Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Alternate Universe 2012 Election

I was thinking this evening about recent elections and started speculating about how things might have unfolded had John Kerry had beaten George W. Bush in 2004.

I'm pretty sure that Kerry would have been a one-termer in this scenario. The economic bubble was a bipartisan creation, and my sense is it still would have popped around 2008 leading to a financial crash and subsequent economic downturn of more or less the same magnitude. This almost certainly would have sunk Kerry in his re-election effort... though it likely wouldn't have unfolded until well after the Republicans had chosen a nominee to oppose him.

But I don't think John McCain would have been the beneficiary. McCain came reasonably close to running with Kerry in 2004; I can't imagine he would have turned around and run against his friend four years later. In fact, I'm not sure he wouldn't have joined Kerry's administration as Secretary of Defense or something. So you would have had a different Republican nominee in 2008, running against a charisma-deficient incumbent who'd barely won four years earlier (and might well have been a popular vote loser: a switch of 50,000 votes in Ohio would have gotten Kerry the White House even though he was down a couple million votes nationally), burdened by the economy having crashed on his watch.

Presumably we would have had the same set of Republicans running in 2008 as we actually did, minus McCain (who, lest we forget, was far from an inevitable nominee: he almost dropped out in the summer of 2007, and benefitted from the demolition derby of Huckabee, Romney, Giuliani and Thompson through the early set of primaries). So the nominee likely would have been either Huckabee or Romney, the runners-up to McCain, and that guy would have gone on to beat Kerry, quite possibly in a landslide. (An interesting scenario would have been W. looking for a rematch in 2008, but I don't think he would have been nominated again after losing.)

But then what? I don't doubt the Republicans would have done some stimulus, as Obama did--but given their ideological disinclination toward Keynesian policy solutions and tax cut fetish, likely it would have been smaller and even more tilted toward the cuts which were the least effective component of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. So the response very likely wouldn't have been effective, and the Republicans probably would have had a harder time blaming Kerry than the Democrats have on Bush--because you would have had a one-term Democratic president and likely continued Republican control of Congress this whole time. Kerry likely would have interpreted his victory as a mandate to draw down more quickly in Iraq, taking that issue off the table and likely ensuring that control of Congress never flipped in 2006.  (It's very possible that the Democrats would have taken control in 2010, creating a political dynamic in alt-2012 similar to that in real-world 2008.)

Since the incumbent, John Kerry, would have had the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, the actual '08 contest would have been pushed back four years. Romney or Huckabee (Romnuckabee!) is running against one of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards, the former Vice-President in this scenario who's likely tainted by his prominence in the failed Kerry administration in addition to whatever else he might have gotten up to over the eight years.

My guess is that in this alternate if-Kerry-won-in-'04 universe, Hillary would have been the 2012 nominee. Part of why Obama won in real-2008 was his newness and fatigue with sixteen years of Clinton/Bush; neither factor would have been as strong in a world where he was in his second Senate term and no Clinton or Bush had been in the presidency for eight years. But I do think he would have run, and likely would have come the closest to unseating Hillary--enough to have been asked to join the ticket. He's still just 51, with plenty of time to run in his own right in 2020 or 2024 backed by whatever the Clinton political machine looks like at that point and boasting executive branch experience. So we'd be looking at an election in six weeks' time that would see a Clinton/Obama ticket take the presidency, likely with a mandate to implement fairly strong economic policies.

Needless to say, there are a ton of unknowables in this scenario: how Kerry would have done in disentangling us from the mideast wars, whether the Republican president might have gotten us into new wars between 2008 and 2012 (given his comments this year, the thought of Romney in office during the Green Revolution and Arab Spring is unsettling to say the least), how the Supreme Court might have evolved with Kerry rather than Bush replacing Rehnquist and Souter, and Romnuckabee rather than Obama replacing O'Connor and Stevens... or for that matter whether the ones who are still alive would have left with a president of the other party in office. But it's an interesting line of speculation, to me at least.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On Mistakes, Atonement and Shamelessness
It's well known that on August 6, 2011, President George W. Bush received his daily intelligence briefing, which that day was titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." It's further known that when his CIA briefer was done, Bush (who was then vacationing at his Texas ranch) said, "All right, you've covered your ass, now." Presumably he then went on to a day of brush clearing, and/or golfing. Thirty-six days later, al Qaeda did indeed strike in the U.S., killing nearly 3,000 Americans, destroying the Twin Towers, and setting in motion a chain of events that's led to thousands of additional American deaths, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghanis, trillions of dollars spent and a core change, not for the better, in American life.

Today in the New York Times, reporter Kurt Eichenwald writes that the declassified August 6 brief is actually not the truly damning document as far as the Bush administration is concerned:

On April 10, 2004, the Bush White House declassified that daily brief — and only that daily brief — in response to pressure from the 9/11 Commission, which was investigating the events leading to the attack. Administration officials dismissed the document’s significance, saying that, despite the jaw-dropping headline, it was only an assessment of Al Qaeda’s history, not a warning of the impending attack. While some critics considered that claim absurd, a close reading of the brief showed that the argument had some validity.

That is, unless it was read in conjunction with the daily briefs preceding Aug. 6, the ones the Bush administration would not release. While those documents are still not public, I have read excerpts from many of them, along with other recently declassified records, and come to an inescapable conclusion: the administration’s reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed. In other words, the Aug. 6 document, for all of the controversy it provoked, is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before it.

The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.

But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.

In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.

The combination of Bush's own incuriosity and the neoconservatives' insistence that everything must fit into their master narrative of Getting Saddam Hussein goes a long way toward explaining why an eminently preventable catastrophe went forward. (The failure of Condi Rice, then the National Security Advisor, to push back against the neocons is an important element as well.) But that's not even the main point here. What's really of interest to me is how Bush, who presumably remembered that he'd been briefed--evidently not just once, but on multiple occasions--subsequently went forward and not only didn't cop to any responsibility, BUT ACTUALLY MADE POLITICAL USE OF A TRAGEDY THAT OCCURRED ON HIS WATCH AND THAT HE FAILED TO PREVENT.

We don't expect failed leaders to commit ritual suicide or even drop out of public life, but there are plenty of examples in modern American history of policymakers who made severe mistakes with fatal ramifications for thousands of human beings, including ones for which they should have known better. Robert McNamara, the brilliant Secretary of Defense under JFK and LBJ, was tragically wrong about the Vietnam War. He probably knew it long before he left office in early 1968, but didn't say so publicly until almost 30 years later. He eventually did come clean, no doubt in part to salve his own tormented conscience but also in hopes that his successors might avoid his mistakes. In between, McNamara led the World Bank--by most accounts, commendably--and found other ways to serve. Colin Powell, Bush's first Secretary of State and hero of the first Gulf War, has admitted to shame at giving testimony to the UN Security Council that later proved inaccurate in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. He left public office soon after, and mostly has focused on philanthropic activities since then.

Bush and his team simply used the disaster they failed to prevent to justify their long-desired war with Iraq, and jam through as much of their desired domestic and foreign policy agenda as possible. They ran for re-election in 2004 primarily on national security arguments. They mismanaged both the more or less logical retaliatory war in Afghanistan and the totally unnecessary and pointless Iraq war. They won re-election and continued mismanaging the Iraq war. Many of them are now advising Mitt Romney and likely would guide national security if he wins the presidency.

I remember when Curt Schilling endorsed and campaigned for Bush in 2004, I compared it to Schilling making an argument for his own greatness not based on his World Series heroics in 1993, 2001 or 2004, but on the worst start of his career. Schilling, for all his sometime jackassery, didn't hide from accountability; when he sucked, he copped to it. Regarding his most dramatic consequential failure, George W. Bush never showed the least sense of contrition or responsibility; in fact he treated it like some kind of triumph. I don't understand it at all, can't even really grasp how someone could possibly respond in that way.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Read These
One reason the frequency of posting on this blog has declined so much in the last few years is because it's now pretty rare that I post just to highlight writings elsewhere that I think are very worthwhile. (The biggest reason is that I started working full-time again in early 2010, followed by a rise in my own standards of what I thought was worth setting down words about, but ending the "hey, isn't this cool?" posts is in there somewhere.) I'm doing it today, though, because, one, these two pieces are just that good, and two, they both align to things I've been thinking about but haven't bothered to fully articulate.

  • I think Joe Posnanski is generally recognized as one of America's best sportswriters, but this undersells him: the guy is among our best writers, period. Yesterday morning, while enduring one of those episodes of concentrated misery in which the Metropolitan Transit Authority specializes, I found this piece through Posnanski's Twitter feed, and by the end of it I was laughing, smiling and much less interested in killing everyone else on the shuttle bus. Pretty much every word of it, from the paean to Electronic Football to the dread engendered by the Alcoa commercial and the ritualistic invocation of "The executive producer of CBS Sports is..." rings true to my experience between about 1981 and 1986. Note that the Eagles (whose new season starts in about an hour and forty-five minutes) mostly sucked in those years, plus there was a strike, plus my parents split so my exposure to my dad, a huge football fan, really plunged. It was probably those other aspects of football fandom that left me a fan for life. Posnanski, who I think is about five or six years older than me, just nails it. And he's right that while the fan experience is unquestionably better today, it's somehow less intense and special precisely for the wealth of options now available to us. (I have added Posnanski to the nav bar of AIS, replacing Glenn Greenwald who recently left Salon.)

  • Then there's Timothy Snyder's identification of Paul Ryan as the exemplary ideologue in American politics today, and his perceptive trace of how Ryan's extremism is grounded in earlier totalizing philosophical traditions including but not limited to his infamous veneration of Ayn Rand. A few weeks back, after Romney tapped Ryan as his running mate but before the Republican convention, I was contemplating a post here about how bad ideas resonate down through history, creating vicious cycles of reaction and counter-reaction that serve to multiply the original harm done to actual humans. Rand's Objectivism emerged from her visceral (and justified) loathing for Soviet communism, which itself was a reaction to the absolutism of tsarist Russia focused through the lens of Marxist theory. (Hayek, the other intellectual touchstone Snyder names for the Republican ticket and about whom I know much less, evidently had the same sort of intellectual response to Nazism as Rand did to the Soviets.) Snyder makes a compelling case for how Romney and Ryan complement each other as embodiments of the current Republican Party:
    Romney provides the practice, Ryan the theory. Romney has lots of money, but has never managed to present the storyline of his career as a moral triumph. Ryan, with his credibility as an ideas politician, seems to solve that problem. In the right-wing anarchism that arises from the marriage of Rand and Hayek, Romney’s wealth is proof that all is well for the rest of us, since the laws of economics are such that the unhindered capitalism represented by chop-shops such as Bain must in the end be good for everyone.

    The problem with this sort of economic determinism is that it is Marxism in reverse, with the problems of the original kind. Planning by finance capitalists replaces planning by the party elite. Marx’s old dream, the “withering away” of the state, is the centerpiece of the Ryan budget: cut taxes on the rich, claim that cutting government functions and the closing of unspecified loopholes will balance budgets, and thereby make the state shrink. Just like the Marxists of another era, the Republican ticket substitutes mythical thinking about the economy for loyalty to the nation.

    What they all got wrong and continue to get wrong--Marx, Lenin, Rand, Ryan--is that the proper response to a failed system claiming absolute truth isn't an opposed absolute truth, but an empirically based philosophy of doubt and restraint. Don't overstate your own capacity to know and do; experiment, doubling down on what proves effective and cutting back on what doesn't. At one time, this approach might have been described as "conservatism."

Monday, September 03, 2012

What's the Election About?
I surprised myself by watching a lot of the Republican convention while on vacation last week--something I've been hesitant to do most years since Pat Buchanan's "culture war" speech at the 1992 convention almost gave me a nervous breakdown. (I was young then, and probably about three times as emo as I am now.) The only thing that really bothered me was Paul Ryan's speech, for its shocking, possibly unprecedented dishonesty and straight-up hypocrisy.

Romney's speech was pretty much what I think everyone expected: competent and unmemorable. It probably "worked" in that it helped recast him as a viable alternative to an incumbent president who's lost a lot of his luster to the low-information, weak partisan voter--which he had to do after that disastrous trip abroad earlier this summer. But it presented neither a compelling biography-based argument nor a convincing, or even really present, policy-based argument. Nate Silver wrote that Romney was presenting himself as a generic Republican, which is the correct call if the idea is to frame the election as a referendum on the incumbent. But, as I wrote last month, the Ryan selection went a long way toward positioning the vote as a choice between two sharply contrasting sets of plans.

But the contrast was present, just at a lower and more fundamental level. It's been well documented that the Republicans' fixation on President Obama's misstatement of "You didn't build that" is dishonest, intentionally or otherwise. (In this sense, the Clint Eastwood episode--an old man arguing with an empty chair as a stand-in for a president who's only present in their imagination--was the perfect representation of how Fox News fills most of their program day.) Yet it does align to how they think the economy works. Gail Collins says it in her most recent column better than I could:

The big, if-not-quite-articulated, message in Tampa was that in a free economy, everybody will get what they deserve. There is no need to worry about the vast, growing gap between the richest and the rest, or the shrinking middle class, or the fact that America currently has one of the worst rates of social mobility in the developed world.

Untrammeled, the business sector will create plenty of jobs, and the hard-working big-dreamers will jump in, amass wealth and achieve success. You cut taxes, reduce regulation and let the magic happen. It’s that or what Paul Ryan called “a dull adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.”

Listening to the convention speeches, it was easy to get the impression that every high-ranking Republican in the country had parents who were truck drivers or convenience store workers who moved up entirely through their own efforts. Also, there were a lot of grandfathers who worked in the mines.

Her Times colleague David Brooks cited a finding from a recent Pew survey that sets out the crucial partisan difference I've come to believe is the biggest issue in this year's election:

Overall, 46% say that circumstances beyond one’s control are more often to blame if a person is poor, while 38% say that an individual’s lack of effort is more often to blame; 11% blame both. These views have fluctuated over the years, but opinion typically has been divided or pluralities have blamed circumstances, rather than a lack of effort, for people being poor.
By more than two-to-one (61% to 24%), Democrats say circumstances beyond a person’s control are primarily to blame for them being poor. By about the same margin (57% to 28%), Republicans blame a person’s lack of effort. Among independents more say circumstances, rather than a lack of effort, are mostly to blame (46% vs. 37%).

Now, we've all heard the stories about these proud individuals who airbrush all the external help out of their own bootstrap story, including a few of the speakers at last week's convention and--my all-time favorite--the actor Craig T. Nelson saying, "I've been on food stamps and welfare. Anybody help me out? No." And I actually sat in some "media trainings" around the middle of the last decade in which PR consultants insisted to me and other policy researchers that it was always best to emphasize structural forces rather than individual circumstances when writing about poverty, because if you focus on the individual it's too easy for the reader either to fault her/his choices or to conclude that the circumstances were unique to the individual. (My reaction to this bit of dubious wisdom was to wonder if these people ever actually had tried to pitch stories.)

Of course, in the large majority of cases the answer to the Pew question is "both": circumstances and individual decisions--or, as a consultancy I used to work with and continue to admire pithily puts it, "chance and choice"--will play their parts. But the two factors don't exist in isolation, and one even could say that low effort in a context of daunting external obstacles is a rational choice. Children growing up in impoverished and dysfunctional families, attending lousy schools in unsafe communities, have to make much more of an "individual effort" to be successful by the definition of mainstream society: educational success, avoidance of unhealthy behaviors, and so on.

The really talented ones might conclude that their best chances for advancement lie on a very different path. One of the great and subtle themes of "The Wire" was that Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, Marlo Stanfield and "Proposition Joe" Stewart are exceptionally able individuals, the Mitt Romneys of their milieu. (And their henchmen, Boadie Broaddus and Wee-Bay Bryce and Chris Partlow and Snoop Pearson and the rest, are probably analogous to reasonably effective but limited middle managers.) Stringer, the visionary drug kingpin and part-time business student, was probably the only one who saw this and definitely the only one who contemplated the other path, but the intention was pretty clear.

To put it another way, the odds for Mitt Romney were a lot better than those for Bill Clinton. (I say Clinton, not Obama, because while Obama's circumstances were challenging in some respects--the absence of a father, the constant moving around--his parents were both supremely well educated and he had a supportive and reasonably well resourced extended family. Romney's dad actually didn't finish college, yet was a huge success by any measure. I find it mildly interesting that Romney's policy agenda would be a lot better for children with dual Ph.D. parents, as Barack Obama was, while Obama's policies pretty clearly would be better for children of non-college grad parents, like Mitt Romney.)

At any rate, each side offers what amounts to a caricature of the other's position: in classic Ayn Rand style, Republicans assert that Democrats endlessly indulge society's "losers," and support the wrong side in the battle of takers vs. makers. Democrats blast Republicans as holding an unrealistic notion of individual agency, if not outright contempt for those worse off. (I've been guilty of this more often than I'd like.) But I think the Pew numbers suggest that Republicans in reality are closer to the Democratic stereotype than vice-versa.

The Republican story is simpler, as their stories tend to be--and I mean that as a compliment. I suspect there's something very deep in human nature that compels us to believe that everyone is the author of his/her own fate, which is the essence of what Romney/Ryan is selling. But I also think most people have an understanding of the larger forces that helped inform their success, or lack of same, and probably a sense of how relatively lucky or unlucky their circumstances have been. The Obama/Biden policy menu is much more aligned to this notion of how the world works.

Democratic policy thinkers such as Jared Bernstein sometimes describe this conflict as YOYO ("You're On Your Own") versus WITT ("We're In This Together"). It seems far-fetched to contemplate an election that turns on which vision is more compelling to whatever small slice of the electorate is up for grabs; I don't think undecided voters really work that way. But what's more likely is that the result of the election will go a long way toward determining what agenda is implemented in the coming years.