Thursday, July 31, 2008

Contempt and More Contempt

Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee voted to cite Karl Rove for contempt of Congress. The vote was only a recommendation. It still needs to be approved by the full House and the Senate - both of which are not terribly likely to happen. But still. It's nice to see that Congress has gotten into the contempt game. After all, the administration has been hurling contempt at Congress for years now.

As has become shocking for the lack of shock it elicits, Congress summoned some member of the administration to testify under oath about something. The administration member refused and Congress got mad. None of this is new stuff. In fact, it's pretty much the standard playbook for an administration that doesn't have much belief in its own need to follow the Constitution. So this time the committee voted to take some action.

The irony of this is that it doesn't matter to this administration for precisely the same reason that the contempt recommendation was made. Not since Andrew Jackson said that the Supreme Court would also have to enforce the ruling he disagreed with has a president shown such lack of regard for the supposedly co-equal branches of government.

That's the catch in all this. Congress is considering voting to hold Rove in contempt because he doesn't respect their authority to call him in to assert their oversight duties. However, the contempt vote won't really matter because Rove doesn't respect Congress' authority. Tough spot. I'm just glad that January is around the corner.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Adventures of Bat Bush

While reading last Friday's Wall Street Journal op-ed about What Bush and Batman Have in Common, I was struck by a brilliant idea for the next Batman movie: dump Christian Bale and hire the recently unemployed George W. Bush for the title role. (If Bale keeps attacking his mother, they may be in the market for someone new anyway.) Here's how the plot would go.

The movie would open with a shot of bustling, though essentially peaceful Gotham City. Suddenly, with no warning, there are two huge explosions as buildings are destroyed. We soon learn that the Joker is the evil doer behind these nefarious deeds. Batbush (usually not great with public relations) holds a press conference and rallies the people of Gotham behind him. He makes it clear that he's going to catch the Joker and bring him to justice for what he's done.

Batbush immediately starts on this quest for justice by leaving Gotham City and heading to Metropolis where he begins a long struggle with Lex Luthor. You see, Batbush explains, Lex Luthor is an evil doer and he's planning to do bad things so he has to be stopped. Everyone kind of goes along with this because he's Batbush and they trust him to do the right thing. A few eyebrows get raised, however, when Batbush refuses to accept any help from Superman or the League of Justice. They want to help Gotham's hero out of solidarity with the cause, but Batbush's stubborn insistence on doing things his way alienates these heroic potential allies.

It turns out that the fight against Lex Luthor is pretty easy and he's quickly put in jail where he's executed. But, it also turns out that Luthor wasn't really planning any big attacks against Gotham or anywhere else. He was just a big talker. However, with Luthor gone all sorts of problems break out in Metropolis and Batbush is obligated to stay and help fight a protracted war against the criminals of the city.

Meanwhile, back in Gotham, the Joker (remember him? the guy who started all the trouble?) hasn't been caught. He's still running around free encouraging other smaller attacks. Batbush is stuck in Metropolis, so he's no help. The people of Gotham are frustrated and angry because crime in their city is way up while Batbush goes running around in another city that he probably shouldn't even have gone to in the first place. Wayne Enterprises is nearly bankrupt from all of Batbush's exploits in Metropolis and that's causing a huge financial drain on the whole city of Gotham.

The film ends with Batbush saying that he has no regrets and that he knows he's doing the right thing. The people of Gotham, meanwhile, are signing a petition to keep him in Metropolis, never to return. Fade to black.

Hopefully there wouldn't be a sequel. Batmccain anyone?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

More "Straight" Talk

I don't mean to beat a dead horse or anything, but this whole McCain on Iraq thing is starting to get a little silly. Last night on Larry King, the presumptive Republican nominee indicated that maybe he could support a 16-month timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq as long as it was based on the conditions on the ground. In his words: "Now whether that fits into 16 months or not, or one month, or whatever, the point is it's got to be conditions-based."

Whoa there. One month? For those keeping score at home, that 1,199 months faster than he's previously indicated he'd want to bring the troops home.

And also, isn't this position pretty much exactly Obama's position? And don't give me that Obama will bring the troops home regardless of what's happening in Iraq. That's obviously false. Obama has said that he's be looking at conditions on the ground. His advisor Samantha Powers said the same thing months ago, while the primary fight with Hillary was still going on.

Still, give McCain credit. It takes a fair amount of chutzpah to adopt your opponent's position on the war, claim that his position is still wrong, and continue to run for president on the strength of your position on the war. Let's hope this bodes as well for November as I think it does.

Monday, July 28, 2008

"Straight" Talk Express

It seems like there was a point not that long ago when the phrase "Straight Talk Express" wasn't necessarily being used ironically. Now it's like you can hear the quotation marks around it whenever you hear the phrase. In a campaign marked by refinined positions and flip flops, it's getting harder and harder to know exactly what's going on with John McCain's position on Iraq.

First, the folks at Talking Points Memo have put together a rather excellent timeline detailing McCain's fairly regular changes of mind as to whether or not President Bush was doing a good job in Iraq. In case you didn't click the link, just know that it's tough to keep track of what stand Mr. Straight Talk had when.

Second, you could make it a full time job just trying to figure out what McCain is saying is wrong with Obama's plan for withdrawing troops from Iraq. First, Obama was wrong and naive. Then he was adopting McCain's plan. Then he would rather lose the war than lose the election. Then the timeline that Prime Minister Maliki laid out (by saying that Obama's timeline was good) is a pretty good timeline for withdrawal because it's based on conditions on the ground but that Obama's timeline isn't good because it's not based on conditions on the ground. And then McCain accuses Obama of shifting positions on the war. Keep in mind, this very complicated and often contradictory series of remarks all come in response to Obama's essentially unchanged position that we should withdraw the troops from Iraq in 16 months, contingent upon things not falling apart in the country.


To top this all off, McCain - to the best of my knowledge - hasn't offered any sort of plan for getting us out of Iraq. He says that we need to insure victory, but I guess I'm still not clear on how he defines that very nebulous word. As far as we know, McCain is still happy to have us in Iraq for the next 100 years. He can shift and attack Obama all he wants, but it seems like eventually he's going to need to figure out what our mission objective in Iraq is beyond "victory."

Friday, July 25, 2008

Hope, Global Edition

I think that Barack Obama's speech in Berlin yesterday was a mark of how much things have changed for the worse in the eight years since George W. Bush was elected president. It was a fine speech, though I don't think it was a knockout. What made it remarkable for me was how unremarkable it would have been about a decade ago.

There was a time, not too distant in the past, where if a president had gone to Europe and essentially said, "We're allies and we're going to work together on common problems," everyone would have said, "Well, duh!" But no more. After eight years of unilateral treaty withdrawals and the occasional unilateral, "preventative" war it's an applause line to say that we're going to work with our allies. This is actually what things have come to.

Obama made the point that the problems in New York aren't confined to New York and the problems in Berlin aren't confined to Berlin. He had a great line that problems aren't confined within a country's borders anymore. Again, a decade ago the idea that the global community faced certain shared threats and challenges wasn't exactly news. It certainly wouldn't have been news if a presidential candidate had said that we should work with our allies to addrss those threats and challenges. So what changed? Bush happened.

On the whole, Obama gave a solid speech that likely will play well in Europe (and hopefully here). What he didn't do was offer any particularly new ideas. The ideas just seemed new because for the last eight years the administration has tried to ignore the rest of the world. Obama is promising to change that. No wonder the rest of the world likes him.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I Will Not be Vice President

I want to take this space to officially announce that I will not be running as vice president for either party. I'm happy with the job that I have now and will use my current position to do everything I can to help the candidate get elected.

True, no one has asked me and I'm not often mentioned on the short lists of potential VP picks, but I just hate being left out. Yesterday, Louisiana Governor Jindal announced that he was not going to be John McCain's running mate. Well, nice to have that taken care of.

It seems like every few days I see another story about some mid-level political person (some I've heard of and some I've not) saying that he's not going to be the vice president. I guess I get that it's all part of the game. Everyone says they don't want it and then - SURPRISE! - someone gets it anyway. I just don't get why the game gets played in the first place.

Who does it really help to say that you won't be the vice presidential nominee? It doesn't really help the candidate himself because it always strikes me as kind of a shot at the person. You know, "Even if he were the last nominee for the Republican Party, I still wouldn't run with him." I also have a little trouble seeing how it helps the person saying it. They don't get anything other than a write-off from the press who's driving themselves frantic trying to figure out who the picks are going to be.

So, while I don't know why I'm really bothering to say it, but I am not going to be either candidate's running mate.

Unless they ask me. Because let's be honest, I wouldn't really turn that down.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dave Barry for President

Dave Barry is running for president. Again. Unlike the sadly quixotic quests of Ralph Nader, Dave Barry is kidding about it though. At least I think he is.

Barry is usually more focused on making jokes about boogers and things like that then any sort of biting humor, but during his interview with CNN (link above) he does hit on two pretty good points.

The first is when he's describing why he should be president. Basically, he says, it's because he agrees with the American people on everything. And if they change their minds, he'll change his mind. He never mentions polls, triangulating, pandering, or flip flopping, but he sure got to the heart of what presidential campaigning is all about. All he left out was that he'd have to try to change his mind without anyone actually thinking he'd change his mind.

Later, when asked how the U.S. governmnent would continue to function if his "You pay $9.95" tax plan was implemented, Barry said, "I'd charge it." Again, no mention of China, the sinking dollar, or the loosening of U.S. economic hegemony that usually accompanies this kind of conversation, but he does get right to the heart of it. Our current economic plan is pretty much that of a single irresponsible person looking to charge everything and hope that the bill comes late.

Again, this is not bad for a guy who takes pride in the fact that he's the only person ever awarded a Pulitzer Prize for "writing about boogers."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

McCain in a Nutshell

Big shock, John McCain is upset again.

This time he seems a little miffed that the New York Times won't print his op-ed piece about Iraq like they printed Obama's. Actually, the op-ed isn't really about Iraq so much as it's about saying that Obama was wrong. Over and over and over again.

The telling detail in all this is a quote from Times op-ed editor David Shipley, who wrote, "The Obama piece worked for me because it offered new information (it appeared before his speech); while Senator Obama discussed Senator McCain, he also went into detail about his own plans."

I think that summarizes the general tone and tenor of the presidential election so far. Obama is running on his plans and ideas and McCain is running against Obama. That may not be a bad strategy given the state of the Republican Party and the apparent weaknesses Obama has among fairly large swaths of the electorate. Also, as has been covered many times, this election really is about Obama. The majority of Americans say they want change and so this election is a referendum on whether or not Obama is the one we want to give it to us.

There's nothing groundbreaking here. I just like it when larger truths are summed up in smaller moments.

Monday, July 21, 2008

We Could Use Some More Inexperience

At this point in the campaign, it seems like the central narratives are pretty set and probably won't be changing too much. For instance, the notion that Barack Obama is inexperienced (and probably naive) about foreign policy is pretty entrenched into the campaign coverage. (For the latest example, check out this article.) However, let's look at the last week with an eye toward how naive Obama really is.

First, Obama has been saying from about the start of the campaign that Iraq is the wrong war to be fighting and that Afghanistan needed to have more of our attention. McCain (with much of the media following along) blustered about Iraq being the real war and how we need to focus there. But then McCain did an about face and said that we need to increase our troop presence in Afghanistan after all. For those paying attention, it sure looked like McCain was adopting Obama's policy, but the press didn't really point that out because, after all, McCain is the expert and Obama is inexperienced.

Second, after months of defending his assertion that the U.S. should aggressively negotiate with Iran (and being tarred as an appeaser as a result), the Bush administration decided maybe that wasn't such a bad idea after all. So now we're sending some pretty high level diplomats to Iran. For those paying attention, it sure looked like Bush was adopting Obama's foreign policy, but the press didn't really point that out because, after all, Obama is inexperienced.

Third, you may have heard that Obama is in favor of withdrawing troops from Iraq over 16 months, contngent upon conditions in the country. He's gotten a fair amount of flak for that from McCain and from President Bush. However, it turns out that the Prime Minister of Iraq supports Obama's plan. And you've got to figure that he knows the situation in the country pretty well and has an interest in making sure things go well there.

So in one week three of the most controversial pillars of Obama's foreign policy have been affirmed in pretty big ways. Not bad for someone who the press is going to continue to portray as inexperienced and naive about foreign policy.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Must Be a Slow Day

You know it's been kind of a slow news day when this headline appears on the CNN homepage:

Pelosi Calls Bush a "Total Failure"

Really? The far left leader of the House Democrats is criticizing the far right Republican president with historically low approval ratings? How shocking! I guess the real shock here is that she waited this long.

In other news, I highly recommend this piece from the latest issue of the New Yorker (yeah, the one with the cover). It breaks down the supposed Obama flip flops one by one and sorts them according to how much of a flip each flop is. It also ends with (what I think) is the brilliant last line: "Flip-flops are preferable to cement shoes, especially in summertime." That's why he writes for the New Yorker and I don't.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On Storylines and Flip Flops

Now that most of the outrage is dying down over the New Yorker's cover, we can set our sights again on foreign polict and the nature of flip flopping.

For those paying close attention, in the middle of a speech calling Obama naive and defeatist in his approach to our various wars in the world, McCain actually adopted a large part of Obama's plan, namely that we should increase our troop presence in Afghanistan if we want to win there. Of course, McCain's comments don't come until the 10th paragraph of the story I just linked and even then there's no analysis to point out that Obama has been making essentially the same point (in different terms) for about a year now.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has been doing a good job covering how McCain is assuming Obama's position and how the mainstream press isn't calling him on it! This is something we've been seeing a lot. Obama has been lurching to the center while McCain claims to be taking the same course he already has, even as his positions on issues careen all over the political map. In the above link you Josh points out that he changed his position on Afghanistan the same day. So what gives? Why is Obama flip flopping and McCain not?

I think the answer is pretty simple and fits into the theory of the Tom Cruise Effect. Namely, McCain has a reputation as the Straight Talk Express with lots of policy experience. He's the expert and it doesn't fit into his story line to have him flopping all over the place. Meanwhile, Obama is the fresh-faced newcomer with rhetoric that made it difficult to understand exactly what his positions were during the primary. (You have to laugh at the irony that after months of coverage in the press about how Obama wasn't really laying out any policy proposals he's now being accused of switching positions on proposals he apparently didn't lay out the first time.) So the new guy flops while the Straight Talk Express keeps on going straight - never mind that lately the Straight Talk has been just as crooked as the flopper.

The fact is that the press simply doesn't do a good job covering the substance of presidential campaigns. There's lots of focus on minor gaffes and controversies but little analysis on what's actually being said and what it will actually mean for the country. The reporters get their storylines and stick with them, regardless of the facts that run to the contrary. It's not a hopeless situaton, but it is disappointing to run into it over and over again.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Calm Down Everyone

Proving once again that there's no place for humor in modern politics, the New Yorker is taking a lot of flak for it's most recent cover. The cartoon, entitled "The Politics of Fear", depicts Obama in Muslim clothing fist bumping his wife who's carrying a rifle under a picture of Osama bin Laden while the American flag burns in the fire place. My first thought on seeing the cover was: That's pretty funny.

However, not everyone was amused. Almost immediately, the campaign called the cover "totally inappropriate." And that was the McCain campaign. An Obama spokesman called the cover "tasteless and offensive."

Let's stop here for a moment and just calm down.

First of all, the cover is kind of funny. Is this really what people are worried an Obama presidency will look like? Really? By showing is so bluntly it kind of puts the lie to all the black radical, secret Muslim stuff that just keeps on floating around.

Second, the cover of the New Yorker is hardly a deciding influence in the political realm. Often the covers feature what I take to be a very dry humor or have some sort of very New York-centric humor. The point is that this is not that big a deal, even if it were bad.

And for those of you out there worried about the picture being taken out of context and being portrayed as fact or something, think about it for a second. Obviously the thing is a cartoon, not reality. Let's also not forget that there are actual pictures available online of Obama wearing a turban. If I were looking for Obama images to take out of context, I'd start there.

So let's turn down the swift boating radar for a moment and just enjoy the joke. If we can't do that, the last laugh will be on us.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Lurching in Place

The latest narrative to have taken hold of the presidential campaign has been Obama's supposed lurch to the center (to use Bob Herbert's phrase). He's being accused legitimately of switching his position on FISA immunity and public financing, questionably on his support of faith-based initiatives and the death penalty, and absurdly on his position on withdrawing the troops from Iraq.

Obama contends that his views haven't changed and that people who say otherwise haven't been listening to him. On the whole, I have to say that I think he's probably right. When I read his book The Audacity of Hope I was struck by his centrist positions on the issues. He read to me a lot like Bill Clinton's New Democrat ideology did. That is to say, government should help the people who need it, but shouldn't do everything for everybody. He struck me as down-the-middle in his political ideas and goals.

Somewhere during the primary campaign, though, Obama got pegged as the left-wing candidate. Certainly there's no question that he's on the progressive side of the spectrum, but I have never heard any of his policies that put him much beyond the mainstream center of the party. That's just the way he got labeled by opponents trying to tar him as the next McGovern.

So now it's the general election and Obama is shifting his rhetoric somewhat and moving to the center on some issues. However, I don't see it as being nearly the move that others seem to think. It's not a "lurch" to the center, it's a reiteration of the same ideas he's had all along. And the people who say otherwise hadn't listened very closely the first time.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Good News from Out West

It's always nice to read something good about Arizona in the news. Too often the news is about the latest anti-immigrant policy that got overwhelmingly passed or about the local senator making crazy, baseless promises about the federal budget.

That's why it was good to see the rather long article about Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano in the latest issue of The American Prospect. Arizona is often and with good reason considered a bastion of hardcore Republican ideology. It is, after all, the land of Barry Goldwater. The Goldwater paradigm has been pretty dominant for a pretty long time out in the west.

But Arizona is also home to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. And maybe that means something too. Where Goldwater defined his career by saying that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, O'Connor made her career as a centrist, defining sensible policy from the middle of the political spectrum.

Napolitano clearly belongs to the O'Connor school of Arizona political leadership, rather than the Goldwater model.

What she's been able to do in Arizona is pretty remarkable, given that she is a Democratic woman facing rabid Republican opposition. She has been able to push through a fairly progressive slate of initiatives (most notably full day kindergarten programs) by appealing to moderates, Democrats, and even some members of the traditional right.

The article makes clear that Napolitano is still on her way up in the political world. Let's hope so. We can use more bright people who know how to work both sides of the aisle.

Monday, July 7, 2008

More War Over War

Gotcha politics, long-reviled, may finally have taken the next logical step - inventing gotchas where none actually exist.

Take the latest campaign battle over Obama's position on withdrawing troops from Iraq. McCain says that Obama's statements "have left a significant question as to exactly what he intends." This so-called flip-flop stems from Obama's statement that while the strategy in Iraq will be to bring the troops home as soon as possible (ideally within 16 months), the exact timeline will be affected by the actual conditions on the ground. That is to say that Obama won't just yank the troops out no matter what.

Interestingly, that's what he's been saying the whole time.

Consider also, as Christopher Beam points out, that it would be pretty irresponsible to hold to a plan formulated over a year in advance without regard to how the situation may have changed in the intervening time.

Consider also, that what Obama has supposedly flopped to is right, even in John McCain's thinking. Both candidates are saying (as Hillary Clinton did too) that conditions on the ground in Iraq need to be considered when withdrawing soldiers. The strategy difference remains that Obama want to withdraw troops as soon as it's responsible to do so, while McCain sees a permanent occupying force as a positive.

When we cut through the hysterical campaign rhetoric, McCain is saying that Obama was wrong and now he's switched to the right position, and that makes him wrong. Never mind that Obama's stance has been consistent, McCain's position on this "controversy" is outright absurd.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Patriotic Thoughts

Happy Fourth of July!

I'm in Arizona for the week and the entire paper is pretty much dedicated to patriotism and how great America is. Even the movie review section is all decked out in the red, white, and blue. It's just that time of year.

In the latest issue of Time both John McCain and Barack Obama wrote short essays about what it means to be patriotic. Both pieces are pretty much what you'd expect. McCain's is all about service and sacrifice while Obama writes about the commitment to ideals that allows all people to have a chance to thrive in this country. Both essays are closely tailored to the candidates' own biographies and campaign themes. No surprise there.

However, reading over the essays, I couldn't help but start to form my own vision of patriotism. What follows is my take.

Patriotism in this country means being true to the principles of 1776 and 1789, the years that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were created. It is from those two remarkable documents that our national identity has been shaped. As long as we are true to those ideals we will always be true to this country.

The phrase from those founding documents that most sticks with me is not the line about about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," though that is certainly inspiring. What most sticks with me is the line from the preamble to the Constitution about creating a "more perfect union." That, to me, is what America is all about.

Patriotism is not about "my country right or wrong." It isn't about where you put your hands while the national anthem plays or how often you say the pledge of allegiance. Patriotism is about devoting yourself to the idea that this country can always be made more perfect and dedicating yourself to that cause. Nothing we do can show a more profound love of our country - a more profound patriotism - that committing ourselves to the cause of perfecting our country to the best of our ability.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Rights? What Rights?

Every so often the Bush administration does something to help us remember just what it is about the Bush administration that we really don't like. This probably counts as some sort of constituent service in their eyes.

The latest example I submit to you is that the Justice Department is apparently on the verge of condoning racial profiling as an investigative technique. My favorite line from the AP article is: "Currently, FBI agents need specific reasons — like evidence or allegations that a law probably has been violated — to investigate U.S. citizens and legal residents. The new policy, law enforcement officials told The Associated Press, would let agents open preliminary terrorism investigations after mining public records and intelligence to build a profile of traits that, taken together, were deemed suspicious."

That's right. The Justice Department is deciding that there doesn't need to be evidence or even allegations that a law has been broken to start an investigation. Instead, they'll look a profiles of traits that seem suspicious.

Wow. I know the Fourth of July isn't until tomorrow, but doesn't that just make you proud to be an American.

Yet again, the Bush administration is making it pretty clear that they'll ignore the Constitution anytime it seems like it might prove an inconvenience.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The General and Mr. McCain

One interesting thing about this election that I don't remember from past elections is how quickly and forcefully the candidates respond to any sort of aspersion and how hard each candidate tries not to appear to be casting any aspersions in the first place. Even as they attach each other, neither candidate wants to allow himself to be swift-boated and neither wants to appear to be doing the swift-boating. The radars on both sides have gotten so sensitive that it's starting to become a detriment to actually having a debate.

Consider the recent dust up over Gen. Wesley Clark's comments that getting shot down over Vietnam wasn't a qualification for being president. McCain immediately responded by saying that Obama should "cut [Clark] out" and Obama himself quickly distanced himself from the comments. Republicans are worked up over Democrats questioning McCain's war record. Democrats are worried about being the perpetrators of swift-boating.

Into this void has apparently gone common sense. For instance, it's not really questioning someone's war record to say that the record doesn't qualify them to be president. That does nothing to take away from the bravery that McCain exhibited or the honor with which he unquestionably served. McCain can be a hero and still not deserve to be president.

Also missing is any acknowledgment that Clark's comments are simply correct. Being a prisoner of war - however patriotically it might have happened - is not in itself a qualification to be president. Yes, McCain has a heroic war record, but that is not grounds to vote for him for president. It's a non sequiter to say otherwise. That doesn't take anything away from McCain's own record of service. It just says that we're looking for more in our leader.