Sunday, September 28, 2008

Check Ignition, And May God's Love Be With You

Ok, so it's not space travel, but I am leaving for England tomorrow evening. I'll be in transit all night and my flight should arrive in London late morning Tuesday. 

Though my writing so far has been concerned primarily with the American presidential election, I'm going to try to branch out a little bit. Over the next month, I still plan to offer thoughts on the presidential election, but I want to do so from an international perspective. I'll also be working on some headier (and hopefully less polemical) posts about the reading I've been doing regarding my study topic. I'll be spending the year doing research on religion and politics, specifically the intersection of modern Christianity and civic life in the United States. (Yes, I decided to study the United States while in Britain. I have my reasons.) To that end, I'm going to find time to write about some books I've read this summer, including Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality by Jack Rogers, What Jesus Meant by Garry Wills, and The Stillborn God by Mark Lilla. These are very different books - Lilla's book, especially, is more of an academic history of ideas than an extended Biblical exegesis like Rogers's book - but they both approach the modern Western schism of religion and politics (what Lilla calls "the Great Separation") with a critical eye and an invaluable appreciation of history, which is what's sorely needed right now. 

But more on that later. I have lots of packing to do. My next post will probably be from Oxford. Now I'm excited. 

Friday, September 26, 2008

The First Debate

Well, there were no major gaffes, and neither candidate issued any smackdowns that will become the stuff of political legend. Overall, it was pretty even-handed and surprisingly substantive (at least given the tone of the campaign so far). 

The main task for Obama was to stand on the same stage as McCain, talk about a topic that is McCain's (supposed) strong suit, and appear similarly capable and knowledgeable as his opponent - and in that, I think he succeeded. That might have been all he needed to do tonight. 

In the end, this debate probably wasn't a game-changer, but I think it will help solidify Obama's small lead. 

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Yeah, But Did You Hear She Hunts Moose?

Thank God for Charles Krauthammer! His column today was pure gold. You see, when Charlie Gibson asked Sarah Palin about the Bush Doctrine and she clearly had no earthly clue what he was talking about, it was really Charlie Gibson who was in the wrong, since Sarah Palin has five kids and thus is exempt from having to be qualified for (or even interested in) her job. Let's have a look at this wretched waste of column inches:
There is no single meaning of the Bush doctrine. In fact, there have been four distinct meanings, each one succeeding another over the eight years of this administration -- and the one Charlie Gibson cited is not the one in common usage today. It is utterly different.

He asked Palin, "Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?"

She responded, quite sensibly to a question that is ambiguous, "In what respect, Charlie?"

Sensing his "gotcha" moment, Gibson refused to tell her. After making her fish for the answer, Gibson grudgingly explained to the moose-hunting rube that the Bush doctrine "is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense."

Well, it didn't take him long to get to the moose reference! That's a favorite cliché to fall back on right now, since apparently moose-hunting and mooseburgers are signs that you are a Real Genuine American. Well, Sarah Palin didn't know what Charlie Gibson was referring to, and Charles Krauthammer says it's not her fault. Why? Because the Bush Doctrine (and Krauthammer notes that he was the first to use the term) can refer to many things: a "freedom agenda," for one. Or unilateralism. Or the notion of the preventive war (as opposed to preemptive war). Krauthammer notes:

Presidential doctrines are inherently malleable and difficult to define. The only fixed "doctrines" in American history are the Monroe and the Truman doctrines which come out of single presidential statements during administrations where there were few other contradictory or conflicting foreign policy crosscurrents.

This is true, and it's a fair point. But it has almost nothing to do with Palin's interview. She didn't falter because she was unsure of which "Bush Doctrine" Gibson was referring to. Most Americans who have observed the Bush administration's foreign policy since 2000 could tell you all the elements of the various Bush Doctrines that Krauthammer listed, and they would probably include them all as elements of one doctrine: namely, the idea that American military power should be the main tool used to aggressively pursue regime change in the Middle East; that the use of unilateral, preventive force against real or imagined threats is acceptable foreign policy, more important than international alliances, and preferable to perceived security weaknesses; and that international laws, institutions, customs, and norms can be circumvented by the United States in order to achieve Americans' security and combat terrorism. 

Is this too wordy and specific to be a doctrine? Probably. But it broadly captures the distinguishing features of the Bush administration's foreign policy, and it outlines how the McCain administration could also be expected to act. Could Palin have addressed all of these issues in a succinct, sound-byte style answer? Of course not. But she should have been able to pull out one of the big ideas from that description and comment on it.  Preventive war, a freedom agenda, and unilateralism are commonly invoked in discussions of the "Bush Doctrine," and she should have known that. But a look at the transcript will show what she actually knows: not much. Here's the section of the interview Krauthammer's column is about:

GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?

PALIN: In what respect, Charlie? 

GIBSON: The Bush -- well, what do you -- what do you interpret it to be? 

PALIN: His world view. 

That's not really a good start. When asked what she interprets it to be, she could have mentioned the freedom agenda, unilateralism, preventive war, the axis of evil, etc. His world view? 

GIBSON: No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war. 

Ok, so if Gibson thinks that THIS is the Bush Doctrine (and that's not an uncommon definition, despite what Krauthammer says), she should have some opinions. What about the Bush administration's treatment of the UN? What about preventive war? What about regime change? All of these issues are in play, and this was Palin's response:

PALIN: I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell bent on destroying our nation. There have been blunders along the way, though. There have been mistakes made. And with new leadership, and that's the beauty of American elections, of course, and democracy, is with new leadership comes opportunity to do things better. 

What? That's barely even an answer. We get one vague sentence about Islamic extremism and then a bunch of trite talking points about how wonderful American democracy is. No one is arguing about how wonderful American democracy is.  It's painfully obvious by this point that Palin has no earthly clue what ANY of the definitions of the Bush Doctrine are, and she certainly doesn't have any real opinions on any of the issues raised by Gibson's question. So she falls back on talking points - not surprising, I guess, since she didn't even have an opinion on the surge when asked about it in 2006. 

GIBSON: The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?

PALIN: Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend.

So once Gibson actually defines the question (and the doctrine), he defines it incorrectly. He should have said "preventive" war, not preemptive strikes. The difference between preemptive war and preventive war is huge, and the latter is a pretty new idea: it was first outlined in the Bush administration's 2002 National Security Strategy Statement. Most international lawyers saw it as a clear departure from accepted international legal practice. The National Security Strategy Statement acknowledged that international law allows states to respond to threats and actual attacks with force. But then it departed from those two accepted notions and said that the notion of "imminent threat" must be adapted to new circumstances - circumstances that would allow not only preeminent attacks against imminent threats, but preventive attacks against emerging threats. Nearly every international law scholar agrees that this is fundamentally wrong.

If Gibson hadn't screwed up the question, we might have actually heard an interesting answer from Palin. It's not really a minority opinion that the US should be able to preempt attacks. The question of preventing them is the essence of what Gibson was trying to say, and his error ruined what might have been an interesting moment in the interview - if Governor Palin had shown that she had any thoughts at all about that issue. I wouldn't bet on it. 

So, back to Krauthammer. He concludes:

Yes, Sarah Palin didn't know what it is. But neither does Charlie Gibson. And at least she didn't pretend to know -- while he looked down his nose and over his glasses with weary disdain, sighing and "sounding like an impatient teacher," as the Times noted. In doing so, he captured perfectly the establishment snobbery and intellectual condescension that has characterized the chattering classes' reaction to the mother of five who presumes to play on their stage.

Ah, see! So Sarah Palin didn't know what the Bush Doctrine was, but neither did Charlie Gibson, so it's ok. As I've shown, which particular "Bush doctrine" Gibson was referring to is unimportant, because Palin didn't have the slightest clue what he meant anyway. And even when he put the question in the context of Iraq, which narrows the confines of the doctrine, Palin couldn't provide a coherent answer to the question. Is this a question of intellectual condescension? Is it, as Krauthammer implies, a sexist, anti-family reaction against some presumptuous woman whose only crime is daring to join Washington's big-boy elite? 

Or is it legitimate concern that a person who could very well become president has no opinions about foreign policy?

Krauthammer's not dumb. Quite the opposite, in fact. But while he has impressive intelligence, he lacks honesty. If he were even the least bit honest with himself - or as a columnist, with his readers - he would admit that this has nothing to do with elite condescension towards a woman, towards a mother of five, towards a moose-hunter. It has everything to do with the nation's right to know if a possible vice president (and possible president) has even the smallest understanding of foreign policy at a time when the U.S. is fighting two wars.

Not that Krauthammer cares about that. If the voters know too much, his side might lose. That must be part of the "Country First" ethos. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

They're Calling You Stupid

I was fortunate enough to attend Senator Obama's speech on education today (story here, transcript here).  The event was a far cry from the kind of massive campaign rally associated with the Obama campaign (and increasingly with the McCain campaign, but more on that later). Instead, it was a fairly detail-heavy, substantive policy speech. Unsurprisingly, Obama is somewhat less captivating when discussing the details of education policy than he is when talking about the broader political ideals that have guided his campaign. But the details of the speech were enough to keep the crowd happy - even though Obama departed from NEA orthodoxy on a few important issues (namely, merit pay and vouchers). He also took a page out of the conservative playbook by emphasizing the importance of stable households, strong families, and personal responsibility for success in school. Of course, those values are not unique to the right, but they're certainly elements of campaign rhetoric that, up until recently, Democrats had ceded to Republicans. That's not uncommon in politics - I once had a meeting on the Hill with a Republican House staffer who told me that he was ready to get serious about child health, but that finding support within his own party would be difficult. "It's not that we don't care, obviously," he said. "It's just that it's one issue we always cede to the Democrats." 

Obama wasn't the only candidate making a stop in Southern Ohio today - Senator McCain and Governor Palin held a rally in Lebanon. They're continuing to campaign together, which is unusual for a ticket. Usually the VP candidate is dispatched to other competitive areas in order to shore up support for the top of the ticket. My instinct tells me that the McCain campaign isn't ready to do that with Sarah Palin yet, since her embarrassing dearth of knowledge, expertise, or leadership on any major campaign issue is likely to produce a made-for-TV gaffe. But I could be wrong about that - after all, how concerned could they be about gaffes when their VP candidate is repeating flat-out lies like this one:
"I told Congress thanks but no thanks for that Bridge to Nowhere,' Palin said Tuesday in Lebanon, Ohio." (from CNN)
Actually, she supported the Bridge to Nowhere before it became a national joke. From the Wall Street Journal:
Despite significant evidence to the contrary, the McCain campaign continues to assert that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told the federal government "thanks but no thanks" to the now-famous bridge to an island in her home state. [...] But Gov. Palin's claim comes with a serious caveat. She endorsed the multimillion dollar project during her gubernatorial race in 2006. And while she did take part in stopping the project after it became a national scandal, she did not return the federal money. She just allocated it elsewhere.

"We need to come to the defense of Southeast Alaska when proposals are on the table like the bridge," Gov. Palin said in August 2006, according to the local newspaper, "and not allow the spinmeisters to turn this project or any other into something that's so negative."

And that's not all:

At a rally today, Sen. McCain again asserted that Sen. Obama has requested nearly a billion in earmarks. In fact, the Illinois senator requested $311 million last year, according to the Associated Press, and none this year. In comparison, Gov. Palin has requested $750 million in her two years as governor -- which the AP says is the largest per-capita request in the nation.

The dishonesty alone would be appalling - but the hypocrisy of it is what's really striking. In Slate, Timothy Noah wrote an excellent summary of Palin's record:

The woman who made this complaint about big government taking your money is the governor of Alaska. Please take a moment to look at this U.S. Census chart showing federal-government expenditures, per capita, in the 50 states. You will observe that Alaska receives about $14,000 per citizen from the federal government. That's more than any other state, and a good $4,000 more than every other state except Virginia, Maryland, New Mexico, and North Dakota. The chart is from the Census Bureau's Consolidated Federal Funds Report for Fiscal Year 2005. I skipped over the 2006 report, the most recent one available, because Hurricane Katrina put Louisiana and Mississippi ahead of Alaska that year. But that's an anomaly. Alaska held the per-capita record for sucking on the federal teat in 200420032002,2001, and 2000According to the nonprofit Tax Foundation, Alaska gets back $1.84 for every dollar it pays into the U.S. Treasury—even though Alaska enjoys a higher per-capita income than 34 of the 50 states. This is a state that preaches right-wing libertarianism while it practices middle-class socialism.

I've been trying to figure out why this bothers me so much. Now, I enjoy the game of politics just as much as I enjoy the more serious aspects of it. But for some reason, the "game" aspect of this campaign is really bothering me, and not just because I want to win. I think I've discovered the reason:

The McCain campaign thinks I'm stupid.

And not just me. They think you're stupid too. In fact, if you're a Hillary Clinton supporter, they think you're really stupid. They think that by picking a woman, they'll win the votes of Hillary Clinton supporters, even if Palin's views are anathema to most Democrats. How many Clinton supporters did you meet who wanted to teach creationism and ban abortion in all cases? How many did you meet who didn't believe in man's contribution to global warming? I bet you count them on zero fingers. 

That's how stupid they think Hillary Clinton supporters are.

They think that, while the US is fighting (and not exactly winning) two wars, they can pick a VP candidate with no particular expertise, who is two years removed from the Wasilla city hall, and who, when asked, didn't have an opinion about the surge - and that Republicans will accept it because she's sufficiently conservative on cultural issues. 

That's how stupid they think Republicans are. 

They think McCain and Palin can constantly lie - when McCain says that Obama would rather lose a war than win an election, when Palin says that she was a reformer on earmarks. They think McCain and Palin can make claims that are transparently contradictory - that McCain is both a true maverick and a true conservative, that Palin can both praise her daughter's "choice to keep" her unborn child and declare that the issue is out of bounds for political discussion. 

That's how stupid they think voters are.

And that's why this campaign is becoming so offensive to intellectually honest observers. But even the McCain campaign's profound disregard for the electorate's intelligence isn't the truly awful thing. 

The truly awful thing is that they just might win.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

And He Wants to Run the Country.

Get ready for the new (false) meme of the McCain campaign: Sarah Palin is more experienced than Barack Obama! This is an angry reaction to the media's vetting of Governor Palin, something the McCain campaign apparently decided not to do. It's getting ridiculous at this point. I'm half-expecting steam to shoot out of John McCain's ears.

They can't possibly be serious. Right?