Saturday, June 30, 2007

McCain: The End
I'm tempted to put a question mark in the title, but I won't: I think Arizona Senator John McCain is finished as a presidential contender, and maybe as any kind of presence in national politics. As the campaign finance reporting quarter is about to close, McCain is expected to fare no better than third, behind Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani; given his reportedly anemic fund-raising, and with Fred "TV's Fred Thompson" Thompson set to enter the race next week and already polling well ahead of McCain, and the immigration bill he'd publicly supported now dead and buried, and the widely reviled war he still supports in its bloodiest stretch yet, it's impossible for me to see how McCain gets back in the race.

It's simultaneously sad and satisfying. Sad, because I was one of those people in the late 1990s who genuinely liked and admired McCain despite not sharing his views. Primarily I respected his view that getting the thumb of big money off the scale of policymaking represented a quantum leap forward for democracy; and his willingness to take on the established power centers of Washington not just in campaign finance but in military spending and other areas signaled to me that he was a guy who put prinicple ahead of career. And of course, during the 2000 campaign he seemed to be changing before our eyes, speaking truth to power (and to the powerless) and, not incidentally, having a great freakin' time.

Satisfying, of course, because he renounced all that to suck up to George W. Bush, the man whose campaign smeared McCain in the 2000 race, and the Republican establishment. McCain's embrace of Bush became really conspicuous around 2003, but he'd started down that road within weeks of leaving the race in 2000; I remember him getting booed off the stage at Arianna Huffington's "Shadow Convention" in Philadelphia that summer after suggesting to an incredulous crowd that Bush was "the real reformer" in that year's race. It was hard to tell whether McCain, who was transparently enraged, was more upset at the rude crowd or at what he was saying that so provoked them.

Two men could have denied Bush a second term on their own in 2004: Colin Powell and McCain. Given his support for closing the Guantanamo prison and his counseling Barack Obama, Powell seems to regret his complicity in the perpetuation of Bush's misrule; McCain, though, seems to be permanently afflicted with Stockholm Syndrome. He's reaping the whirlwind twice over: the Republican base still detests him for his 2000-era deviations from Supreme Orthodoxy, and now everyone else mistrusts him precisely because he's so assiduously embraced the twisted principles of New Mutant Republicanism.

It's also satisfying when one sees dumbassed eulogies from the group that was McCain's truest constituency back in the day: the punditocracy. Here's Stuart Rothenberg:

Here’s a bit of unsolicited advice for Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign (which has plenty of smart people and doesn’t need my advice): Try to get back to McCain’s story.

It isn’t news that McCain’s campaign is staggering under the weight of weaker-than- expected fundraising and poll numbers, criticism from conservatives who don’t trust him, the Senator’s immigration and Iraq positions, and the perception that he’s just another politician.
... I was reminded the other day about the one thing that’s missing from the national coverage of the 2008 McCain campaign that was so prevalent during the coverage of his 2000 White House bid: His life.

As I watched McCain in Iowa and New Hampshire eight years ago, I was struck by how many veterans were in his audiences, and how real people talked and related to him. They saw him as a true hero. Given the recent media coverage of Paris Hilton and the late Anna Nicole Smith, plenty of Americans might well like to hear about a true hero.
McCain continues to talk about many of the things that he did in 2000, including ethics, wasteful spending and national security. And his Web site includes his bio and photographs from the Vietnam era. But things have changed for McCain, in part because the coverage of him is so unlike what it was and in part because the GOP field is different.

McCain has tried to be the conservative candidate, while Giuliani challenges him for party moderates, as well as those wanting a candidate who projects strong leadership on the war against terror. The mayor and Romney (add to them Thompson soon) are fresher faces, at least in a presidential race, than is McCain, and voters always seem smitten with the new guy, at least for a while.
McCain may not be able to reinject his personal story of heroism and service into the national media coverage of his campaign or excite people the way he once did. His military record may be old news to too many people. But his campaign needs to find a way to make John McCain more than just a Washington, D.C., insider and Senator, and his personal story and heroism should be more of an asset now than it is.

I'm not saying Rothenberg is an idiot, but I'm surely saying this is one of the more idiotic articles I've read in a long, long time. He's casting about, really thinking out loud/on the page, for how his boy McCain can save his doomed presidential run, and the best he can come up with is "more biography"?

This makes no sense. McCain probably has higher name recognition than anyone else in the race not named "Hillary Clinton," and more people probably have opinions pro or con about him than any other non-Clinton candidate. You can't reintroduce yourself to people who know you (or think they do). And, as might not be the case with Rudy, the Mittster or TV's Fred, people probably have a fairly accurate sense of who McCain is and what he's about.

McCain probably could have won the presidency in 2004, had he run as an independent (or Democrat, for that matter). He always looked best compared to Bush. But he chose the route of syncophancy, and lost everything. It's all over for him now.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Seeking the Stealth Lefty
His candidacy was sunk before I began this blog, but in the 2004 presidential primary season, my Democrat of choice was Wes Clark. I believed then (and believe now) that Clark was the most accomplished candidate in the race, that he had the combination of experience, temperament and leadership skills to thrive in the job, and that his resume was such that he would be impervious to many of the typical attacks leveled against Democrats--the sort that ultimately helped fell John Kerry. Those four metaphorical stars on Clark's shoulders as a retired general both protected him from liberal attacks... and helped obscure just how much of a big old liberal he was. The campaign website had the most detailed policy proposals on issues important to me--human capital, urban policy, that stuff--of any Dem in the race... and he was solidly progressive down to the last word.

Clark's own significant flaws as a candidate--the inability to speak in soundbites, and even stupider shit like the fact that he didn't blink, pretty much ever--did him in. But the notion of a Stealth Lefty still appeals to me, and I think that's a large part of why I could get behind a Bloomberg presidential candidacy.

In this recent New Republic article, Jonathan Chait--a generally solid pundit--recognizes that Bloomberg is essentially a liberal Democrat in independent's clothing, but fails to see the value in the disguise of both Bloomberg and the Unity '08 effort that eventually could evolve into his campaign organization:

in the age of George W. Bush, the substance of the partisanship scold ideology is no longer, by any reasonable definition, centrist. They are moderate Democrats who don't want to admit it. Unity '08 proposes to address the following issues: "Global terrorism, our national debt, our dependence on foreign oil, the emergence of India and China as strategic competitors and/or allies, nuclear proliferation, global climate change, the corruption of Washington's lobbying system, the education of our young, the health care of all, and the disappearance of the American Dream for so many of our people."

Most Democrats wouldn't disagree with anything on this list. Most Republicans, on the other hand, are happy to raise the national debt in order to cut taxes, either don't believe in global climate change or don't want to do anything serious to stop it, oppose any plan that could provide health care for all Americans, and think the American Dream is thriving. Unity '08 further insists that gun control, abortion, and gay marriage should not "dominate or even crowd our national agenda." Which party has been putting those issues at the center of the agenda? Not the Democrats.

Bloomberg's politics are even further to the left. He's an out-and-out social liberal, banning smoking in public places and going to war against the National Rifle Association. He emphasizes programs to help the poor, has worked closely with unions, and has denounced rising inequality as a threat to democracy. But for Bloomberg and his admirers to admit that their views do have a home in a major party would destroy the basis of their self-image. Thus they must maintain at all costs the pretense of transcending ideology.

Chait's correct that this is dishonest; he's wrong that it's about the "self-image" of Bloomberg, the Unity '08 backers, and the millions of Americans who might rally to the cause.

So what is it about? I would submit that the problem is the recent history of the Democratic Party, its continuing internal balkanization, and its ongoing perception problems.

The atrocious failures of Bush/Cheney/DeLay/Norquist/Dobson Republicanism have helped obscure the negative associations many Americans--including not a few Democrats themselves/ourselves--had, or have, about the party: its fractiousness, the tendency of its leaders to waffle and triangulate, the ongoing sense that the Democrats aren't for things so much as against what the Republicans are for. Not that these perceptions are accurate, but they're real, and I think they persist. It also doesn't help that in three straight close elections, from 2000 to 2004, the Democrats face-planted at the finish line; last year, polls indicated a blowout from the spring onward, and never really shifted. Everybody loves a winner, and the Democrats were the Philadelphia Phillies of American politics.

(My soul died a little writing that last sentence, by the way.)

What Bloomberg would shed by running as an independent isn't the platform; it's the ancillary bullshit. All that baggage. The need to genuflect before interest groups. The guilt by association of sharing a party label with Michael-Dukakis-looking-silly-in-the-tank, Al-Gore-Serial-Exaggerator, Bll-Clinton-getting-blown-by-the-intern, John-Kerry-Flip-Flopper, and the rest. Yes, it's media-inflicted damage, vastly more reptile-brain association than substance, but that doesn't matter. Just as the fact that Republican governance has been demonstrably worse, that these people should be disqualified just for their failure to realize what a fuckup their fratboy-in-chief has been, doesn't matter. The fact is that for many, the Democratic Party label is sufficient grounds not to vote for an individual. (Of course this is also true for the Republicans. Bloomberg is the only one I can remember voting for, and he's no longer one--which isn't a coincidence.)

That Bloomberg is a billionaire, a guy who succeeded in two cutthroat fields and then again running the biggest, baddest city in the land, is his armor against ideological attacks just as Clark's stars and scars might have had had he gotten the nomination in 2004. Not sharing the Democratic label might give that armor an extra inch of thickness. If his Democratic opponent is Hillary Clinton, who (fairly or not) brings a vast amount of personal baggage to the generic-Dem pile, that could look awfully attractive to a wide swath of the electorate.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Rudy 'n' Dick
Move over, or at least enough to resume AIS. Meaning that the desk is built and everything's plugged in.

One probably wouldn't expect Dick Cheney to hold much brief for Rudy Giuliani's presidential aspirations; it just doesn't feel right that secretive and relentlessly right-wing Dick would support flamboyant Rudy, whose perceived "social liberalism" distinguishes him in the Republican presidential field. But given two significant traits the two seem to have in common, I'm starting to wonder.

One is the total conflation of force with foreign policy. Cheney, of course, is well-known for his hyper-militaristic, extra-paranoid foreign policy worldview. He's rumored as aggressively pushing for a confrontation with Iran, he's against closing Guantanamo Bay, he lobbied against anti-torture legislation. Giuliani is attempting to make up for his total lack of national security knowledge or credentials--and, as always, wring every tiny drop of support from the bloody shirt of September 11--by constantly referring to the need for "action" and "leadership" in our dealings abroad. Given his audience of Republican primary primates, it's dubious that this will be heard as "forcefully engage in diplomatic processes and leverage our 'soft power' to achieve consensus foreign policy goals."

The second is an evidently absolute sense of entitlement, an unwillingness to acknowledge any limits or external standards. (One might call it a totalitarian mindset; another word could be "sociopathic.")

As you've probably read, Cheney this week resorted to yet another dodge in his eternal battle against oversight and accountability: after years of claiming executive privilege on issues of secrecy, Cheney now claims that the Office of the Vice-President is exempt from obligations to the National Archives because it's not part of the executive branch. Maureen Dowd, whom I've ripped for her pseudo-sophisticated focus on trivia, turns her same bitchy talents to better use on Cheney:

I guess a man who can wait 14 hours before he lets it dribble out that he shot his friend in the face has no limit on what he thinks he can keep secret. Still, it’s quite a leap to go from hiding in a secure, undisclosed location in the capital to hiding in a secure, undisclosed location in the Constitution.

Dr. No used to just blow off the public and Congress as he cooked up his shady schemes. Now, in a breathtaking act of arrant arrogance, he’s blowing off his own administration.
On Thursday, Mr. Waxman revealed that after four years of refusing to cooperate with the government unit that oversees classified documents, the vice president tried to shut down the unit rather than comply with the law ensuring that sensitive data is protected. The National Archives appealed to the Justice Department, but who knows how much justice there is at Justice, now that the White House has so blatantly politicized it?

Cheney’s office denied doing anything wrong, but Cheney’s office is also denying it’s an office. Tricky Dick Deuce declared himself exempt from a rule that applies to everyone else in the executive branch, instructing the National Archives that the Office of the Vice President is not an “entity within the executive branch” and therefore is not subject to presidential executive orders.
Cheney and Cheney’s Cheney, David Addington, his equally belligerent, ideological and shadowy lawyer and chief of staff, have no shame. After claiming executive privilege to withhold the energy task force names and protect Scooter Libby, they now act outraged that Vice should be seen as part of the executive branch.

Cheney, they argue, is the president of the Senate, so he’s also part of the legislative branch. Vice is casting himself as a constitutional chimera, an extralegal creature with the body of a snake and the head of a sea monster. It’s a new level of gall, to avoid accountability by saying you’re part of a legislative branch that you’ve spent six years trying to weaken.

That's chutzpah. But perhaps no more so than Giuliani's unwillingness to part ways with a supporter who abused children:

Anyone who has followed the career of Republican presidential contender Rudy Giuliani knows the value he places on personal loyalty. Loyalty is what inspired the former mayor of New York to make Bernard Kerik, once his personal driver, the commissioner of the New York Police Department, and then a partner in his consulting firm, and then to suggest him to President Bush as a potential head of the Department of Homeland Security.

After revelations about Kerik's personal history derailed his bid for the federal post, Giuliani demonstrated that there were limits to loyalty. He has distanced himself from Kerik, who resigned from Giuliani's firm and later pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Giuliani has not, however, sought to distance himself from another, much closer friend whose personal baggage is also inconvenient, and would send most would-be presidents running.

Giuliani employs his childhood friend Monsignor Alan Placa as a consultant at Giuliani Partners despite a 2003 Suffolk County, N.Y., grand jury report that accuses Placa of sexually abusing children, as well as helping cover up the sexual abuse of children by other priests. Placa, who was part of a three-person team that handled allegations of abuse by clergy for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, is referred to as Priest F in the grand jury report. The report summarizes the testimony of multiple alleged victims of Priest F, and then notes, "Ironically, Priest F would later become instrumental in the development of Diocesan policy in response to allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests."

Five years after he was suspended from his duties because of the abuse allegations, Placa is currently listed as "priest in residence" at St. Aloysius Church in Great Neck, N.Y., where close friend Brendan Riordan serves as pastor, and officially lives at the rectory there with Riordan. In addition, Placa co-owns a penthouse apartment in Manhattan with Riordan, the latest in a half-dozen properties the two men have owned in common at various times since the late 1980s.

Placa has worked for Giuliani Partners since 2002. As of June 2007, he remains on the payroll. "He is currently employed here," Giuliani spokeswoman Sunny Mindel confirmed to Salon, adding that Giuliani "believes Alan has been unjustly accused." Mindel declined to discuss what role Placa plays with the consulting firm, or how much he is paid.

The full piece details the case against Placa; read it for yourself, but it sounds pretty strong to me. It also describes their lifelong friendship, and I suppose that one could credit Giuliani for personal loyalty. But I think the question is more one of judgment. The allegations against Kerik didn't show up all at once at the end of 2004; they were old, old news to Rudy. Similarly, the allegations against Russell Harding, the son of a political crony whom Giuliani appointed to head a New York City agency and turned out to be a fan of child porn who ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars on the city's dime, were known during Giuliani's mayoralty. In both cases, he did nothing, and with Kerik he only cut ties after Bernie's crimes came to light.

It's as if he's giving Cheney a run for the brass ring in the balls department. Maybe that shows a kindred spirt. It's also probably worth noting in passing that Giuliani's "liberal" positions--on abortion and gay rights--are non-issues for Cheney. While he's anti-choice, it hasn't been an issue he's pursued through his career. And Dick's most (maybe only) humanizing trait is his uninterest in even condemning, much less cutting off, his lesbian daughter just to placate the Christatollah Right. They disagree on guns, but that's likely far overshadowed by Giuilani's burgeoning anti-tax, anti-regulation platform--something Cheney shares and that helps bind both to the Norquist wing of the party.

Even if Cheney did favor Giuliani, though, I'm not sure what he could do to help him. He wouldn't endorse Rudy, and I doubt he could use his evil powers, which seem to be governmental in nature, very easily for political purposes. What's scary is the thought of a nut like Giuliani in the presidency, armed with the wildly expanded powers Cheney has tried to seize for the job. At least for now, the sociopath tries to stay behind the scenes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

I'm Just Sayin'...
A new poll from LA Times/Bloomberg offers a number of interesting findings about the 2008 presidential race:

In a generic presidential general election, the Democrats beat the Republicans by eight points among registered voters (49%-41%). But when the match-ups are among different candidates, the story is slightly different.

Clinton vs. three top Republican candidates: McCain narrowly leads Clinton by 45% to 41%, although within the poll’s margin of error. The gender gap that has been seen in many election polls is no exception in this poll. Among men, 34% support the NY Senator, 52% support the Arizona Senator, while the reverse is true of women – 47% for Clinton and 38% for McCain. A large majority of minorities are supporting the Democrat over McCain, as well as the other top two candidates – Giuliani and Romney. Independents support Clinton by 40% to 34%.

Romney narrowly leads Clinton by 43% to 41%, but well within the poll’s margin of error. Again, there is a gender gap, with men supporting Romney, while Clinton receives the support of the women. White voters would give Romney a 14 point advantage over his Democratic rival.

Giuliani beats Clinton by 10 points (49%-39%). Slightly more than half of white voters support the Republican
candidate (an 18 point lead over Clinton). Women who usually are strong supporters of the only female candidate for president, barely supports Clinton over Giuliani (45%-41%), while men solidly endorse the former mayor of NY (57%-32%).

Edwards vs. three top Republican candidates: McCain narrowly leads Edwards by five points, but within the poll’s margin of error --45% to 40%. Edwards, too, sees a gender gap – with men supporting McCain (54%-31%) and women giving the Democrat a 12 point advantage.

Edwards beats Romney by 14 points (46%-32%). White voters are virtually split between the two. Independents give Edwards a 41%-27% lead over his opponent.

Edwards marginally is ahead of Giuliani by 46% to 43%, although within the poll’s margin of error. Once again, men are supporting the Republican candidate over the Democratic opponent. Women are supporting Edwards (48%) over Giuliani (38%). Nearly half of white voters support Giuliani.

Obama vs. three top Republican candidates: This poll shows that Obama, among the top three Democratic candidates, appears to be the more electable candidate. Obama takes a 12 point advantage over McCain (47%-35%), has a 16 point lead over Romney (50%-34%) and a small five point lead over Giuliani within the poll’s margin or error. More minorities support Obama against each of the three Republican matchups than the other two Democratic candidates. White voters split their votes among Obama and McCain and Obama and Romney. But, Giuliani gets a nine point advantage with this racial group over his Democratic rival (49% for Giuliani, 40% for Obama). The Democratic Senator from Illinois maintains a leads in each of the three paired match-ups among women voters. Independents are also supporting the Democratic candidate over the three Republican candidates.

All emphases mine. The same poll gives Clinton a 33 percent to 22 percent lead over Obama among Democrats for the nomination. Of course, national polls are somewhat less meaningful, and the state races still show Edwards well ahead in Iowa, Clinton ahead by various margins in New Hampshire, and a total mess in South Carolina.

But what's weird to me is the "internals" of this poll, which show Sen. Clinton winning 40 percent of "liberal Democrats" to Obama's 21, with 18 for Al Gore and 10 for Edwards. As we've discussed here and elsewhere, again and again and again, Hillary Clinton is not a liberal Democrat, despite the media portrayal. I wonder if Obama and Edwards need to start pushing this message a little harder.

What they can't do much about, I think, is the overwhelming female support for the first really viable female presidential candidate. Clinton doubles Obama's support among women who are likely to vote in the Democratic primaries. But a caveat noted at PoliticalWire from a different poll is that "In the general election, 43% of female independents said they 'definitely will not vote for her if she is the Democratic nominee.'"

That's not female Republicans; that's female independents. And remember that Hillary Clinton consistently polls more strongly among women than men; so it's possible, maybe likely, that a majority of independent men won't support her. Given that the Republicans start with a larger "base" than Democrats in terms of ideology (though not party identification), writing off such a big chunk of the contested middle--especially against a perceived moderate like Giuliani, if he somehow makes it to the general--probably would doom the ticket.

For all the useful insights of this poll, however, it still fails to ask the question I'm most curious about: how badly Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee would hurt Democrats further down the ticket.

I very strongly believe that nominating Sen. Clinton will absolutely doom the party's majority in the House of Representatives, and possibly endanger the Senate as well. Freshman Democrats in "red" states like Indiana and Kansas, and even "purple" states like New Hampshire and Iowa and Ohio, likely would have to disavow their own presidential candidate; their Republican challengers would start with the enormous advantage of 16 years of anti-Hillary stereotyping in the minds of the local electorate.

I'm not saying she wouldn't win. As noted a couple posts down, I think she probably would, especially if it's Romney; her team is better at the blocking and tackling of politics, and a Mormon candidate could have some of the same categorical opposition as Clinton herself. But the larger point is that the 2008 election is the Democrats' to lose--and the best chance they have to lose it is by nominating Hillary Clinton for the presidency.

Monday, June 11, 2007

"Get a Life"
For decades after the American Civil War, presidential candidates from the Republican Party won elections by "waving the bloody shirt"--making emotional appeals hearkening back to the Civil War and, if applicable, their own participation in the struggle, to burnish their own credentials and run down their opponents'. Something similar is happening in the 2008 presidential campaign, as candidates from New York--or "from" New York--are using the trauma of September 11, and the lingering fear that America will again suffer terror attacks, in their efforts to win votes.

The candidate who's most guilty of this shameful ploy, of course, is Rudy Giuliani. On September 10th, Giuliani was the widely loathed and increasingly irrelevant New York City mayor best known for publicly dumping his high-profile wife and picking fights with everyone from squeegee men to edgy artists to (really) ferret lovers. But his public performance on the day of the attacks transformed Rudy from a slimy, possibly unbalanced political has-been to something like a Churchillian symbol of American resolve. He used the afterglow to make untold millions speaking and lobbying, and to launch a presidential campaign on the premise that his gut-level understanding of terrorism makes him the best choice to lead the nation.

To a much lesser extent, Hillary Clinton also has tried to leverage 9/11 for political gain. She's mixed it up with Democratic rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards on the question of whether Americans are "safer" now than before the attack, and cited 9/11 as a factor that contributed to her endlessly controversial vote to authorize military force in Iraq. Most political analysis has held that Senator Clinton isn't using 9/11 so much to win the nomination, but to position herself better for a general election showdown with an unapologetically belligerent and fearmongering Republican.

Both candidates, though, are selling a version of the 9/11 experience that I think most New Yorkers would find preposterous. Much closer to our own sense of how that day remains with us was the reaction of Mayor Mike Bloomberg to the recent news of a plot to blow up JFK Airport in Queens. Speaking two days after the announcement of the plot, Bloomberg said, "There are lots of threats to you in the world. There's the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can't sit there and worry about everything. Get a life."

None of us who were in Lower Manhattan that morning will ever forget it, and it's rare that more than a few days go by when I don't think about the chaos and panic on Wall Street, the surreal walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, wandering along Court Street listening to the news from car radios, the panic over the whereabouts of a housemate who worked in the Towers. (She was fine, thank goodness.) And I tend to notice things like an unattended bag probably more than I used to. But as the lamented Tony Soprano might have said: "Whattaya gonna do?" I worked on Wall Street for more than four years after that, and I'm still at that office a couple days a week. I ride the subway, I go out in town. I never considered moving away. (At least not for that reason; singly and after getting married, I certainly wondered whether this town was really affordable in the long term.) And I think literally every person I know here had more or less the same reaction.

In much of the rest of the country, though, the fear seems to be greater. I'll also never forget canvassing in Ohio on the day of the 2004 election, talking to a young woman who was considering voting for Bush because he'd made her feel safe after the attacks. It would have been rude, but not illogical, to ask just why the terrorists were going after her Cleveland suburb anyway.

A piece in Sunday's New York Times nicely captures how differently 9/11 plays in NYC, and everywhere else:

New York is survivor and victim and — in this campaign year — political touchstone. Two wars are being fought in its name, although polls show a decided majority of New Yorkers oppose the larger of those conflicts. Even for a place that can harbor an insufferable sense of its own uniqueness, the “America’s city” stuff might be getting to be a bit much.

Few New Yorkers have shaken their awareness of hideous possibility. We may chuckle at the perfunctory-to-the-point-of-ridiculousness security pat-downs at Shea Stadium. They are more likely to uncover a covert brew than a covert something nasty. Same goes for the drone of warnings to watch, look, listen for suspicious packages and/or odd people on the subway. Sort us out like that and who will be left to ride?

And yet. A beefy bouncer confesses he really doesn’t care for subway tunnels anymore. A handyman tends to notice who pulls what kind of valise onto the bus. A mother pushing a baby carriage says she stays away from landmark buildings.

But what do you do with this knowledge that it could all get a lot worse very fast?

“Mayor Bloomberg is my man,” says Michael Liburd, a cleaning man born in Nevis and raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where he was found loading mops into his car. “You have to be concerned because this city has many, many lunatics. But you can’t lock yourself inside.”
For New York’s flock of presidential candidates, the calculus is more complicated. The “war on terror” becomes their claim to special expertise. Mr. Giuliani, as ever, is most muscular in asserting his proprietary claim. “When I lived through Sept. 11, and I don’t just mean the day, I mean a period of time, I was at the center of it,” he said the other day.

Mr. Giuliani does not add that he accrued additional experience watching his multimillion-dollar emergency management office collapse into rubble. Turns out he placed it too close to the trade center towers.

As for Mrs. Clinton, she wasn’t dusted by the rubble of the towers, and her accent owes more to Chicago than Flatbush. But she fought for money to rebuild, and to protect those with respiratory ills, and no politician goes wrong for long by wielding 9/11 as a deflector shield.

I don't want to go looking for it right now, but I think Bloomberg added that the statistical chance of getting struck by lightning is much higher than getting killed by a terrorist. He could have made similar statements about gun violence, or health complications stemming from obesity, or lung cancer from second-hand smoke--all of which are issues he's tried to take on, with varying degrees of success, during his mayoralty, and might be the sort of things he would talk about were he to run for president as an independent.

I'm certainly not saying that foreign policy isn't important, or that the experience of 9/11 shouldn't be handled with seriousness and sensitivity. But the Giuliani campaign in particular is predicated upon an assumption, unspoken and probably unconscious, that a Strong Man can make us safe and solve our problems. I much prefer the Bloomberg approach, which is that government can and should do everything in its power to ensure citizens' safety (from tainted food or random gun violence as well as spectacular terror strike), but that seeking total control is a fool's errand that does far more harm, in every realm from the psychological to the budgetary, than good.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Semi-Random 2008 Presidential Prediction I Might Totally Repudiate
This came to me while watching chunks of the Republican debate Tuesday night: Mitt Romney will win the Republican nomination next winter, and Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination, and she will defeat Romney in the November 2008 general election. Sen. Clinton will win something like 51.8 percent of the popular vote, with a slightly larger electoral college margin on the strength of her field operation tipping a few tossup states and the lack of grass-roots Republican enthusiasm for supporting a Mormon.

I said something like this to Annie while the debate was still on, adding that the question then would be whether Jeb Bush would defeat Hillary Clinton in 2012. I think she was cleaning the cat litter box at the time, and called back something about the considerable volume of cat shit in the box. I suggested this was the perfect metaphor for a second Clinton/Bush election five years hence, and she responded that this was why she'd made the remark.

Maybe I'm just pessimistic these days. But a 2008 general election matchup pitting the hyper-controlled, hyper-cautious Mrs. Clinton against the supremely packaged and almost endlessly slick Mittster would really showcase the miserable worst of our politics. It's extremely slight consolation that she'd very probably win such a miserable contest, presumably repopulating the executive branch with progressives and thus doing some good while her presidency foundered.

Monday, June 04, 2007

"The Timidity of Hope"
A few weeks ago I asked one of my friends, who also works in policy, what she thought about the Democratic presidential race in general, and Barack Obama in particular. She kind of made a face and said, "I'm a wonk. You're a wonk. We need specifics, details, programs."

It was a fair criticism, though I'm not totally sure I share it. Democracy is a mass exercise, even (or especially) in as flawed and imperfect a version as we have in the United States, and almost by definition the mass public isn't going to wonk out with me and my friend and our colleagues. This might the corollary to the best line John Edwards got off in last night's debate, which I wrote about earlier today: "Being president isn't about legislating--it's about leadership." (The irony, of course, is that Edwards has issued the most detailed plans of any major candidate on either side, and is pretty clearly trying to position himself as "the candidate of ideas" in response to the greater star power of Obama and Hillary Clinton.)

This brings me to Paul Krugman's column today about Obama's health care plan. He issued it somewhat in response both to the detailed proposal Edwards made earlier this year, and Obama's own widely perceived flop at a candidates' forum on health care a couple months ago.

I'll admit up front, and not even with a great deal of shame, that I haven't read either plan. I've read a fair amount about both, for whatever that's worth, and I grasp how they're different in concept and ambition. But aside from impressing super-wonks like Krugman, or lesser wonks like me--a feat that has some value, but not a ton, as I'll explain below--I'm not sure I totally get the point. Here's Krugman:

The Obama plan is smart and serious, put together by people who know what they’re doing.

It also passes one basic test of courage. You can’t be serious about health care without proposing an injection of federal funds to help lower-income families pay for insurance, and that means advocating some kind of tax increase. Well, Mr. Obama is now on record calling for a partial rollback of the Bush tax cuts.

Also, in the Obama plan, insurance companies won’t be allowed to deny people coverage or charge them higher premiums based on their medical history. Again, points for toughness.

Best of all, the Obama plan contains the same feature that makes the Edwards plan superior to, say, the Schwarzenegger proposal in California: it lets people choose between private plans and buying into a Medicare-type plan offered by the government.

Since Medicare has much lower overhead costs than private insurers, this competition would force the insurance industry to cut costs — making our health-care system more efficient. And if private insurers couldn’t or wouldn’t cut costs enough, the system would evolve into Medicare for all, which is actually the best solution.

So there’s a lot to commend the Obama plan. In fact, it would have been considered daring if it had been announced last year.

Now for the bad news. Although Mr. Obama says he has a plan for universal health care, he actually doesn’t — a point Mr. Edwards made in last night’s debate. The Obama plan doesn’t mandate insurance for adults. So some people would take their chances — and then end up receiving treatment at other people’s expense when they ended up in emergency rooms. In that regard it’s actually weaker than the Schwarzenegger plan.

I asked David Cutler, a Harvard economist who helped put together the Obama plan, about this omission. His answer was that Mr. Obama is reluctant to impose a mandate that might not be enforceable, and that he hopes — based, to be fair, on some estimates by Mr. Cutler and others — that a combination of subsidies and outreach can get all but a tiny fraction of the population insured without a mandate. Call it the timidity of hope.
[Obama's plan] doesn’t quell my worries that Mr. Obama’s dislike of “bitter and partisan” politics makes him too cautious.

Two points here. First of all--and this is something so obvious and uncontestable that I think it's kind of negligent for Krugman not to mention it--there's next to no chance that anything proposed by any candidate on something as big and important and contentious as health care gets enacted as drawn up by the David Cutlers of the world. (He's a brilliant guy, by the way--this isn't a slap at Cutler. It's just that academics aren't generally successful, ever, in writing legislation.) The details--the substance that Krugman and my friend were both waiting for--are, in that sense, totally irrelevant. Whatever legislation the 111th Congress passes, assuming a Democratic president and Democratic majorities and other favorable circumstances for major health care legislation, will be written by anonymous staff (perhaps, hopefully, with input from people like Cutler), chewed over in countless private meetings with colleagues, officials, lobbyists and advocates, torn up and rewritten, marked up in committees, argued in public, salted with goodies, revised and amended a hundred times, and perhaps finally enacted. Or not. It's a slight exaggeration to claim that any resemblance would be coincidental, but that's almost the case.

Two, since this is the case, one can look at Obama's approach, which I think can be characterized as "do what can be done," in one of two ways. The partisan will suggest that the inevitability of compromise means that an advocate should set his or her position at the far end of what they want, giving as little ground as possible before settling on an agreement or walking away if the proposal is too diluted. The consensus-seeker will counter that it's better to minimize the level of conflict up front, improving the chances for some kind of accord, and going back later if need be to fix what's wrong.

I've written here before that I believe the essence of executive leadership is threefold: to know where you want to take the public on an issue, to know where they are, and to have an idea of how to get them from Point B to Point A. It's an exercise in finding consensus, then shifting the consensus, accomplished through exhortation and patience. My sense is that Obama grasps this, which is why I'm planning to support him next year. Just because my version, or Krugman's, of where Point A should be, is different from his, doesn't in my opinion trump the sense that he knows how to carry out the journey.
The Democrats' Debate
The second Democratic presidential debate, held Sunday night in New Hampshire, was surprisingly substantial despite the best efforts of Wolf Blitzer to keep the proceedings on the usual rotten level. A transcript is up if you want to take a look; here are my quick thoughts.

1) Nobody could accuse Hillary Clinton of not knowing her stuff, and she proved it again Sunday night. But it drives me nuts every time she goes down the road of 9/11 fearmongering, demagoguing the “war on terror.” John Edwards got some attention last week for pointing out that the "war on terror" is a bumper-sticker, not a strategy–and that its purpose was entirely Republican political advantage. I find this almost uncontestable--but Sen. Clinton evidently does not, perhaps just because she's "from New York." FWIW, that was her only moment in the debate that got me angry, and I did like that she smacked Blitzer down a little later on. I wish she'd gotten a chance to expand upon remarks she made last week comparing the current economy to the Robber Baron era--but the questions just didn't fall that way.

2) Barack Obama was miles, miles better last night than in the first debate. He just seemed sharper, and he more than held his own in an early exchange with Edwards over the Iraq war. He’s the best “on TV” candidate, I think because he just seems calmer than the rest of them–all that Marshall McLuhan stuff about television as a "cool medium" describes Obama’s edge there. His response on a later tax question from the audience was terrific, taking a typically idiotic query about specifics (”what number is ‘rich’?”) and drilling down to something more fundamental–the premise on which he’d base taxing and spending decisions.

3) Edwards was disadvantaged last night because the substance never got around to his big area of strength: domestic economic issues. But I thought he held his own on Iran and other questions.

4) I really like Chris Dodd. Hard to imagine how he emerges, but I’d like to see it happen. His response to the last question of the night--"What would your first action be as president?"--was perfect: restore respect for the Constitution. This was, alas, as close any candidate got to what I consider the big unasked query; see below.

5) Bill Richardson IMO was better last night than he was in the first debate, or on Meet the Press, but still not great. His line about being a “pro-growth Democrat” annoyed me; in general, Richardson seems too ready to accept right-wing frames. On foreign policy, though, his substance comes across.

6) Angry Little Elf Dennis Kucinich really should just STFU. I might have to kick some money to his Dem primary opponent for Congress next year…

I guess this is far too much to expect from fundamentally unserious people like Wolf Blitzer, but the question I really would like to hear answered goes something like this:

"In six and a half years since taking office, the Bush administration has embraced a governance philosophy that allocates greater powers to the executive branch than any previous president has enjoyed. The 'unitary executive theory' posits virtually no limits on what presidents can do, striking a different balance between the president's powers and those of Congress than most officials and observers had previously believed. Do you share this expansive view of executive power or not, and how would you approach the question of checks and balances as president?"

Even a "raise your hands if you think the president should have godlike powers" would be a start...