Sunday, June 26, 2011

Batshit for President!
We now have the likes of Nate Silver suggesting that Michele Bachmann is "a legitimate contender to win the Republican nomination." She's polling 22 percent in Iowa, a point behind Mitt Romney, with strong "favorables" from that state's rabid social conservatives. Bachmann is a very accomplished fundraiser and highly effective retail politician. By all accounts, she "won" the most recent Republican debate a couple weeks ago.

She is also--there's simply no polite way to put this--certifiably fucking crazy, and one of the most vicious and hate-filled people in American politics. The evidentiary points here are almost innumerable, but Matt Taibbi has a good short primer of Bachmann's career to date. His summary assessment:

In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you've always got a puncher's chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.

Think about the characteristics you value in a leader. For me, the first four that come to mind are humility, intellectual curiosity, pragmatism, and a calm temperament. Bachmann claims that God has communicated with her personally, a la the microphone in the braces from "Real Genius"; gets facts wrong at a pace and on a level that makes Sarah Palin seem like Daniel Patrick Moynihan; and has claimed that lesbians are trying to kill her, that we're all at risk of having to live under Sharia law, and that President Obama and many if not most Democrats are "anti-American" and should be "investigated." She also has a legislative record pretty much entirely devoid of any actual accomplishment.

What she has, in addition to (as Taibbi perfectly puts it) "the gigantic set of burnished titanium Terminator-testicles swinging under her skirt," is, one, innate political talent, and two, a perfect, better-than-Palin story to tell of anti-intellectual, liberal-hating grievance that alone will swing something like 30 percent of the electorate. Under the wrong set of circumstances--say, a debt-limit default and deep double-dip recession, plus disentanglement from our various wars in a manner that reads as "defeat"--she could win not just the nomination, but the general election. A few months ago I would have put the odds of this below one percent; now, it's maybe in the high single digits.

One test I've started to apply in simply thinking about presidential candidates is whether I'd rather they have the office than me. Bear with me for a minute: this isn't nearly as egotastic as I'm sure it sounds. I think I would be, if not the worst president in American history, easily down there with Bush II, Buchanan and Harding. I'm lazy ("sloth"), I often don't prioritize well, and I overreact to things. I'm not even good at Civilization, despite having put probably thousands of hours into that wonderful and highly addictive game. But I'd rather see myself in there than Batshit Bachmann. Possibly even after suffering brain damage.

(Edit: though I sort of loathe him and his blatant soullessness terrifies me, I wouldn't hesitate to vote for Mitt Romney if the only two choices were him and me. Likewise, among the Rs running, Huntsman and Gary Johnson. Pawlenty, whom I see as a more pathetic Romney--he's empty without the money to create an impressive facade--I'd have to think more about, but probably. Gingrich no, Palin no, Perry probably not, and trying to put Ron Paul through the exercise makes smoke come out of my ears like a robot from a 1950s sci-fi flick caught in a logic paradox.)

No doubt, any journalist who watches this person will reach the same conclusion. So I'd suggest that Bachmann's candidacy isn't even a test of the electorate's collective intelligence and attention span--they failed that one in 2004, and as the line between democracy and entertainment completely disappears, I don't see them passing a re-test--but whether we still have anything like a press corps capable of playing its assigned role as the protector of small-r republican-government. I don't doubt that many of the corporate overlords who own media companies will look at Bachmann, with her right-wing ideology and absence of critical thinking skills, and see a powerful instrument for their own advancement. But profit doesn't mean much, I would think, if it comes amidst a general collapse.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

One for the Good Guys
Maybe it's a good thing that the actual moments in which society takes measurable steps forward are often about as dramatic as watching a guy carrying groceries and dry cleaning root through his pockets looking for his keys. So it was when the New York State Senate voted to enact marriage equality last night. Senator Stephen Saland, a moderate Republican whose district runs along the Hudson below Albany, provided the decisive 32nd vote that put the bill over the top after negotiating an amendment that allayed fears of liability on the part of religious institutions, and gave remarks that, on the page, seem fairly stirring. In the delivery, however, he may as well have been proposing to name a post office after some 19th century burgher, except that my guess is he'd have spoken with more passion. Tom Duane, the sponsor of the measure who's spent years fighting for a right intensely personal to him, was only slightly less subdued. Of the main characters, the only one who even sort of played his part was incomparable asshole Ruben Diaz Sr., an unashamed bigot who was petulant, incoherent and obnoxious as one would expect, though more regarding Senate procedure than the measure itself.

But this isn't about the moment; it's about the magnitude of what it accomplished. The vote came after days of stalemate, during which I'd drawn the conclusion that Senate Republicans--caught between the promises of the Conservative Party to deny them ballot access if they voted to allow same sex marriage, and the implied threat of their biggest funder, Mayor Bloomberg, to withdraw support if they didn't--would simply run out the clock and not bring it up for a vote. That they didn't is a tribute both to Governor Cuomo, whose actions backed up his stated commitment to equality (and who can count on some deep-pocketed friends with long memories when he runs for president in five years), and to Dean Skelos, the Republican Senate leader who voted against the measure but neither strong-armed his members to do the same nor pushed hard to avoid the vote.

For the state Senate Republicans, holding onto an artificial one-vote majority thanks to gerrymandering but fenced in by demographics and the increasing distance between the New York electorate (even outside the City) and their national party, there was no winning move here: vote yes, and lose a sizable chunk of their current support that they can't afford to part with, but vote no and face a furious financial and electoral onslaught when everyone's up again next year, led by a very popular governor. Skelos probably played it as well as possible: members like freshman Michael Grisanti, the Buffalo Republican representing a strongly Democratic district who provided the symbolically important 33rd vote, surely improved his chances to survive when trends don't favor Republicans nearly as strongly as they did in 2010. (Grisanti was also by far the best speaker of any who took the floor last night.) The Times also suggests that Republican Wall Street donors cultivated by Cuomo played a role almost as decisive as that of the governor himself.

It's no news to anyone who reads this page that I am not generally optimistic about the future of our society, particularly in its political guise--largely because we're well on the way toward making Margaret Thatcher's famous quip that "there's no such thing as society" a self-fulfilling prophesy. One can guess the view of Zaphod Beeblebrox on taxes; that's us now. Each of us sees himself as the Most Important Being in the Universe, with individual imperatives that cannot be violated. Economically, this is leading us toward a disaster that could hit as soon as this summer... yet, socially, it's taking us to a better place. (The Times story notes that the Wall Street big shots "were inclined to see the issue as one of personal freedom, consistent with their more libertarian views.") In a moment where we should take our satisfactions and signs of progress wherever we can, this is worth celebrating.