek and U.S. News all have glowing cover stories on her then the Democrats are fucked. If the litany of lurid, tabloid-esque stories don’t abate, then everything will be okay.

The Democrats Reborn?

I’m trying to keep up my jaundiced eye here, but I feel like tonight I have seen a Democratic party unlike any I have seen before in my lifetime. Walter Mondale was perhaps the last of the old guard still to possess some fight, but after that, not Dukakis, or Clinton, or Al Gore or John Kerry. They all seemed too timid, too poll tested, too cowed. First last night in Joe Biden’s speech and then again tonight in Barack Obama’s I heard a Democratic party unbowed, spirited, confident.

Senator Biden’s introduction by his son and his own discussion of his family was surprisingly emotional and seemingly so for everyone involved. His speech was the version of values that Democrats should be putting forward, it was tough on foreign policy, and unlike Democrats for the last eight years, effortlessly sincere, uncontrived. As Matthew Yglesias pointed out (“It’s Biden,” ThinkProgress, 23 August 2008), the selection of Biden for VP “signals as desire to take the argument to John McCain on national security policy” and deliver to voters “a full-spectrum debate about the issues facing the country rather than a positional battle in which one party talks about the economy and the other talks about national security.” In Joseph Biden I think I first, finally saw a different, rejuvenated Democrats.

The same was true for Barack Obama’s speech tonight. His cadence was off in places, but it was defiant, pugilistic and signaled to me that the Senator has absorbed all the right lessons about the campaign. I think many of the myths that have plagued the Senator as well as the party at large for the last few weeks have been definitively left behind after tonight. It showed some of the populism that worked so well for Al Gore in the final weeks of the 2000 election. My favorite part, like with Senator Biden, was when Senator Obama took the foreign policy issue by the horns:

You don’t defeat — you don’t defeat a terrorist network that operates in 80 countries by occupying Iraq. You don’t protect Israel and deter Iran just by talking tough in Washington. You can’t truly stand up for Georgia when you’ve strained our oldest alliances.

If John McCain wants to follow George Bush with more tough talk and bad strategy, that is his choice, but that is not the change that America needs.

If Chris Matthews waxing rapturous is any indication, then he achieved everything he needed to do. After Chris Matthews, what more can you ask for? Who knows, maybe even Maureen Dowd will write a positive review. I think McCain’s speech a week from now will look pretty wooden in comparison.

My only concern is as, I think it was Patrick Buchanan said last night, after a week of the Republicans ripping into Senator Obama next week, the Democrats may regret going so easy on Senator McCain. Alternately, Democrats may finally have learned that you have to run your negative stuff stealth.

Bush’s Götzen-Dämmerung; Obama’s Revaluation of All Values

This does even more for me than Hillary Clinton’s drinking habits:

Obama himself went through a period of “devouring” the work of Nietzsche while living in New York. It’s difficult to say what Obama might have absorbed from the German philosopher, mostly because Nietzsche himself is so hard to pin down, but one of Obama’s favorite instructors at Occidental told Mendell that anyone who immersed themselves in his thought would learn “to call everything into question.”

(Miller, Laura, “Barack by the Books,” Salon.com, 7 July 2008)

New York and Nietzsche! Could it be any more élitist? It kinda makes ya see the theme of change in a different light. As Nietzsche said, “… only beginning with me are there hopes again” (Ecce Homo, “Why I am a Destiny,” §1, trans. Walter Kaufmann, 1976).

The Central Question Regarding Barack Obama

Paul Krugman opens Monday’s editorial asking the central question for the left about Barack Obama (“The Obama Agenda,” The New York Times, 30 June 2008):

It’s feeling a lot like 1992 right now. It’s also feeling a lot like 1980. But which parallel is closer? Is Barack Obama going to be a Ronald Reagan of the left, a president who fundamentally changes the country’s direction? Or will he be just another Bill Clinton?

Oddly enough, I found myself a supporter of Hillary Clinton in the primaries because I suspect the latter. Perhaps that was a little naive as I also suspect that Senator Clinton is fundamentally and genuinely conservative politically and personally.

No one can fight every battle and not every battle should be fought in the most direct manner. One must marshal one’s resources for the critical moment, and more times than not maneuver is superior to grabbing the bull by the horns. I presume that Senator Obama recognizes two things: first he has to get into the White House before he can do anything else and once there he will only be able to accomplish a small number of his objectives so he needs to dispense with the lesser objectives and focus on the really important ones.

For instance, voting for the FISA bill last week was, I presume, tactical. It takes that accusation off the table for the duration of the campaign. Everyone runs a stealth campaign anymore. You’ve got to avoid at all costs doing anything that could be used to provoke the middling mind of the independent voter. Once in the White House, then he will really be in a position to address the problems of the FISA program. Again, first win the election, then come the reforms. Would losing to John McCain serve the cause of FISA reform?

Presidents can only have limited power and limited time to accomplish their agenda. Senator Obama has to be eyeing that Oval Office desk and thinking Economy, Budget, Healthcare, Iraq, Afghanistan, War on Terrorism and everything else will just have to take the back seat.

At least this is the story I am feeding myself to assuage my severe doubts that this will be another eight years of cowed liberalism. Senator Obama is giving us plenty of reason to believe otherwise.

Conviction Versus Expediency: A Quandary

The consensus on the left is that Senator Clinton’s 2002 vote to authorize President Bush to go to war was the top line problem that cost her the nomination. Ezra Klein says (“What Went Wrong?,” Tapped, 4 June 2008),

… among the more heartening and broadly applicable lessons of this campaign is that supporting a misguided, but politically expedient, war in 2002 turns out to have been a serious mistake.

For Matthew Yglesias it has been an ongoing theme, but in his post-Obama-victory analysis he says (“It’s the War,” TheAtlantic.com, 4 June 2008),

At the end of the day, Hillary Clinton had (and has) much more credibility with the liberal base than does the average person who shares her position on the war. If she can be held accountable, and if John McCain (until very recently the most popular politician in America) can be held accountable, then the sky’s the limit.

The problem here is that perhaps the majority of Democrats who voted to authorize the Iraq war in 2002 did so because they remember the consequences of opposing an earlier Bush’s war with Iraq in 1991. Back then the Democratic party was reflexively anti-war and voted in a large block to oppose war in 1991. They confidently predicted another Vietnam. Then the war went swimmingly, approval ratings of President Bush, Sr. went through the roof and Congressional Democrats were left with egg on their faces.

Any politician with presidential ambitions in 2004 or 2008 was sure to tick off the “willing to kick rogue country butt” requirement on their political CV — all except one, that is. But what’s a politician to do when it turns out that neither stout conviction nor craven expediency does the trick?