Friday, July 11, 2008

State of the Presidential race

One of the worst problems of our Establishment press is that they not only focus on the "horse-race" aspects of political contests at the expense of discussion and analysis of policy issues. But their idea of focusing on the horse-race normally ranges from the peripheral to the trivial to the downright batty. Gene Lyons writes in Toeing the story line Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 07/09/08:

So-called mainstream Washington journalism, see, isn’t a profession as most educated Americans understand the term. It's more like a social clique or a fraternal order. Driven by ambition and status anxiety, members and aspirants alike adopt group narratives for many reasons — to secure invitations to the right dinner parties, rub elbows with the great, appear on TV chat shows, earn higher lecture fees, win book contracts, etc. Mere accuracy, alas, gets lost in the shuffle. (my emphasis)
But the "horse-race" does matter, of course, because that determines who gets into office. Here are a few of my current thoughts on the Presidential horse-race and an issue or two, as well.
    1. The emphasis that the media and the McCain campaign have put on Obama's alleged change in his position on the Iraq War has a double purpose. It's part of the effort to focus on his inconsistencies as a sign of a bad "character". But that particular one stands out, because Obama really hasn't changed his public position. War critics point out that his plan envisions leaving substantial numbers of troops in Iraq for "training" and special strikes against "Al Qa'ida". But that's been his position for most of the campaign; the only real change was that he started putting greater emphasis on an 18-month timetable to reach his goal.

    The fact that McCain supporters are insisting so much on that point tells me that what's really going on is that they're trying to identify McCain's position with Obama's. Überhack neocon and faithful Republican Party-liner Victor Davis Hanson writes (Barack W. Bush? Tribune Media Services 07/10/08) that Obama's latest foreign policy positions move "move him once again closer to George W. Bush." That's especially true on the Iraq War, Bush's favorite historian says: "He once promised a rigid and rapid timetable for withdrawing our troops. But given the radical success of Gen. David Petraeus' surge and change in tactics, Obama is now calling for withdrawals to be based on the conditions on the ground in Iraq." Which, our famous historian tells us, is Bush's position, as well.

    If the GOP can blur the differences between McCain's position on that war and Obama's, that will create a framework for an argument to swing voters that since their positions aren't that different anyway, you should vote for McCain, who the media assures us is not only a War Hero and our greatest living saint but a foreign policy expert, as well. Because he would be more likely to produce a satisfactory conclusion. The Iraq War is an issue on which Obama's position really is sharply distinct from Iraq. And Obama's position is a winning one, McCain's a losing one for the fall election. The Democrats can't afford to let that distinction get blurred.

    2. The press needs to be looking much more closely at what McCain actually intends to do in the Iraq War. Because the courtier Big Pundits and the reporters nibbling donuts with him and his lobbyist pals on the "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus adore the Maverick War Hero, they're unlikely to focus on that more closely unless the Democrats push them by making it more of an issue. From his public statements on the Iraq War, his immense faith in air power and his acceptance of the stab-in-the-back theory of the Vietnam War, I'm convinced that his intention is primarily to escalate the air war in Iraq in a major way. Then escalate again, and escalate again, etc. The man has a faith in the invincibility of American air power like that of a starry-eyed teenaged science-fiction fan in the 1930s. But such a strategy will vastly expand the killing in Iraq, create even more massive refugee and infrastructure problems, and greatly increase the damage the Iraq War is doing to American foreign policy and our economy.

    3. Polls show the Iraq War in second place in voters' concerns behind the economy. And the conventional wisdom among the courtier punditocracy and the Democratic elections consultants is that Dems always do better when economic issues are the main focus, while Republicans inevitably have a great advantage on foreign policy. Adherents of that conventional wisdom are a lot like air power zealots: no amount of discomfirming evidence rattles their pristine faith when it comes to those assumptions. But the Republicans can blur distinctions over economic issues, because the Establishment press luu-uuves their Maverick McCain. They are more than happy to help him pretend that he's maverickly differing from Bush's economic policies. But the Iraq War is a major issue that is very much on voters' minds and one on which Obama's position is very distinct from McCain's and very distinctly more popular. Not working that distinction contributed greatly to John Kerry's loss in 2004. If the Obama campaign fails to work that distinction heavily, that could well mean John McCain in the White House and the US expanding the war to Iran.

    4. Speaking of which, the rumors, speculations and calculations about whether Cheney and Bush intend to attack Iran this year are enough to drive anyone whacko. If you think there are heavy indications that Cheney intends to do just that, you're right. If you think there is substantial internal opposition to such a move in the Pentagon and even the State Department, you're probably right there, too. If you think it would be a crazy and disastrous move, you're unquestionably right on that. If you think Cheney and Bush are incompetent enough and clueless enough to do it anyway, it would be hard to argue with you. Only a Democratic administration in the White House in January 2009 will give us a reasonable chance to have a decent Iran policy. For various sides of the story, see Iran's Red Line by Laura Rozen Mother Jones Online 07/10/08; Why Cheney Won't Take Down Iran by Tom Englehardt, TomDispatch.com 07/09/08; Israeli jets using Iraq's airspace Pakistan Daily 07/10/08; Mullen Gave Israel a Red Light, Says Cordesman by Jim Lobe, LobeLog.com 07/08/08; Military action 'would destabilise Iraq' by Patrick Cockburn The Independent 07/05/08; OPEC warns against military conflict with Iran by James Kanter International Herald Tribune 07/10/08; MoJo Convo: Iran Panic? Talk About It With the Experts MoJo blog 06/28/08-07/08/08; Israel hints at pre-emptive attack on Iran by Rupert Cornwell The Independent 07/11/08; The dangerous hostility game with Iran by Joe Conason Salon 07/11/08; Israel ups the ante for US sitting-duck troops in Iraq by Helena Cobban, "Just World News" 07/11/08.

    Bottom line: it could well happen. As Joe Conason puts it, "Obviously the war lobby within the Republican Party and the Bush White House has lost neither influence nor determination, no matter how wrong its predictions nor how disastrous its policies have proved to be." But if it does happen, environmental awareness and conservation will get a whole new boost because gasoline prices will go up so far driving in private cars will get a lot more expensive. In other words, the consequences of doing so will make invading Iraq look like a minor mistake.

    5. McCain is a poor speaker. In fact, he's sometimes barely coherent when he starts stringing one-liners together. And he has a creepy laugh and almost as creepy a forced smile on the stump. But the Democrats won't get much mileage out of that unless they play up some of his dumber remarks big - 100 years in Iraq, the whole concept of Social Security program is a disgrace, etc. But for the most part, McCain's press courtiers will cover for him. They're working hard at doing it, actually.

    6. Obama's fundraising operation is banking on heavy support from small donors. Small donors care a whole lot more about things like getting out of Iraq, protecting Social Security, improving health insurance and not letting the federal government monitor our every conservation than big donors, the dysfunctional Establishment press or Republicans do. Obama should keep this in mind when he's tempted to show his bipartisan good will by capitulating to the incredibly unpopular Bush administration on unpopular policies, as he did in supporting the FISA rewrite this week. Salon's Glenn Greenwald has been doing excellent reporting on the latter. And Salon editor Joan Walsh gives a great analysis of the risks the Obama campaign is running in Betrayed by Obama 07/10/08. Hooray to Salon for their work on this! As Walsh puts it, "While Arianna Huffington and Markos Moulitsas and Tom Hayden were hyping him as the progressive alternative to Hillary Clinton, Obama was getting away with backing a healthcare bill less progressive than Clinton's, adopting GOP talking points on the Social Security "crisis" and double-talking on NAFTA." And she's also right in saying that "Obama needs to watch himself. Telling voters they have no place else to go, before he officially has the nomination, is not a winning strategy." Especially when he's caving to the Republicans on a issue like FISA that is not only a critical Constitutional issue but one on which the GOP position is unpopular with the general public and especially with the Democratic base.

    7. McCain and the Republicans are working the "culture war" angle and using McCain's Vietnam experience as a major part of that. See this ad:


    The Democrats need to find ways to defuse this. They shouldn't stoop to the shameless lying, slime-ball tactics that the Swift Boat Liars for Bush with the eager cooperation of our broken TV news organizations used against John Kerry in 2004. Running like scared rabbits from the Wesley Clark when the media and the GOP went after him when he was reminding people that McCain's experiences as a veteran in themselves do not qualify him to be President is not the way to get this done. It makes it almost impossible, for instance, for any Obama supporter to go on TV, which is where most voters get their news, and make any kind of issue out of the flub that Digby caught in Pandering or Senile? Hullabloo 07/10/08. Republicans play Presidential politics to win. The Obama campaign has to do that, too.

    8. If there is another major terrorist attack on US soil this year before Election Day, the Democrats have ingrained it in themselves by long practice to have their first, second, and third instincts be to close ranks with the Republicans and act "bipartisan". The Republicans are also conditioned by long practice with their rightwing ideology and their Party's authoritarian nature to work such an event for its maximum partisan political advantage from the second it occurs. It ain't pretty. But that's what today's Republican Party is like. Forewarned should be forearmed.

    But if the FISA capitulation is any measure, Republicans will be immediately spewing about how its all the fault of treasonous Democrats, while the Democrats will bend over backwards to avoid criticizing the Bush administration for any kind of failure in relation to the attack and go on TV and profess their total bipartisan support while the Republicans are slapping them around. That's really ain't gonna be pretty. And, yes, the Democrats should be thinking and planning about how they would respond politically in a situation like that. Because the Republicans certainly are.

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