Showing posts with label opinion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label opinion. Show all posts

9/10/2008

Thoughts on the 2008 Campaign and a Presidential Endorsement

This is a post I was planning to write in October, not September, because I wanted to wait until after the debates to make a more accurate judgment of the two presidential candidates. But this nonstory about lipstick forced my hand.

I am angry. I am disappointed. And I am scared. But I am hopeful.

Coming into this election season, I was hopeful for America because I believed we finally had a chance to pick up the pieces and get America back on track after our long national nightmare. President Bush has been the worst president of my lifetime. I don't say that as a partisan. I say that because I genuinely believe he is the only president in my 31 years who has left the United States in a worse position than when he came into office. There is a pervasive sense of gloom, despair, apathy, and mistrust swirling around the nation that I have never observed before.

I love the United States of America. I believe this is the greatest country on Earth. It is only in America that someone can progress from having absolutely nothing to being on top of the world. It doesn't matter if you are a third-generation daughter of Polish immigrants, a true-blue son of Appalachia, a waitress working the late shift at a local diner, or a man whose parents abandoned him as a child on a street corner in Los Angeles. The United States offers more opportunities for everyone to succeed than any other nation on Earth.

But lately, it seems that more and more people are falling behind and the American Dream is becoming more and more unattainable. It's not just poor people or those who have made poor decisions who are falling behind. It's middle class people and those who are working hard and playing by the rules who are struggling now too. It costs more to drive our cars because of spiking gas prices. It costs more to go to college because of rising interest rates on student loans. It's more difficult to buy or sell a home. And it's harder to deal with being sick because health care is increasingly unaffordable.

There is a lack of confidence in our government, a lack of sophistication in our politicians, and a lack of professionalism in the media that cover them. People feel that the government doesn't understand their problems, the government doesn't understand its own responsibilities, and the government doesn't care. I'm not saying this as a criticism of conservatism which naturally advocates smaller government. I'm saying that people are losing faith in the very governmental institutions that run America. Think of the Federal Reserve, the State Department, and Homeland Security for example.

Having spent many years of my life abroad, I have seen the transformation that is taking place beyond our borders as well. Gone is the enthusiasm that outsiders once had for this nation. Gone is the respect that the mere mention of "America" commanded. This respect has been replaced by disdain, condescension, and lament.

This brings us to the start of the presidential campaign season.

There were about 20 candidates in the race altogether at the start of the campaign in the spring of 2007, so I figured there should be several candidates whom I'd be willing to support. But then I began to learn more about the candidates and began to cross them off my list.

The Republicans

Rudy Giuliani was a moderate Republican, so I thought he warranted a second look. However, I found him to be a fraud and jumped ship because who was once "America's Mayor" had since descended into pitting Americans against each other on the campaign trail by using terrorism to drive a wedge between Democrats and Republicans. And I believe he reduced September 11th to a mere political talking point.

Mitt Romney was a nonstarter because of the sheer number of policy reversals he undertook in an attempt to pander to certain parts of the Republican base. He came across as the type of politician who had no shame and would do and say whatever it took, even at the expense of his own dignity, to get elected. So I trusted nothing that came out of his mouth and viewed him to have no ideological core.

Fred Thompson was also a nonstarter because he did not seem serious about his campaign and figured that he could charm his way to the nomination with his Southern twang and red pickup truck. The basis of his campaign was merely that he was a Southerner with a wry sense of humor. There was no policy heft there. No thanks.

Sam Brownback was a candidate of the religious right, so he was automatically disqualified.

This left three palatable Republicans: John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and Ron Paul.

I am most definitely not a social conservative. But why would this disqualify Sam Brownback and not Mike Huckabee? Because Huckabee was civil in his political presentation. He was humble, likable, substantive, and in touch. He talked about the economy from the point of view of regular workers, not corporate managers. Even though I strongly disagreed with him on issues like abortion and gay rights, I would have been okay with him as President because he did not use wedge issues to divide the electorate for the sake of finding common ground.

My inner libertarian is what endeared me to Ron Paul. I applauded the courage of his convictions, even if that made him a laughing stock at the Republican debates. He spoke about the insanity of staying in Iraq even though the Iraqis want us to leave and the billions and billions of dollars that are spent propping up countries that are hostile to the United States. Unfortunately, Paul's candidacy came about 40 years too soon and in a party that moved away from Barry Goldwater conservatism decades ago.

This left John McCain. I had a favorable opinion of McCain after his 2000 presidential campaign and appreciated the way he occasionally bucked President Bush and the fringe elements of his own party. His participation in the "Gang of 14" at a time when the Senate was about to explode went a long way towards cementing my respect for him. When the race for the Republican nomination came down to McCain and Romney (Huckabee was still in the race too, but he had been marginalized), I was banking on McCain. I figured that of all the Republicans in the race, he was ultimately the most appealing.

The Democrats

As for the Democrats, I was not one of those voters who was bowled over by the Big 3 of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. All three of them were my last three choices.

I originally started off in Bill Richardson's camp. His resume was simply incredible. Like he said in some of the debates, nominating him would give voters both "change" and "experience." Being from New Mexico, he had the right geography. And as a Latino, he had the right demographics. Combining all this with the fact that he was a centrist Democrat made Richardson bulletproof. His "Interview" campaign ads were impressive too, so I felt comfortable showing my allegiance to the New Mexico governor. He was the first candidate to whom I ever donated money.

But then came the debates. He seemed sluggish, disoriented, and disappointing. I gave him several chances, but he never "popped." And his campaign staff didn't seem all that interested in my offers to volunteer for him either. So he left me cold.

As Richardson's star faded, Joe Biden's stock rose. He was my second choice who later became my first choice. Biden was an exceptionally strong debater with a good sense of humor. He had a lot of experience too and clearly understood the world in which we live. I had the opportunity to meet him three times and he genuinely seemed to talk to me as a person and not as just another voter. I donated money to his campaign too and was surprised when I received a thank you letter from him personally with a real signature. Not one of those computerized signatures, but a real signature with ink stains. This was a United States senator actually taking the time to be gracious to me, a generic PhD student in South Carolina.

As I watched him perform strongly in debate after debate, I hoped that the people in Iowa were paying attention. Despite my enthusiasm for Biden, I worried that he did not have enough star power to shine in the Iowa caucuses because Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards were sucking up all the media's oxygen. But I strongly believed this candidate could be trusted to win the White House and govern with a sense of competence and an awareness of the magnitude of his responsibilities. Unfortunately, he finished 5th in Iowa and was thereby disqualified from the subsequent debate in New Hampshire that Bill Richardson, who finished fourth, could participate in.

Chris Dodd was Joe Biden without the personality, so he didn't have a chance. Mike Gravel was not a serious candidate. And like Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich was about 40 years ahead of his time.

Why wasn't I in the Barack Clintedwards camp? Because they were polarizing personality candidates with thin resumes. Obama seemed like a nice guy, but he did not have much of a record to run on. When it comes to voting, I place experience and accomplishments ahead of identity politics and personality. This is why John Edwards was also disqualified. He had even less government experience than Obama and did not prove himself to be a strong campaigner because of how little he helped John Kerry in 2004.

As for Hillary Clinton, she was certainly the "toughest" of the top three candidates, but I had really grown tired of the Bush vs. Clinton storyline and the constant snipping between their surrogates on the cable news channels. I was sick of hearing accusations of President Bush's lying be countered by reminding everyone about President Clinton's lying. I really wanted to move on from the Bush-Clinton dynastic noise and start over.

So my heart was with Biden. But after his loss in Iowa, Richardson's defeat in New Hampshire, and Edwards' embarrassment in South Carolina, I knew I would have to choose between Obama and Clinton. (I still voted for Biden in the South Carolina primary even though he had already dropped out of the race.)

After Super Tuesday my respect for Obama and his political skills increased. He was racking up delegates because he wisely created a campaign apparatus in far more states than Clinton, who felt she didn't need to do this because she was entitled to the nomination. As Clinton fell further and further behind, she became a lot more negative and off-putting. That just reminded me of the Bush-Clinton feuding and further turned me off from her.

But even though I was warming to Obama, I still wasn't sold on him. I appreciated the movement he was trying to create by giving regular people a greater stake in their democracy. And I appreciated his tone, which was more civil and not based on treating voters like they were stupid. But I feared he had too much brain and not enough heart. Hillary Clinton picked up on this and began to run up the score on Obama during the final two months of the campaign and largely rehabilitated her image in my eyes. Unfortunately for her, she had dug herself too large a hole.

Obama won the nomination fairly. The PUMA wing of the party can complain about superdelegates, Florida, Michigan, and half votes, but they should blame the Hillary Clinton campaign, strategist Mark Penn, and the Democratic National Committee for that instead, not Obama. He earned his place at the top of the ticket.

The outrage

So the battle was between a respectable Republican with a record and an intriguing Democrat without one. I thought this campaign would be a lot more civil and uplifting than the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, so I figured that regardless of who won the election, America would come out on top.

But then something changed. Channeling John Kerry, Senator John McCain became Candidate John McCain, and I did not like what I saw. And my worst fears about Senator Obama being overly cerebral came true.

Because of my disagreements with John McCain over foreign policy, the ongoing war in Iraq, and his tack to the religious right, I figured that there was only about a 30% chance that I'd vote for him. That has since become a 0% chance. Some of this is due to John McCain directly, but some of it is also due to his allies.

I am sick of this election being about middle names, flag pins, e-mail rumors, Paris Hilton, religion, and lipstick.

I am sick of the media fixating on insignificant nonsense while ignoring the issues that really matter to people.

I am sick of dishonest political advertising, political red herrings, stupid talking points, baseless accusations of media bias, and phony outrage.

I am sick of having my patriotism questioned because I thought the Iraq War was a terrible idea and don't support most of President Bush's policies.

I am sick of having flag pins determine how much an American loves this country.

I am sick of politicians demeaning our allies and then complaining when they don't enthusiastically support our policies.

I am sick of equating a politician's popularity abroad with political leprosy at home.

I am sick of the fact that a vice presidential nominee that nobody knows won't give media interviews because the media are not "deferential" enough to her.

I am even sicker of the media who let her get away with this in the first place.

The fears

This nation is in a state of historical decline in which we are becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the world and our own quality of life is decreasing. And that scares me.

We are spending billions of dollars in Iraq. Where is this money coming from?

Millions of people can't even afford to get sick, much less actually go to the doctor because health insurance and health care cost too much money.

The world is unstable, as Russia's incursion into Georgia and Iran's nuclear ambitions illustrate.

The environment is slowly degrading and the balance between man and nature is becoming skewed.

It costs three times as much to fill up my gas tank compared to 10 years ago.

A growing percentage of young people are failing to graduate from high school. And for those who do, it's more difficult for them to pay for college because tuition keeps rising and there is less financial aid available.

People are getting kicked out of their homes because of rising interest rates on their mortgages.

Brave Americans are dying and getting hurt every day in Iraq because of an ill-conceived war with an ill-defined mission. And these brave warriors are being neglected when they return home.

There is no transparency in our government. Instead, our national leaders are saying "Trust us" even though they have given us every reason not to.

Laws are being written, passed, and ignored because of presidential signing statements.

An American city drowned and has yet to be rebuilt.

We are one Supreme Court appointment away from major reversals in longstanding social policy.

Politicians are accusing other politicians of being elitists because they went to private schools and sent their children to private schools even though these very same politicians want to institute vouchers that would let parents send their own children to private schools.

Politicians are politicizing America by using phony and loaded slogans like "country first," as if every other candidate running for president doesn't do so.

I am sick of it. There are too many serious issues that need to be addressed, but the quest to win the daily news cycle is crowding everything out.

The endorsement

John McCain would probably be a competent president. And should he win, I would pray for his health every day because I have little respect for and little confidence in Sarah Palin. And I hope that President McCain would govern as Senator McCain, not Candidate McCain.

I have strong disagreements with Barack Obama when it comes to illegal immigration, corporate taxes, tort reform, and entitlement programs. But after what I have seen from the increasingly dishonorable McCain campaign and the doe-eyed media over the past two or three weeks, I have decided that enough is enough.

The path McCain took to get here has caused me to lose a lot of respect for him. His "country first" slogan is a total farce and the phony outrage coming from his campaign over accusations of sexism and celebrity show him to be nothing more than a tool of the very same people who turned George Bush into a polarizing 30% president who only cares about 30% of the electorate.

Real leaders don't accuse their political rivals of wanting to lose a war before losing an election. That's not "country first."

Real leaders don't distract the electorate from substantive issues by throwing up smokescreens about minutia. That's not "country first" either.

Real leaders don't choose their vice presidential nominees after just meeting them once. It reminds me of "looking into Vladimir Putin's soul." While Palin has so far turned out to be a tremendous success for his campaign, the fact remains that this was an irresponsible gamble that has been rendered even more irresponsible by the fact that he is restricting media access to her as if she should not have to be scrutinized by the press.

Real leaders don't cry sexism over stupid remarks about lipstick, especially when they themselves have used the exact same expression in the past and commonly ridicule others for political correctness.

Real leaders don't scare voters by linking their political opponents to children and sex education.

Real leaders don't continue to shout out talking points that have long since definitively been proven false.

An Obama defeat would vindicate the strategists who believed that diverting discussion from education policy, the economy, and Iraq to a discussion about lipstick and sexism are the keys to winning the White House.

An Obama defeat would vindicate a media that is derelict in its responsibilities.

An Obama defeat would lead to a likely Clinton nomination in 2012 and signify to voters that the only way you can win the White House is to throw mud and engage in character assassination. Bush did that in 2000 and 2004, McCain is doing that this year, and should McCain win, Hillary Clinton will do that again in 2012. I don't want politics to be that way.

No more wedge politics.
No more journalistic negligence and irresponsibility.
No more lipstick. And freedom fries. And jokes about France.
No more chants of U-S-A whenever a Republican politician bashes a Democrat.
No more scaring the electorate by linking politicians with children and sex.
No more hiding behind the flag and impugning another American's patriotism.

I have serious reservations about Obama's lack of experience. But the fact that he chose Joe Biden as his running mate reassures me. The two have a good personal relationship, so I know that Biden will always speak his mind even if it means giving Obama bad news. And he can serve as a liaison between the old Washington and the new. Biden-Obama would have been preferable to Obama-Biden, but that is not how the campaigns turned out. But perhaps because Obama is at the top of the ticket, that makes the contrast in tone between Obama-Biden and McCain-Palin all the more stark.

I do not endorse Barack Obama because I care much for his political views. And I do not endorse him because of his personal story. I endorse Barack Obama because everything he's running against must not be validated by his defeat.

Even if you may not agree with Obama's political ideas, I hope you at least agree with his political approach. After Paris Hilton, feigned cries of sexism, blaming the media, and lipstick, it is safe to say that the United States can't afford to have this nonsense be rewarded by a McCain victory because that will only allow it to continue in 2012. America deserves better than this.

8/22/2008

Why Pundits Are Often Wrong

All pundits dream of being the only analyst who gets it right. They want to be the only person to accurately call an election down to the actual margin of victory. It's a bit like filling out your brackets during March Madness. There are obvious favorites, sleepers, longshots, and underdogs with a fighting chance just waiting to wreak havoc on a prognosticator's predictions. Anything can happen. That's the beauty of college basketball and political punditry.

When it comes to predicting a political event, such as an election or a cabinet pick, there are two routes a pundit can go:

1. Follow conventional wisdom and echo popular sentiment.

2. Go against the grain, even if you're all alone in doing so.

Of course, the rewards are far greater if you opt for the second option and your predictions turn out to be true. You are the prescient analyst. You are the only credible voice in a sea of noise. You are the analyst who can truly feel the pulse of the electorate or the politician in question. Your future opinions will be trusted, as you have earned instant credibility. Sometimes this desire to have one's punditry bonafides bolstered leads them to go out on a limb for the sake of not being like everyone else, even though they are sure that the popular choice is probably the correct one. How many pundits thought Bob Dole would beat Bill Clinton in 1996? While that was never going to happen, how many pundits inflated Dole's chances just because the benefits of being all alone on the right side of history were too tantalizing to ignore?

In my recent prediction, I said that Virginia Governor Tim Kaine would be tapped as Obama's running mate. However, over the past few hours news has surfaced that he is no longer in the running. Pass the humble pie with a side order of crow, please.

Joe Biden is looking like the obvious choice now. I have long been bullish on Biden in this blog and believe he is the strongest possible choice Obama could make. Even though I had these thoughts about Biden when I made my prediction, I was thinking that Barack Obama would surprise the electorate by choosing someone other than the obvious. Of course, while Obama still has not made his selection public, it is looking increasingly obvious that the senior senator from Delaware is on the verge of getting a promotion.

Pundits want to be right. But if there is a plausible underdog, they want to be unique too. Unfortunately, sometimes their desire to be unique is not compatible with their goal of being right. Joe Biden would have been an easy pick for me to make, as I've cited his merits on numerous occasions in this blog. But there's no fun in punditry if you are simply another "me too" in the media or the blogosphere whose identity is blurred by your own reticence to exercising independence of thought.

Of course, punditry should be about analyzing the actual data available and making intelligent judgments based on them. It should not be about inflating pundits' own egos. But like politicians, pundits have to take risks too. That's how they move up the hierarchy. So the next time a pundit gets it wrong, it might not be because they are out of touch with the electorate or because they are blowing hot air. After all, their own legitimacy as a political analyst is at stake. Sometimes it's simply a matter of not trusting oneself.

8/08/2008

Lame Political Discourse: Tire Gauges

Fresh off of the controversy surrounding Paris Hilton in a John McCain attack ad, the latest episode of political nonsense stems from Barack Obama's suggestion that Americans ensure that their tires are properly inflated and that their cars are properly maintained so that they can improve their gas mileage and help use less oil. John McCain and Republicans seized on this comment by claiming it was indicative of Obama's naivete by being overly simplistic. McCain even turned this into a fundraising tool by showing the image of a tire gauge with the misleading term "Obama Energy Plan" written on it. In response, Obama labeled the attacks and ridicule as ignorant.

Properly inflating your tires and getting regular tune-ups is obviously not a comprehensive solution to our nation's energy crisis. However, Barack Obama is not saying that it is despite Republicans' outright lies to the contrary. Obama is on record for supporting increased fuel efficiency standards, increased reliance on renewable energy sources, and even offshore drilling as part of a compromise solution. And regarding tires and tune-ups, Obama even said that it was simply something we could all do now--obviously just one component of an overall energy solution. Will anyone call Republicans out on this distortion?

According to Time and Politifact, Obama's solution both makes sense and is factually sound. Inflating your tires and getting regular tune-ups is a good first step for several reasons:

1) It can be done now, so the savings can be felt immediately.
2) It requires no big government intervention.
3) It is not dependent on Congress reaching a compromise and the President signing a bill.
4) It makes our roads safer because cars that are properly maintained are less likely to break down.
5) It has no adverse environmental impact.
6) It encourages personal responsibility.
7) It actually works, thus increasing fuel economy, saving money, and using less oil.

The fact that Obama is advocating an immediate and legitimate solution that encourages personal responsibility and needs no government solution would suggest that conservatives and Republicans should embrace his message. But instead, they are mocking him out of partisan blindness. Florida Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican and possible McCain running mate, has made the exact same recommendation. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California also echoed this approach. Where was the ridicule then?

Voters who are joining in ridiculing Barack Obama for this solution are akin to those who dismiss common sense approaches to protecting their children from inappropriate content on television. You could propose increased fines for indecency, V-chips in all televisions, or even outright bans on adult or violent content. Those are all solutions with various degrees of merit. But they take time to implement and require lots of compromises, as do offshore drilling, taxing oil companies, and harnessing renewable energy sources. But a common sense approach that everyone could adopt immediately to protect their children is to take greater control over what their children watch by watching television together or restricting the times in which their children are allowed to watch it. Of course that won't solve everything, just as properly inflated tires won't solve all our energy problems, but at least it's something that can be done now and is something that actually works. So again, why the ridicule? Fortunately, the Chicago Tribune suggests that these sophomoric jabs might be misplaced.

It will take years before the oil obtained from offshore drilling can actually be pumped into our gas tanks. But Republicans are right to argue that we should have started drilling years ago because we had these exact same arguments during the 1990s.

It will also take years before automakers are able to mass produce automobiles that run on more environmentally-friendly sources of fuel. But Democrats are right to argue that we should have increased fuel efficiency standards years ago. President Jimmy Carter was right to make energy conservation and fuel efficiency central issues of his presidency 30 years ago, but he was relentlessly mocked for it. Everybody remembers the sweater he wore during his "malaise speech," but the overall point of his message fell upon deaf ears. Obama tire gauges now are the new Carter sweaters.

Republicans are mocking Obama for not being serious about energy and are essentially trying to turn him into a cartoon or a laughing stock. But this abject lack of maturity in their response to this solution is appalling. By mocking Obama, they are essentially saying that getting tune-ups is not important and that it's okay if you drive with underinflated tires. They are also saying that even though Obama's solution actually works and incorporates conservative principles of small government and personal responsibility, it shouldn't be taken seriously, thus further exacerbating our nation's energy problems. And by falsely reducing Obama's overall energy policy to something you can buy at your local Auto Zone, Republicans are banking on voters' ignorance and lack of sophistication.

These voters should be offended, not tickled. Instead of joining the chorus of voices who are laughing at Obama, they should be asking John McCain and Republican operatives why this is even a laughing matter to begin with.

This kind of childishness makes me wonder how many people are supporting Obama not because they endorse his liberal policies, but rather because they are tired of the inane debates over freedom fries, flag pins, middle names, and now tire gauges. To these voters, would a McCain victory be seen as a tacit approval of this kind of nonsense while an Obama victory direct repudiates it?

Both political sides are guilty of overheated rhetoric, intellectual dishonesty, fact tweaking, and petty namecalling. Neither side is immune to hysteria, fear-mongering, feigned outrage, and mudslinging. But abject ignorance is an even worse offense and speaks volumes about the politicians who prey on it and the voters who buy into it.

8/05/2008

Lamentations of an Educated Voter: Media Malpractice

I was watching television with my wife last night while we were eating dinner. Pundits were still talking about possible racist overtones in John McCain's internet ad showing Barack Obama with Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears. The chief pundit then introduced two guests who had completely different views of the ad. When I saw whom the two guests were, I told my wife they were about to start shouting. And sure enough, they did.

"I didn't interrupt you when you were speaking, so don't interrupt me!"

"This is absurd. Are you serious?"

The conversation then degenerated into a discussion about phallic symbols in the campaign ad and how that was an implicit reminder of Black male sexuality and lust over White women. The Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Washington Monument both appeared in the ad and were somehow construed as symbols of male sexual organs.

Aghast at what I was watching, the conversation descended yet again to another high-decibel waste of time.

"This is nothing more than the perpetuation of stereotypical Black sexual imagery and must be denounced!"

"Oh, please! That's garbage. You're just mad because Barack Obama finally got called out on playing the race card!"

"Wait a minute! Wait a minute! One at a time!"

After explaining what they were arguing about to my wife, who hadn't heard all of the discussion, she then chimed in with her own bit of political commentary:

"They sound like a dog and a monkey. How did they get on TV?"

(A message to the politically correct crowd: My wife, who is Japanese, was using a Japanese expression that says when a dog and a monkey are placed together, they will only fight. Nobody is calling anyone a monkey.)

Anyway, we've been down this road before--too many times in fact. First we had flag pins. Then we had campaign staffers calling candidates "monsters." Then we had John Hagee, Michael Pflager, and Jeremiah Wright. Bowling scores made a cameo before Cindy McCain's cookie recipes took center stage. The "terrorist fist jab" was next. Then Michelle Obama's temperament. And Barack Obama's testicles. Then came the New Yorker magazine cover. And now we're wasting time yet again discussing whether the Washington Monument is comparable to a giant phallus and interpreting it as a sign of latent Black male sexuality. Are you serious?

The main reason why these stories are able to persist so long in the media is that the media simply can't let them go. John McCain's campaign made a clever ad that may have had certain undertones. Or maybe it didn't. Barack Obama tried to preempt the opposition regardless by warning voters that they (his political opponents) would try to smear him in the future using wedge issues. But he erred when he linked John McCain directly to these campaign tactics and paid a political price. We get it. And now we don't care anymore.

And yet, the media can't help themselves. Long after everyone has moved on, this story is still getting oxygen, much to the detriment of both the Obama and McCain campaigns. People who are not affiliated with either campaign whatsoever are now threatening to turn this stupid story into a full blown cultural war at a time when people of all political leanings are more worried about gas prices, retirement security, job losses, and Iraq instead of this nonsense, as Paris Hilton's mother and even John McCain's mother reminded us.

We know the media can't resist a good story. And we know the media love controversies. But at some point, the media need to learn that they don't exist for themselves. They exist for regular people who want to know what's happening in the world and on the campaign trail. The job of the media is to filter out the nonsense and report on what matters. Arguing about racial overtones in an ad is already borderline silly. Fortunately, that is at least a debatable issue. But to prolong this discussion by injecting comparisons between national landmarks and phalluses is jaw-droppingly stupid.

And it needs to stop.

The presidential election process is already bastardized enough by an inequitable primary calendar, an antiquated Electoral College, two out-of-touch political parties, and a crude 24-hour cable news cycle of gotcha journalism that magnifies the trivial and glosses over the substantial. The American people deserve far more than the petty shouting and schoolyard taunts we're subjected to on a daily basis. This is supposed to be an election for the single most powerful elected position in the world, but we're treating it like an episode of Jerry Springer or Melrose Place.

Shame on the media for feeding us this garbage, and shame on us for not demanding more from it. Where is the outrage?

7/21/2008

John McCain and Obama's Trip: A Failure of Bravado

John McCain and Republicans have repeatedly criticized Barack Obama for not visiting Iraq and consulting with the military and political leaders there. Many Republican officials and conservative bloggers mocked him by starting a clock keeping track of how many days it has been since Obama last visited Iraq. These clocks have been common fixtures on Republican and conservative blogs. The Republican National Committee was the impetus behind this clock, as this quote from Chairman Robert Duncan indicates:

"Barack Obama has only visited Iraq once--and that was 871 days ago. Obama's failure to visit Iraq, listen and learn firsthand, and witness the surge's progress demonstrates weak leadership that disqualifies him from being Commander in Chief."
Even Republican vice presidential hopeful Mitt Romney blasted Obama for not visiting Iraq:
"I don’t see how a United States senator who is looking to be the nominee of his party and create policy with regards to terrorism and policy with regards to Iraq could simply avoid going to Iraq and learning about how the surge was working. I mean the surge was working. It's too bad he missed it."
Obama eventually called their bluff and scheduled a trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East, and Europe. The McCain campaign initially minimized Obama's trip as an overseas campaign rally (after ridiculing him for not even going), and that's when the wheels came off.

In just one week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has come out in support of Obama's plan by saying he wants military troops to leave Iraq by 2010. President Bush is calling for a "general time horizon" regarding the future in Iraq which contradicts McCain's position of not creating "timelines." And the United States has recently sent mid-level envoys to meet with the Iranians in Switzerland, further buttressing Obama's openness to initiating dialogues with rogue nations. And as the situation in Iraq improves, the battle in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly perilous. Now it might become militarily necessary for troops to be taken out of Iraq and redeployed to Afghanistan to help stabilize the situation there. That further undercuts McCain's message of staying in Iraq until "victory" is achieved. This is all quite validating for Barack Obama while making John McCain's positions look increasingly lonely.

Now Obama is getting favorable press coverage and gets to look presidential shaking hands with the soldiers and leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan while McCain gives press conferences with President George H.W. Bush in Maine. He even scored more political gold by making a tough basketball shot in a gym surrounded by soldiers. The Obama campaign couldn't have asked for better imagery. Even though making a basketball shot has nothing to do with one's ability to govern, Obama actually made himself look cool while perhaps subtly reminding voters of his youth--in contrast to the elder McCain. It also works against the elitist caricature because elitists don't know what to do with basketballs, much less know how to shoot them.

The pictures and videos of Obama shaking hands and smiling with the troops in Iraq shows that the military likes him. Republicans who accused liberals and Democrats of "not supporting the troops" should also have egg on their faces because the cheering troops in the videos that have come from his trip so far suggest that Obama is actually quite popular among them.

So now Obama is traveling from country to country and meeting various military and foreign leaders with all of the major media outlets in tow. He looks presidential. He's receiving enthusiastic crowds. He's giving voters the opportunity to actually see him conducting mock presidential duties. And that undercuts the common McCain attack of Obama being inexperienced because the photos and videos of him in Iraq are suggesting that even if he may be inexperienced, he is at least experienced enough.

Obama obviously won't be an expert on international relations after this one trip, but it's difficult to criticize Obama for not going to Iraq and then criticize him for actually going. And if Obama's not going to Iraq was such a big deal earlier, why are so many Republicans and conservatives minimizing the trip's significance now? Complaints about how much money this trip is costing taxpayers seems a bit silly because his opponents are the ones who goaded him into making this trip to begin with. And McCain has visited Iraq at taxpayers' expense several times, so it would seem that conservatives' outrage is misplaced.

McCain forced Obama to play on his turf and so far, Obama is rising to the challenge. Obama will probably cut into McCain's lead when it comes to military and foreign affairs. And this trip has knocked McCain out of the headlines. And even worse, it will be hard for McCain to criticize Obama's trip in the future without it sounding like sour grapes. Oh, and because he went, McCain lost his talking point about Obama not talking with the military leaders there too.

So McCain has to find a way to make himself relevant again or risk falling too far behind Obama in the polls to catch up without help. One possible way to seize the microphone would be to name his running mate early. But this would give him one less tool in his arsenal that he could use after the Olympics and the Democratic Convention. Another option is to go back to Iraq, but that may make it seem like he's going for political reasons (to keep up with Obama) instead of pragmatic reasons (to get information from the military commanders there).

McCain is making some political hay out of the New York Times' rejection of his essay on Iraq in its op-ed pages. Complaining about media bias is always a good way to drum up support among the conservative base, but it is worth mentioning that the New York Times endorsed John McCain in the Republican primaries and did not endorse Barack Obama (the Times endorsed Hillary Clinton instead). And is it in McCain's best interest to play the victim at home while Obama is looking strong overseas?

The moral of the story is to be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. This is an example of simple politics and talking points backfiring and leaving your campaign worse off than you would have been had you kept your mouth shut.

7/15/2008

The Obama Caricatures Revisited

The liberal magazine The New Yorker provided the latest bit of controversy with the cover of its latest issue. If you haven't seen this provocative cover by now, you can access it here.

The New Yorker essentially took every false impression of Obama and meshed them together into cover art that can accurately be described as brilliant, tasteless, courageous, and slanderous. While some may have found this cover tasteless or irresponsible, cries for censorship seem a bit overboard and will not gain much traction.

Voters who understand satire know what this cover is all about. Barack HUSSEIN Obama is dressed as a proud Arab Muslim while an angry-looking Michelle Obama is dressed as a radical Black militant with a machine gun and an afro. Both are doing a "terrorist fist jab," as opposed to a more benign fist bump. No flag lapel pin is to be found on Obama's shirt, but an American flag is burning in the fireplace under a portrait of Osama bin Laden, whom Obama reveres. After all, Obama is an unpatriotic terrorist sympathizer who has no allegiance to the United States and can't wait to destroy this nation from within.

The New Yorker's combination of satire and hyperbole should (emphasis on "should") lead voters to realize that these persistent rumors about Obama are completely unfounded and that this caricature of him is obviously both invalid and silly. However, voters who didn't buy into these Muslim rumors to begin with or who later arrived at the truth about Obama didn't need this magazine cover to prove these rumors false. Also, it is important to note once again that The New Yorker is a liberal magazine. Obama's liberal base would be more likely to read this magazine than other voters, but they were already comfortable with Obama and understand the satirical aspect of the cover. So that begs the question of exactly who The New Yorker's audience was. (Imagine the outrage if a conservative publication like the National Review had used this cover!)

Notice my use of the word "should" in the previous paragraph. Remember, this nation is not long removed from "freedom fries," accusing people who disagreed with President Bush's war policies of being "against America," and viewing flag pins as the only unequivocal way to express one's patriotism. But these voters don't read The New Yorker. Many of them have probably never even heard of it. And they probably weren't going to vote for Obama either. These voters will probably look at this provocative magazine cover and conclude that his lack of forcefully denouncing it means the caricature must be true. Obama can't win with these voters and shouldn't waste his time with them.

Yes, a significant part of the electorate is decidedly anti-Obama for reasons that are unrelated to his liberal ideology. Think about all the advantages a generic Democrat has over a generic Republican on issue after issue in most polls. There's an unpopular war, a shaky economy, an unpopular two-term Republican president, and greater dissatisfaction among voters with the Republican Party. But Barack Obama the candidate is only barely beating John McCain the candidate. So it would seem that Obama's underperformance in spite of so many favorable indicators to the contrary is at least partially due to an anti-Muslim, anti-Black vote. The anti-liberal vote doesn't care one iota about Obama or The New Yorker either, but at least their opposition is more benign.

The danger for Obama is that these kinds of stories only get people talking about the very stuff Obama is trying to avoid--not because he's a closet Muslim radical, but rather because it takes him off message. He would much rather talk about his plan for the economy and Afghanistan than how offended he was by some magazine cover. And because Obama is still new to the political scene, voters are still forming their impressions of him as a politician. Surely, he would rather define himself than have others define him the way Tony Rezko, Jeremiah Wright, Michael Pfleger, Wesley Clark, Jesse Jackson, and now The New Yorker have done with varying degrees of success.

As for political ramifications, this controversy is not good news for Hillary Clinton either. Some of her campaign volunteers were responsible for spreading some of these rumors before the Iowa caucuses last fall. And Clinton herself did not definitively swat down rumors about Obama's religion by claiming that he was not a Muslim "as far as she knew." In other words, her veepstakes odds may have become a little longer.

Of course, the fact that people are at least talking about this magazine cover is good for society because dialogue breeds understanding. Anytime the nation talks about ethics and race, progress is being made. Obama's candidacy is forcing everyone to reassess issues of race, religion, and gender.

Also, as an unintended advantage for Obama, voters who disagree with his politics may support him regardless because they view his election as a means by which they can repudiate the media, the punditry, and tabloid journalism in general. They might not like his politics, but they are fed up with the sideshows, phony outrage, misplaced priorities, insincere retractions, and forced expressions of contrition that have plagued this campaign season.

Having said all that, this controversy illustrates another problem with the nexus of politics, the media, and voters.

When voters complain about their politicians not offering enough specifics, media feeding frenzies like this magazine cover are often to blame. Until voters demand more from their politicians and audiences demand more from the media, it will only be a matter of days before the nation is distracted yet again by another surrogate- or media-induced controversy. Politics should be about governance, but it is treated as an extended soap opera in which people spend more time dissecting and anticipating missteps than actually analyzing their policies. Our short attention spans are exploited by the media whenever they seize on these distractions.

At what point will voters and the media stop focusing on these sideshows? Why should anybody care what Pundit X, Talking Head Y, and the staff at Media Organization Z think? This campaign should be about Barack Obama's and John McCain's plans for the nation. Our political discussion should be about the economy, taxes, immigration, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Supreme Court, domestic spending, and foreign policy. But this pragmatism is nowhere to be found, as the campaigns have come to be defined by flag pins, fist bumps, cooking recipes, genitalia, Vietnam, pastors, White entitlement, and now magazine covers. Again, while it is good that the nation is discussing issues of race, gender, and religion, even if awkwardly, it must be stated that the way in which our nation's political dialogue can so easily be derailed by peripheral matters is doing everyone a great disservice.

7/14/2008

Lamentations of an Educated Voter: On Whiners, Pragmatism, and Reality

Barack Obama and John McCain are experiencing great difficulty keeping their surrogates in check and on message. Last week, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson got in trouble by making a vulgar remark in regards to his frustration with Obama. The media had a field day with this, as they couldn't stop talking about Jackson's diminished stature or possible fissures on Obama's left.

The McCain camp, however, would not be outdone. Shortly after Jackson's mouth got him in trouble, chief economic advisor and former Texas Senator Phil Gramm created even more controversy by claiming the United States was in a "mental recession" and accusing us of being "a nation of whiners." (You can access the video clip here.) Obviously, voters don't like to be called names, but on top of that, in an election in which economic anxiety is weighing heavily on voters' minds, these remarks could not have come at a worse time.

Of course, this brouhaha was catnip for pundits and journalists. Gramm tried to backpedal a bit by claiming our political leaders were the "whiners," not the actual voters. But he did not retract his statement at all, nor did he apologize. McCain has since cut ties with Gramm and said that he doesn't speak for his campaign. McCain and Gramm are personal friends who share a long history, but he really didn't have much choice because had Gramm stayed on board, that would have made McCain risk looking out of touch with voters' needs. And lingering complaints about Barack Obama waiting so long to dissociate himself from his church would ring hollow because McCain would still have his association with the advisor who claimed that voters were whiners.

That's politics. Fine.

But what if there were real kernels of truth to what Gramm was saying? I wrote about the need for consumers to practice fiscal responsibility earlier this year when the economic stimulus rebate checks were being debated in Congress. I argued that the economy was worse for people who brought about their ruin through their own poor financial decisions:

"Consumers who paid their bills on time never had to worry about subprime mortgages. Consumers with tight wallets who bought board games or comic books for Christmas instead of DVD players and laptop computers aren't worrying about paying down credit card debt. Lower-income consumers who are driving Corollas instead of Camrys and station wagons instead of SUVs aren't worrying about expensive car insurance and high car payments."
Gas prices notwithstanding, Gramm was likely arguing that consumers should live within their means and that those who haven't been doing so are really feeling the pinch now.

Many consumers seem to have forgotten this and tried to live above their paychecks. This was made easier by offers of no payments for 6 months, 0.9% financing, and two-for-one specials. Nice cars with powerful engines and big homes in well-to-do neighborhoods are expressions of wealth that usually take years to acquire. But telling voters that they should have bought a 27" regular television instead of a 40" flat-screen one or that they should have bought a base model car instead of a limited edition model car is the exact kind of "eat your vegetables" rhetoric that voters tune out. President Jimmy Carter learned this the hard way when he talked about the need for voters to conserve energy and reduce waste only to be ridiculed and have his message be dubbed the infamous malaise speech.

Solutions without sacrifice seems to be a common theme that voters respond to.

Voters want to find a solution to our nation's energy crisis. But they don't want to drill in certain areas or increase fuel efficiency standards for automobiles.

Voters want to pay less for gas. But they don't want to drive slower on the highway. And they want to keep driving their SUVs and cars with V6 engines.

Voters want to increase social services and have a better transportation infrastructure. But they don't want to pay the higher taxes necessary to support them.

Voters want to win the battle in Iraq. But they don't want to send their own family members over there to fight even though the military is stretched thin.

Voters want to increase border security and crack down on illegal immigrants. But they don't want to pay the higher prices that would result from their deportation.

Voters want the best possible health care they can get. But they don't want to give up their smoking, drinking, overeating, junkfood, and couch potato lifestyle.

Voters don't want to be overwhelmed by the economy. But they don't want to give up the houses they should not have moved into or the cars they should not have bought.

Voters want the best, brightest, most pragmatic, most worldly, and most prescient people to occupy the White House. But they (voters and the media) don't want to ask them any substantive questions during the campaign because they get bored (or they think their audiences will get bored) by gory policy details. (What happened this primary season was a travesty.)

This mentality seems to start young and only become more glaring with age.

Students want to get good grades. But they don't want to study for their classes. So they use CliffsNotes or complain to their teachers when they get a B or a C.

Overweight people want to be thin. But they don't want to go on diets or exercise regularly. So they get surgery or complain about discrimination against fat people.

Adults want to be wealthy. But they don't want to stop spending their money on sales, dresses, and video games they can't do without. So they use their credit cards and spend money they really don't have.

Politicians have unfortunately seized on this "solutions without sacrifice" mentality by making promises they can't keep and offering broad goals that we can all agree with, unencumbered by pesky specifics. And voters lap it up like candy.

After September 11, a grieving nation was solidly behind the president and ready to do whatever it took to get the United States back on its feet and help bring justice to the terrorists who attacked us. President Bush then told the nation to "go shopping."

John McCain talks about fiscal responsibility with government finances. But he won't include defense spending when it comes to balancing the budget. Thus, the Iraq War would essentially be financed by simply printing more money, thus further weakening the dollar--a practice that could have consequences that more than offset the fiscal discipline exercised by working within the non-defense portion of the budget.

Barack Obama talks about the need for standing up to President Bush and his prosecution of the War on Terror. One of the central parts of Bush's anti-terrorism policy is the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act which grants telecommunications companies immunity in the event that accusations of warrantless wiretapping were pursued in court. Obama was long opposed to FISA, but ultimately supported an amended FISA compromise that kept this immunity intact.

Voters from all over the political spectrum are criticizing McCain and Obama for their apparent contradictions. McCain is a warmonger who will break the budget and Obama is an opportunistic flip-flopper. But the truth of the matter is, both politicians' decisions have merit in that prosecuting a war and gathering intelligence are complex issues that cannot be reduced to 30 second campaign ads or a slogan on a bumper sticker. So voters are excoriating both candidates for actually taking the complexities of geopolitical reality into consideration.

Back to Phil Gramm.

As was the case with Wesley Clark, perhaps Gramm should have been a bit more tactful when giving his remarks. As a result, like Clark's remarks, the central part of his message was obscured by how the message was delivered. However, he has touched upon something very real, not just about our struggling economy, but also about our own responsibilities to ourselves, our families, and our government.

You can't get something for nothing. And no complex problem has a simple solution. For voters to expect otherwise is irresponsible. There's only so much that a politician, media organization, or government agency can do. The rest is up to a mature and pragmatic citizenry. And in light of the fallout from Gramm's remarks, it seems that many of us still don't get it.

6/23/2008

Echoes of Katrina: A Case for Conservatism

The major weather story this month concerns the terrible flooding in the Midwest. Torrential rains upstream have caused what is now being described as a 500-year flood. Communities all along the Mississippi River are being destroyed by floodwaters racing through breaches in levees, some of which may have been unacceptably weak to begin with. Dozens of lives have been lost and losses from crops and businesses total in the billions.

The biggest tragedy, however, is that many residents affected by these floods had no flood insurance. Some of them didn't feel they needed it. Others said they were "misled" by federal authorities who suggested they didn't need it. And others still believed the levees in their communities would protect them from the rivers nearby.

This introduces a teachable moment that shows the appeal of conservatism and the role of individuals in society. The inspiration for this blog post came from a well reasoned defense of conservatism written by Rick Frea over at Freadom Nation. In short, Hurricane Katrina and the California wildfires last fall should have taught homeowners everywhere about the importance of taking precautions.

But apparently, these lessons were lost on those who most needed to hear them.

A house is the single most important and most valuable investment a person will make in his lifetime. Not purchasing adequate insurance seems illogical at best and irresponsible at worst. If you live on a floodplain near a river that periodically overflows, you need to purchase flood insurance.

Purchasing a home without purchasing insurance is akin to driving an expensive car without insurance. It might save you a little money to drive without insurance each month, but when you get in an accident or get pulled over by the police for a traffic violation, all the money you saved by skimping on insurance is more than offset by having to pay a hefty no-insurance fee or having to pay for a new car out of pocket. And no matter how careful a driver you are, there are times when accidents and poor drivers are simply unavoidable.

This is the conservative position. Because these families were negligent, they have lost everything. Many of them are blaming FEMA and the government for not telling them they needed to purchase flood insurance. But you shouldn't need the government to tell you that. If you live near a major river that has flooded before and is likely to flood again, you have no one to blame but yourself when the inevitable happens. This flood has affected both liberal and conservative counties in Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois. And liberals and conservatives alike are blaming the government for not protecting them. But whose fault is that?

One of the criticisms of conservatism is that it is too harsh or insensitive, particularly when it comes to personal responsibility, self-reliance, and helping those in need. However, what can be said for people who are knowingly negligent? Should responsible homeowners in other parts of the United States be forced to use their tax dollars to subsidize the negligence of uninsured homeowners who should have known better?

The frequent rains should have given these homeowners and river communities sufficient warning. The flooding in Wisconsin should have given at-risk communities downstream sufficient warning. Hurricane Katrina should have given waterfront communities everywhere sufficient warning. The historic floods of 1993 should have given residents of these low-lying areas sufficient warning.

And yet, so many homeowners didn't heed these warnings.

These communities should rebuild, just as New Orleans should rebuild. After all, if these communities disappear and people move away from the Mississippi River and its surrounding floodplains, who will manage our shipping lanes? Who will plant our corn, raise our livestock, and grow our wheat?

Natural disasters are unavoidable, and they can happen anywhere. There are earthquakes on the West Coast, hurricanes in the Southeast, wildfires in the West, blizzards in the Northeast, tornadoes in the Great Plains, and flooding near any river. But home is home, so it may not be practical for a person to simply pack up and move. But even though you may be at the mercy of nature, you should at least have the wisdom to protect yourself, your family, and your home by making sure you have the proper insurance.

Perhaps liberalism would have helped protect these homeowners by providing them with appropriate flood maps, building subsidies, insurance requirements, and levee improvements as Barack Obama has criticized John McCain for not supporting. But part of the beauty of being an American is that even though we may need help at times, we are ultimately the masters of our own domain. And nothing good could be said of a government or a nation that must take it upon itself to protect its own people from themselves.

The Republican brand may be damaged, but with the right messenger, conservatism could find a larger audience.

6/13/2008

Footprints of a Giant: A Tribute to Tim Russert

This is a post I never expected to write--at least not for another 20 years or so.

NBC Washington bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press Tim Russert died today as a result of an apparent heart attack. He was 58.

I found out about this terrible news when I got home from work this afternoon and turned on the TV so I could watch Hardball with Chris Matthews. My eyes became misty as I tried to take in the magnitude of this loss. This was a double blow for me personally because not only did he set the gold standard for political analysis, but he was also a damn good journalist.

Political junkies everywhere knew Mr. Russert. (I can't bring myself to call him "Tim." As an amateur analyst, I consider it disrespectful.) Mr. Russert's political acumen was matched by no one, and I mean no one. Even people who didn't follow politics closely knew who this man was. They respected him and enthusiastically let him into their dining rooms every Sunday morning over breakfast for Meet the Press. And they did this for 17 years.

There was nothing glitzy or bombastic about him. While others had their digital maps and electronic panels, Mr. Russert had his portable whiteboard and dry erase markers. He was pure class. His questions were tough, but never unfair. His political analyses were sharp, but never wonky. He clearly knew what he was talking about and could express himself in such a way that even regular people could make sense of what he was saying and come out of watching his interviews feeling that they had learned something.

Mr. Russert was the one political analyst that would make me stop what I was doing just so I could hear what he had to say. Mr. Russert was the one political analyst that made me actually scour a news website just so I could download podcasts of his interviews. Mr. Russert was the one political analyst I could listen to for a whole hour without wanting to change the channel or throw something at the screen.

Mr. Russert was a tough journalist who always played it straight. He didn't have any axes to grind. He didn't try to play gotcha with his guests. He didn't shout or talk over anyone. He didn't waste anyone's time by throwing softballs. He didn't enter an interview without having done his homework first. He didn't blow smoke like so many other pundits and pass it off as "analysis." His opinions were actually worth listening to.

Chris Matthews is good. Judy Woodruff is good. Ronald Brownstein is good. Howard Fineman is good. Stuart Rothenberg is good. Charlie Cook is good. And Bill Schneider is good.

But they aren't Tim Russert.

Those are going to be some very, very large shoes to fill. David Gregory and Chuck Todd were clearly being groomed to succeed Mr. Russert someday, but I don't think anyone anticipated having to fill this giant's shoes so soon.

For me personally, watching Mr. Russert inspired me to improve the quality of my own political analysis. I didn't want to be the kind of analyst who called people stupid or losers or America haters or Bible thumpers. I wanted to be the kind of analyst people respected. I wanted to be the kind of analyst who commanded the open ears of people who were genuinely interested in what I wanted to say. I only regret that I didn't have more opportunities to study Mr. Russert's work; he was taken away far too soon.

What a terrible loss for the world of politics and for the institution of journalism. And for Mr. Russert, I hope you enjoy watching the rest of this campaign play out from above.

Thank you, Mr. Russert, for being the consummate professional.

6/12/2008

Gas Prices: A Failure of Conservatism

Gas prices have become one of the most important political issues this year. When the average price of a gallon of gas first reached $2 a gallon, there was shock. When they reached $3 a gallon, there was disbelief. And now they have topped $4 a gallon. People are suffering. Small businesses are suffering. Truckers are suffering. Farmers are suffering. Airlines are suffering. Everyone is suffering.

Last month I wrote about the absurdity of the gas tax holiday that John McCain has proposed. (Hillary Clinton also proposed this, but she's not a candidate anymore.) I argued that repealing the gas tax (currently 18.4 cents per gallon) would only encourage more consumers to buy more gas at a time when we're complaining about our dependence on foreign oil. Reducing our consumption of foreign oil and making gas cheaper by temporarily eliminating a fuel tax are not reconcilable.

To drive down gas prices, you only have two choices: increase supply or reduce demand. Repealing the gas tax does neither. Increasing supply can be done, but it is not a short term solution. Drilling in Alaska, the Mountain West, and the continental shelf along the Gulf of Mexico will take several years before the oil there makes it into our automobiles. Energy analyst Chris Nelder of Energy and Capital is skeptical about the overall value of these solutions for similar reasons.

The only short term solutions center around reducing demand. And this is where conservatism, and to a lesser extent liberalism, has failed.

Regarding the failure of liberalism, liberals would argue that high gas prices should drive down demand, thus leading to a greener environment. With slumping SUV sales, perhaps this is happening now. But it came too late for many people--at least as far as their wallets are concerned. When gas was a then astronomical $3 a gallon, Americans were still driving just as much as they were five years ago when gas prices were much lower. So in theory, while high gas prices should steer people more towards conservation or purchasing more fuel efficient vehicles, it has not happened in a timely enough fashion to avoid the current economic disaster taking place. And could the economy really sustain itself if people are forced to pay an artificially high price for gas? And how many people are willing to put the well being of the environment ahead of the well being of their personal finances?

Having said this, conservatism and the principles it supports are where I find the most fault. Here's why:

There are several reasons why the United States is having to grapple with such high fuel prices. The economies of China and India are growing, the distribution of oil supplies from the Middle East is disrupted, the dollar is weak, no new refineries have been built in the United States for decades, and there are untapped areas rich in domestic supplies of oil that we have not yet taken advantage of. Most people can agree on this.

There's another reason, however, why gas is so expensive. But nobody wants to talk much about it. It's us. And our consumer behavior regarding gas has given conservatism a black eye. (For a well written contrary view to this post, read this piece by Rick Frea at Freadom Nation.)

Increasing fuel standards for American automobile manufacturers has long been offered as a solution to rising gas prices. But the automobile industry has railed against this because they feared it would increase production costs and make their products less competitive. The major industrial areas of the Midwest and cities like Detroit would be particularly hard hit, so they have resisted increasing fuel standards.

Conservatives favor little or no government intervention when it comes to the market. "Letting the free market decide" is a common rallying cry by laissez faire capitalists and economic conservatives. It sounds good in principle. Businesses should have the freedom and flexibility to adapt to consumers' needs. But how has that turned out?

American automobile manufacturers are losing ground to imports, especially from Japan. Japanese companies tend to make smaller and more fuel efficient vehicles. Trucks and SUVs, while popular, are not as critical to the success of companies like Honda and Toyota. These companies make the top selling and fuel efficient Accord, Camry, Civic, and Corolla. They also led the way with hybrid cars like the Prius. American companies manufactured larger, more powerful, less fuel efficient vehicles. The Ford F-150 full-sized truck is the top selling vehicle in America, but its sales are slowing and Toyota has since become the #2 automaker in America as a result.

The increase in gas prices is pushing consumers to buy smaller cars. This is great for the environment, but it is bad for the companies that are making the vehicles people no longer want to buy. This means plants are closing. And when plants close, jobs disappear. Average blue-collar workers do not think about economic speculation and market forces when it comes to hitting the resume circuit. They're thinking about landing a job. And now these jobs are disappearing. So decisions made in corporate boardrooms about their product lineups have forced thousands of people out of work.

When gas was less expensive, people were happy driving large vehicles, some of which they may not have needed. They bought Hummers. They bought trucks. They bought SUVs. And they were not towing anything. And instead of driving these vehicles off road, they were driving them to the shopping mall or to soccer practice. Now they are feeling the pinch as they pay $60 or $70 to fill up their tanks.

At this point, conservatives would say there's nothing wrong. "Personal accountability," right? That is true. If you bought a gas guzzling Ford Explorer instead of a Ford Taurus, that's your responsibility. But this decision affects far more than just the family who bought such a vehicle. That extra $50 an unhappy SUV owner is spending at the gas pump is $50 they are not spending at a local restaurant, a small business, a department store, or a shopping mall. And that means small business owners are taking in less revenue, thus making it more difficult for them to compete with larger corporations that are also hit. So that translates into even more job losses because businesses become less profitable and have to cease operations at some sites. So in short, one person's poor choice can have ramifications that reach far beyond their own wallet. Put another way, the effects of "personal accountability" are not so "personal."

What about people who purchased SUVs and are still making payments on them even though the amount they still owe is greater than the rapidly depreciating value of their SUV? So these people can't sell their SUVs because nobody wants to buy them, but they must continue making the monthly payments to protect their credit rating. This would be another example of "personal accountability" or perhaps even "not living within one's means," but like in the previous example I cited, that is further decreasing the amount of money consumers can pump into the economy. They have less money to get a mortgage, buy a smaller car, or purchase a big-ticket item like a television. And the dominoes start falling again.

And what about small car owners? Consumers who drive smaller, more economical vehicles are paying more at the pump partly because other consumers who drive larger gas guzzling vehicles they don't need are placing a disproportionately high demand on gas. Conservatives would argue that the small car owners are doing the right thing and that how much gas you need should determine how much you should pay. But if more people were driving smaller cars, there would be more gas available (the supply would increase) and gas would therefore be cheaper. This sentiment is shared by Mike at The Pluribus Driver.

The market is indeed changing to meet consumers' demands as capitalism says it should, but this change has happened too late for too many people. And it's having ripple effects. The point of this post is not to criticize people for what they drive or to propose strict government regulation of business, but rather to remind consumers, economists, and politicians of all stripes that even though conservatism makes a lot of sense, as I argued in February, when it comes to gas prices and oil consumption, we are all in this together.

Will any politician have the courage to tell us what we don't want to hear even though we need to hear it?

6/08/2008

What We Learned This Primary Season

The primaries are over, the votes have been counted, and the nominees have all but officially been crowned. This year's general election will be between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. Both are senators, but have vastly different personal histories. These histories and their unique personal dynamics will be scrutinized heavily from here on out. So before diving into assessing the general election campaign over the next few weeks, it is prudent to take stock of what has happened so far and what we have learned. Lessons from January may very well help better predict what happens in October.

1. This is a change election. Experience does not matter. In the Democratic primaries, the most experienced candidates were Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Bill Richardson. Biden and Dodd dropped out after being rewarded with fifth and seventh place in the Iowa caucuses. Bill Richardson tried to trumpet his experience in the four-person debate before the New Hampshire primary only to finish fourth and drop out shortly thereafter. John Edwards tried to position himself as an experienced statesman by criticizing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for their negative attacks. He was subsequently drubbed in Nevada and embarrassed in South Carolina. Inexplicably, Hillary Clinton decided to adopt the "experience" mantle and tried to frame Obama as "too risky" and "too inexperienced." And she lost too. Obama might be "inexperienced," but he won the nomination and raised the most money. The "experienced" candidates didn't. John McCain is the latest politician who is trying to take advantage of the "experience" argument against Barack Obama, but he should do so at his own peril. After all, voters may look at the current state of the nation's economy, Iraq, and gas prices and conclude that "experience" is overrated.

2. If you work the media hard enough, they will believe your spin. Hillary Clinton has made it a point to remind voters, pundits, and journalists that "she won more primary votes" than Barack Obama. Average voters don't really know much about primaries, caucuses, and delegates, so Clinton's statement somehow morphed to "she won the popular vote" and makes Obama look like George Bush in 2000 while Clinton is Al Gore. By the letter of the law, Clinton's "popular vote victory" is true. More people actually did vote for her than Obama. The spirit of the law, however, suggests otherwise. It is important to note that Clinton is able to claim this only by including her votes in Michigan, not giving Obama any votes in Michigan whatsoever, and not including votes in some caucus states that Obama actually won. If you say something enough times, people will eventually begin to think it's true. A second example of this concerns the whisper campaign about Obama's religion.

3. A candidate who is at least moderately acceptable on all levels has a better chance of political survival than a candidate who has several big strengths and at least one big weakness. For months, the Republican race was the more compelling one because there was no clear frontrunner:

Mitt Romney was the competent executive and looked presidential. But he was seen as an emotionless flip flopper and had to deal with unfair suspicions about his religion. He also had to deal with concerns about his true commitment to conservatism because of his moderate record.

Rudy Giuliani had the ability to appeal to moderates and had proven his leadership credentials in the minds of voters because of his performance on September 11. But the Republican base consists of conservatives, not moderates. And this base viewed him as out of touch on the social issues that were important to them.

Mike Huckabee seemed more authentic than the other candidates and was clearly the favorite of the Christian right. His populist message also connected with rural voters. However, his foreign policy and anti-terrorism credentials were weak and he had trouble appealing to voters outside of his base.

Fred Thompson had the name recognition, buzz, twang, and proven conservative record. But he was a terrible debater and did not seem to want to campaign.

John McCain was a credible conservative on spending, terrorism, and social issues. He was criticized for his impurity on some of these issues (e.g., the Bush tax cuts, immigration), but by and large, he was at least moderately acceptable to the most people. As a result, he won the nomination by staving off elimination the longest. McCain's victory showed that a candidate who rates as a 7, 7, and 7 on three issues is politically stronger than someone who rates as a 9, 9, and 3 on the same three issues.

4. All states matter. Hillary Clinton lost the nomination in February. She matched Obama step for step before Super Tuesday, on Super Tuesday, and from March and beyond. But from Super Tuesday to the end of the month, Obama racked up 11 consecutive victories and put Clinton in a hole that was too large for her dig herself out of. Not having a timely campaign apparatus set up in states like Nebraska, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Idaho cost her far more than her victories in Ohio and Pennsylvania could compensate for.

5. Due to campaign finance laws, breadth of support is more important than depth of support. Clinton was able to raise a lot of money out of the gates by racking up $2300 contributions from her most loyal supporters. Unfortunately for Clinton, once a supporter put up $2300, he was not allowed to contribute any further. So she had a lot of money, but from far fewer people. Obama, on the other hand, was pulling in $20, $50, and $100 donations from far more people. So he was able to overcome Clinton financially and eventually dwarf her because one $1000 donation from one person is worth far less than ten $100 donations from ten people. Appealing to regular people who think a thousand dollars is the same as a million dollars is how Obama was able to crush Clinton. Now he has an extensive donor base that he can take advantage of in the general election. John McCain would be wise to copy this approach to fundraising.

6. Iowa and New Hampshire must loosen their stranglehold on the nomination process. Michigan and Florida were penalized for what the other 46 states were privately thinking but couldn't say publicly. I've criticized these states' "me first" mentality many times before. The primary season may be over, but these criticisms are not going away. A more equitable primary system needs to be developed sooner rather than later.

7. Republicans might wish to consider proportional delegate allocation. Mitt Romney and John McCain could have had an epic fight like Obama and Clinton had the "winner take all" system not existed. Romney won several "silver medals" in the early contests and was clearly McCain's strongest rival. Florida was essentially a tie between the two candidates, but it was absolutely devastating for Romney's campaign. Conservatives began rallying behind Romney in their attempt to stop McCain, but it was too late. A proportional allocation of delegates would have given him a fighting chance at a comeback.

8. Democrats might wish to consider eliminating caucuses. Even though they came across as whining and sour grapes, Clinton's criticisms of the caucus system have merit. In a caucus, voting is done publicly and candidates who don't meet the minimum threshold of support can negotiate with other candidates' supporters. Caucuses are held at set times and at set locations that may prevent certain types of voters from participating. For example, voters may have to work, find babysitters, or take care of their parents at the same time the caucus is being held. What kind of system is this?

9. Identity politics may make various demographics feel good, but they are ultimately problematic. Democrats were priding themselves on the prospect of "the first Black president" or "the first female president." And now the party is divided. Superdelegates who really want to support Clinton fear the reaction among Blacks if they take the nomination away from Obama. And now that Obama won, he has to win over the legions of female Clinton supporters who are threatening to support McCain out of protest. The problem with identity politics is that it narrows one's political identity. The more Obama is identified as "the first Black president," the more it trivializes his actual legislative record and political platform.

The Republican Party would presumably care less about identity politics, but until a credible woman or person of color rises high enough in the party and decides to run for president, it is unknown how much resistance such a candidate would face from other Republican voters.

Recommended reading

  • The Republican Rorschach Test
  • The McCain McCalculus
  • Rethinking 2012
  • The Problem with Identity Politics
  • The Problem with the Clinton Brand
  • A Warning to Republicans
  • About Barack Hussein Obama
  • Calling the Democrats' Bluff

  • 5/27/2008

    The Future of Cable News

    (Note: This is a continuation of my previous post examining what "fair" and "balanced" mean. This post examines their impact on cable news.)

    In the case of MSNBC, Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" draws the highest ratings of any show on the network. Liberals may call this show "fair," but it is certainly not "balanced." Conservative guests are rare, so the show comes across like a liberal political echo chamber at times. His show has an obvious liberal bent, especially towards Barack Obama. But does Olbermann come across as sympathetic to Obama because he believes Obama has made fewer major gaffes in comparison to Hillary Clinton and John McCain? Or does Olbermann come across as sympathetic to Obama because he actually agrees with Obama's political beliefs? And when was the last time Olbermann has had anything positive to say about Republicans or the President?

    What will happen to Olbermann's show if Obama wins the election? Countdown has drawn rave reviews from liberals who view his show as a sort of watchdog ready to expose the excesses and improprieties of the Bush White House to the masses. But will he continue to serve as a tenacious watchdog against an Obama White House and call Obama out when he reneges on a campaign promise or engages in unseemly political behavior? What if Obama runs an administration that is so squeaky clean compared to the current administration's that Countdown simply runs out of material? Could this show really survive as an Obama cheerleader?

    How about MSNBC in general? A McCain presidency would probably keep Countdown on the air in its current form. McCain and his advisers would likely routinely make Olbermann's "Worst Persons in the World" list, and the likelihood of staying in Iraq under McCain's stewardship would allow him to continue to rail against the war.

    A Clinton presidency would likely do the same because of the "say anything" nature of her campaign and the sleaze that has come to define the Clinton brand. But unlike a McCain presidency, a Clinton presidency would give Olbermann a chance to present himself as an honest broker because there likely wouldn't be any shortage of avenues of impropriety for him to investigate and criticize. Calling Olbermann and MSNBC liberals would lose a bit of its potency because how often do liberals criticize liberals?

    As for the Fox News Channel, Bill O'Reilly's "The O'Reilly Factor" is the most watched cable news program and regularly trounces CNN and MSNBC in the ratings, although Countdown has occasionally beaten O'Reilly in in the demo (adults aged 25-54) as of late. O'Reilly's show has an obvious conservative bent, as is evidenced by his use of conservative icons such as Michelle Malkin as his substitute hosts. Liberals on this show are commonly treated like pinatas, and extending invitations to fringe left elements only makes the rhetorical slaughter easier while making O'Reilly look reasonable by comparison.

    Fox's 9pm show, "Hannity and Colmes," is even more partisan. Even though the show is called "Hannity and Colmes," it is clear that Sean Hannity, the conservative, controls the show and dominates the discussion while Alan Colmes, the liberal, sometimes offers what can only be described as token opposition. Conservatives may view both of these shows as "fair," but they too are not "balanced."

    O'Reilly, Hannity, and Fox would love to have a Hillary Clinton presidency because she is familiar and she can drive up Fox's largely conservative audience. But her chances of winning the nomination are slim. Barack Obama is more of an empty slate. Jeremiah Wright will be looming in the background, but to what end will his name be invoked? If Wright trumps President Obama's day-to-day governance as far as Fox or other media outlets are concerned, then that would be neither "fair" nor "balanced." A President McCain would maintain the status quo, especially given the fact that Democrats control Congress, but at what point will the status quo become tired? Fox News came to prominence as a result of the failings of Bill Clinton and the early successes of George Bush. Fox has thrived on these foils, but both political families might be completely removed from the White House after this year's election. What next?

    In short, cable news needs to develop contingency plans in the event that a candidate who forces them to change their business model ends up winning the election. Kicking George Bush around and blaming Democrats for everything can only get you but so far.

    Dissecting "Fair and Balanced"

    (Note: This is the first of two posts addressing the meaning of "fair," "balanced," and "fair and balanced." This post addresses what these terms mean and how they are flawed. The second post addresses their potential effects on cable news in the future.)

    CNN is "the most trusted name in news."

    MSNBC is "the place for politics."

    Fox is the source for "fair and balanced" news.

    All three of these cable news stations use these slogans to strengthen their brand image among viewers. CNN is the credible station. MSNBC is the station for people who want politics first and news second. And Fox is the station for people who are fed up with biased reporting. Of these three slogans, it is Fox's that will be scrutinized in this post because its veracity will truly be challenged by the results of this fall's election. Seeing that all news stations should strive to be "fair and balanced," this post should not be construed as a scathing critique of Fox in particular. (Fox just happened to choose a very good slogan.)

    To start, "fair" and "balanced" are not interchangeable. "Fair" means that a situation is analyzed impartially or objectively. In other words, bad news is not spun as good news and good news is not spun as great news. Likewise, good news is not diminished and bad news does not go unreported. There is no Republican side or Democratic side when it comes to news. There are only facts. And these facts should be met by viewers of all political leanings with acceptance, be it enthusiastically or grudgingly.

    "Balanced" means that all viewpoints are given equal consideration when analyzing or discussing an event. This often means having a liberal and a conservative be given equal time to present their arguments. Unfortunately, however, this "balance" usually means having a bomb-thrower on the left debate a fire-breather on the right. The ensuing shoutfest makes for good television, but it doesn't make for good journalism. And because most voters are somewhere in the mushy middle, moderates, independents, and people who fall into some other political category may not find partisan bickering particularly well "balanced."

    One common complaint, usually among conservatives but also among liberals, is the aspect of "media bias." Media bias is often cited in response to negative stories about the chaos in Iraq, reporting on transgressions and missteps by politicians, analyzing the campaign contributions of journalists, and nuanced or selective reporting.

    I wrote about media bias here last winter, but I also highly recommend this recent piece by respected political analyst Stuart Rothenberg on why criticizing Republicans these days is objective, rather than partisan:

    "But let's not pull any punches about the state of the GOP: You can't nominate mediocre candidates or candidates from divided state or local parties, have Members of Congress admitting to affairs that produced children, have Members' homes and offices raided by the FBI, have Members go to jail, have Members picked up in airport bathrooms and have an unpopular president pursuing an unpopular war during a time of increased economic anxiety and still expect to be popular--or to turn things around.

    "Yes, I know, the Democrats have had their share of embarrassments. For every Republican embarrassment, there is a Democratic one.

    ...

    "Still, it seems to me, and to most people I talk with, that far more Republicans are involved in these problems and investigations of late, especially involving Washington figures. Democrats haven't had anything close to resembling the Jack Abramoff fiasco, for example, during the past few years."
    Rothenberg makes a good point, but unfortunately, this is where "fair and balanced" often ceases to be either "fair" or "balanced."

    First of all, what may be "fair" is not always "balanced." And what may be "balanced" may not always be what audiences want. How many Republicans wanted Ron Paul to be excluded from the debates, for example? If a television show wished to address September 11, for example, a "balanced" panel might include speakers who viewed it as a terrorist attack against the United States by vile radicals who seek to destroy our way of life as well as speakers who viewed it as a response to perceived American terrorism or aggression abroad. How many people would automatically tune out the latter group of speakers or instantly cite their inclusion in the panel as an example of "liberal media bias" even though the panel is actually "balanced?" And does the fact that this panel is "balanced" make it inherently "unfair?"

    In the case of "fair," consider President Bush's approval ratings. By all polls, Bush is a decidedly unpopular president. He has recorded the highest disapproval ratings of any president in modern history. (This is according to reputable polls by CNN, USA Today, and Gallup.) In other words, he is in the same league as Carter and Nixon, at least as far as these polls are concerned. He has been under 40% for about two years now. Partisan defenders of Bush may say that this kind of "negative coverage" and "Bush-bashing" is not "fair," but numbers and statistics have no bias in this case. There is no "balance" when it comes to this. (Consider this graph that has tracked Bush's approval ratings since his inauguration.) The same poll questions are being asked every month and the news is being reported in the same way. So even though stories about "Bush's popularity reaching a new low" may not be positive, they are indeed "fair." "Balance" is irrelevant in this case.

    Surely these defenders were happy to trumpet the polls that showed the President with approval ratings above 60%. And shortly after September 11, his approval rating spiked above 90%. Why did polls matter then, but not matter now? When polls actually do matter now, partisans gleefully cite the even more dismal approval ratings of the Democrat-controlled Congress to show that Bush is not the least popular person in Washington. But if reporting on polls is only "fair" when it makes one's preferred politician look good, then it's not really "fair" at all and the quest for "balance" when it's not necessary only further erodes the idea of "fairness."

    (This post is continued here.)

    5/20/2008

    Lame Political Discourse: Part 4 (On Phony Sympathy)

    At an intense sports event, partisan fans go to great lengths to show their allegiance to their team and ridicule their rivals. We paint our bodies. We wear jerseys. We try to intimidate our opponents or make them lose their concentration. We wave pennants. We camp out for tickets. We invent derogatory nicknames for our opponents. We scream at the top of our lungs. And we boo the referees when they make calls against our team.

    But this all stops when a player gets hurt. We are no longer Yankees, Blue Devils, Cowboys, Red Sox, Canucks, or Aggies. We are people, and we care about each other. One awkward landing, one tough tackle, one intense collision, or one player who must be taken off the field on a stretcher makes us all remember what is truly important. It's not about points. It's not about wins and losses. It's not about securing home field advantage for the playoffs. It's about common human decency.

    The news about Senator Ted Kennedy's malignant brain tumor reminded me of this sports analogy. It's tragic news, to be sure, but somehow I don't feel that the decency we show a wounded athlete is being expressed here. Sure, the words are there, but given the over-the-top rhetoric that has come to characterize contemporary politics, I can't help but wonder if at least some of these words are nothing but phony expressions of sympathy.

    How many ambitious Massachusetts congressmen are looking at Kennedy's health as their long awaited opportunity to advance from the House to the Senate? Sure, they like Kennedy because he's one of the most famous lions of liberalism and wields a lot of political power. But he and John Kerry have kept Massachusetts' Senate seats off limits for more than 20 years, thus blocking other politicians' progress in the state.

    How many Democrats are looking at Kennedy's health as their long awaited opportunity to get some new blood in their ranks? Many of these Democrats express adoration for Kennedy in public, but how many view him as a windbag in private? How much do Democrats (and Republicans) who have not served long in the Senate really care? Sure, they'll say they are saddened by his health because the political ramifications of failing to do so are too great. But is it really sincere?

    How many Republicans are looking at Kennedy's health as their ticket to getting rid of their political nemesis? It is said that senators are generally collegial towards each other, but given the partisanship that has characterized the past 15 years or so, how many Republicans are thinking more in terms of political maneuvering rather than the senator's well-being? If some Democrats' expressions of sorrow may be feigned, what could reasonably be assumed of some Republicans'?

    How many partisan political observers are looking at Kennedy's health as their ticket to getting rid of "the fat liberal who murdered his friend" 40 years ago? This is obviously a reference to the incident at Chappaquiddick in 1969. One common joke I've heard conservatives say is that they'd rather go hunting with Dick (Cheney) than driving with Ted (Kennedy). Any cursory glance at an online political forum mentioning him would reveal lots of bile and insults against him. How many of these people simply don't care about Kennedy's health even though they certainly know who he is? And even worse, how many of these people are actually rejoicing because of it?

    I have no personal connection to Kennedy. I was born in 1977, long after the JFK/RFK assassinations, Vietnam, and the struggle for civil rights that he participated in. Kennedy is one of the better known senators and he seems to genuinely be concerned with his constituents. And because I live in South Carolina, I think more about Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint than Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. His health is obviously tragic, and I wish both him and his family the best.

    I have no bone to pick with Kennedy. But some people do. How many people out there are reacting with apathy, phoniness, or glee? The same thing happened when Ronald Reagan died. And it will happen again when Jimmy Carter's time comes. How many of these people can express their sorrow with a straight face?

    A part of me feels guilty for not having a little more faith in us as people. Not as Republicans. Not as Democrats. Not as conservatives or liberals. But as people. Can we really progress from talking about "our stupid president," "America-hating liberals," "terrorist-sympathizing Democrats," "heartless Republicans," "baby-eating abortionists," and "Bible-thumping wackos" to "our dear friend" and "our revered colleague" so easily?

    4/21/2008

    The Conservative Christian Contradiction

    The impetus for this post came from three events:

    1. One of the more active discussions currently taking place in the blogosphere, at least as it pertains to my blogroll, is a discussion about intelligent design over at According to Nikki, a conservative political satire blog written by Nikki Richards. In her post, which has generated more than 20 comments, Richards suggested that both intelligent design and evolution be taught as "legitimate 'theories' in science," presumably in public schools.

    2. Earlier this month, residents of Columbia, South Carolina, where I live, voted by a more than 2 to 1 margin to allow alcohol sales on Sunday, with the exception of liquor. For those who are unaware, blue laws are still in effect throughout South Carolina and other Southern states. For example, shops in the western half of Columbia, located in Lexington County, are not allowed to open until 1:30pm on Sundays while shops in the eastern half of the city, which lies in Richland County, can open at 10:00 or 11:00.

    3. Before the GOP nomination was settled, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney were heavily criticized by the religious wing of the Republican Party. The criticism of Romney was unfair, as it pertained to his Mormon faith, which made lots of evangelical Christians uncomfortable. The thrice married and socially moderate Giuliani was simply out of step with the conservative base on issues like abortion and gay rights. And John McCain was not trusted because he once referred to Christian conservative heavyweights Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance" and did not make social issues the centerpiece of his campaign. This is what made Mike Huckabee so popular among the frequent churchgoers.

    These three seemingly unrelated issues strike at one of the main problems confronting the modern Republican Party. One could argue that there are four main wings of the GOP: religious/social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, anti-tax conservatives, and defense hawks. But on a broader and more important level, today's Republican Party consists primarily of an awkward coalition of Southern religious conservatives and Western libertarian conservatives. Moderate Republicans from the Northeast and Midwest are a dying breed.

    During the Bush administration, the Southern religious brand of conservatism has had the stronger influence regarding the party platform. This has held true for issues like gay marriage, stem cell research, and curbing abortion rights. John McCain, on the other hand, represents the Western, more libertarian brand of conservatism. Thus, his commitment to these issues is suspect.

    Here's the problem: One of the principal tenets of conservatism is the idea of "limited government." It is an easily digestible slogan that clearly allows voters to understand the difference between Republicans and Democrats. However, the agendas of religious conservatives and libertarian conservatives are incompatible in this regard.

    Consider the Nikki Richards blog post I cited earlier about teaching schoolchildren intelligent design. Surely there are lots of conservative politicians who agree with her and some who would like to take things a bit further by instituting prayer in the classroom or putting the Ten Commandments in public buildings. But wouldn't the government's mandating of increasing the profile of religion (namely Christianity) in the public square and public classrooms reek of the same "big government" initiatives conservatives commonly criticize liberals of advocating? This is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of intelligent design, school prayer, or the display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings. However, the contradiction is obvious.

    Regarding blue laws, "big government" has infringed upon people's freedom to buy alcoholic beverages whenever they choose. I spent my childhood and adolescent years living in Germany, where alcohol was sold everyday. And I lived in Japan from 2003 to 2007. Like Germany, Japan also has 24-hour alcohol sales, but they even have vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages. So coming back to South Carolina, a staunchly conservative state, it was a surprise to not be allowed to buy wine on a Sunday even though I wanted to use it for cooking rather than drinking.

    Defenders of blue laws claim that they are necessary to promote and preserve public morality. But aren't these advocates guilty of trying to use the government to shape society's values in the same way that they criticize "activist judges" and liberals in general for doing when it comes to discussing homosexuality and anything but abstinence in public schools?

    To further muddy the waters, libertarian conservatives don't really care one way or the other about these issues, so long as they are decided at the state or local level. And if the local voters decide to do something they fundamentally disagree with, they accept it as a consequence of the will of the voters. But religious conservatives would be more likely to recoil in horror and take steps to overturn such a verdict that is out of line with their beliefs.

    The constitutional bans on gay marriage were a major issue in several states in 2004 and are largely credited with George Bush's reelection. Several states have also placed similar bans on the ballot since then. However, consider these three results: Conservative Mississippi overwhelmingly approved the ban, similarly conservative South Dakota almost defeated the ban, and equally conservative Arizona became the first state to actually have the initiative rejected outright by voters. All three states are easy layups for Republicans in presidential elections, so why did they yield such different results? It's because their brands of conservatism are different.

    Since John McCain's initial repudiation of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, he has made nice with the religious conservative community. At a time when Republicans are not particularly enthusiastic about their political fortunes (though the bickering between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may change that), McCain knows that he will need their support in the general election. But the only way to win this support is to pursue their agenda even if it contradicts his own principles.

    Religious conservatives may talk about the importance of "small government," but it seems they very much want "big government" when it comes to promoting or protecting the causes that are important to them. Likewise, libertarian conservatives value "small government" as well. However, what if this "limited government" approach to governance leads to the adoption of laws and ordinances that are morally offensive to large numbers of voters?

    Public morality and limited influence from Washington are both attractive political messages. However, it is becoming increasingly clear these two goals are often incompatible. Were Clinton and Obama not so busy highlighting the divisions that exist among the Democrats, would the spotlight not be on their equally divided conservative opposition?

    4/16/2008

    Lamentations of an Educated Voter: About Those "Elitists"

    The ongoing controversy surrounding Barack Obama and his "elitist" remarks has struck a chord with me. It's not because I'm offended by his remarks. And it's not because some rural voters are offended by his remarks. It's the fact that the people who are complaining the loudest about these "elitist" remarks are "elitists" themselves.

    Every election cycle it seems that politicians trip over themselves in their attempts to appear like regular people. They create campaign commercials showing them driving tractors, wearing blue jeans, clearing brush, and and fixing their trucks. They pose for shots of them chatting with the locals at bowling alleys, eating greasy hamburgers at state fairs, checking out the watermelons at farmers' markets, and having productive conversations with residents on the sidewalks in their communities.

    But let's not kid ourselves.

    No politician, especially at the federal level, is "just like us." It doesn't matter how much hay a politician throws in the back of his truck. It doesn't matter how many buttons of his shirt are undone. And it doesn't matter how many pairs of cowboy boots he has.

    By and large, politicians are highly educated, well connected, wealthy people who generally don't know what it's like to be or are anything but "just like us." By virtue of even successfully making it to Congress, it shows that they had the financial resources and knew enough influential people to help get them that far in their political careers.

    This is not to say that politicians are incapable of empathizing with regular people, nor am I saying that "average people" are poor. But congressmen and senators make well over $150,000 a year with gold-plated pension plans and health insurance policies that millions of Americans can only dream of. They can vote on raises for themselves every year and have the power to make laws (loopholes and all) that create the least threat to their standard of living. Most of them have master's degrees, doctorates, MBAs, or law degrees. And they got these degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke (full disclosure: I'm a Duke alum), Georgetown, Northwestern, Cornell, Dartmouth, and the military academies. And before they even made it to Washington, so many of them were lawyers, university professors, campaign/political staffers, consultants, high ranking corporate figures, or bigshots in their state or local governments.

    In other words, they pretty much have an elite background.

    How many of these politicians are products of the public school system? How many of them were office secretaries, truck drivers, high school math teachers, department store clerks, or meter maids? How many of them have ever shopped at the Dollar Tree or regularly buy their groceries at Walmart? How many of them drive 1993 Chevy Cavaliers or carpool to work so they can save on gas?

    Obviously we want our politicians to be intelligent, competent, insightful people. As CNN's Roland Martin points out, that's why career janitors and other "average people" don't get elected. So we know that our politicians are likely going to be a little smarter, wealthier, and better connected than the rest of us. That's to be expected. But for these privileged people to criticize one of their own for being what they all are is absolutely preposterous.

    Why are these people complaining so much about Obama being an "elitist?" Barack Obama is actually the least elite presidential candidate when it comes to personal wealth. And his biography is a lot more similar to those of regular people as well. To be sure, Obama has a lot of money, graduated from a prestigious school, and probably doesn't have to worry about not having enough money to support his family ever again. He's doing quite well now. But for the even wealthier and better connected Hillary Clinton and the wealthier still John McCain (a career elite senator) to lob the word "elitist" at him is not credible. And all the surrogates, talking heads, high profile opinionists, and journalists who are hammering him for this, including talk radio hosts on the right and Clinton supporters on the left, should take their 401(k) plans, their two or three houses, their ironclad pensions, their stock options, their offshore investments, their luxury SUVs, their private school alumni association memberships, their guaranteed 12 inches of personal space in the New York Times, their 60 minute show on Fox News, and their million-dollar salaries and stop embarrassing themselves through their hypocrisy.

    I am not an Obama supporter, nor have I ever donated to his campaign. However, hearing someone with $50 million call someone with $5 million an "elitist" is not going to endear me any further to the person with the $50 million. Do voters pay attention to this? Or is one cowboy hat and one dirty fingernail all it takes for them to realize that the product of Harvard Law School who raked in millions from a consulting job that he got because of the friends he had in high places is really "one of them"?

    Give me a break. It's okay to be an elitist. You can go to all the posh parties, have a personal chauffeur and landscaper, and live in the Hamptons all you want. I don't care about any of that stuff and will not begrudge you for it. If you're wealthy and well-connected, you probably worked hard to get to that point and deserve to be able to provide a good life for yourself and your family. Heck, someday I hope to be able to reach your level too. But don't pompously try to call someone out for being exactly what you are as well.

    It's contemptible.

    3/17/2008

    Rethinking 2012

    Politicians, political parties, national leaders, and voters are going to have to do a bit of soulsearching and get serious about how they go about electing future presidents. As entertaining as the 2008 primary season has been so far with its intricacies and unpredictable storylines, it has revealed some very troubling weaknesses that do not reflect favorably on our political institutions and ultimately provide a disservice to the nation.

    The Presidency of the United States is the single most important institution on Earth. Issues of war and peace, the international economy, and the freedoms we enjoy are all dependent on this one person. Shouldn't the importance and seriousness of this office be determined by a process that is equally serious?

    Here are, in no particular order, criticisms of this campaign that should be addressed.

    The 2008 field was winnowed too much too soon. Even though the presidential election is still about eight months away, the campaign essentially started more than a year ago. Now the remaining candidates (particularly Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) have torn each other down so much and have rendered themselves so unattractive to the broader electorate that one can't help but wonder why there aren't any more appealing candidates from which to choose.

    Even though there are 50 states in the union, the Republican contest essentially got shut down on Super Tuesday, when only about half of the states could have their say. Even worse, the Democratic race was essentially weeded down to two candidates after South Carolina, where the fourth contest was held.

    Now Republican voters in the later states are forced to accept John McCain, even though he is considered unacceptable by many in the GOP base. Any votes Mike Huckabee received in Mississippi, for example, were protest votes. Their votes don't matter. And Democratic voters in the later states are forced to choose between the negative Hillary Clinton and the controversial and fading Barack Obama (courtesy of his church).

    A handful of voters in a handful of small states wielded a disproportionately large influence over the process, and not in a good way. John Edwards is probably wishing he didn't drop out of the race so soon. And the invisible second-tier candidates, such as Chris Dodd (who was often maligned for being a boring old Washington hand in the debates), suddenly look a lot more attractive as Clinton and Obama go at each other's throats. Nobody would be talking about controversial pastors, inexperience, race-bating, and rhetoric with no substance. But a few thousand voters in Iowa completely shut his candidacy out. The same could be said of Duncan Hunter (the authentic conservative Republicans were looking for), Joe Biden (the muscular and charismatic Democrat the left was looking for), and a few other lesser known candidates.

    By the time September rolls around, most Americans will be sick of hearing about McCain, Obama, and/or Clinton. And many voters will lament that they don't really like any of those candidates. And on top of this, these candidates were thrust upon us too soon by an accelerated and frontloaded calendar. What a long time voters have to deal with buyer's remorse.

    There should be a more equitable, more orderly, and better paced schedule of primaries and caucuses. Before the schedule became finalized, there were rumblings that the first primaries and caucuses would take place before Christmas last year, which is absurd. It is easy to understand why everybody wants to be first, but there should be better reasons to justify why some states should have their contests before others.

    "Tradition" is not a good enough reason to keep rewarding the same states over and over again by granting them the first bite of the apple. Claiming that Iowa and New Hampshire should go first because they are small states also doesn't hold water because there are several states that are even smaller in terms of population and/or size. Why not let Delaware or Montana go first? Or why not give Alabama a chance? Saying that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire take politics more seriously is only an affront to voters in other states who would undoubtedly display the same amount of seriousness if they had the same opportunity. What would make a voter in Concord, New Hampshire, more serious about politics than a voter in Concord, North Carolina?

    I have written much about ways to improve the primary process (read Primarily Stupid and Primarily Stupid: Part 2 for more information). Perhaps the most logical idea would be to assign the order of the primaries according to voter turnout in the previous presidential election. This way, voters in all states would have an incentive to turn out, even in "noncompetitive" states like New York or Texas. Imagine being a Democrat in Idaho or a Republican in Hawaii. Your vote would actually count for something! States that display the highest percentage of voter turnout should have their primaries be scheduled earlier. Such states would have proven their seriousness and would deserve to go first. States that display lower turnout should be lumped together and have their primaries take place later. And because the order of the primaries would change from cycle to cycle, politicians would be unable to canvass the same states every presidential cycle even before the primary and caucus dates are established. This proposal would bring more voters into the process and encourage healthy competition.

    There is no grown-up in the room, which has led to chaos. All the states were tripping over each other to be first this time around. And two states, Michigan and Florida, rightfully stand to be penalized for trying to break the party rules. Now there's the specter of a fight on the convention floor if the delegates from those two states aren't seated. But if the Democratic Party does not penalize them, then what will prevent another state from violating the calendar and the party rules by setting up their 2012 primary right after the 2010 midterm elections? And if those states are allowed to revote, then they will essentially be rewarded for breaking the rules. It's absolute madness. If the national parties are unable to maintain control over their state parties, then the parties should either be disbanded or sanctioned by an entity with more authority. Having a firm and enforceable primary order (with flexible primary dates) is an idea worthy of serious consideration. And as for the unfortunate voters in Michigan and Florida, like Glenn Beck aptly suggested, you should stop crying about how the big bad Howard Dean and the national parties disenfranchised you. The real culprits are closer to home.

    The primary system should be more equitable for the less well-funded and less well-known candidates. The 2008 roster initially included around twenty different presidential aspirants--Fred Thompson, Mark Warner, Mike Huckabee, Bill Richardson, Sam Brownback, and Dennis Kucinich, to name a few. They each represented a unique slice of the electorate and offered their own particular skill set. Regardless of their electoral chances, they all deserved to be heard. The reason for this is that the less well-funded and less well-known candidates were caught in a real bind. The only way they could increase their visibility was to raise money for advertising and campaign operations. But the only way they could raise this campaign cash was for them to increase their visibility. As a result, you had potentially attractive candidates who were forever mired in the second and third tiers, such as Duncan Hunter of the Republicans and Joe Biden of the Democrats. You also had promising and unique candidates who were intimidated by the fundraising juggernauts of the bigshot candidates and ultimately decided to drop out prematurely, such as Russ Feingold and Tom Vilsack.

    Now the Democratic race has come down to the two candidates who had sat atop the field since the beginning: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The winner of the Republican race had to travel through the fire and escape political death a few times, but John McCain finished where he started a year ago--as the frontrunner.

    John Edwards was never able to crack the armor of the top two Democrats. Bill Richardson flirted with the so-called top tier, but never could get over the top. Sam Brownback was essentially running in place before his defeat at the Ames Straw Poll. And Tommy Thompson struggled to get voters to think of him when they heard the name "Thompson," instead of the better known actor known as Fred.

    Only Mike Huckabee was able to make a real surge that was unexpected by most pundits and media practicioners (though it was no surprise to me), but he was unable to translate this surge into electoral gold (at least not this time around) because of Fred Thompson, whose presence ruined Huckabee in South Carolina.

    First Amendment advocates would probably say nothing is wrong with the system. And they would even defend the airing of all sorts of misleading or inaccurate ads and the distribution of misleading and outrageous campaign literature as free speech that is protected by the Constitution. However, when a poor candidate is able to dump millions of dollars from his personal fortune into the race while an honorable or better qualified one can't raise any cash needed to retort, it's not particularly fair.

    Freedom of speech is a moot concept if some people have more freedom than others. This could be remedied with public financing of elections, but no politician wants to part with his war chest. However, when a candidate receives donations from Interest Group X or Company Y, that weds a candidate to this entity's interests. And spending more time legislating, campaigning, or debating seems more productive and more beneficial for our democracy than simply racing from one fundraiser to another.

    The media should promote and conduct debates that matter. There was certainly no shortage of debates last year and even earlier this year when the field was so crowded. However, the media really missed some opportunities to ask meaningful questions and address the issues that matter to real people, rather than dwell on the minutiae of the daily news cycle. Of course, voters are complicit in these disappointing extended campaign ads and stump speeches that masquerade as debates. Voters should reward politicians that get into specifics, don't talk around questions, and articulate their views in a mature and thoughtful way. If the media understand that this is what voters want, they will adapt.

    Some politicians, particularly the lower-tier candidates, lamented their inability to get their message out in the debates. When eight or nine candidates are competing for talking time, it can be difficult to balance the questions. A potential remedy would be to divide the debates so that half of the candidates could participate in one debate while half participate in the other. Or half of the candidates could participate in the first half of one debate while the other candidates participate in the second half. The main point is that nobody really benefits when there are so many candidates duking it out on stage, especially given politicians' propensity to be so longwinded in their responses or take awhile to warmup and actually address the moderators' questions.

    American politics may be entertaining, but given the stakes of this year's election, entertainment should take a backseat to competence, pragmatism, and fairness. Unfortunately, the campaign season thus far has been anything but that. And everyone has a responsibility to fix it.

    3/16/2008

    Homeless Moderates and Nomadic Independents

    Imagine you are a middle-of-the-road or unaffiliated voter.

    You think abortion is morally wrong but should be legal at least in some situations, you have less sympathy for illegal immigrants even though you also realize most of them are otherwise law-abiding people, you want to resolve the Iraq situation quickly and without a rapid pullout, you would accept paying higher taxes if that's what it takes to balance the budget or fund social programs, you do not view the government as an enemy so long as it functions efficiently, you think religious groups have too much influence over the government even though you are religious yourself, you support entitlement reform, you support workers' rights and consumer protections, you strongly believe in personal accountability and condemn handouts, you don't care about identity politics, you think affirmative action should be based more on class rather than race and not be scrapped altogether, you respect the Second Amendment so long as it doesn't defy common sense, you think the war on drugs is a waste of money, you would like the option of having national health insurance even if you don't choose to pay into it, you support federalism, you think politicians should pay more attention to consumers than to businesses, you want a competent and experienced hand at the helm of the nation, and you could care less about partisanship or which political party gets credit for any legislative accomplishments.

    Your views are set. You know what's important to you, and you don't care who delivers it. You like some of what the left stands for, and you have no qualms with certain elements of the right. And then you look at the roster of candidates for president this year and shake your head in frustration.

    This year, voters have to choose between John McCain, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. And many voters, particularly moderates and independents, don't like what they see.

    John McCain is the candidate for Republicans, as conservatives really don't have anywhere else to go unless they vote for the Constitution Party nominee.

    Barack Obama is the candidate for liberal Democrats. The academia crowd, twenty-somethings, and Blacks are quite comfortable with him.

    Hillary Clinton is the candidate for Clinton loyalists. These are Reagan Democrats, women, and older voters. Some of their support for Clinton may be based on resentment of Obama's race, his perceived inexperience, and his maleness.

    John McCain seems about right on illegal immigration, personal accountability, entitlement reform, and bipartisanship, but seems to want to continue President Bush's policy regarding Iraq and Iran. This scares you. In addition to this, he is beholden to the religious wing of the Republican Party. As a result, you wonder if abortion rights will become a thing of the past under his administration, courtesy of the departures of Supreme Court Justices Ginsburg and Stevens. This scares you even more.

    Barack Obama seems even less partisan than John McCain and sounds good when considering his views on workers' rights, consumer protections, abortion rights, and national health insurance. Then you get queasy when you hear him ascribe more blame to exploitative corporations for illegal immigration than to the illegal immigrants themselves. And you get even more worried because even though his judgment was correct regarding Iraq, saying you were against it from the start doesn't address the reality on the ground now. So you wonder if he is truly up to the job.

    Hillary Clinton brings back memories of Bill Clinton, whose presidency you were generally happy with, although you grew tired of the scandals. Having Bill Clinton back in the White House could potentially mean a return to economic prosperity for average people who aren't investors. Hillary Clinton is probably not too different from Bill Clinton, so if you were fond of him, you'd probably approve of her as well. But then you listen to her surrogates slime Barack Obama regarding race, drugs, and religion and you question your desire to reward this kind of campaigning at the ballot box and go through four more years of kneecap politics, four more years of potential scandals, and four more years of "us vs. them" rhetoric even though the Bush presidency has shown that this is not healthy for the country.

    Where do moderates and independents go? It's as if McCain, Obama, and Clinton are akin to the game of paper, rock, and scissors. McCain is good on immigration (he's a hardliner without being a neanderthal about it), but poor on Iraq (we can't stay there indefinitely while we drain our treasury). Clinton is good on Iraq (she's advocating a cautious and responsible redeployment), but poor on unity (nobody likes her and her political opponents will try to block her every move). Obama is good on unity (it's his signature issue), but weak on immigration (he seems to be more of an advocate for illegal immigrants than actual citizens). This brings us back to McCain.

    McCain is good on entitlement reform (revamping welfare and curbing spending), but poor on abortion rights (his Supreme Court nominees would presumably severely restrict them). Clinton is good on abortion rights (she's a woman; she understands), but poor on healthcare (nobody should be mandated to do anything). Obama is good on healthcare (no mandates), but poor on entitlement reform (he's a traditional liberal). This brings us back to McCain again.

    McCain is good on personal accountability (it's a signature issue for Republicans), but poor on the economy (he seems to favor the fiscal health of the stock market more than the fiscal health of regular people). Clinton is good on the economy (the 90s were great for a lot of people), but poor on ethics (the 90s were also embarrassing for a lot of people). Obama is good on ethics (so long as there isn't much more to the Tony Rezko and Jeremiah Wright stories), but poor on personal accountability (he seems to place more of the blame for the subprime loan mess on predatory loan companies, rather than fiscally irresponsible consumers). And yes, that brings us back to the senator from Arizona.

    In short, a lot of McCain's semi-conservative positions seem practical and fair. But his war positions and social conservatism make many middle-of-the-road voters uncomfortable.

    Hillary Clinton would probably bring back the good parts of the 90s and benefit a lot of middle- and lower-class people. But she would also bring back the bad parts of the 90s, as a lot of people have already been put off by her 2008 campaign.

    Barack Obama represents the future and could dramatically change the way Americans and international observers look at the United States. But he is an unproven and unknown quantity whose positions on a few key issues are a bit more liberal than what they are comfortable with.

    Hardcore Republicans and partisan Democrats will support their respective nominees, even if grudgingly. But moderates don't really have a candidate, as all three remaining candidates could potentially draw large numbers of them. McCain is more of a center-right Republican rather than a hard-right Republican. Clinton can capture blue-collar Reagan Democrats who lean liberal on economic issues and lean conservative on social issues. And Obama can win over moderates and independents by virtue of presenting himself as a post-political nonpartisan.

    What does all of this mean? It means that 2008 could be like 1992 in that there is ample room for a credible independent candidate. However, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg poured cold water on speculation that he would run for president and the Unity '08 initiative seems to have stalled. Lou Dobbs has yet to slam the door on his own presidential run, but it's looking increasingly unlikely.

    Knowing this, there's a potential windfall of support that awaits the candidate (McCain, Clinton, or Obama) who is best able to placate the majority of voters who don't reside beyond the political 30-yard lines. Given the the unpopularity of Iraq, the reservations voters have about Obama's qualifications, and the ability of Hillary Clinton to triangulate, it would seem that Clinton has the most to gain in terms of moderates' support. Most of her political problems stem not from ideology, but rather ethics and virtue. This seems easier to remedy than one's voting history or lack thereof.

    Then again, even though voters commonly decry negative politics, the fact remains that such politics can be highly effective. Hillary Clinton may be at low tide right now, but if she is somehow able to wrest the nomination away from Barack Obama, it is quite possible that she can make amends with the Democratic base and expand it in time for the general election. A lot of attention is currently being paid to identity politics and various demographic groups, but the true electoral gold lies with moderates who feel a bit ignored and independents who have yet to be enthused.

    2/18/2008

    Barack Obama: A Second Look at Race

    When Barack Obama declared his presidential candidacy, the media and chattering classes could not stop talking about how he was the first viable presidential candidate of color, how he was the child of an interracial and intercontinental marriage, and how his ability to appeal to both Blacks and Whites could make him the nation's healer.

    By now, most people know Obama was born in Hawaii to a White woman from Kansas and an African man from Kenya, raised in Indonesia, sidetracked by drug abuse, and admitted to Harvard Law School where he became president of the Harvard Law Review. America has never had a presidential candidate with such a biography before, so it's easy to see how Obama is a dream candidate for the media to cover. The possible angles through which one could assess his candidacy are as varied as Obama's background itself.

    Unfortunately, the media have chosen to fight the same old battles and conduct the same old discussions, and a lot of average people are also either buying into these same tired discussions or behaving just like the media are in regards to not thinking outside the box. Obama's candidacy has been highly educational, but not in the way it seems most people think.

    To start, why do people, including Whites, consider Obama "the first Black candidate" with a real shot at winning the presidency? Conventional thinking would immediately recall previous failed (and perhaps quixotic) presidential bids by candidates such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun, and Shirley Chisolm. Yes, Obama has far greater crossover appeal than any of these candidates, but that is missing the point.

    Rather than "Black," Obama is really biracial. To call him "Black" is to essentially marginalize half of his identity or family history. Why are biracial, or mulatto, children called Black? Why is it more common for mulatto children to be identified as "biracial" or "Black," but less common to call them "White?" The point of this is to provoke thought, not guilt. What do Whites think when they see a mixed child? If they think of mixed children as Black, then why? Is the element of racial purity required to be White, but not necessary to be considered part of another race? And what about being proud of both sides of such a person's heritage?

    And why does any of this even matter? It shouldn't, but to many people it does.

    Republicans and Democrats essentially traded places in the 60s and 70s. Since then, fairly or unfairly, Republicans and conservatives have often been branded as racists. Any people of color who were Republicans were derided as tokens, Uncle Toms, oreos, bananas, or apples. (An oreo is someone who is black on the outside and white on the inside. Bananas [Asians] are yellow on the outside and white on the inside, while apples [Native Americans and Latinos] are red on the outside and white on the inside.)

    Anyway, racial minority groups viewed the Democratic Party as being more hospitable to their concerns, and the fact that there were more Democratic politicians who looked like them (often because of gerrymandered congressional districts) allowed Democrats to win overwhelming majorities of support from non-White voters. The Republican Party was seen as the party of well-off, heterosexual, White Christian males. While a cursory examination of voting patterns would support this notion, it is unfair to conclude that Republicans as a whole are more racist or less racially sensitive than Democrats are, and Obama's candidacy is proving this point.

    One of the dominant storylines of Obama's candidacy last year was the "is Obama Black enough?" motif. This was an incredibly insulting question to ask, but the media (and even a lot of Blacks) could not stop talking about it. The political challenge for Obama was to show that he could deliver for Black Democrats without appearing "too Black" for his White Democratic audiences. And of course, when Oprah Winfrey endorsed Obama, that ripped the scab off of this stupid discussion so we could fight about racial loyalty and racially appropriate behavior yet again.

    Republicans generally eschew identity politics and seem more inclined to support a candidate based on his ideas rather than his skin color. However, because there are so few Republicans of color, they are unfairly branded as racially hostile. This may or may not be a valid assessment, but Republicans certainly weren't the ones asking if Obama was Black enough. So it appears that the racially neutral Republicans came across as more racially progressive than the racially obsessed Democrats in this regard.

    Obama's cross-racial appeal cannot be denied, as he is commonly winning the majority of the White male vote and about 85% of the Black vote in the primaries and caucuses this year. The media and pundits have labeled Obama as the candidate that Whites could feel proud voting for and even going so far as to cast this in the light of them atoning for any past prejudices they may have had.

    This is certainly an encouraging narrative, but unfortunately it has given rise to accusations of racism anytime a White criticizes Obama. It's as if Obama is not fair game, lest one be branded as racially insensitive. However, Whites do not have a duty to support Obama, just like females don't have a duty to support Hillary Clinton and Christians don't have a duty to support Mike Huckabee. It's incumbent on voters, journalists, and pundits of all types to ask the tough questions before committing to any single candidate.

    John McCain is being raked over the coals for not being conservative enough. Hillary Clinton is being pilloried for her ties to lobbyists and the Democratic establishment. Mitt Romney is no longer in the race, but he was ridiculed for flip-flopping. Mike Huckabee was criticized for using Christianity as a political weapon against Romney. And John Edwards was lampooned for his expensive haircuts and his North Carolina estate.

    When these candidates were attacked, they and their supporters fought back, usually by attacking the merits of their opponents' arguments. But it seems that skepticism about Obama is often met with cries of bigotry. If Obama is supposed to be the post-racial unity candidate, why are so many of his supporters so quick to accuse his opponents of racism? Could it be that these supposedly open-minded voters are rather closed-minded when it comes to handling philosophical disagreements with others?

    One of the most interesting observations I made on Super Tuesday earlier this month concerned the results of the Connecticut and Massachussetts primaries. Both states are in the same part of the country with similar demographics and similarly strong Democratic leans. However, Obama beat Clinton in Connecticut 51-47% while Clinton trounced Obama in Massachussetts 56-41%. People may cite Clinton's establishment base in Massachussetts (which also came out for her in New Hampshire) as her key to victory, but I think there's another reason.

    In 2006, Massachusetts elected Deval Patrick as the nation's second Black governor. (Virginia's Douglas Wilder was the first.) However, Patrick's race is not as important as the platform he ran on. Like Obama, Patrick was a compelling and talented public speaker who was running on a message of optimism and change. (Patrick endorsed Obama, by the way.) Massachusetts voters were proud to send a Black to the governor's mansion and had high hopes for his leadership. However, shortly after his inauguration, he became embroiled in embarrassing scandals and made some silly mistakes. His approval ratings dropped, but it wasn't because of latent racism. It was because he wasn't doing a good job as governor. So when Barack Obama came to Massachussetts this year, it is quite possible that a lot of voters there remembered Deval Patrick's shortcomings and were a bit more skeptical of the "change" Obama was selling.

    John McCain will try to attack Obama for being long on talk and short on specifics. Will he and his supporters be branded as racists? And if McCain were to win the general election, would Obama's supporters attribute this victory to prejudices percolating beneath the surface among Republicans? Do Whites feel afraid not to support Obama because they don't want to be seen as "racially progressive?" Do Blacks feel afraid not to support Obama because "he's one of their own?" Again, these are Democrats who are using race as a wedge issue. Which party is it that can't move beyond race again?

    At what point does politics matter more than identity? It seems like even though Obama is supposed to be the candidate who can help improve our race relations, the media and his supporters are doing more to further poison them. Obviously, Obama will have to explain his policies in greater detail in the future. Momentum, hype, and inspiration have carried him this far, but the serious questions about his candidacy must be confronted eventually.

    Ironically, Obama's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. Millions of voters absolutely love Obama and are genuinely inspired by him. But it will be impossible for Obama to sustain this level of enthusiasm among his supporters. What will happen when the initial excitement wears off, the tougher questions begin, and voters don't like what they hear? Will they be seen as racists? Will they be seen as discerning? And how would an Obama defeat be viewed by the nation?

    It goes without saying that there are many openly racist people in America who would never vote for Barack Obama, and there are many more voters who purportedly support Obama only to "change their minds" in the voting booth. However, there are far more voters out there who harbor no ill will towards Obama, but simply can't support him because of his lack of experience, his liberal platform, or his lack of specifics. Should Obama lose and his loss be attributed to racism on behalf of these pragmatic voters who simply disagree with him on the issues, that would be a much sorrier commentary on our state of racial progress than if he were to lose to flaming racists. Given the absurdity of our current dialogue as is evidenced by the media, pundits, and regular people, it would seem that this fear may very well become a reality.

    2/05/2008

    The Economy and an Argument for Conservatism

    Aside from Super Tuesday and the presidential race, one of the biggest issues facing the country regarding its government is the economic stimulus package currently being debated in Congress. Economic volatility, a slumping housing market, and a weak dollar have contributed to a pervasive sense of pessimism among many voters.

    To address these voters' concerns, President Bush, members of Congress, and even the presidential candidates have talked about the need for some sort of "stimulus" that will benefit American families and help jumpstart the American economy. However, their rhetoric and the very nature of the economic stimulus package on the table blatantly contradict some of the principal tenets of their political philosophies. Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of this, but it seems that conservatives are a bit more egregious in their hypocrisy because what should be their argument is actually quite credible.

    One major part of the package involves mailing out rebate checks to people who paid federal income taxes last year. The size of these rebates depends on one's marital status and how many children they have. Republicans, including the presidential candidates (both current candidates and those who have recently dropped out), have talked about the need for Americans to get those rebate checks so they can "put that money back into the economy" by buying consumer goods, such as clothes or electronics.

    However, these wishes fly in the face of traditional conservative campaign rhetoric about the importance of saving money or encouraging people to invest it. Encouraging people to spend money they received as some sort of "gift" from the government sounds more like telling people to take advantage of a government giveaway--something that appears more in line with liberal philosophy.

    On top of this, the people who are struggling financially can't really afford to spend this money on a new pair of shoes or a new television. And if they did, then they would only risk plunging themselves deeper into debt. But then again, since many Republicans want Americans to spend these checks, it seems like they are only exacerbating the financial squeeze many families find themselves in at present.

    People are generally pessimistic about the economy, but this pessimism has a lot to do with the choices one has made in the past. For people with mounting credit card debt and rising mortgage payments, the economy is obviously not so good for them. This is where true conservatism (not the current "conservative" rhetoric) could serve as a remedy. Many of the people struggling with their mortgage payments are those who had obtained subprime loans. In other words, their previous poor financial decisions are directly responsible for their poor credit and their poor decision to purchase a house they could not afford. And now they are struggling and need help.

    True conservatism would warn people that they should live within their means. A house is the biggest investment any person will make in their lifetime. It takes decades to pay off a mortgage, and it takes stable and reasonably lucrative employment to be able to cover the payments. If someone is not able to handle these conditions, the solution is not to call for the government to bail you out. The solution is to rent an apartment.

    As for credit cards, smart consumers know that if they are not able to pay for something in cash or if they can't pay off the bill in full at the end of the month, they should not use their credit cards for anything at all unless it's an emergency. However, consumers in all income brackets are buying iPods, PlayStations, and flat-screen televisions--often on credit.

    Conservatives would rightfully argue that people who are not financially independent should be more careful when making these kinds of purchases. Put more bluntly, poor people should not have a Nintendo Wii in the house. People making $35,000 a year should not be making payments on a BMW 3-series. People who get paid by the hour or who work for tips should not be upgrading their cell phones every year.

    For these people, their own poor past decisions are directly responsible for their current economic plight. For people who have lived within their means and managed their credit carefully, the economy is doing fine (save for declining property values and high gas prices). Renters aren't worried about rising mortgages, and people without credit card debt aren't worried about rising APRs. However, it is too politically risky for a politician to say this for two reasons: 1) it makes the politician seem "out of touch" with the voters who are suffering from problems they really brought upon themselves, and 2) their "you should have been more careful" rhetoric doesn't provide a solution to the fact that families are struggling now.

    One of the tenets of liberalism is that if you do your part and play by the rules, the government will help you or protect you if you are down on your luck through no fault of your own. The problem with this argument is that in most of these cases of current financial hardship, consumers did in fact break these rules and brought about their own ruin. Consumers who paid their bills on time never had to worry about subprime mortgages. Consumers with tight wallets who bought board games or comic books for Christmas instead of DVD players and laptop computers aren't worrying about paying down credit card debt. Lower-income consumers who are driving Corollas instead of Camrys and station wagons instead of SUVs aren't worrying about expensive car insurance and high car payments.

    Conservative voters realize this, but none of the presidential candidates are really addressing it. To his credit, Mike Huckabee has warned that the Chinese economy stands to benefit more than the American economy given the glut of Chinese products on the market. But most of the other candidates and congressmen are spending more time talking about extending unemployment benefits and getting these rebates in the hands of the American people as fast as they can. Conservatives look at their (usually Republican) political leaders and shake their heads in disbelief at their rhetoric. It seems like politicians of all persuasions are more interested in pandering than in principle, and that's a shame.

    Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.