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.


Missouri is the bellwether state. It is currently 98 percent reporting and none of the networks can call it. When it’s that close, even when it eventually falls into one candidate’s column, can it be said to mean anything? I’d say it’s groundhog’s day: it means six more weeks of primaries.

The real headline tonight is on the Republican side. For some time now I have imagined that the Democrats will have a candidate by the end of Super Tuesday and that Republicans will go all the way to the convention with three viable contenders. It has completely reversed. The headline tomorrow should be that Romney is done for. Governor Huckabee seems more viable than him at this point. In terms of delegates Romney only bested Huckabee by thirty. John McCain collected more delegates than both of them combined.

Update, 6 February 2008, 4:35 AM: The opening line from Mike Huckabee’s speech was great (“Mike Huckabee’s Super Tuesday Speech,” Associated Press, 5 February 2008):

You know, over the past few days a lot of people have been trying to say that this is a two-man race. Well, you know what? It is. And we’re in it!

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.