Sunday, October 31, 2004


Block the vote redux

Why political satirists are getting street cred and mainstream news media are losing it...

Check out this story from the Onion:
MIAMI, FL—With the knowledge that the minority vote will be crucial in the upcoming presidential election, Republican Party officials are urging blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities to make their presence felt at the polls on Wednesday, Nov. 3.
I will always remember the Onion as the one media outlet that was able to sustain any critical thinking in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

On a similar note, I think Jon Stewart's October 15 appearance on Crossfire was truly praiseworthy. Although it didn't come across on the transcript, if you watch the clip, you can see that Stewart didn't seem to be having a good time: instead, he was enduring a number of painfully uncomfortable or awkward moments in order to make a point that was unfortunately lost in the uproar.

The mainstream news media has become so lame when it comes to critical reporting and analysis, that even they treat a comedy show as a peer.


Kerry loses the Althouse vote

.... again?

Althouse was so ticked off about receiving an automated campaign phone call from actor Hal Linden, that her irriation spilled over from Kerry onto Linden himself. Apparently the pre-recorded call from the 73-year-old-Linden, whose claim to fame is playing the title role in "Barney Miller" from 1975-1982, is aimed at seniors who are worried about Bush's plans to privatize social security:
Now I know what you think of me, Kerry campaign. It's really a collection of insults: I'm old, I watch crap TV, and I want my money.
Poor Hal Linden -- forgotten by Althouse (who had to Google his name) but his show remembered as "crap." And worst of all, his message lost in the melee of insults.

I recall "Barney Miller" being pretty good for a sitcom of that era -- much funnier than current sitcoms of comparable production values, like "Home Improvement" or "Everybody Loves Raymond." And the Republican wish to turn our entire social welfare system into a series of tax-deferred savings accounts -- which favor higher earners, who can sock more money away year-to-year -- really scares me.

Meanwhile, the larger implication is that Kerry, who has managed to lose Althouse's vote repeatedly during the campaign, has done so again with less than 48 hours left before the election!


It's all over

Kerry wins, 28-14!

John Kerry unleashed a powerful passing attack for the third straight week, as he defeated George w Bush at Bush's home Enron-Halliburton Stadium, 28-14. The game shouldn't even have been that close, as Kerry dominated the first half amassing over 250 yards, but due to penalties and turnovers, he was only able to build a 17-7 halftime lead. In the fourth quarter,
[Bush], trailing 20-14, thought [he] scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 43-yard reception by Clinton Portis with 2:35 to play. But the celebrations died quickly when the play was called back for an illegal motion penalty on receiver James Thrash. [Why didn't they ask for a recount???] On the next play, Al Harris intercepted Mark Brunell's pass and returned the ball 29 yards. Ahman Green scored on an 11-yard run four plays later, and a 2-point conversion sealed the victory.
I don't really believe the superstition about the correlation between the Redskins' last pre-election home game and election results, but I suppose it's as accurate a predictor as the Gallup Poll...

Okay, Packer fans, let's get out there and vote for Kerry.

Friday, October 29, 2004


Shadows of 1988

How much of the “w” Bush presidency is about fighting his father’s “wimp factor”?

It’s gotten lost in more pressing issues of the presidential race, but now and then during the “w” Bush presidency we’ve heard about the obsession of Bush and his advisors not to repeat Bush Sr.’s political mistakes leading to his one-term presidency.

You may remember in during the Republican presidential primaries for the 1988 election, Newsweek did cover story profiling George H. W. Bush entitled “The Wimp Factor.”

It was silly to pin the wimp thing on Bush, which seems premised on a totally misguided view of what makes a good president. Bush’s problem was not lack of macho, but rather that he seems to have been a man of very ordinary abilities with no strong principles or moral vision, who worked his way up through elite connections. Still, Bush Sr could never completely shake off the “wimp” image, notwithstanding Desert Storm.

George w Bush should, by all rights, be seen as a far lesser man than even his father. But his handlers, no doubt painfully aware of the genetic wimp factor, have painstakingly cultivated a persona for their guy of a tough Texan cowboy sort. It has been a classic Hollywood mock-up of an effort, right down to building him a ranch completed just after the 2000 election. The man is not a rancher. I wouldn’t be surprised if even “w”’s thick Texas drawl, which contributes immeasurably to this image, is exaggerated – Jeb doesn’t have one anything like it.

The more interesting and important issue, though, is a Bush “Iraq complex.” In February 1991, at the successful conclusion of Operation Desert Storm, “Poppy” Bush had an 89% approval rating, and looked like a shoe-in for re-election. Yet his popularity rapidly dissipated, and Bush was defeated in his 1992 re-election bid, winning only 37% of the popular vote in the three-way race.

It’s scary to think what “w” and Karl Rove and other top Republican strategists made of Bush Sr.’s defeat. I like to think that the American people could see through the hype of a successful military campaign against a third world dictator to the fact that Bush Sr. was just not that good a president. But for the Republicans, perhaps the lesson was a variant on the “catastrophic success” theme: if we win too fast, the public will forget us by election time.

I’m not suggesting that the Bush administration intentionally got bogged down in Iraq knowing it would become a quagmire. But I am suggesting that they decided to destroy the Saddam Hussein regime and occupy the country in order to avoid the "mistake" of Bush Sr., in letting his great triumph be forgotten by election time. The w Bush administration believed that reconstructing Iraq would extend the “success” of Iraq to this current election, and promote w’s re-election chances.

The fact that the Bush administration believed their own wishful thinking about reconstruction in Iraq is by now well known, but the point is they really did believe they’d be just starting to pull the troops out of a fully democratized and stable Iraq by about now, and making it the centerpiece of the re-election campaign. Again, these are people who will politicize absolutely anything – including the decision to invade a country.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004


Swinging away

An illustration of a difference between the Cards and Redsox through the "Moneyball" lens...

In the first inning of Game 4, after a leadoff single, the Cardinals number two hitter Larry Walker lays down a sacrifice bunt. Walker is a former batting champ who hits with power – having him bat second is an interesting move, essentially the same one the Yankees made by having A-Rod bat second. The idea is to pack more offense into the first inning.

Derek Lowe is on the mound for the ‘Sox. His ERA on the road is over six. The Cardinals can hope to score a lot of runs, and the way the ‘Sox have been hitting, the Cards will need at least 5 to hope to win.

The bunt is an incredibly stupid move. That early in the game, why not play for a big inning? The Redsox, with their 12 sac bunts during the 162 game regular season, are less likely to make that bad call.

Now go to the fourth inning, bases loaded, two outs, 3-0 count to Trot Nixon. Conventional baseball wisdom gives most batters the take sign in that situation: "make the pitcher show he can throw a strike." Only the elite hitters (and Trot Nixon doesn't qualify) get the green light. But why? More often than not, the pitcher grooves a batting practice fastball for a strike, and the batter only gets one shot with the hitter's count, at 3-1. How often does the pitcher miss on 3-0 – enough to justify prohibiting the batter to swing at a fat fastball he knows is coming? It's always seemed strange to me that major league hitters cannot be trusted to look for fastball down the middle and lay off any other pitch on a 3-0 count. Bill James would know the answer to this question.

Interestingly, Nixon gets the green light and smashes the fat 3-0 fastball off the right centerfield wall for two runs. Score another one for Moneyball?


There's no first amendment in baseball!

Am I missing something, or are the announcers prohibited from saying the word "Moneyball"?

I began my life as a baseball fan watching broadcasts with in the Curt Gowdy era. Gowdy was the most boring play-by-play man I have ever heard in my life – the guy reading the line-ups at the ballpark had more verve than Gowdy – and he seemed to know next to nothing about baseball. His color commentators were either Tony Kubek or Joe Garagiola, two dim-witted ex-Major Leaguers who must have known something about baseball, but who gave the impression that revealing any insights about how the game was actually played would betray some code of silence like cops ratting each other out.

I think Joe Buck is a terrific play-by-play guy, whose only annoying habit (which he has dropped this year) was his pedantic insistence on pronouncing the T in "pos-T-season," instead of glossing over it in the more normal way ("po-season"). And I am second to none in my admiration for Tim McCarver as a color commentator. McCarver may be single-handedly responsible for the paradigm shift in which color commentators now have to talk about real baseball strategy and tactics. I have learned so much about the game listening to McCarver over the years that I can even forgive his penchant for bad puns. Buck and McCarver are, in my view, the best baseball announcing team ever.

Having praised these guys, I now wish to complain. When closer Keith Foulke was brought in to pitch in the seventh inning in Game Four of the ALCS, they took it as an inspired stroke of managerial genius by Terry Francona. When they have observed from time to time during the post-season that the Red Sox hitters have laid down an AL record low 12 sacrifice bunts all season they just sort of scratched their heads. When they noted that Sox hitters this year saw more pitches (i.e., took more pitches) than any other AL club, they noted that fact but sort of took it in stride.

Haven't these guys read Moneyball? The fact is that each of those three approaches – (1) using your closer as a "fireman" in critical situations rather than simply to get the last three outs; (2) declining to give away outs by sacrifice-bunting; and (3) working the count to look for more walks and thereby raise on base percentage – are all part of the SABRmetric-influenced strategy that Billy Beane brought to Oakland. This management approach applies a number-crunching business model of decisionmaking that tries to use baseball's rich statistical database in a rigorous and comprehensive way, instead of the traditional management model based more on anecdotal experience, intuition and a highly imperfect use of baseball stats. Theo Epstein, hired two years ago to be the Red Sox GM, comes from this new school of thought, and one of his first moves was to hire the dean of baseball statistical analysts, Bill James, as a consultant.

You don't have to buy into the whole Moneyball thing to at least acknowledge that it raises some interesting questions that would enliven the World Series broadcast. Given the success, first of Oakland, and now of the Red Sox, more teams are probably going to move toward this approach. Why don't McCarver and Buck at least acknowledge the Moneyball approach?

I can think of three reasons:

1) They haven't read the book, and it's just not on their radar screen – seems unlikely.
2) They are personally wedded to a traditional view of baseball and think this new wave of baseball management is a bunch of empty hype that's not worth mentioning – maybe.
3) They're under orders from their employers not to go there.

Major League Baseball likes to avoid airing front office controversies. Sports journalists report on that stuff, of course, but baseball announcers – even those employed by the network – are not journalists: they are highly skilled service industry professionals, and Major League Baseball is their client. So no talk about how the new kids on the management block are showing everyone else up.


Dirty socks

No, not the Boston RedSox... what does the Bush administration have in common with an old pair of smelly socks?

In honor of the World Series, a baseball metaphor to explain politics.

A surprising number of seemingly smart people say they are voting for Bush based on the following analysis of national security: the U.S. has not experienced a terrorist attack on home soil since 9/11, so Bush must be making the country safer!

Okay, ignoring the fact that Bush was president when the 9/11 attacks occurred, and had had several months to ignore terrorism as a pressing issue; and ignoring the fact that he has placed 180,000 American soldiers in a position to become targets of opportunity for terrorists in Iraq; and ignoring nuclear weapons programs in the other two countries making up the "axis of evil," and the administration's failure to secure nuclear material in Russia and explosives in Iraq...

Even before they started trying to associate the impending terrorist threat with the prospect of a Kerry presidency, the Bush administration has asserted that we are likely to be attacked again on home soil by terrorists, in spite of the administration's efforts. The attack is inevitable, they said, at least before the campaign heated up.

In that context, to say that the absence of a terrorist attack is attributable to something about the Bush administration making us safer than a Kerry administration, is like a ballplayer who refuses to change his socks so long as his team continues winning. It's superstition.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004


How about those Sox?

Have to.... (gasp) ... blog about ... something other than the election...

The Red Sox made history by staging the first comeback to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first three games. Now up 3-0 in the World Series, they are poised to make one of two histories. One is to end the rather tiresome talk about "the curse of the Bambino." Can you imagine life after the curse?

The other history-making outcome would be for the Sox to go and drop four in a row to lose the Series. If any franchise is capable of such a reversal of fortune, it would have to be the Sox.

Please don't do that to us. Just win one more, okay?


Post 9/11 syndrome

Will we ever get rid of the rose-colored glasses about "post 9/11 unity"?

"The first casualty in war is truth," said either Samuel Johnson or Senator Hiram Johnson. l

In his excellent book Wartime, Paul Fussell (a World War II combat veteran and literature professor) writes that critical thinking is a casualty of war. It has certainly been a casualty of our undeclared and semi-metaphorical post-9/11 war. For lack of a better explanation, I have to believe this goes far in explaining why George w Bush is even competitive in this presidential race, and why his incompetence on national security issues is overlooked by 48% of the public.

I'll never convince Bush zombies to see that differently. But can I at least entertain some hope that clear-thinking people will one day stop mouthing these dewy-eyed pieties about how "our nation came together" after 9/11? I heard it again tonight on The Daily Show from its guest, former Senator Bob Kerrey.

I was right here when it happened, and it was only three years ago, so I remember it well. Don't get me wrong – we were all united in our horror of the attack on the World Trade Center and our sympathy for the victims.

But I also remember how the Bush administration almost immediately began exploiting the situation to impose a highly partisan, pre-conceived agenda, including the USA PATRIOT Act (a package of proposals on the right-wing law enforcement wish list long before 9/11), a renewed push for drilling in the Alaskan wilderness (on the pre-9/11 Bush oil-buddy wish list), and of course the invasion of Iraq (on the right-wing neo-con foreign policy wish list before 9/11). I remember the Bush administration's military order that called for secret military tribunals and led to the unjustified detention of hundreds of people. I remember a climate of fear of dissent, in which Democratic lawmakers seemed incapable of opposing the administration, and anyone who did was shouted down as unpatriotic -- or, in Ann Coulter's words, treasonous.

It's bad enough when our national version of Alzheimers causes so many of our compatriots to forget the Bush administrations maladministration or to recall Ronald Reagan as a "great president." But can we please not confuse the repressive post 9/11 political atmosphere with political unity?


Orange alert?!

Would you put it past the "w" administration to raise the "threat level" to "orange" on election day and advise voters to stay home for their own safety?

I wouldn't.


Keeping on the offense?

In the first presidential debate on October 3 George w Bush said:

The best way to defeat them is to never waver, to be strong, to use every asset at our disposal, is to constantly stay on the offensive and, at the same time, spread liberty.

In the second presidential debate on October 8, said "The best way to defend America in this world we live in is to stay on the offense."

Truth-speaking comes to George w Bush with as much difficulty as facts. Three days later, the LA Times reported:
The Bush administration plans to delay major assaults on rebel-held cities in Iraq until after U.S. elections in November, say administration officials, mindful that large-scale military offensives could affect the U.S. presidential race.
So much for keeping on the offense.

This administration will politicize absolutely anything.

Sunday, October 24, 2004


More on blocking the vote

Check out Vote Watch 2004 "e-Riposte" to find out about more GOP vote-suppression efforts than you can shake a stick at.


The intellects: Personality driven

Why don't the supposed "intellects" seem to be able to tell the difference between a presidential race and the Miss America pageant?

[Part IV of IV]

Well, we're down to the final 9 days of the most important presidential election in our lifetimes, and the choice has gotten pretty focused between Kerry and Bush. So perhaps it's a bit beside the point right now to rail about the mythology surrounding presidential campaigns, since my point won't be really on the mark until summer and fall of 2008. But what the heck – it's Sunday, and sort of a reflective, "week in review" kind of day, right?

Last Sunday, the New York Times issued a beautifully-written masthead editorial endorsing Kerry, "John Kerry for President," that provided a detailed, point-by-point indictment of the Bush administration that could hardly be improved upon.

My question is this: what did the New York Times know about the presidential race on October 17, 2004 that it did not know before? On July 17, 2004, or May 17, 2004?

To be sure, the Times probably wanted to optimize the timing of its endorsement for the greatest impact while maintaining an appearance of journalistic neutrality. Yet there was nothing stopping the Times at any point since Kerry wrapped up the Democratic nomination from making this year's stark electoral choice clear – rather than muddying the waters with a personality driven of presidential elections.

The intellects – pundits and other shapers of public opinion, both individuals and institutions like The New York Times editorial page – are certainly smart, and better informed than the rest of us, and yet their views of what is important to look for in a presidential election are fundamentally as mystified and misinformed as the know-nothingest undecided voter.

"There is no denying that this race is mainly about Mr. Bush's disastrous tenure," the Times correctly opines. That being the case, unless Kerry were either a raving demagogue or insane, then any voter wishing to express disapproval of Bush's governance has never -- since Kerry's nomination was determined -- had any choice other than to vote for Kerry.

Yet the Times pretends that they had to watch and listen to Kerry until mid-October in order for this choice to become clear:
We have been impressed with Mr. Kerry's wide knowledge and clear thinking - something that became more apparent once he was reined in by that two-minute debate light.
Give me a break! Kerry had been a Senator for over 20 years – it's not like he just emerged from the shadows like Jesse Ventura or Ross Perot. Can anyone seriously maintain that they learn what a candidate is really made of by listening to his 90 second prefabricated statements or campaign-trail sound bites?

Pundits love to complain about how the candidates don't address the issues, or fail to explain how they will pay for their programs, or, as David Brooks put it, fail to explain in a two minute debate segment, their plan to save the world. Yet all the while, the news organizations who employ these pundits boil down the messages into sound bites, fixate on irrelevant verbal gaffes (Cheney's lesbian daughter!), and analyze, not what the candidate's policy program is, but how well they have expressed it in the constrained format of campaign speeches and debates.

Everyone from the highest-profile pundit to the lowliest undecided know-nothing mouths this piety that we care about the issues and the candidate must make his position clear on them. But that can't possibly be true, can it? If it were, everyone would be watching C-Span all the time, rather than CNN and Fox News. If it were true, people would not dismiss candidates like Al Gore as "boring" for trying to policy explain complexities to the people. If it were true, dumbed down sound bites and attack ads would not be so effective. The fact is, nobody has the attention span to wade through truly complex explications of "the issues" and what the candidates would do about them. We know this, but pretend otherwise.

Is it such a mystery what the candidates would do if elected? You can look at Bush's record over the past four years, or Kerry's record in the Senate. You can go to their web sites.

Why should running for president be an oral exam? Is there a correlation in being able to explain your positions on complex issues in simplistic sound-bites and being a good president?

If the voters need help in figuring out what the candidates' presidential administrations would do, whose job is it to help them? Unfortunately, our system does not permit the candidates to fulfill that role: The job of the candidates is to get themselves elected, and explaining complex policy positions is not consistent with electoral success. So whose job is it?

The press! The punditry! They should be undertaking in-depth examinations of the candidates' records, and their advisors records, and make well-informed predictions about what a Kerry or a Bush II administration would look like. But of course they don't do much of that – it doesn't sell enough ad time.

So instead we get something even worse than an oral exam. The media treats a presidential campaign like a beauty pageant: they say "tell us (in 90 seconds) what you would do if elected" but all the while pay more attention to the bathing suit competition – who "looks" more presidential. Is it any surprise that this system produces spokesmodel presidents like George w Bush?


Disenfranchise this!

Don't you just love those college kids?

A just-released poll of college student involvement in the 2004 presidential race by Harvard's Institute of Politics shows that there are about 9 million college students who will vote in the 2004 election and that they are far more engaged in electoral politics than college students were in 2000.

College students favor Kerry over Bush by 52% to 39% with just 1% for Nader. Talk about good sense and practicality among our young people!

Likely college voters in 14 swing states favor Kerry over Bush by 55 to 38.

Okay, Republican poll watchers, get out there and block those votes!

Saturday, October 23, 2004


Block the vote

The Republicans electoral strategy includes a major vote-suppression effort – how can these guys look at themselves in the mirror?

After all my railing against the Bush administration's strategy of false consciousness and denial to sell the American public on bad policies that most of us don't want, it turns out that the majority of voters do indeed reject the George w. Bush presidency and his bid for re-election. The Republicans know this – hence, as reported in the New York Times today, they have enlisted thousands of paid ($100 per day in Ohio) "poll watchers" in an effort to block the vote.

It's bad enough that George w. Bush was originally elected with less than 48% of the vote, and fewer popular votes than his opponent Al Gore. What's more, he didn't even really win the electoral vote. As is now well documented, his 500 vote "winning" majority in Florida depended on the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of Democratic, mostly black voters who were wrongfully included on a "convicted felon" list, not to mention the rejection of some 170,000 ballots actually cast that were rejected on various technicalities (e.g., marking of Gore's name and writing it in on the blank line for "name of candidate). Had these voters not been turned away at the polls, or had all the ballots been counted, Gore would have won the election.

The Republicans are pulling the same kinds of stunt this year. In Ohio, the Republicans have recruited 3,600 monitors and will pay them $100 to challenge the eligibility of voters who show up at the polls. There are four grounds to challenge a voter at the polls: she is not 18 years old, not a citizen, not a resident of the county where the polling place is located, or has not lived in Ohio for 30 days. Republican organizers claim their effort is needed to safeguard against "voter fraud" resulting from massive voter registration drives undertaken by Democrats this election year. But what fraud?

Is there a serious contention of registering thousands of "illegal aliens" as fraudulent voters? These are folks who won't report employers who pay them less than minimum wage, and won't even report violent crimes committed against them, for fear of deportation. Do you really think they are going to show up at the polls in droves to commit the felony of willfully violating the election laws by casting illegal ballots?

So what is it – are the Republicans trying to convince us that the Dems have bussed thousands of non-Ohioans into the state iwth less than 30 days to go before the election, again, to vote illegally?

Of course not. There is not "voter fraud" stemming from the registration drives. Rather, the Republicans know that the Bush administration has governed so badly the past four years that millions of people have been energized to get off their butts for the first time to vote these rascals out. Many of these new voters are lower income people, and minorities, people who would naturally favor Democrats, but who usually feel alienated from a political process aimed more at the interests of the middle class or the wealthy.

The Republican poll watchers – and they will be out in force in every battleground state – are not there to make good faith challenges to voters, but to gum up the works. Every challenge to a voter, even if it ultimately fails to disenfranchise that challenged individual, takes up the time of one or more poll workers. You know what happens in a grocery checkout line when you get that one really slow person – the one who needs the price check on several items, and then fumbles for his checkbook only after all the items have been rung up? Imagine the lines at polling places when Republican "poll watchers" challenge every Latino voter as a "non citizen" or every scruffy-looking young person as "under 18," or every black person as an out-of-stater? It takes time to clear up each one of these challenges, and the lines will get long and slow. Many people will be scared away by seeing the inquiries at the head of the line, or frustrated away by the long slow lines. The Republicans know this, and they are targeting heavily Democratic precincts, particularly urban areas with concentrations of minority voters.

Despite several polls showing Bush ahead, the insiders all know the score. The polls showing Bush with a lead are "likely voter" polls that do not account for the very newly registered voters whom the Republicans will hope to challenge in droves. If everyone who is registered and eligible casts a vote, and all those votes are counted, Kerry will win nearly all of the battleground states, and will win the election by comfortable margins in both the popular and electoral vote.

There is a sickening set of ironies to all this. The Republicans made a great hue and cry in 2000 against Al Gore's recount challenge in Florida in 2000, accusing the Democrats of legalistic and litigious behavior. But think about it. The Republicans simply cannot let all the votes be counted, because they know they are pursuing anti-majoritarian policies: tax cuts for the rich, social control for the religious right, war in Iraq for God knows what. Therefore, the Republicans will assert every technicality they can think of to cause voters to be turned away at the polls, and to undermine the efficient flow of voters through the polls.

It was not so different in Florida in 2000. While Gore ultimately relied on lawyers to challenge the Florida vote, that was only after the Republicans relied on legalistic rulings by the Republican-controlled state election bureaucracy (remember Kathleen Harris?) to throw the tens of thousands of eligible black voters off the voter rolls and then to lock in a vote that favored Bush only by throwing out tens of thousands of Gore ballots.

In 2004, the Republicans are again trying to game the system. Elections have rules to prevent fraud, but the Republicans are plainly manipulating those rules in order to suppress the vote. This is supposed to be a democracy, and the attitude of the parties should be, let the votes be counted and the chips fall where they may. But the Republicans of 2000 and 2004, who rule in the interests of the few, depend on minority, not majority, rule. They've hired party faithful, not lawyers, but they will be out there at the polls crying "objection" in order to make sure that not all the voters have their say.

Thursday, October 21, 2004


I report, you decide

Have you noticed that I’m always a step ahead of the curve in writing about the polls?

I first blogged about how presidential polls are fundamentally uninformative on September 19. Next day, articles on the same subject appeared in USA Today (“Why Voter Surveys Don’t Agree”) and the Wall Street Journal (“Divergent Opinion Polls Reflect New Challenges to Tracking Vote”).

I posted again on this uninformative quality of the polls this past Monday, October 18. Next day, October 19, front page of the New York Times: “Bush? Kerry? Why Pollsters Cannot Agree.” Don’t blame me, I’m just the prophet.

My Chicago correspondent T.M. showed me an illuminating analysis of polls appearing in The Guardian, which concludes that if you look carefully at the polls compared to their 2000 predictions-versus-results, the election will be close and that Kerry will win. I think that there will be such substantial new-voter participation favoring Kerry that he will win, and – absent large scale voter-suppression efforts by the Republicans – it won’t be a photo finish. But Republicans may well be demanding recounts and litigating in every state that was close.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004


The partisans: Bush's "Catastrophic success"

How can anyone believe Bush will make our country safer?

[Part III of IV]

Bush's characterization of the first phase of the Iraq was as a "catastrophic success"
pretty much sums up his administration's position on Iraq. One has to deny reality to view catastrophe as successful, but it seems like a lot of people who are voting for Bush are doing this.

Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York, went on The Daily Show the other night and said that although he disagrees with virtually everything the Bush administration has done and will do on domestic policy, he is supporting Bush because the war on terror trumps everything, and Bush will make the country safer. I suspect a lot of people voting for Bush feel the same way – even if they don't give Bush a "zero" scorecard on domestic policy, they are voting for him despite some awareness that his policies run against their interests and beliefs on most issues.

Ironically, the "single-issue" voters who support Bush because of his stand on abortion are far more in touch with reality than single issue voters like Ed Koch who support Bush because of national security. Bush will in fact do a lot to advance the agenda of the right-to-lifers if he gets a second term.

But the idea that Bush has made and will make the country safer has to ignore so many facts that you have to wonder exactly how Bush's "national security" supporters do the hard work of profound denial. Let's review:

1) The worst attack on U.S. soil by a foreign enemy in our history occurred while Bush was president. While you can quarrel over how much of the blame can be laid on Bush for a surprise attack, it is well-documented that counter-terrorism was a low priority for the Bush administration before 9/11. Only in the Alice in Wonderland world of the Bush campaign does this become a plus for "w" on national security.

2) The Bush administration opposed the department of Homeland Security before 9/11, and has underfunded it since. The color-coded security alerts are a joke that the Bush administration uses politically to distract the public from news items unfavorable to the administration.

3) Osama bin Laden got away in Afghanistan.

4) The Bush administration invaded Iraq adhering to Donald Rumsfeld's philosophy of "lean and mean" military operations. Riding roughshod over military experts by invading Iraq with inadequate numbers of troops and – we now know – inadequate supplies, the administration is responsible for botching the Iraq campaign, providing insufficient military forces to seal the Iraq borders, thus allowing terrorists to cross over and organize the current resistance. There was no plan to win the peace other than hopeful "best-case" assumptions about Iraqi's welcoming us as liberators. And, of course, Bush led the government in imposing the first tax cut during wartime in U.S. history. (Support our troops!)

5) Bush backers brag about the fact that there has been no terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. Yet the administration is constantly predicting a new attack at any time without warning, they've botched counter-terrorism prosecutions, and they've taken 180,000 American troops and made them targets of opportunity for terrorists closer to where the terrorists live, in Iraq.

6) The other two thirds of the "evil empire" (remember that one?), Iran and North Korea, have moved ahead in their nuclear weapons programs, while the availability to terrorists and criminals of unsecured nuclear weapons material in Russia is getting out of control.

7) The "Bush Doctrine" of attacking countries that harbor terrorists has overextended the U.S. military to the point of being unable to respond to other crises that might arise around the world by attacking just two countries, one of which had no demonstrable connection to al Queda before the invasion.

8) Bush's relationship with the banking industry has, and will continue to impede a Bush administration from seeking reforms that could stop terrorists from using international banking system to fund their activities.

And on and on...

Bush partisans don't have credible arguments to explain away these facts. What seems to be going on is a combination of two related maladies of the U.S. presidential selection system. One is the susceptibility of many, perhaps most voters, to the kind of irrational, affective opinion formation that advertizers rely on. Bush is marketed as tough by a sophisticated tending of his public image – there's that southern accent again! – and many people by it.

A second factor is that the electorate seems to be hard-wired to believe that Republican administrations are tougher on national defense than democratic ones. Again, it doesn't matter what the facts are. Historically, if it is even meaningful to generalize about the parties in this way, there is no reason to believe that Republican administrations provide better war leadership than Democratic ones. In the run up to World War II, the Republican party was predominantly isolationist and fought U.S. rearmament tooth and nail. The Reagan administration is famous for massive military spending, but there is not strong evidence that this arms buildup made the country more secure, and its alleged contribution to the collapse of the Soviet Union is highly debatable.

The second factor is a variant of the first. There's a kind of irrational emotional association of ideas: national security and the Republican party. Republicans are somewhat (only somewhat) more likely than Democrats to run national "tough on crime" campaigns, and they are somewhat more willing than Democrats to allow security agencies to trample civil liberties, but there is little basis to see any real correlation between these tendencies and security.

At the end of the day it's just a substitute for thinking about issues.

Monday, October 18, 2004


Galluping error

Why does the Gallup organization even bother?

I continue to read the presidential polls almost every day, but view them pretty much as pseudo- information, like horoscopes. Today's Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll
showing Bush up by 8 points, 52-44, is so unreliable that even CNN reports the supposed 8-point spread as showing "Presidential race is still tight." An 8 point margin is not a tight race, but we all know that the 2004 election is bound to be close. What CNN is telling us between the lines is that they know their own poll numbers are bullshit.

As I pointed out in my September 19 post on presidential polls,
The Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll on October 10/27/2000, less than a week before the election, reported: Bush 52, Gore 39 !!!
Either the Gallup poll uses wildly unreliable methods, or polling is not real information.

This is half hunch and half wish, but I'd like to see the polling organizations completely blown out of the water this year by a Kerry victory that is so decisive that (a) there is no room for post-election cheating or legal challenges, and (b) the pollsters have to get very reflective about the fact that they missed some major demographic changes that undermine their methods.

Sunday, October 17, 2004


The know nothings: undecided ninnies and third-party poopers

Can you believe these guys get to decide the election?

[Part II of IV]

Let me make it real simple for you. Whether you like it or not, this election is a referendum on the Bush presidency of 2001-04. If you approve of Bush's presidency, and want to return him to the White House, vote for anybody but Kerry. If you disapprove of Bush's presidency, and want to send that signal, you have no choice but to vote for Kerry. I'll explain below.

If you believe the polls – and I've already voiced my skepticism – somewhere between 5 and 10 % of likely voters are still undecided in this presidential election. To us partisans, that seems somewhat incredible. But there it is.

What are you guys waiting for? Various wags, like The Daily Show or Larry David suggest alternately that you folks can't make their minds up about anything (can't even choose what chair to sit in at the focus group session) or who simply like the attention that comes from stubbornly holding out.

I see it a bit differently. According to pollsters, the great majority of undecideds (which may include some "persuadables" who line up with Bush or Kerry in trial heat polls but who may change their minds before election day) have reservations about re-electing Bush or even firm beliefs that Bush does not deserve to be re-elected, but they have yet to find reasons to vote for Kerry.

This is the "know nothings" version of the foolishness shared by our entire country about electing a president. You are waiting for Kerry to say something convincing, or perhaps to show some personality that would make you "bond" with him. But the president is not running for the job of "your friend," and running for president is not an oral exam – whatever candidates might say on the campaign trail, there are stronger indicators of what their respective administrations will do. You can look at Bush's last administration to see what he would do; and you can look at Clinton's administration, modify it somewhat by information derived from Kerry's voting record and his web site, and come up with a decent guess about a Kerry administration. This isn't an exact science. Nor is it rocket science.

There is also a more well-informed version of this undecided phenomenon, one that is shared by the "third-party poopers" – yes I mean you 3% or so who now say you're voting for Nader (who is "emerging as the threat democrats feared").

You may be a perfectionist when it comes to politics. You are "sick and tired" of having to vote for "the lesser of two evils." You have a personal report card for politicians – like the voting report cards of advocacy groups (e.g., Senator Smith has voted the way we want 70% of the time) – and you just can't stomach the idea of voting for someone who unless you agree with his or her positions at least 95% of the time. Your motto, when it comes to politics is, "always let the best be the enemy of the good."

How about just getting over yourself? Clearly you've noticed that politics is imperfect, but not all saints check out of the real world just because it's imperfect. We live in a country of close to 300 million people, and guess what: not all of them share your views, but all of them will be governed by the president who gets elected whether you like it or not. Our democracy functions because there is compromise and accommodation among some of these 300 million people.

Well, you say, none of this means you have to vote for Kerry. But here's the flaw in your reasoning. You'll agree with me that elections are a key part of what keeps our system of government democratic. Presidential elections, while an imperfect and blunt instrument, send signals to would-be presidential administrations about what policies people want, and what policies people really don't want but the administration can nevertheless get away with. The only surefire way to send the clearest possible signal of disapproval is to vote in a way that will defeat an incumbent administration that you believe has governed badly.

That's where your vote for Nader, or your decision not to vote, falls on its face. Let me illustrate with some numbers. If you're an undecided leaning against Bush, or a pro-Naderite, say you agree with the Bush administration about 25% of the time. You probably agree with what a Kerry administration would do somewhere between 50%-75% of the time, but you are withholding your support from Kerry because he's waffly about gay marriage, or he's not warm and friendly, or because he doesn't say that corporations are evil.

Now, you'll recall that George w. Bush was "elected" president in 2000 with 48% of the vote, and 500,000 fewer votes than Al Gore. The Bush administration went on to conduct the most partisan, divisive, "winner-take-all" presidential administration in modern memory – appointing a far right-wing cretin as attorney general, passing the USA Patriot Act, pillaging the environment, cutting taxes for the rich, invading Iraq, all the things you disagree with. Can you express your disapproval of these things by voting for Nader or staying home?

Suppose in 2004, Bush "wins" again with 48% of the vote, with Kerry also getting about 48%, and Nader getting his 3% (and 1% voting for "other"). What do you think a re-elected Bush will do? Become the "compassionate conservative, uniter-not-a-divider" he promised in 2000? Will Karl Rove go, "whoa, that was close. I guess we didn't get a mandate of approval for the last four years. We better clean up our act and be more bi-partisan."? Will Dick Cheney say, "hey, Nader got 3% again -- I guess we should give more voice in our new administration to people who believe corporations are evil."

Even you, you undecided or Naderite, are not that stupid.

Here's the point: if you vote for anyone but Kerry, Bush will be re-elected -- and the Bush administration will interpret his re-election as approval of the last four years of Bush policies. So you're not just "throwing away your vote." The way they think -- George w. Bush and those who pull his strings – a vote that does not lead to Bush's defeat is a vote of approval for "w" and all he's done the past four years.

And it won't just be more of the same, because in this next four years, Bush doesn't have to worry about getting re-elected. As Karl Rove is thinking right now about the next four years, "you ain't seen nothin' yet."

I'm sorry, Mr./Ms/Mrs. Undecided -- it's not a perfect system, but that's just how it is.

Thursday, October 14, 2004


The presidential campaign myth

Our presidential selection system is designed to mislead us: Why are we so clueless?

[Part I of IV]

Well, I can't think of much to say about the third debate – it's all about the mind of the undecided voter, which I admit mystifies me. Check out the neat riff in Althouse on Bob Shieffer's idiotic final question in the debate about the "strong women" in the candidates' lives.

I'd like now to embark on something that is undoubtedly a no-no in the blogosphere: a four part series. Why is our presidential selection system is designed to mislead us? I'll tell you the punchline right off: we are simply way too focused on the candidates as individuals and on what they say during the campaign, and not nearly focused enough on the administration and the package of policies that they will bring in with them on election. Our system turns the candidates into spokesmodels while we tell ourselves we are picking someone to personally "lead the free world."

In three succeeding posts, I will focus on a different one of the three segments of the American electorate: the know-nothings; the partisans; and the intellects.

The know-nothings. Typified by the undecided voter, know-nothings tend to follow politics for only about two months out of every four years – yes, between Labor and Election days in presidential years. They tend to be shallow thinkers who try to sound smart by cynically dismissing the two political parties as pretty much the same, to justify their inattention to public affairs by pretending that "it doesn't matter, it's just politics," and to cover up their failure to inform themselves by blaming the politicians' supposed failures to state their positions clearly. This year's typical know-nothing is likely to say, "I don't like what Bush is doing, but Kerry just hasn't given me a good enough reason to vote for him." The know nothings probably have some awareness that by refusing to commit themselves, they garner lots of attention by everyone who wants to persuade them.

The partisans. This group (and I include myself in it) tends to have relatively firm political commitments. We are the party loyalists, who make up our minds fairly early in the race and don't change. We may be well-informed critical thinkers, or ignoramuses, but either way, we fit new information into our existing belief systems. The only difference is that critical thinkers create arguments to discount discordant and disagreeable facts, whereas ignoramuses simply say "nuh uh" to disagreeable facts. People in this group are happy to tell you why they are voting for Bush or Kerry, and may be more or less well-reasoned and persuasive in doing so, but will almost always focus on liking or disliking one of the candidates or agreeing or disagreeing with what the candidate says.

The intellects. This is the smallest group, though its numbers are swelled by know-nothings and partisans who are merely pretending. Intellects – who may be individuals or institutions -- are more concerned to guide "the policy debate" during the election campaign than to come out for or against a candidate. They hope to influence the candidates' messages and positions by demanding answers to certain questions and leading voter opinion by means of a kind of socratic dialogue with the candidates. The intellects are well-informed versions of the know-nothings, in that their currency is "withholding judgment." They tell us whom they support only at the last minute – or, if they hope to maintain insider influence regardless of who wins, they never tell us. Bill O'Reilly who recently said on The Daily Show that he hasn't made up his mind about whom he supports for president, and who therefore takes us all to be idiots since we all know he hates Kerry and basically supports Bush, is an archetypal partisan posing as an intellect. The non-partisan media, which is now badgering the candidates for clarity but which will endorse a candidate only in the last week before the election if at all, is an institutional intellect.

In my next few posts, I will show you how the know-nothings, partisans and intellects, all share the same fundamental misconception of what presidential elections are about.

Next installment: The know nothings -- undecided ninnies and third-party poopers

Wednesday, October 13, 2004


The spokesmodel presidency

When is the last time the Republicans ran a real chief executive for president?

Some time ago, the behind-the-scenes leadership of the Republican Party made an important, but little-recognized discovery that should really scare us. You can run the country through a president who is a mere figurehead, a spokesmodel.

The answer to the question at the beginning of this blog is: Richard M. Nixon. I believe Nixon is a man who wanted power for himself, who believed he was smart enough to run things, and who may have been smart enough to run things. The Nixon tapes released last year reveal a man who was hands-on to the point of micro-managing his subordinates, and who was capable of coming up with his own devious and hard-nosed political strategies and dirty tricks without having to rely exclusively on some top advisor like Karl Rove or Lee Atwater.

Let’s look at the Republican presidential nominees since Nixon.

1) Gerald Ford. Viewed as one of the dumber men in Congress when Nixon named him to fill the Vice Presidency after Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace. Nixon is reputed to have said that Ford was insurance against Nixon’s own impeachment, since the country would recognize that it could not let itself be led by someone that dumb. Big mistake, Dick.

2) Ronald Reagan. An empty-headed B-movie actor who could sell his lines. That may have qualified him to move up to an A-list actor, but President? Famous for requiring all his briefing material to be reduced to a single page. No serious person believes this man was smart enough to make decisions on complex issues (though many vigorously pretend to believe that).

3) George H.W. Bush. A genial, well-connected dim bulb who moved up through positions of increasing government responsibility because he moved in the right circles and never pissed off the wrong people. Evidence of his lack of backbone is the fact that in 1980, he ran in the primaries as a pro-choice moderate to Reagan’s conservative, but in 1988 and 1992 he ran hard right, fully embracing Reaganomics despite having (rightly) denounced it as "voodoo economics" in 1980.

4) Bob Dole. Kind of a nice guy, despite a crusty, nasty streak, who tended to refer to himself in the third person. In 1976, he was picked as Gerald Ford’s running mate, in part because it was believed that he would not outshine the dim-witted Ford. Now he’s selling Viagra, or something?

5) George w. Bush.

Funny how many of these guys went to Yale, isn’t it? (Ford, Bush and Bush.)

In the tightly-disciplined "w" Bush White House, we don’t get leaks, as we got from Reagan’s White House, about policy memos being dumbed down for the prez. This White House is careful to portray Bush as the smart, hands-on man in charge. But we’re not fools. Well, 50% of us are not fools.

This man is simply incapable of personally understanding, thinking through and deciding complex questions of policy. Sure, he makes "decisions." I bet even Reagan made decisions. The actual people running things boil it down to something a 20-year old poli sci major with a B- average (Bush was a C, but there’s been grade inflation) can understand, make a strong recommendation and Bush adopts the recommendation. Sometimes, in larger meetings where people other than his most trusted advisors are present, there may be disagreement (Colin Powell, for instance), and Bush has to "arbitrate" the split within his cabinet. It may appear as if he’s making the call, but he’s already gotten the scoop from the in-group, whoever that is.

I’m totally speculating here, but historians will prove me right. I’m guessing that George W. Bush never said to anyone, "you know who would make a great secretary of defense? Donald Rumsfeld." Why is "w" relying on retread defense secretaries from the administrations of Ford (Rumsfeld) and Bush Sr. (Cheney)? Doesn’t "w" Bush have smart friends of his own, with whom, in deep conversation, he developed and honed his own sophisticated views of foreign policy?
Answer: no.

The people running George W. Bush are essentially the same group who ran Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. They might have run Bob Dole too, but possibly they didn’t get too invested, since they knew Dole would lose.

The spokesmodel President is a public face acting on behalf of powerful elites and corporate interests. Actual party operatives – Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes, Karl Rove – come and go, but the essence of the Republican party is to sell a message of fear to the many in order to get more a little more than half of the many to vote for the interests of the powerful few. The message of fear is usually referred to broadly as social issues – crime, drugs, race, guns, and the control over our childrens’ and neighbors’ behavior – together with national security. The powerful few don’t care on bit about these social issues; they know the real stakes are the economic part of the package: corporate profiteering and corporate welfare, tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, subsidies and wars for cheap oil, environmental degradation. The powerful few care about national security issues, recognizing that these directly tie in to their economic interests.

I’m not suggesting that a cabal picks one candidate from the Republican field and somehow rigs the nomination. I imagine that it’s more a situation in which Republican presidential hopefuls audition, through feelers, and "exploratory committees" and even the primary campaign, for a set of directors consisting of Republican money people and media moguls. The questions is what qualities are these honchos looking for?

The spokesmodel president is a man who identifies with the few on these economic issues, and who may or may not be predisposed toward the "fear" issues, but is willing to sell fear issues to the voters in order to get them to buy the less visible, and harder-to-understand package of economic policies on the wish list of the powerful few.

The spokesmodel president is a man who is so intellectually overmatched by the job that he will, on most important matters, follow the directions of those who put him in power.

The ideal spokesmodel president is a man who can make a broad, popular – even populist – appeal, but who does not have his own strong ideas for the direction the country should take.
Here’s strong circumstantial proof of my conspiracy theory. How in the world is George w. Bush taken seriously as a national leader? If your backing is powerful enough, and includes powerful media outlets, you will be taken seriously, even if you are a total lightweight.

Powerful corporate interests give money to both sides in American politics, and successfully lobby Democrats as well as Republicans. In theory, there is no reason why the Democrats could not nominate a spokesmodel. But for whatever reason, the Democrats seem more likely to nominate candidates who seem to have independent intellectual means and abilities to handle the presidency.

Why would this be? Democratic primary politics seem to be actually more democratic, and less subject to the cabal then Republican politics. The Democratic message is less suitable to packaging corporate interests than the Republican message. Fear-based politics is not logically incompatible with wealth-based economics; it’s harder to sell wealth-based economics (it’s done, but not as effectively) behind a facade of populist economics.

In any event, George w. Bush is almost as perfect a spokesmodel as Reagan was. He has no notion of leading the nation himself, but has sufficient folksy charm for the "fearful 50" – the 50% plus or minus who are vulnerable to fear-based political appeals – to bond with him.

Monday, October 11, 2004


Going upriver

If presidential elections are won on “character,” why does Bush even stand a chance?

I saw Going Upriver yesterday, and found it to be interesting and actually quite moving. I’m not a big proponent of voting for president based on personality and character issues, but those of you who are ought to see this movie. I came away convinced that Kerry is a man of conscience, strong convictions and sound judgment who passes any of the sorts of “character tests” we claim to impose on presidential candidates.

Kerry is a decorated combat veteran who has spent his adult life in public service. Bush spent the Vietnam war on the home front and most of his adult life getting handed a series of cushy business positions through his connections. The fact that Kerry can be assailed on character issues in this election (flip-flopper, or liar about his Vietnam record), while Bush can count on close to half the population approving his “strong” character or leadership qualities, is the sign of a serious malaise in our society. I feel like GOP strategists and their supporting bevies of pundits are mooning the rest of us. When corruption (e.g., Cheney's Halliburton) and moral vacuity (e.g., Bush) parade as virtue, and real virtues are characterized as weakness or vice, we’re in a time of great danger for a republic, not unlike the transformation of the late Roman republic into the autocratic Roman empire.

Two points about the movie. First, interviews with a number of Vietnam vets other than Kerry made abundantly clear what a difficult, tormenting decision it was for each man to turn against the war. In contract to antiwar activists on the home front, the each vet basically had to decide for himself that he had put his life on the line, and perhaps been permanently damaged physically or mentally, for a bad cause. Even worse, they may have had to acknowledge that some of the shooting or killing they personally did was not justified by the laws of war.

Second, it was interesting to see that Kerry, whose eloquent and heart-wrenching speeches are excerpted in the film, was viewed as such a powerful voice for the veterans’ antiwar movement (Nixon himself is captured on tape saying so) that the Republican leadership had to drum up a vet front organization to challenge him. (Nixon and Karl Rove have a lot in common when it comes to dirty tricks.)

One of the most significant, but overlooked, moments of the Vice Presidential debate was the intense irony when Cheney glove-slapped Edwards as having a”a record that’s not very distinguished.” Not the fact that Cheney lied about having met Edwards for the first time on the debate stage, but that any GOP flack would dare utter the phrase “undistinguished record,” a phrase that should be stamped on Bush’s forehead like the mark of Cain.

It is well documented that Bush has been at best a mediocrity and at worst a failure at every endeavor he has undertaken in his life, up to and including the Presidency. Whereas a person of an ordinary middle class or modest background could claim success at having worked his or her way to the top of a business, or to a state governor’s mansion, or to the White House, in Bush’s case, it hasn’t been a question of working his way up, but of being either handed it or tapped for it due to having a wealthy family, or a powerful father (or a biased Supreme Court).

Again, please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t claim that Bush’s undistinguished record, his lack of successful leadership experience or apparent leadership qualities, or even his personal weaknesses such as substance abuse or modest intelligence automatically disqualify him from the presidency. As I will blog about further, the Republicans established with Ronald Reagan that the country can be run by a behind-the-scenes committee or cabal working through a spokesmodel president. What I am saying is that if you care about personal qualities in the president, then it’s a sign of a world turned upside down that Bush is deemed acceptable to so many people.

Bush backers would say: what do you mean “no leadership qualities”?! You moron, the man’s been president these past four years!

But I don’t think the Presidency builds character if you didn’t have it to begin with. And I don’t think that personal virtues and leadership qualities attach to the man as a token of the office. When Caligula was Emperor of Rome and held the power of life and death over all his subjects, he used the powers of his office to proclaim himself a god – and thereby a paragon of all the virtues. History recognizes that that did not make him so.

Sunday, October 10, 2004


Bush: "Note to self: avoid funny ad libs in next debate"

The award for wittiest blog riposte to Bush's lame Supreme Court joke goes to Jack M. Balkin of Balkinization.

[QUESTION:] Mr. President, if there were a vacancy in the Supreme Court and you had the opportunity to fill that position today, who would you choose and why?
BUSH: I'm not telling. I really don't have -- haven't picked anybody yet. Plus, I want them all voting for me.
Balkin: "Just like they did in 2000."

Saturday, October 09, 2004


Debate debriefing IV: The politics of "nuh-uh"

Wanna buy some wood?


Kerry opened a can of whup-ass on Bush again in the second presidential debate. The pundits will not report it that way: I suspect they’ll call this one "a tie" – largely because Bush did so poorly at the first debate that he managed to lower the expectations of him back down to their campaign 2000 levels.

Kerry looked and sounded poised throughout, and appeared calm and unflappable when Bush was flinging stuff at him. Kerry managed some nice stage-craft, turning to Bush and directly addressing him as "you." Bush looked poised too, at least when he wasn’t doing his shoulder hunching thing or screwing his face up, but he did get riled up a lot. Bush groupies will probably spin that as "passionate,"but I suspect the truth is that he’s a jerk with a temper who gets enraged when someone disagrees with him in public.

But of course "who won" is irrelevant: the debates are not the baseball playoffs, the winner of two out of three does not automatically get to be president. Kerry comes out ahead of this one because his performance has to be helping him with the critical undecided voters, who are heavily anti-Bush but need motivation to vote for Kerry. Kerry just looked more "presidential," to use the favorite "analysis" of debate pundits.

One of the more enjoyable moments for me was the little "timber company" thing:

[KERRY] And you know why he gets that count? The president got $84 from a timber
company that owns, and he's counted as a small business. Dick Cheney's counted
as a small business. That's how they do things. That's just not right.
I own a timber company?
That's news to me.
Need some wood?

The debate transcript fails to capture the moment. Bush seemed caught off guard by this one. "That’s news to me" was a passable, if deceptive response, but "Need some wood" – he said this with a leer that prompted a woman I was watching the debate with to remark, "I think he just said something dirty." The purported "(LAUGHTER)" was really an uncomfortable titter. Weird joke, Mr. President.

Unscripted attempts at humor are probably best avoided in presidential debates – Kerry looked foolish when Jim Lehrer threw him the softball question "what 'colossal misjudgments has President Bush made [in the war on terror]" and Kerry said with a chuckle "well, where do you want me to begin?" The attempt at humor was misplaced, and Kerry plainly learned not to extemporize, staying serious in the second debate except for the excellent prepared joke about who would be affected by Kerry's planned rollback of Bush's tax cut for the rich:
[KERRY] And looking around here, at this group here, I suspect there are only three people here who are going to be affected: the president, me, and, Charlie, I'm sorry, you too.
As an amateur stand-up comedian in a former life, I thought that one was pretty good. For his part, Bush fell on his face with another ad lib:

MICHAELSON: Mr. President, if there were a vacancy in the Supreme Court and you had the opportunity to fill that position today, who would you choose and why?
BUSH: I'm not telling.
I really don't have -- haven't picked anybody yet. Plus, I want them all voting for me.

Again, the so-called "(LAUGHTER)" would not have fooled any stand-up, who would think "S**T, I’m dying up here."

But returning to Mr. Bush’s query to the American public, whether we might actually want to buy "some wood" from him, there is something important underlying his reaction. , the web site mistakenly endorsed by Dick Cheney at the Vice Presidential debate (mistakenly because he misled us to "" and because it shows how many stretchers these guys tell) reports that

Bush was wrong to suggest that he doesn't have ownership of a timber company. And Kerry was correct in saying that Bush's definition of "small business" is so broad that Bush himself would have qualified as a "small business" in 2001 by virtue of the $84 in business income.
Okay, no big deal, right? Bush can’t be expected to remember the details of every loophole he takes on his tax returns, because being president is hard work, and he’s so busy talking with guys like Tony Blair and other world leaders, and pointing out when his opponent forgets Poland.

But it’s symbolic of a larger truth about Bush-Cheney. Their basic philosophy of addressing the American people is "when in doubt, lie." More specifically, if someone accuses you of something, don’t get all caught up in how it might be true, just deny it. It is the strategy used, with mixed success, by nearly every unfaithful husband in America. It is the strategy used, with mixed success, by generations of pre-teens. It seems to be working well enough for Bush and Cheney: The straight denial in disregard of the facts. Just say "nuh-uh."

I speak of Iraq, in particular. The Iraq war is a disaster, costing in the hundreds of billions, costing thousands of American lives, overextending our military and putting Americans in places where they’re exposed to continual terrorist attacks. It is not a subtle or debatable point that Bush had no plan to win the peace, as Kerry says. Bush boasted "mission accomplished" before at least 80% of the American casualties had been suffered.

Bush backers are apparently satisfied with Bush’s bald assertions that things are going well in Iraq – buttressed of course by the Orwellian argument that pointing out that they’re not invites failure. The facts of Iraq don’t matter as long as Bush can say something in denial, and what he says need not be any more burdened with facts than a simple "nuh-uh."

I’d like to get some focus groups of these Bush supporters together in one place. I’ve got some wood for you to buy.

Friday, October 08, 2004


The pseudo-populist politics of Bush's brain

Was there any subtext to the Vice Presidential Debate?

A quick warmup for the upcoming debate:

Seeing Dick Cheney debate was interesting. The man looks like someone who was taken straight from the delivery room at birth and delivered to the guest’s chair on "Meet the Press" or one of those other quaint, pre-cable Sunday morning "public affairs" interview shows. "Meet the Press"guests, like Cheney, are always seated; the head held very still, with only the jaw moving up and down, and hand gestures kept to a minimum, as the TV coach instructed; always speaking in a calm, level voice just one or two inflections shy of a monotone, with a profusion of comfortingly mind-numbing policy words.

Despite Cheney’s lies, outrageous stonewalls and false conclusionary denials, and his obnoxious pre-fabricated personal flings at Kerry and Edwards -- all delivered in that same policy-wonk near-monotone -- Cheney delivered a reassuring message to Bush supporters: there is someone standing behind Bush who knows what he is doing.

In reality, Cheney can’t possibly know what he’s doing – just look at Iraq, and recall that as Bush I’s defense secretary, he should have known the quagmire that Iraq would become. But he sounds like he knows what he’s doing. "Don’t worry folks, it’s not just Bush over here at the White House. There’s one of those ‘Meet the Press" talking head guys too!"

I am not one of those people who will try to make you believe Bush is in reality very intelligent. I don’t think he is, but neither is he an idiot: he’s smart enough for GOP purposes, smart enough to understand his role and play it.

What presidential candidate in recent memory does Bush most remind you of? Certainly not his dad, despite the obvious family resemblance. Answer: Ross Perot. Bush and Perot share a similar appeal to voters. It’s what passes for populism in these lean times: a southern accent and a modest intelligence.

Perot only pretended to have a modest intelligence. He was extremely accomplished, unlike Bush, and must have had lots on the ball, but he sounded so stupid, with his shallow folksy homilies posing as ideas. Bush really does seem to have the modest intelligence and, delivered with that twang, people eat it up. They project all kinds of Americana onto it: regular guy, cowboy, one of us.

In a perverse way, Bush is therefore the perfect Republican candidate. He is business power elite by birth and inclination, but is the ideal spokesmodel to deliver the kind of phony populist message that can get ordinary stiffs to vote tax cuts for the rich.

It just shows you what a great country this is. A guy can be born into a wealthy Yankee family with a silver spoon in his mouth, and go on to become supremely... average.

Monday, October 04, 2004


Debate debriefing III: Political Footbal

Will somebody please tell me what Bush meant by saying “We have to keep on the offense”?

Implicitly in some of my past posts, and explicitly in some future ones, I question how important debating skills are to the question of who should be elected president. While Bush miserably fails the debating test, he fails much more important ones – for example, his actual record as arguably the worst president in United States history.

But for what it’s worth – both my opinion and the fact itself – Kerry kicked Bush’s ass in the debate. Kerry carried himself with poise, spoke articulately, and appeared to be in command of his facts and to understand the policy issues he was addressing. Bush appeared petulant – the dark underside of his “boyish charm” – was verbally bumbling and often at a loss for what to say, resorting frequently to thin platitudes and slogans, stated almost no facts, and seemed not really to have a clue what he was talking about.

I was disappointed in one aspect of the debate: that neither Kerry nor Jim Lehrer called Bush on his repeated statement that to remain safe from terrorism, American must “keep on the offense.” What in the world does that mean?

On one level, it’s pure Bush: it makes a subconscious appeal to regular guy voters – vote for me, I’m the guy sitting next to you on the couch with the industrial-size bag of Nachos watching Monday night football – while trying to sound like a policy. But what policy?

At best, the policy implication is an inane assertion that we must “keep attacking terrorism, wherever we may find it.” That of course tells us nothing, and raises the question, what’s wrong with defensive measures? At worst, it implies that we must always be fighting a war somewhere – if not Afghanistan, then Iraq, and then perhaps somewhere else. But the so-called war on terrorism is not a football game, in which keeping possession of “the ball” denies “the ball” to the other side. Nor is it even conventional warfare, in which attacking the enemy army arguably, and in some circumstances, preempts the enemy from gathering for its own attack. There is little reason to believe that Al Queda is now absorbed in defending Iraq. Indeed, our presence in Iraq exposes Americans – our troops – who were formerly safe to daily terrorist attack. What’s more, extended warfare – if that is indeed what Bush means by “keeping on the offense” – is costly of American lives, nerves and treasure, thereby in important respects sapping our defensive capability.

Saturday, October 02, 2004


Debate debriefing II: The "War President"

When did bad judgment in starting and conducting a war become a reason to re-elect a president?

When Bush was at his “best” – most clearly on message – in the debate, he was being the worst sort of demagogue. He argued, repeatedly, that it is un-presidential and, implicitly, un-American to question his policies during a war.

[BUSH:] I don't see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send our troops? What message does that send to our allies? What message does that send the Iraqis? No, the way to win this is to be steadfast and resolved and to follow through on the plan that I've just outlined.

... what kind of message does it say to our troops in harm's way, "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time"? Not a message a commander in chief gives, or this is a "great diversion." [See debate transcript.]

Okay, so as I understand it, Kerry's position that the Bush administration has botched, and continues to mishandle the Iraq war, sends “mixed signals” to the world, and -- irrespective of whether it's true -- disqualifies Kerry from being "commander in chief." Think about what that means: essentially, any president who through a combination of incompetence and bad judgment embroils us in armed conflict that drags on to election time must be re-elected “because there’s a war on.” Doesn’t such a principle create a rather perverse incentive for presidents in a democracy?

This theme first surfaced at the Republican National Convention. In his keynote address, Zell Miller, foam bubbling at his mouth, said this:
Today, at the same time young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats' manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief.
Yeah, Zell, I guess I and half the country do have this "manic obsession" -- it's called "voting." What could be more undemocratic and un-American than to imply that we should somehow suspend the election because troops are engaged abroad. The Bush administration thought it important to finish out the 2001 baseball season after 9/11, because American institutions should not be shut down by terrorism. But these same folks, our president’s henchpeople, toyed with the idea of suspending the November 2 vote on security grounds; and they now use the "war on terror" as a pretext to urge voters to drop the idea of thinking critically about whom to vote for as president. Bush himself now attacks John Kerry for suggesting that American voters have an alternative in how the country should be led out of Iraq.

The worst indictment of the mainstream media, our First Amendment Watchdogs, is their almost complete failure to challenge this assertion by Bush. The job of the media is to question policies, particularly plainly wrong policies, and to refuse to let truth be the first casualty of war. Yet the New York Times simply reported Bush’s assertion – that a man is disqualified from the presidency by questioning the sitting president’s failed war policy – as though it were a legitimate position in a two-sided argument. It’s not a legitimate position: it’s an argument for tyranny, implying that war – even a limited conflict without a declaration of war, like Iraq – puts democracy on hold. The media’s implied acquiesces in this anti-democratic assertion is a terrible failure in its First Amendment role.

I don’t want in the least to minimize the war in Iraq – a mistake of judgment by President Bush that alone warrants turning him out of office. But as a national crisis, it is rather smaller in scale than, say, World War II. The Republicans ran a candidate against Roosevelt in 1940, when the world crisis was fully formed, and they ran a candidate against Roosevelt in 1944. Roosevelt and his proxies argued that he was doing a good job of conducting the war effort – not that it was treasonous to run against him.

In 1968, the Republicans challenged the incumbent president Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War. Although Johnson bowed out of the race, no one seriously argued that Nixon, who offered his own plan to “win the war,” was un-presidential, unpatriotic or treasonous for challenging the sitting administration.

We have seen this demagoguery from the Bush administration, in spades, ever since 9/11. It’s un-American, and undemocratic, and there’s a democratic way to put a stop to it: vote the bums out.


The Evil Empire Touches My Blog!

What's going on here?

I have a link to Wonkette in my blog roll, and when I click on it, I'm taken straight onto the Imperial Death Star itself -- the Microsoft home page!!!

Ironically, the current lead story on Microsoft's home page is "Help protect your PC against viruses, worms and hackers." Does cyberspace get more pomo than that?

I don't even know if the Wonkette link I've just supplied will take us to Wonkette or Microsoft. What's that about?

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