Archive for August, 2008

American Politics in transition

One of the reasons this election is so intriguing is that the United States is in the midst of a demographic and cultural change that has been taking place for decades, but has now reached a point where competing sub-cultures have similar levels of strength.  Some are on the downslide, others are rising.  Where will this lead?

Those on the ‘downslide’ are social conservatives, baby boomer ideologues (left and right) and free market libertarians.  Those on the upside are pragmatists, left-libertarians, minority groups (especially Latinos), and post-materialists (environmentalists – social progressives less concerned about economic issues).

The most tenancious about not losing their grip on power are the sixties era/boomer ideologues (people born before 1960 or so).   They learned to see the world through ideological lenses, and had a clear disinction between “good” (western democratic capitalist society) and “bad” (collectivist socialist communist society).  Yet even within that, divisions emerged reflecting strong ideological convictions.  Vietnam made it chic for many to adopt overt leftist ideology, some even championing people like Mao or communist icons like Castro and Che Gueverra, oblivious to how violent and repressive these regimes were.  They were opposing the policies of the US — which at that time were often racist, militarist, and repressive in their own way — and in a world defined by ideological polarity, they simply and often uncritically chose ‘the other side.’

That led to a mini-ideological split within the US between “left” and “right.”  Our current landscape of talk radio painting liberals as evil, activists on the left painting Republicans as a ‘white oligarchy’ (as Jon Stewart mocked it) putting wealth before justice, and the partisanship of the past few decades have been based on that ideological battle.  It has defined American politics, people choose sides, get their scripts of what to believe and argue from their side, and then simply fight the battle.  Problem solving gives way to ideological correctness, and adherents of secular religions from Ayn Rand’s silly radical capitalism to Karl Marx’s delusional utopian socialism put up the baracades and get ready for battle.

A slightly different group are the social conservatives, a kind of post-materialist movement on the right which embraced religion as the glue holding society together, and saw the ideological battles as secondary to trying to hold on to the social and religious values that defined the United States. Located mostly in the South and parts of the Midwest (though pockets of this group can be found anywhere), they were politically activized by people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (and more infamous folk like Jimmy Swaggert and Jimmy Baker) to support Ronald Reagan.  Reagan welcomed the support and talked a good game, but didn’t do a lot to advance their agenda.  Still, they became the fundamental base of the Republican party, and helped the GOP shift the balance of power from the Democrats to the Republicans from 1980 to 2006.  Even Bill Clinton’s Presidency was defined by a strong Republican Congress.

For awhile, the Republicans rather unrealistically dreamed of a permanent minority, but demographics were working against them, as well as culture.  First, while the social conservatives remain politically strong, the country is moving away from them.  Most people are pro-choice (even if they don’t like abortion), increasingly in favor of equality for gays, and turned off by religious moralizing.  Even among so-called evangelicals the uncompromising conservatism of the Falwells and Robertsons is giving way to more of a focus on compassion and tolerance.  Many of them could vote for Obama this year, many are moving away from a focus on single emotional issues like abortion.  That core base is getting smaller, and fragmenting.  It’s still there, but to the extent Republicans believe they have to keep it satisfied, it could start to harm rather than help the GOP.

Both parties are seeing a switch away from the ideology-driven politics of the past.  The Clinton campaign, and those “pumas” I wrote about who can’t accept Obama are the remnants of that sixties style of ‘ideological war’ as defining politics.   Groups like the ‘pumas’ get so caught up in the ideological struggle (especially those who see it as all about sexism) that the ideological principle becomes more important than the practical result.  That is typical of that era’s political activist — principle and purity over pragmatism and compromise.

Yet the public, especially the youth, are starting to see principled purity as both naive and dangerous.  Part of it is a cynicism about principles; people born since 1960, and especially after 1975, are more naturally relativist and pragmatic in their approach.  Grand theories or ideologies are distrusted in favor of problem solving and compromise.  Not only that, but the newer generations are less invested in government programs, cynical that government can provide a solution.  This means that while the previous generation found release in political causes, the new generation is either politically apathetic, or increasingly involved in practical citizen action rather than protest and ideology.  They are willing to work hard for Obama, for instance, but see heading to Washington for a mass anti-war protest to be pointless.  They may be for health care, but aren’t as uncritically accepting of more government power.

Obama is at the older end of this new generation (the baby boom officially ended in 1960, he was born in 1961), and the younger the population the more there is a shift to pragmatic post-ideological, post-materialist values.  Until now, the political leaders were from the older generation.  Obama and Palin (born 1964) represent the future of US politics.   As the Ted Kennedys and Bob Doles leave, Obama and Palin are the generation that will be making political news for the next thirty years, today’s rookie sensations.  McCain and Biden at 72 and 65 respectively represent the pre-boomer age (born in 1936 and 1942 respectively), and it’s interesting that the actual boomers — Romney, Clinton, Edwards, Huckabee, etc., were rejected by the voters.  In this election that sixties generation is absent.

Conservatives from that (boomer) generation can’t understand why connections between Obama and a church that espoused ‘black liberation theology’ or loose connections with someone from the Weather underground doesn’t automatically get everyone riled up.   But that’s so last generation.  People from the Gen-Xers on recognize that people like Obama are the ones who came after the radicals, and who mix the idealism of the past with a pragmatism and distrust of ideology of the present.  Guilt by association won’t work, especially not in as dubious of cases as this.

To be sure, plenty of people young and old are still locked in ideological jihad, and the parties are only in the early stages of moving on towards a very different kind of politics.  While Palin represents a conservative pragmatism, Obama’s is more liberal.   The differences are real, but one can imagine them working together on a variety of issues.  In that they are recapturing something the boomers lost.  Up until the early eighties the Senate and the House were very congenial places.   Pre-boomer political enemies like Jesse Helms and Ted Kennedy could like and respect each other.  Political difference was simply part of the game, not personal.  The boomers in their ideological vigor personalized it.  Someone with the “wrong” ideas was morally deficient, deserved no respect, and a subject of the ideological war.  From blogs to net discussions to the political discourse in Washington, we’ve suffered from that kind of pathology for years.

Now it is perhaps symbolic that post-boomers and pre-boomers unite.  While this will be a very ugly campaign there is nonetheless a sense that maybe after Iraq, after the Gore-Bush fight, after the Clinton impeachment, after the puma follies, and after the swiftboat smears, we might be starting to move towards a new politics.  That doesn’t mean campaigns will get nicer; again, this one is likely to be ugly.  But maybe, slowly, a sense of pragmatic problem solving will replace ideological jihad in the American political discourse.  Instead of getting emotions riled up by propagandists like Shawn Hannity, people might start talking to each other or listening to each other.  One can hope!


Sarah Palin: A Smart Pick

A couple months ago when my colleague in the office next door, Dr. Jim Melcher — a specialist on American politics — was talking with a student about McCain’s likely VP picks.  I stuck my head in, “if he’s smart, he’ll go with Sarah Palin.”   Jim just laughed at me.  I’m going to be contrarian here.  I think it was a good pick, though also a pick that shows that John McCain knows he’s in deep trouble, and he needs to try something dramatic to change the nature of the game.

She doesn’t have foreign policy experience, but such experience is overrated.  Presidents surround themselves with advisors, and the key is to have good judgment and good people at your side.  Experience is over-rated.  John McCain is nearing his mid-seventies, has a history of cancer, and is more likely than most Presidents to either die in office, or be incapacitated for some length of time, perhaps even during a crisis.  He is saying, correctly, that it is not a risk to have someone as inexperienced as Sarah Palin in a position to take over.  He trusts her judgment.

Note, however, that this also means that the Republicans can’t attack Barack Obama for his lack of experience or foreign policy expertise.  Her experience in Alaskan politics is less than his in Illinois and national politics, yet she is qualified to be President — that’s one thing each candidate agrees on, the Vice President must be qualified to step into the role of the Presidency.  The idea that we don’t know enough about Obama, or that his resume isn’t deep enough to be President is no longer a valid Republican argument, and thus if they try to make that argument at their convention, they’ll be opening themselves up to counter attacks — such criticisms could be used to claim that John McCain lacks judgment according to Republicans because of the person he chose to be Vice President.   Democrats have to feel relieved about this.

Many have thought that this is Obama’s big weakness — why would the GOP all but take it off the table with their choice of Palin?  First, obviously, there is the attempt to close the gender gap and gain Hillary Clinton voters.   There will be a clear message: McCain is a maverick, an independent thinker, and he has a woman with real world experience and character as his running mate.  He’s betting that will look very attractive to those rural voters in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin who still aren’t sure about Obama.  Second, McCain recognizes that the force for change in the United States now is stronger than concerns about experience or foreign policy.  It is more important to be able to be a change candidate than represent safety.  After all, McCain is the ‘old rich white guy’ in the race, and in general a lot of people will see that as by definition safe when compared to a black man named Barack Hussein Obama.  He bets Palin can only help create a dynamic that this is the change ticket.  There might be a submessage “both tickets have experience plus new energy, the GOP has it the way should be, with experience at the top.”  That likely will play well next week in Minnesota.

Will it be enough to counter the extremely successful and dramatic message the Democrats gave in Denver, and now take the road?  Probably not.  Obama remains likely to have a tremendous advantage in money.  That matters.  Also, Obama’s army of volunteers to register new voters and get out the vote could provide a dramatic election day surprise, as the polls might severely underestimate Obama’s support.  The polls go on demographic traditions and likely voters.  Even if they try to compensate for Obama’s efforts, it’s possible that they’ll be off by quite a bit.  In a number of states one or two points could shift the state, and Obama could win an electoral landslide.  Finally, the number two person rarely makes a huge difference anyway.  Biden and Palin were equally brilliant choices, neither candidate hurt himself.

The Democrats need to refrain from being meanspirited in responding to Palin being chosen.  Obama is riding a wave of feel good after Denver now, and if they are seen as being petty or sexist (such as calling her, as I read over at Politico, ‘Geraldine Quayle’), that could play into Republican hands.  They need to recognize that while Palin isn’t going to be easy to attack, she also does relieve the pressure about Obama’s lack of foreign policy experience.  They need to focus on McCain, and hit back against any ‘experience’ attacks by pointing that McCain can’t think it so important, since he (rightly) put someone with little such experience a heart beat away from the Presidency.  Given McCain’s age, that’s big!

I also sense Karl Rove behind this pick.  He was apparently pushing hard against McCain choosing Lieberman or Ridge.  Rove is of the view that the only way the Republicans can win is if they not only have the social conservative base behind them, but also fired up.   Palin can do that, she can actually generate enthusiasm for McCain that might otherwise not be there.  Even if she doesn’t lure many Hillary supporters, McCain’s problem is really that Obama’s campaign has so much more energy and enthusiasm — things that translate to higher vote totals, more money and more volunteer work.   The choice of Palin does show that the McCain campaign knows its in trouble, and it has to gamble a bit to get back in the game.  I don’t think it’s enough, but it was a smart move.  Because after the drama in Denver, it was beginning to look like McCain risked becoming another Dole.

So it’s Obama-Biden vs. McCain-Palin.  We have the match up!  This should be a fun election!


De-Clawed Pumas

When the PUMA movement formed after Barack Obama became the presumptive nominee of the Democratic party, they claimed they were fighting against the injustices suffered by Hillary Clinton in the campaign.  The acronym means “Party unity my ass,” (or in more polite company they shift it to “People united means action”) and a plethora of websites started posting conspiracy theories against Obama, charges of sexism as undercutting Hillary’s campaign, and claims that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had hijacked the party and selected a candidate they considered unqualified and weak.  They vowed to pressure the superdelegates, fight on to Denver, make a strong showing of party disunity at the Democratic National Convention and become a major political force to ‘take back’ the Democratic party.

This week in Denver, the pumas were completely, utterly and totally declawed.  They had already lost their political potency.  Their blogs became more strident, they deleted any comments that did not follow their party line (while complaining about alleged censorship from others) and increasingly delved into fantasy.  They were convinced they could shift the superdelegates to Clinton with data on Obama’s alleged weaknesses, they were convinced Obama wasn’t a real citizen (and angered/puzzled why the media didn’t pick up on the story) and slowly morphed into the internet equivalent of an inbred family out of touch with the broader world.  Once held to scrutiny by websites such as “Yes to Democracy,” it became clear the pumas lacked members, lacked money and were led by people with suspicious ties to the GOP.

This was on display in two major puma moments this week.  The first was a Daily Show appearance.  But it wasn’t a conversation with Jon Stewart, it was as subjects of a scathing comedy bit by John Oliver.  Oliver gathered some ‘pumas’ in the studio and cleverly juxtaposed their complaints that “it’s not far to call someone a racist for not supporting Obama,” to “Hillary lost because of sexism, and people didn’t support her because they are sexist.”  The obvious contradiction was lost on them.  Then Oliver consulted a child psychologist to figure out how to ‘heal’ these pumas, saying essentially that the pumas were acting like children who needed help.   On “Hardball” Chris Matthews interviewed a few who were spouting off that “Obama went to a Muslim school and was registered as a Muslim,” and “he isn’t legally qualified to be President.”  They sounded like nutcases, and when pressed by Matthews for where they were getting the information, they got angry.

Then to top it all off, Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton give Obama ringing, clear and unqualified endorsements.  Even when they tried to say, “well, Hillary didn’t come out and see he is qualified,” Bill cut that off by stating that explicitly, and comparing Obama with himself 16 years ago.  Clinton himself had been the brunt of similar criticisms about his lack of experience, but that didn’t matter.

To be sure, there are many voters who supported Hillary but won’t support Obama.  There are many Republicans who can’t support McCain.  Most in each party will come around by November, but not all.   But not every Democrat for McCain is part of the “puma” movement.  The pumas are a small subset of voters who got so emotionally involved in Hillary Clinton the person that they became engulfed by a kind of ‘cult of personality’ so strong that they can’t let go even when the subject of the cult explicitly says “it’s’ not about me the person, it’s about the people who need help.” (that’s a paraphrase)

The dynamics behind the pumas are similar to the dynamics of fascism.  First, there is an emotional connection to both the ideal and more importantly to others sharing their belief.  Second, this morphs over time into the ability to create alternate realities, whereby the world literally looks different to them than to the rest of us.  Barack Obama becomes himself a caricature, an un-American child like egomaniac named Barry Sortero who was really born in Kenya, lost his citizenship when his mom moved to Indonesia, and only because of sexism was chosen by the DNC (you know that the Democrats hate equal rights for women, not like those progressive Republicans) to run for President.  They try guilt by association, and wonder why no one takes Rev. Wright or William Ayres seriously — they can’t believe that others don’t see these as major issues, even though it’s obvious that they are meaningless.

Some are resistant to reality at every level.  Over at “Hillary is 44,” they reposted her speech, but eliminated any reference to Barack Obama.   Noquarter simply mocks Obama, and on Tuesday triumphantly claimed that the Gallup poll shows Obama will lose, as McCain had a two point lead in that tracking poll.  (As of Thursday evening, when this is being written, Obama had bounced back to take a six point lead).  Hillbuzz seems to give up any pretension of being progressive, embracing McCain and Pawlenty (they claim he’s McCain’s choice), while ridiculing “Emperor Obamasotero” in the usual attempt to simply caricature and mock Obama.  The sad thing is, I think they are convinced by their rhetoric.  The Confluence simply got weird, mixing claims of persecution, media conspiracy theories, and finally a kind of “together against the world” sort of attempt to keep their emotional community in tact.  The best they can do is attack Obama’s set for his speech, ignoring that it’s pretty standard fare for politicians of both parties for such addresses.  Admitting defeat, their group left Denver early, having been ignored by most, and repudiated by the woman they claim to support.

What started as anger over losing a hotly contested race has turned for some into a long term pathology.  While most Clinton supporters have moved on, even if some have decided to vote for McCain, this group has a visceral hatred for Obama and, in a funny example of projection, see Obama’s supporters as being caught up in a cult!  They talk about Obama as being seen as the “messiah,” when by any objective measure he’s being treated much like people responded to Clinton, Reagan, or other popular candidates.   They cling to each other to bolster their emotional connection to the ’cause,’ and purge their blogs of comments that expose the contradiction between their perspective and reality.  Many of them truly believed that Hillary could still get the nomination, even though any astute political observer realized that it was impossible.

But these declawed pumas are running out of time.  Their numbers are dwindling, as people who were with them start to realize that they should be proud of the historic selection of an African American for President (even if they still would have preferred an historic selection of a woman), and that the issues at stake are bigger than any one person.  As they hear about the personal lives of Michelle and Barack Obama, as well as Joe Biden’s story, they recognize the silliness in the conspiracy theories and mocking rhetoric of the puma websites.

The “true believers” who will hold on to the end, so invested in their anti-Obama fantasies, afraid to change because it would be to give victory to those Obama supporters they’ve learned to hate and feel superior to, will find themselves alienated from the whole process.    They will fade, though websites are easy to maintain, and some will hold on to a community of readers — in the hundreds, not tens of thousands (let alone millions!).  Most will believe they were justified, but their movement became untenable so they have to focus on the reality fo the situation.   The Democrats are leaving Denver virtually united.  Yet, despite the puma irrationality, Obama still needs to convince Americans he can lead, and there will still be questions from the right that he’ll have to deal with if he wants to win the race in the fall.  But the puma movement is not only declawed, but essentially dead.

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Gustav vs. the GOP?

Hurricaine Gustav is heading into the Gulf of Mexico and is likely to make landfall in the US right about the time the Republican National Convention is getting underway. If it stays on its current track, it would make landfall around the city of New Orleans. Not only that, but Monday will be three years almost to the day that the devastation hit New Orleans with hurricaine Katrina.

On September 1, 2005 I wrote:

The first is that anyone who doubts that there is a class difference in the US which is real, and which directly affects how Americans live, need only look at New Orleans. Those who try to say ‘taxation is theft’ and consider government action to try to create true equal opportunity and equal rights as somehow a limitation of freedom are, to be blunt, objectively wrong. The wealthy — even middle class — in New Orleans were able to leave well before the storm. They may have a cash flow problem, but with credit, family, and friends they’ll have a place to stay, and they’ll get on with their lives with primarily a major headache and inconvenience. They have to deal with children who don’t understand why they aren’t home or at school, tough issues of paying off loans and bills, and the planning of rebuilding and plotting their future, but those are challenges that won’t threaten their existence or ability to move ahead.

The poor, however, often couldn’t leave the city. Many of them died primarily because they were poor. They are victims of looters, they have lost everything, they lack the insurance the wealthier could afford, and often have little to their name. They are homeless with nowhere to turn. They don’t know where their next meals will come from, their lives have been completely disrupted. Their experience of this tragedy is far more dire and difficult than those of the wealthy. New Orleans is a stark example of how having money makes a huge difference in what you experience living in America. The poverty is out in the open, it’s impact is profound. It also shows the importance of having a sense of community, and recognizing that society is more than just a number of discrete individuals bouncing off each other. (From: an earlier blog of mine at

Nobody but a cold hearted partisan could want Gustav to hit New Orleans again and have anything close to the devastation of Katrina, no matter how much that might embarrass the Republicans and bring to light to issues of class, race, and government incompetence brought forth with Katrina. But three years after Katrina we still hear stories of very slow recovery, and the poor suffering disproportionately in post-Katrina New Orleans. Even if Gustav fizzles, stories like that may mark that third anniversary.

If Gustav hits anywhere with force, that will also enhance concerns about global warming, though luckily for the Republicans they have a candidate this year who can justifiably say he has been out front on that issue even when others in his party were in denial. And if news services need to choose between covering a dangerous hurricaine or the boring first day or two of a political convention, they’ll probably choose the former.

If Gustav turns a bit right, it might hit flooded areas of Florida again, which will be bad news there, and if it goes to the west then it endangers ports and oil refineries, with the potential to create dramatic increases in oil prices as the economy remains mired in a funk deeper than a lot of people predicted. In that case it will have a double political whammy in the fall, as economic troubles are more likely than not to help the candidate focused on change, Barack Obama.

Of course, things could get even worse. CNN had a show in 2005 called “We Were Warned” (back when talking about $100 a barrel oil was seen as expensive…the good old days…), where they posited a 2009 ‘Hurricaine Steve’ heading towards Houston, devastating refineries there. In their scenario, al qaeda was waiting for that kind of crisis to launch an attack in Saudi Arabia, and essentially bring the western economy to a complete standstill. Unlikely, but certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. If that were to happen, that might play into John McCain’s strengths, though I’m not sure.

One hopes that Gustav finds a way to avoid landfall, or hits with minimal force, in someplace relatively unpopulated. If it hits near New Orleans, it’ll be a good test of how well the city has recovered from
Katrina and learned its lessons. If it continues the current path, expect the weekend to have intense coverage of this (and the anniversary of Katrina) right before the GOP convention.

The main lesson of Katrina remains the stark reminder that class matters. It isn’t class warfare to note that, nor does it mean that government should go in and try to equalize things. As Gustav heads through the Gulf, hopefully those in charge on the Gulf coast have learned that lesson, and do everything possible to make sure that opportunities to evacuate or have protection are given to all so that we don’t have another embarrassing tragedy. This is a reminder that nature runs by its own rules, it doesn’t hold back because of major events, or calculate the damage it might cause.

Perhaps if it hits between the two conventions it will be a reminder that for all the hot air and promises politicians of both parties make, life is not primarily about slogans, campaign ads, or speeches. And on real life issues, neither party has a very good record to run on over the past few years.


Puzzled Hillary Haters

Back in the 1990s as the right reeled from the fact that Bill Clinton actually won in 1992, and some on the fringes launched a mythology about him and his Presidency that gathered a life of its own. Rather than just being a superb politician from Arkansas with a hard driven intelligent wife, the Clintons were portrayed as the essence of evil, akin to an organized crime gain or mafia gathering power. How else could one explain their rise, how else could one explain why the Americans rejected the Republicans for the Clintons?

This myth gathered steam. He sold us out to the Chinese! (Note: the Clinton policy towards China was essentially the same as that of George H.W. Bush and later George W. Bush). When a family friend committed suicide, it was called a murder, ordered by Hillary to hide improprieties of a land deal (eyes rolling), and when a Treasury Secretary was killed in plane crash in Bosnia they claimed it was some nefarious plot. Everything the Clintons did was interpreted through this narrative. To these Clintonophobes the Clintons were not merely the first family, they were something like a James Bond villian, powerful and running an organization that could manipulate scenes around the world.

So when Bill left office and it was clear that Hillary had her eye on the White House, they became convinced that the deal had been made, that this would be an inside job, that nothing could stop here except, perhaps, an heroic effort by the Republican party to save the country from her — that (in their minds) evil, conniving, amoral powerful hungry she-beast. Der Rodham. And, of course, her desire to campaign ultimately on strength and experience fed into this. She was a machine, not a woman, a villian, not a human.

When Obama made his move, most of the Hillary haters chuckled. She’d make quick work of this punk from Chicago. She was the Godfather, he was some young hood in waaaay over his head. The predictions were that she’d steamroll him so fast he wouldn’t know what happened. This was her party and her nomination, how could a James Bond villian be bested by an inexperienced neophyte? The idea Obama had a chance simply showed the naivite of Democrats who somehow didn’t realize that their party was being led not by political leaders, but by cold hearted ruthless beasts.

Yet, that didn’t happen. Obama persisted. The superdelegates shifted to him. The Democrats in a close race (and if Hillary was that horrific creature the far right paint her as, she’d have been able to sway a close race) ultimately chose Obama. There remained tensions, but mostly from Hillary supporters who had gotten caught up in a kind of personality cult (ironically accusing the Obama supporters of such a cult). Bill seemed put off, but compared to say, Ted Kennedy in 1980 or Ronald Reagan in 1976, she embraced Obama like a champ. What gives?

Well, the Hillary haters figured that she was just letting Barack hang himself. Clever, this one. She would allow him to self-destruct from some scandal or mid-summer tragedy, so she could save the party and not be seen as having pushed out the black man. A scandal involving Michelle or Barack’s alledged ‘anti-Americanism’ would break on Independence day, a video tape would emerge with racist rants, or something would come up to utterly deflate the Obama candidacy before the convention in Denver. There is no way Der Rodham, the powerful she-beast, could possibly let Obama take away her candidacy.

So caught up was the right wing in this bizarre myth about the Clintons that they took it up until the convention, convinced there would be ‘blood on the convention floor’ as Hillary would pull out all the stops to get “her rightful” nomination. But last night, that myth was laid to rest, as were the fantasies of the far right that the Clintons were some kind of mafia like evil force. Hillary’s campaign had been mismanaged, stories came out, and strategic errors had been made. Obama had a plan B that allowed him to pull it off. Of course in a close campaign there were hard feelings, but Hillary recognized reality, embraced Barack Obama and gave a stunning and powerful speech for him last night. She couldn’t pressure herself onto the ticket, and didn’t try.

She’s human. She’s a politician. She’s not a beast, not der Rodham, not some kind of cold blooded powerhungry bitch from hell. She’s a hard nosed, intelligent politician whose values are those of Ted Kennedy, Barack Obama and the Democratic party. And while Hillary haters may legitimately disagree with those values, they need to let go of their fantasies about some kind of evil Clinton machine that has occupied the naive Democratic party to unleash its horrific plans. People caught up in those fantasies betray more of how their own minds work than anything about the Clintons — and its not pretty.

The Democrats have celebrated two fantastic speeches so far — Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton (though I also enjoyed Montana Governor Brian Sweitzer’s talk — even as he seemed to be channeling Louis Black). Those looking for division and rancor are finding the Democrats on the same page. This leaves the Hillary haters puzzled. Rather than realizing their view of the Clintons has been silly, they are now thinking its a plot for 2012, or there is some other angle here. No. It’s just that however good or bad the Clinton Presidency was, the kind of weird mythology some embraced about the Clintons was, in a word, silly.

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Michelle’s Moment

If anybody doubted that Michelle Obama is an asset to Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign, those doubts were laid to rest last night as she gave an amazing speech at the Democratic national convention. In fact, it got me wondering if we had the right Obama at the head of the ticket. The Obamas have a lot in common with the Clintons — Barack is the same age Bill was when he made his run in 1992, and each couple is made up of intellectual equals, complementing and supporting each other. I think the Obamas probably have a more functional family life and generally I trust them more, but as I heard Michelle give the speech of her life last night, I was reminded by how impressive Hillary was when she burst on the scene in 1992. Still, there are real differences.

In many ways, the Obama candidacy is reflective of numerous changes in our political culture in recent years, as well as areas where we still have a ways to go. It is a two career family, where the husband and wife are essentially equal; he met her when she was assigned to be a mentor to him. They are raising a family, and they made career choices based not on just ‘moving up the ladder,’ but also on supporting their family life and doing good in their community. At the same time, they’re obviously very political; there is no other way they could be where they are now if they were not.

By 2040 whites will be a minority in the country, women will be in as many powerful positions as men, and our entire culture would have undergone a major transformation during my lifetime. This is exciting to see (even as some bemoan it or try to fight the inevitable); after all Barack Obama could not have hoped to even have a chance as recently as twenty years ago. The world is different; our country is different.

While the smear dogs out there want to make hay of the fact the Obamas are black, have a “funny name,” or (whisper, whisper) don’t love America, sympathize with terrorists and radicals or are arrogant elitists, the reality of this convention is that people will realize that the core values of the country are not limited to white middle class America. Michelle Obama emphasized common values, and the concerns that drive them into politics. She also set the framework for moving beyond ideology; this is about values, not ideological battles. The generation born before 1960 tends to bracket things into political and ideological groups. They will look at people like Obama as would-be radicals, and play out the old sixties era politics in their minds, projecting that on to the campaign. And perhaps enough of that old guard are still around to win the election for McCain, especially since there are sixties era Democrats who don’t trust or understand this upstart who was only 12 years old during the Watergate era, hardly able to process what was going on in Vietnam.

The Obamas are a glimpse of the future of American politics. Win or lose in this election, they reflect a new way of reaching out to the public (new media), raising money (grassroots and web efforts), talking about politics (post-ideological) and breaking the obsolete family model of the woman as staying home without a career while the man is the breadwinner. They represent demographic trends that are putting the European-American population out of its majority role, and bringing in a more diverse demographic.

Such change is difficult. Within the Democratic party, the Clinton-Obama fight shows that the new direction of the party is fought by the old guard, caught off guard by the fundraising success and organizational prowess of new style Obama campaign. The old guard on the right sees within the post-ideological facade an ideological agenda for big government or socialism. Indeed, the old guard can’t comprehend politics outside of an ideological struggle, that’s what it was in the 20th century. If you’re not conservative you’re socialist. If you talk about the community or solving problems, you’re socialist.

I don’t buy it. We’re entering a new century, with a new approach to politics. While I do fear that Obama is far too accepting of big government, and Biden is far too tied to the American global role to undertake fundamental change, real change shouldn’t happen all at once.  Reality is forcing change, as Americans have to cope with the need to be part of a global community rather than ‘leader of the West.’  The American public is forcing a change as well. We’re undergoing a cultural transformation, and the Obamas reflect that. Last night, as Michelle talked about family, her aspirations, and how she and Barack would talk about ‘how the world should be,’ she hit on the pragmatic vision that transcends ideological boundaries and reflects why the Obama campaign became so popular.  This will be a very interesting election.

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Biden Time

OK, that was a bad pun, but I couldn’t resist it.

Back in the early/mid eighties when I worked in Washington for a Senator (a Republican Senator, as a matter of fact) Joe Biden was one of the few Senators who was friendly and talkative with Legislative aides working for other Senators. His office was right next to the office of the Senator I worked for in the Russell Senate office building, and among other things he took a strong interest in the tacos we could buy in the downstairs snack bar. I’d be carrying them up, he’d say, “oh, you’ve got tacos again, man, those look stuffed full…they let you stuff the yourself, right, that’s what you said last time…I really gotta try that, that looks better than the stuff they serve in the formal Senate dining room…” To be sure, it was always small talk, but I liked the guy.

Biden is, I believe, the perfect pick for Barack Obama. He balances the ticket by giving us an outsider with a ‘change and hope’ agenda and an insider who knows the ropes and has impeccable experience. Like Ronald Reagan’s choice of George H.W. Bush in 1980 (or even Bush the Younger’s choice of Cheney in 2000), it’s someone inexperienced but popular showing the public that he’ll have someone very experienced as his main advisor. He also is what the drudgereport calls a ‘bare knuckles fighter,’ he goes in there and attacks. Yet somehow he does so without seeming petty or undignified. This is perfect for a would be VP.

But what about his loquaciousness, his tendency for rhetorical faux pas’, which sometimes cause embarrassment? Ironically, this reputation will likely save him. “He said WHAT” will be followed by “well, that’s just Biden being Biden.” His questions during the primary about Obama’s qualifications, something now being trumped up by the McCain campaign, will be more easily brushed aside than George H.W. Bush’s primary attacks on Reagan’s qualifications and ‘voodoo economics.’ Biden can say, as he did Saturday, that after seeing him throughout the campaign and having intense conversations with him, his old worries are gone: Obama has proven himself and is ready for the job.

Obama needs to recapture the image as a post-partisan candidate, a uniter who means it, not just says it. One reason McCain’s made some inroads (though the poll happy press vastly overstates how much — its too early to take polls too seriously) is that Obama cannot fight back without appearing to fall into the partisan trap, which is just where McCain wants him. But without being able to fight back, he risks a Dukakis fate. The GOP defined Dukakis before he could define himself, putting him on the defensive. Biden can be the headline grabbing surrogate who goes after McCain and the GOP in a traditionally partisan way. Obama can remain above the fray, Presidential and as much as possible, trying to build unity. Will it work? Well, given how far this improbable campaign has come, I wouldn’t underestimate him!

Vice Presidential picks rarely make a difference in the final outcome. In 1988 Michael Dukakis chose Llyod Bentson of Texas, someone still considered one of the best VP choices in recent history. George H.W. Bush chose Dan Quayle, someone who never overcame the reputation of being a lightweight both politically and intellectually. Yet despite all that, Bush cruised to an easy victory over Dukakis. Bob Dole thought Jack Kemp would energize his campaign, but despite being a good choice, it seemed to have won Dole few if any votes.

Yet in this campaign, currently very close, what matters is the campaign dynamic. Biden is the kind of person who can help keep the dynamic or flow of the campaign in Obama’s favor, and prevent the McCain camp from defining the agenda. That might not be obvious to people watching, Biden’s role might be underlooked because it will be a subtle influence on the over all flow of the battle, not a specific event or statement that grabs headlines. And that’s what Obama needs. He defeated Clinton not by cutting her down and trouncing her, but running a relentless, disciplined and well choreographed campaign.

But while I think Biden was a good choice by Obama, I still have some concerns on foreign policy. Biden’s foreign policy expertise is impressive — very few even come close — he is an establishment figure, who has bought into the bipartisan myth that the US is a superpower with “responsibilities” which requires a global foreign policy. He isn’t likely to embrace the fundamental shift in foreign policy focus I believe necessary. However, I’m under no illusions that any President is ready to undergo such a shift. At my most hopeful, Obama and Biden will chart a path towards a true multi-lateralism and a rejection of militarism. This could put the US on a very different policy path than in the last 20 years.

Perhaps most compelling to me is Biden the man. Coming from a family constantly having financial problems, losing his wife and daughter when he became a Senator, raising his two remaining boys as a single father before getting remarried five years later, and commuting daily between Delaware and DC for his entire career, that kind of story is unique. The fact he is not wealthy helps too, he doesn’t have the problem of appearing as a silk shirt advocate for the working class.

The Obama campaign faces numerous hurdles ahead, but in his first “Presidential” decision — that of chosing a Vice Presidential nominee, he chose wisely.

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Children and War

In less than two weeks the new semester will start, and I will be part of a course, Children and War, co taught by Dr. Mellisa Clawson, Professor of Early Childhood Education, for the third time. We taught this course first as a first year seminar in 2004 (when my oldest was but one year old), then again in 2006 as an honors course.

Team teaching courses across disciplines has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my career. Different disciplines have different perspectives, and when you team teach and have a conversation about issues, it’s amazing how much one can gain in exploring those perspectives. Teaching this particular course, however, has caused me to rethink the approach political science takes towards the issue of war, and in general how our minds work. For me, this may be the most rewarding and important course I’ll ever teach.

There are not words to describe how intensely emotional it is to teach about, show images of, and read about the experiences of children and their families at in a time of war when one is a new parent. For every parent grieving I thought about how I would feel, I could picture Ryan, 1 and a half by the time we taught the course, as the victim every time a young toddler was shown. In our world of distractions and entertainment, it’s easy to bracket out those victims, and act like they don’t exist, or are irrelevant but inevitable collateral damage. When one teaches the course that’s impossible. Not only do we prepare the course materials, but in class we present it, explain it, and at times each of us in talking about something emotional — say parents watching their children die — had moments when we had to either wipe tears away or even leave the room for a second.

To be sure, there was a lot of time spent on child development theories, understanding post-traumatic stress syndrome and its impact on children, plus the historical background of conflict and how political science approaches studying/understanding war. The most intense emotional moments were not the norm. But powerful emotion was always there in some form, and it was even painful to watch students, sometimes almost in shock, hear about things going on in the world that they had not imagined. We also had to read the students’ weekly papers, which often were personal and powerful themselves. Every time we teach the course it is a unique and powerful experience.

If it was just the human emotion, that would be one thing. More important to me was the way that emotion influenced both students and myself. First, students, even conservative students who supported the war in Iraq, became far more sensitive to the human cost of war, and broke them out of our societal tendency to think of all these things in abstractions. Second, the students involved in the 2004 course also became more active in student organizations on campus, especially those involving children. They could not simply ‘get over’ the power of the course, they felt a need to try to do something. Finally, it became very clear to me that there is a real gap in how we in political science study war.

Children are hardly ever considered as a variable. While every scholar of conflict will say, “yeah, that’s sad and tragic,” they’ll note that the children are simply victims of the war, and thus not a subject of study. There may be side studies on refugees or child soldiers, but these are ‘niche’ areas of research. There are two problems with this. First, children are the next generation, the impact of war on a generation of children surrounded by violence that intense has to be severe. Stopping cycles of war and violence need to take that into account. The second point is more subtle but I think more important. We study war as an abstract, sanitized concept, with sentiment something to avoid. One can give academic papers without regard to the actually suffering being discussed, this is academia after all. Sentiment can only cloud clear, logical thinking.

Yet leaving emotion out has a similar effect. If one can bracket out the intense human suffering caused by military conflict, then it becomes far easier to simply use economic interests, strategic concerns, or ideological causes as being enough to rationalize risking war. The cost benefit analysis doesn’t really take into account the suffering caused, especially when that suffering can often be further bracketed out by a cold and I’d say heartless “we do all we can not to target innocent civilians,” as if that washes ones’ hands of damage done. By not letting sentiment be a part of the whole analysis, our policy schools, foreign policy bureaucracies, and universities leave out the most tragic part of the analysis.

One might object that this isn’t the case — we know it’s tragic, we know people die, it’s just not relevant to analyzing the causes and consequences of war. But do we really know? How many people see the images and hear the stories of the depth of suffering. It’s well known that the US media self-censors such images stories, not so much because of government pressure but the public doesn’t like to see and hear them. People can easily avoid even learning about depleted uranium shells, landmines, or innocent children shot at security points because the soldiers thought a car ‘suspicious.’ We are safe, we protect ourselves from grappling with the reality. And how can one understand the consequences by looking at humans as statistics. A world view absent sentiment abstracts one to a statistic.

I certainly understand why we leave sentiment out. Emotion does often lead one away from a clear analysis. Fascism was built on such emotion, so are groups like al qaeda. Negative campaign ads use emotion to turn people against candidates, often in irrational ways. So the idea that it has to be considered opens a complex set of problems, which I’m only starting to work through. Teaching this class again will be part of that continuing process.

Emotion, like rationality, can be bad or good. An evil genius uses rational calculus to do horrific deads, someone dealing with a crisis might be unable to operate if they can’t subdue their emotions. Emotion leads to road rage, it leads one to save a drowning child. In life we all seek a sense of balance. I don’t think we can understand and truly appreciate the ethical issues around war without a similar sense of balance. My personal challenge in my future research and academic career is to figure out how to do that. If not for the emotional experience of that course, I would not have the desire to approach this issue, since it seems outside the ‘norm’ in political science. But that’s the power of emotion — it drives life choices. People can’t diet, give up smoking, give up drinking or anything like that if they just decide in their head it’s the thing to do. Only if it’s from the heart — their children are at risk, they might die if obese, etc., — do people act. Part of this is the same kind of thinking behind my reaction last week to Les Miserables, in “Compassion.” The arts do have a way to tap into this, and that is intriguing. But emotion and sentiment can’t simply be bracketed out of social science. There has to be a balance.

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A New Cold War?

Here’s a quote from Secretary Rice. Do you think “Russia” could be replaced by “The United States” in the quote, and have it still ring true?:

Russia is a state that is unfortunately using the one tool that it has always used whenever it wishes to deliver a message and that’s its military power. That’s not the way to deal in the 21st century.

While the hypocrisy our leaders offer in response to the Russian action continues to annoy me, it’s important not to let that lead to justifications or rationalizations of the Russian action. Moreover, comparing blogs and media commentary, it’s clear that Russians and Americans both tend to have a knee jerk “my side is good, the other side bad” reaction, something which can explain the hypocrisy both sides show when attacking the other side. Still, in all this clamor the big question remains: are we facing a new Cold War?

The answer is no, but that might not be as good news as it sounds. The Cold War represented an era in world politics where: a) fights were about ideology; b) the world had a clear bi-polar structure in terms of power politics; and c) nation-states remained dominant units of economic and political power. Since then fights have become more about territory, ethnicity and religion, the world has morphed from bipolarity, briefly to unipolarity, and now multipolarity, and nation-states no longer control the fundamental driving forces of their economic and even political health. This is true for Russia and the US too, even if they don’t feel the trend as strongly as others (yet).

The bad news is that such a multipolar world with multiple potential points of conflict consisting of states which do not control the variables leaves open the chance of unexpected crisis and misperception. The danger is, as I noted last week, that a crisis like Sarajevo in 1914 could unleash a series of events that ultimately leads to conflict, even nuclear war. This shouldn’t happen, it’s in no ones’ interest for it to happen, and unlike 1914 we don’t have publics itching for war. But it’s a more perilous situation in many ways than the old Cold War, where the two actors knew each other and could keep events reasonably in their grasp.

So what exactly is going on with Russia? I believe that after two decades of humiliation after humiliation at the hands of the US, Russia is determined to secure it’s place in the international system. They’ve learned that if they go along with the US or give only mild criticisms, they get rolled. NATO expanded, NATO went into Kosovo, the US invaded Iraq. Russian interests are seen as secondary; the country has been viewed, correctly, as weak and in dissarray. Now they are looking to turn things around.

First, they now have a competent, if also far too corrupt, government. Russians associate western style democracy with the horrible Yeltsin years, and prefer the stability Putin’s rule has brought, even if it has meant a sacrifice of freedom and democracy. Second, they have large oil revenues, and given how this current crisis and boisterous threats from Russia has caused oil prices to shoot up, it could be that they in part want to make sure oil stays expensive so they continue to reap high profits (cynically one could imagine Iran and Russia taking turns racheting up tensions to keep oil prices high!) With the US militarily overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US economy reeling, they realized that the US has been overestimating its power and isn’t in a position to do much against Russia.

But what about talk now of quicker movement for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO, and a missile defense system in Poland which seems to have really angered the Russians? Don’t read too much into the rhetoric. Vladimir Putin may be a lot of things, but he’s not stupid. He and the Russian elite know that NATO will expand, and that the missile defense system in Poland the Czech Republic was all but a done deal. There is nothing Russia can do about those things, and Putin knows it. Moreover, Russia has no desire to try to reclaim the “Russian Empire” as McCain puts it, or develop a true confrontation with the West.

As boisterous as Russian rhetoric may sound, they know their limits — and the limits of American reach. Russia has a severely weakened military, and how their only trump card — possession of massive amounts of nuclear weapons — is of limited value. The West fears war with Russia because it could escalate out of control. But Russia fears such a war too. During the Cold War the USSR dominated European conventional forces; now they are a shadow of what they used to be. That strategic reality is understood by all players.

So why Georgia? Since it was clear last April that the question was not so much if but when Georgia would enter NATO, and that the sticking point was the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, Russia had a window of opportunity to provide NATO with a fiat accompli before expansion. They knew that since these regions were already outside Georgian control, and had a population loyal to Russia, they had a good rationale for their incursion. It was a limited, brilliantly executed, operation. They now can assure that when NATO does expand, the issue of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will require Russian approval for settlement. Russia may not annex these territories, but they will enjoy autonomy from Georgian control, and probably on going peacekeeping including Russians — at least until relationships alter to the point that all sides freely choose a different path.

Moreover, NATO advisors were on the ground, and NATO watched Russia war game this scenario last month. I do not believe the Russian incursion was as much as a shock as the Bush Administration claims. The US is not about to slam the door on Russia, and Putin and President Medevdev are not about to scrap their progressive agenda. They are more like the progressive Czars of old, Peter I or Katherine the Great. But even those pro-West reformers were also authoritarian and wanted to make sure reform did not get out of hand (and their successors usually were reactionary because they thought it had). They want ties with the western and world economy.

Finally, the world is now multipolar, and Russia is playing a game that includes the EU, China, Iran, and other states that have regional economic or political weight. Unlike the Cold War, the US can’t rely on Western Europe simply following its lead, and this gives Russia room to maneuver, especially with Europe dependent on Russian natural gas and oil. So, as long as neither Russia nor the US gets in a position where they feel like they have to assert their power too much, I would expect neither a Cold War, nor a breakdown in relations. Yet one question troubles me a bit. In many ways this is like 19th century Realpolitik, and one can understand and analyze the way the actors are positioning themselves and strategizing. Yet unlike the 19th century, we have real globalization and economics has integrated economies far more than ever before. This should be a good thing — a war would hurt everyone — but if we end up fighting over oil and other resources it could lead to some dangerous brinksmanship ahead.

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College Drinking

Recently the fact that college Presidents from over 100 colleges and universities have called for the lowering of the drinking age to 18 to reduce binge drinking has caused a stir. How, some ask, does making it easier to get alcohol reduce drinking? Why would college Presidents be making this argument?

Before getting into that, let me make my position clear. 18 year olds can be sent to Iraq to kill and die, they can vote on who can be the next President. Yet they can’t order a beer with their meal at Applebee’s? Morally, the 21 year old drinking age makes no sense. Practically, the law itself is not the cause of binge drinking, the cause is the culture that brought forth the law. Therefore, changing the law is just a first step.

My colleague Steve Pane, Professor of Music, tells a little joke to students before our trips to Italy. You go to Italy at noon, and American tourists see Italians drinking wine with their lunch. They shake their head, appalled by this early drinking. Yet at midnight it is these same Italians helping those same Americans, now inebriated, find their hotels. The Italians know balance, the Americans go to extremes. That’s the culture we have, and it’s exacerbated by not only the high drinking age, but the conflicting messages that come from our media, teachers and government: alcohol and drinking are bad and unhealthy vs. alcohol is fun, normal, and really cool.

The problem with the 21 year old drinking age is that colleges are unable to teach and support moderate and responsible use of alcohol. On our travel courses to Italy, where the drinking age is only 16, students at the end of the day can go out, have wine with dinner, and potentially go to night clubs and party.  They could take this to an extreme and go out of control.  They very rarely do. We try to convince them that if they are to drink they should do it like the Italians, in moderation, as part of the culture, not with simply a desire to ‘get drunk.’ Indeed, apart from Americans and soccer fans in Europe, the idea that one drinks to get drunk is a bit strange. One drinks along with social activities or food, as part of the whole experience.

So we tell students that they are in Italy for only a couple weeks, and that they need to make the most of the experience, as rare and expensive as it is. They can go party any time back home, or go on some wild spring break if they wish for that kind of experience. But here it would be a waste of their money and time to ignore and miss the unique aspects of Italy in order to do something they can do at home anyway. It works (that and the fact our schedule requires everyone up and moving by 7:30), and rarely do we have a problem.

In colleges though, it’s either face reprimands and penalties, perhaps being kicked off campus, or avoid alcohol all together. There is no balance. If there were a campus pub, for instance, a lot of people otherwise drawn to heavy and dangerous drinking parties would choose that safer alternative. You’d still have those hard core parties, and there would still be problems like women being harrassed or worse, and people getting alcohol poisoning. But they would be fewer, and staff at a campus pub would be trained to notice dangerous situations. Some worry that this could cause more drinking; people now who are smart enough to avoid dangerous situations might be lured by the ease of the pub to drink and potentially develop problems. I doubt it. The cultural message is strong enough that those who now do not drink probably would not even if the drinking age was lower. Culture trumps laws, especially laws rarely enforced and generally disrespected.

I was talking with the father of one of my son’s friends the other day, and he had been reading an article about managing “millennials, or children now coming of age and into the work force. He said that the article noted that millennials tend to be less self-motivated than baby boomers or gen-Xers, and need more specific guidance and oversight. I’ve noted too how now more than ever students look for a ‘formula’ on how to ‘get the A’ (or for less ambitious, how to at least pass). How many pages? How many sources? What exactly should the paper format be? What precisely is the rubric?

In recent years this pre-occupation with ‘what I need to do to get the grade’ has caused me to rebel a bit, giving less guidance to force them to make these calls on their own (while re-assuring them they can redo it if they fall short). It makes sense, though, when I look at how our society has changed. It’s not just the drinking age, it’s laws on smoking, seatbelts, safety laws, and numerous regulations and laws on the books across the country all designed to create regulations to make sure we do safe things and treat other people with respect. While the motivation for such laws may be good, the impact has a dangerous side effect. When choices are made by authority, and behavior is constrained by a very strict set of rules, people learn to simply look to the rule book rather than learn how to make good choices.

In life, however, there are constant temptations to break the rules. If one does not have the skill to make good choices, then it’s more likely that once freed of the constraints of a clear set of rules, one can go overboard. The mix of freedom and responsibility is better though of as freedom and good decision making, then freedom and respect for authority. College drinking is an example; rather than being able to help students develop good decision making skills, we enforce a rule designed to protect them. In so doing, we may not only fail to protect them from dangerous behaviors, but we might also fail in our responsibility to teach them good decision making skills going forward.