24 February 2008

Highly Contested

I suppose that somewhere in the United States there are people who aren’t talking about politics.

I am quite sure I don’t know any of them. If that makes me out of touch, so be it.

Just when it seemed like the Democratic dogfight was getting boring and redundant, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama staged another debate this week that should have recaptured everyone’s attention – and reminded us once again of how intellectually flimsy politicians can be. Senator Clinton’s “best” lines were either totally canned and pre-planned and thus less effective (e.g., “And, you know, lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox.”), or insightful in an neatly off-putting way.

Much has been made of her “valedictorycomment at the very end of the debate, but moments earlier Clinton said something that should cause even more concern: “And I resolved at a very young age that I'd been blessed and that I was called by my faith and by my upbringing to do what I could to give others the same opportunities and blessings that I took for granted.

That statement contains many different layers, but it is worth unpacking two of them: the implication that Clinton believes she has been called by God to run for the presidency, and the acknowledgment that she has taken aspects of her life and success “for granted.” The latter sentiment might have been inadvertent, a kind of grammatical misstatement, but I don’t think so. Rather, I think Clinton does take many elements of her life for granted. The sense of entitlement is partly why her health care initiative failed during her husband’s presidency: she practiced the same kind of secrecy that Dick Cheney did with his energy task force. It is also why she now appears so desperate in the clinch: almost every aspect of her theoretically inevitable candidacy, and November 2008 victory, has vanished. Good riddance!

The former part of Clinton’s sentence – this sense that she “was called by [her] faith” – should trouble us all deeply, but it should trouble the Clinton loyalists the most. After all, the last presidential candidate who believed as firmly in the role of his faith in his political destiny is the incumbent that most of America cannot wait to see leave office: George W. Bush. Senator Clinton is still using (and promoting) her “It took a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush, and it’ll take another Clinton to clean up after the second” line, but I do not think America is ready for another divinely inspired president. And anyway, it strikes me as beyond the scope of most gods to take on a mess like ours.

Then there is the “readiness” issue. Any Clinton supporter who still believes that their candidate, called by her faith to serve, meets or exceeds the readiness threshold that Mrs. Clinton herself promotes, should read Frank Rich’s column “The Audacity of Hopelessness” in today’s New York Times. Rich walks us through the Clinton campaign’s failures – from her initial loss in Iowa, to her advisors’ inability to learn from their mistakes, state by state and beyond. He writes “The Clinton camp has been the slacker in this race, more words than action, and its candidate’s message, for all its purported high-mindedness, was and is self-immolating.” If campaigns can set expectations for presidencies, then the execution of Clinton’s is hardly a good omen, whether she has god on her side or not.

Senator Barack Obama is still far from perfect. Although he presented much more policy detail in his remarks on Thursday, there are still moments when that politician’s flimsiness breaks through. On health care, for instance, Obama seems fearful of openly embracing the fact that his plan does not mandate health insurance for all adults. This lack of a mandate is important, because it represents the freedom every citizen should have to make a choice about health insurance for themselves. Likewise, it is hard for Obama to completely break away from the potential Republican death-trap on immigration issues; thus, he failed to reject fully the absurdity of building a complete border fence between the U.S. and Mexico. (Because that solution has worked so well in the Middle East, right?)

Nonetheless, Senator Obama has managed to maintain exactly the quality that Senator Clinton lacks: inspiration. Actually, Obama has gone beyond just being inspiring to “inspiring inspiration.” If that sounds redundant, consider the state of political apathy that existed in this country, the ideological boredom that comes from having an entrenched, black-and-white (or in this case, red vs. blue) view of the world. Any politician who can engage and motivate so many different constituencies – to work on his behalf in community after community, to give dollar after dollar in order to beat the erstwhile establishment candidate’s fundraising machine – can clearly lay claim to understanding something bigger and broader about our nation.

It ain’t over until it’s over. That might be Texas, that might be Ohio, or it might have been Thursday’s debate. With any luck, we will all know shortly.

12 February 2008

Transfer of Wealth

While this story is hot:

Today, General Motors announced it's biggest loss ever: $38.7 billion dollars last year.

This comes on the heels of Exxon Mobil announcing record-setting profits of $40.6 billion.

And so, one might say, that this represents a transfer of wealth from GM to Exxon, from recalcitrant manufacturers to robust suppliers. In retrospect, it seems obvious: by resisting a move to more fuel-efficient cars, GM essentially ensured that this would happen. The more people buy cars that burn fossil fuels, the more oil companies will profit; the more car companies resist consumer demand for more efficient cars, the fewer cars they'll buy; but all the cars already on the road, those cars still need gas, meaning still more money for oil companies, and still less money for the car manufacturers.

I have been crapping on General Motors for years, for their less-than-visionary products and their less-than-brilliant management. Even with the introduction of their recent "flex-fuel" products, they still seem resistant to making the wholesale changes to their product line that would ensure they are competitive. I cannot say I am happy that GM lost $38.7 billion; unless you bet short against their stock, it's just plain bad news. But if this spurs stronger action (as it seems to have done already) then maybe something good will come of it - which might mean less use of oil, and lower profits, for the likes of Exxon.

UPDATE: I'm not the only one on this beat... Will Bunch, over at attytood.com, made a similar observation.

11 February 2008

Book Review

Looking for a new book? Read my review of The Age of Shiva, by Manil Suri, just published January 2008 by W.W. Norton, New York.

(Thanks to LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to review this book!)

09 February 2008

Cue the Fear

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The news did not receive two-inch headlines, but it was there nonetheless – on the Associated Press wire, in the New York Times and Washington Post, and other many places. To quote the Times quoting Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence: “Al Qaeda was also improving what he called ‘the last key aspect of its ability to attack the U.S.’ — producing militants, including new Western recruits, capable of blending into American society and attacking domestic targets.”

On the question of terrorism on American soil, I am more cynical than others, and less inclined to trust politicians, especially ones whose beliefs are as doggedly partisan as those of President George W. Bush. Intellectually, I want to resist the conspiracy theorist’s mindset that imputes terrible, Machiavellian motives to Messrs. Bush and Cheney. Nor am I in any position to disprove or discount Mr. McConnell’s assertions that America is, once again, an increasingly high-profile target for attacks by Al Qaeda.

Still, I as wrote a few weeks ago: “I cannot shake the admittedly cynical sense that our incumbent administration will engineer an October surprise in order to frighten the nation into electing the GOP candidate – the one who will undoubtedly be cast as the law-and-order choice to save our nation.” A slow news trickle about a renewed capability to attack the United States on the part of our Public Enemy #1 – now, as the presidential race takes on a different shape with a presumptive nominee for the Republicans – fits this pattern. It serves a valuable purpose for the tail end of the Bush administration, shifting focus away from the reeling economy and back towards the fear that provokes bad decision-making on the part of both voters and our Congress. It is also convenient that McConnell’s remarks come at the end of Bush’s time in office – when terrorism will soon cease to be his problem, despite the Bush administration’s failure to capture bin Laden six and a half years after the September 11th attacks.

This analysis does not require Machiavelli, and it isn’t very hidden. Today’s front page article in the Times even notes this deliberate shifting of the agenda: “As the party began to coalesce around Mr. McCain, Mr. Bush’s remarks were part of a broader Republican move over the last day and a half that has set the stage for a campaign focused on the nation’s security.” Unfortunately for the average American, what this means is a campaign focused once again around invoking and provoking our fears: fears of being attacked, fears of foreigners in our midst who might attack us. The outcome will be an election more likely determined by emotion than intellect – the results of which do not bode well.