Friday, October 24, 2008

Mortgage Crisis for Dummies

Is there a book out there entitled, "Mortgage Crisis for Dummies"? If so, I could really use it. Every time I have attempted to understand it, the result has just confused. However, as an Enlightened Layperson/Dummy, this is the best explanation I can find for it:

This is a story about four bankers named Everybody, Anybody, Somebody and Nobody. These bankers had loan applicants whose assets, income and credit had to be checked. Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody's job. Everybody thought that Anybody would do it, but Nobody realised that Everybody wouldn't do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody while Nobody did what Anybody could have done.


Never Have I Ever

It's a bit late for this, I realize, but I wish we would hear less about Joe the Plumber and more about McCain's truly shocking comment during the final debate. I refer, of course, to the one about ACORN, which "is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." Someone should be pressing McCain on just what he means by that.

The message to the base is loud and clear enough. If McCain loses the election it will be "one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country" and may "destroy[] the fabric of democracy." Of course, he didn't actually say that in so many words. To have come right out and said so would be so completely outside all acceptable discourse as to mark himself as deranged. He has to maintain some sort of plausible deniability. But the message to the base is loud and clear.*

And let me be loud and clear here. I am old enough by now to have seen some ugly elections and some sore losers. Some of the sorest losers, I regret to say, have been on my side of the divide. All too many disappointed Democrats blamed John Kerry's defeat on Diebold fraud in Ohio. Many, with more justification, have questioned the legitimacy of the 2000 election, the Florida recount, and Bush v. Gore. And many Republicans questioned the legitimacy of the Clinton presidency because he never received a majority of the vote. But in all cases the candidate has conceded the outcome and endorsed the result.

In all the low, dirty, underhanded elections I have witnesses in my lifetime, never have I ever seen a Presidential candidate in a nationally televised debate (or any other venue) so much as hint that if he loses the election, the result will be illegitimate, let alone that his defeat may "destroy the fabric of democracy."

*Just for the record, I do not believe that if McCain loses the election, he will go on TV to call it t greatest voting fraud in history, proclaim the fabric of democracy destroyed, and call on his followers to take up their guns and head for the hills. If McCain loses, he will no doubt do what all defeated candidates do; call in to congratulate the winner and make a suitably gracious concession speech without meaning a word of it. But plenty of members of the base will heed the earlier message and act accordingly.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Sarah Palin: What Were They Thinking

An interesting article has come out on how Sarah Palin was selected as McCain's running mate. Apparently Bill Kristol played a major role in the selection. Apparently well before the Republican convention Palin was on the very short list, with Joe Lieberman and Mitt Romney as the other members. Clearly, Lieberman would represent an appeal to swing voters strategy, Romney a general fence-mending strategy, and Palin a rally-the-base strategy.

But the article does not answer the most basic question -- why Palin? If the goal was to rally the base, surely Mike Huckabee would have been just as effective, as would a wide variety of Southern and Midwestern evangelicals with stronger resumes. If the plan was to introduce a running mate with executive experience, any GOP governor (including Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney) would do and, again, many would have been eminently better qualified. If the plan was to appoint a woman to attract disgruntled Hillary supporters, there were better qualified Republican women. (Kay Bailey Hutchinson is the most commonly named). And Elizabeth Dole is a woman, widely trusted by all factions of the Republican Party, with crossover appeal to swing voters, and two executive experience in two federal cabinet positions. So why Sarah Palin?

I don't have any privileged inside information, but here is my guess. Frustration with Obama. From the McCain campaign perspective, Obama was a freshman Senator, new on the scene, without the credentials to be President, yet far from being disqualifying, his inexperience was offering the attraction of novelty and huge media attention. He seemed a vapid celebrity without substance, who elevated celebrity appeal over any real qualification. And he was winning. The McCain campaign pointed these things out and they did, in fact, make a dent in Obama. But they should have destroyed him altogether.

So, after condemning Obama for inexperience and empty celebrity didn't work (at least not well enough), McCain, Kristol and others decided that if the American people wanted novelty and celebrity, they would offer novelty and celebrity in the person of Sarah Palin. It worked at first. People magazine and other gossip mags ran front page articles on how this mother of five managed to juggle small children, a Down's baby and being governor of Alaska. The base, and others, gushed over her pregnant daughter who was going to marry the father and make a fresh start. McCain's ratings got a boost. But it didn't last. It didn't last because the campaign made two serious miscalculations.

First of all, they ignored that not all the attention that goes with novelty is good attention. The fickle press soon tires of the new candidate they just lauded. Obama got serious negative attention on everything from Reverend Wright to his bowling scores. McCain, on the other hand, got mostly a free pass for his membership in the Keating Five because it was old news. Palin soon turned out to have some skeletons in her closet, too, and, once the first glow wore off, has attracted a flurry of negative coverage.

But more importantly, the McCain campaign seriously underestimated Obama. They could plausibly claim (and, indeed, believe) that he was a substance-free celebrity, until a real substance-free celebrity appeared on the scene. Suddenly, after Sarah Palin's disasterous interviews and debate performance, the accusation lost a lot of plausibility. The American people had seen what a substance-free celebrity sounds like, and Obama didn't sound like that.

Perhaps the most impressive demonstration of how thoroughly Palin proved the Obama was more than an empty celebrity comes from Charles Krauthammer's reactions. On before the interviews and debate, he could easily dismiss Obama as "the ultimate celebrity candidate" being displaced by Palin. He admitted it was an impressive achievement for Obama to be "airborn" for four years on celebrity alone, but now he was losing altitude and Palin was supplanting him at his own game. "With her narrative, her persona, her charisma carrying the McCain campaign to places it has never been and by all logic has no right to be, she's pulling an Obama. But her job is easier. She only has to remain airborne for seven more weeks. Obama maintained altitude for an astonishing four years." Then Palin crashed and burned as soon as she had to answer substantive policy questions while Obama persisted. And Krauthammer changed his tune, acknowledging that "Like Palin, he's a rookie, but in his 19 months on the national stage he has achieved fluency in areas in which he has no experience. In the foreign policy debate with McCain, as in his July news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Obama held his own -- fluid, familiar and therefore plausibly presidential." No one could say that about Sarah Palin.


Memo to Jonah Goldbert: Who's Looking Fascist Now?

When Jonah Goldberg came out with Liberal Fascism earlier this year, naturally he mentioned Barack Obama in his interviews. Obama was a classic liberal fascist. He was holding rallies, stirring crowds, leading followers in chants of "Yes, we can! Yes, we can!" Firing up a crowd's passion and leading chanting rallies reminded Goldberg of Mussolini and Hitler leading chanting rallies of followers. Populism and stirring up a crowd's passion, Goldberg warned, can lead in very ugly directions. The final proof of his fascism occurred when Obama scheduled his acceptance speech in (gasp!) a sports stadium. But let's face it. All rallies appeal to the passions of the crowd and lead to chants of meaningless slogans. And rallies are, after all, a normal (if not always appealing) feature of democratic politics.

As further proof of Obama's fascism, Goldberg cites his talk about things like transformation and unity. To Goldberg, this is dangerously utopian. Conflict and partisanship are normal parts of democratic politics; to deny them is to deny democracy. And the message feels repressive and intrusive. Obama is calling for people to unify on his terms, by becoming fluffy, uplifted liberals just like himself. Goldberg just wants to be left alone. The message contains an implied rebuke, an unspoken note of moral superiority. But annoying implied moral superiority is not the same as fascism.

But Goldberg is missing some fairly obvious differences between the Obama campaign and real fascist campaigns. Real fascists appeal to anger, fear and hate. They fire up followers to become stormtroopers and crack opposition heads. Obama talks of hope and change and fires up followers to register new voters, build a Democratic organization in rural areas, and develop a platform to meet local needs. This is indeed populism, but of a healthy kind. Instead of firing up people's anger and hate and leading a pitchfork-wielding mob against Wall Street, Obama is recognizing the justice of that anger and channeling it into doing something constructive.

Goldberg may see talk of unity as dangerously utopian because it ignores the conflict inherent in democratic politics and (presumably) sees divisive partisanship and demonization of one's opponents as the true face of democracy. But let's face it. Real fascists put off their promises of unity until after their internal enemies are defeated. In the mean time, they are about as partisan, divisive and demonizing as anyone could ask for. Let there be no mistake, extremes of polarization, partisanship and demonization can destroy democracy; that is exactly what Mussolini and Hitler did.

As a matter of fact, if Goldberg really wants to see populist appeals to anger, fear and hate, it isn't Obama rallies he should be watching. At McCain/Palin rallies, one is hearing more and more cries of "terrorist," "traitor," "treason," and even "kill him." Republicans are heckling Obama voters, slashing their tires, and vandalizing ACORN offices and calling in death threats. Am I calling Republicans fascists? No. They are most certainly not fascists. But if Goldberg wants to hunt for every superficial resemblence between liberals or Democrats and fascists, maybe he should also be looking for resemblence on the other side of the aisle as well.

And finally, I would pose a thought experiment to Goldberg. If he thinks Obama's talk of unity and cooperation is dangerous, what would he think if Obama did, indeed, engage in the politics of polarization and demonization? Why do I suspect he wouldn't like that any better?

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