Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Constitutional Rights and Limits

So over at BlueOregon, I started a firestorm with a purposely-provocative post about guns. I don't wish to go further into that question, but a surprising meme did crop up in response to a question Kari posed in comments:
In your view, are the regulations on owning fully-automatic weapons a violation of the 2nd Amendment - or not?
A number of gun-rights advocates found the site and carried on a spirited debate, generally emphasizing the inviolability of the 2nd Amendment. (Sample comment: "I, and many other 2nd Amendment supporters believe it [banning automatic guns] does violate the spirit and words of the Second.") Pressed on it, they add comments like "There is no "except for machine guns and short-barreled rifles" clause in the 2nd amendment."

I was unaware that so many Americans misunderstood the extent to which the Bill of Rights protect individual rights--they are neither all-encompassing or absolute. Let's leave aside the second, how about the fourth:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
This amendment has been so thoroughly eviscerated by various Supreme Court rulings that it's hard to see that there's any right left at all. Even the first amendment (which, admittedly, covers a lot of areas) has had a number of limitations cited by the Supremes. There is nothing sacred about the Bill of Rights, nothing permanent, nothing above revision.

It is perhaps for these reasons that the gun-rights lobby is so keen to protect the 2nd--a badly-worded right that has been little-tested in case law. So long as legislation curtailing rights are not passed, they can't be challenged, and the amendment remains as robust as the lobby can keep it. Good for them--that's politics. But nowhere do rights exist that are outside the purview of legal review. Interesting that so few people know this.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Happy Birthday, Ralph!

Ralph Nader was born 73 years ago today. Had it not been for his actions a little over six years ago, we'd celebrate him as a great American. Briefly:
Nader was born in Winsted, Connecticut, on Feb. 27, 1934 to Lebanese immigrants Nathra and Rose Nader.... Nader graduated magna cum laude from Princeton in 1955 and from Harvard Law School in 1958. As a student at Harvard, Nader first researched the design of automobiles.

After a stint working as a lawyer in Hartford, Connecticut, Nader headed for Washington, where he began his career as a consumer advocate. He worked for Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Department of Labor and volunteered as an adviser to a Senate subcommittee that was studying automobile safety.

In 1965, he published Unsafe at Any Speed, a best-selling indictment of the auto industry and its poor safety standards. He specifically targeted General Motors' Corvair. Largely because of his influence, Congress passed the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Nader was also influential in the passage of 1967's Wholesome Meat Act, which called for federal inspections of beef and poultry and imposed standards on slaughterhouses, as well as the Clean Air Act and the Freedom of Information Act.

Nader's crusade caught on, and swarms of activists, called "Nader's Raiders," joined his modern consumer movement. They pressed for protections for workers, taxpayers, and the environment and fought to stem the power of large corporations.

In 1969 Nader established the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, which exposed corporate irresponsibility and the federal government's failure to enforce regulation of business. He founded Public Citizen and U.S. Public Interest Research Group in 1971, an umbrella for many other such groups.
For 364 days, we can talk about the last six years; today, let's remember him for the first sixty-seven.

Obama's Polling Strength

A Zogby poll is making the rounds that shows Obama beating all-comers in the general election:
Obama/Giuliani - 46%/40%
Obama/McCain - 44%/40%
Obama/Romney - 51%/29%
No other Dem beats Giuliani or McCain, though everyone beats Romney. The poll turns out to be an outlier, but the trend is similar. In other polls, Obama does better against the three major GOP candidates than do Hillary or Edwards, and is in a tie with McCain. Part of this is that Giuliani and Obama, the two strongest candidates in each party, are the least well-known. Both will see their negatives jump as the country hears more about them. But this is far worse for Giuliani, whose negatives are substantial.

Too early to mean anything, but interesting to see.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Oscar Winners and Losers

A quick and dirty rundown of a surprisingly subdued Oscars.

Winner: Al Gore. Three Oscars for An Inconvenient Truth and a mid-telecast PSA by Al and Leonardo DiCaprio. (Plus the Jeffy.) He didn't announce his candidacy, but he came off as a relaxed, good-natured guy. And Leo clearly had a man-crush on him.

Loser: Eddie Murphy. The supremely confident Norbit star got taken down by Alan Arkin. The producers didn't have the heart to go to a reaction shot of Eddie.

Winner: The Academy. Trying to cover a multitude of sins, they gave America's greatest living director the award they have heretofore withheld. Those "lifetime achievement" things are totally bogus, and they avoided having to cover up their mistakes with one. (This was, by my count, Marty's ninth-best movie and his first Oscar. But hey.)

Loser: Iraq in Fragments. The consensus best doc was steamrolled by the SS Al Gore.

Winner: George Clooney. Jack Nicholson was everywhere, as always, in bald head (?) and sunglasses. But it was Clooney, who in one very brief appearance--when he announced the winner for Supporting Actress--reminded us who is the actual big dog.

Loser: Babel. Up for six awards, it took home one, for Original Score (yippee!). See what happens when your movie only makes $33 m?

Mixed verdict: Host Ellen Degeneres, whose quiet, unobtrusive performance will dodge comparisons to Letterman, but fail to put her in the Billy Crystal/Steve Martin category. (I thought it was a very nice performance.)

Loser: Anyone who hoped to see a major meltdown and/or gaffe. The telecast was packed with fluff and the speeches were short. George Bush's name was never mentioned. But there's always next year!

The Most Important Movie of the Year

Among the Jeffies, no category exists for "importance." I tend to hew to the standard categories everyone uses. And anyway, it usually takes a decade to determine importance--it's hard enough to even determine what's good. But in this case, one movie deserves to be singled out. As art, it was only mostly successful--it had slow, draggy parts, and the essential point of the movie was clear in the title; for people familiar with the topic, there wasn't anything new. On the other hand, the themes are knitted together through the metaphor (a river), which isn't the easiest thing to do in a documentary. So, all in all, a pretty good movie, but not the stuff of artistic "importance."

An Inconvenient Truth broke larger ground than art. Thanks to a large, very well-funded coalition of partners from the White House to ExxonMobil, the notion of a phony "debate" about the reality of global warming was alive and well when Gore's movie debuted. As he describes in the movie, reporters dutifully reported this "debate" and gave credence to what was essentially a lie (that global warming was either not happening or wasn't caused by tailpipes and coal factories).

The lie and the debate are dead. The administration now not only admits that global warming exists, but that we're causing it and need to stop. Eighty-five percent of Americans believe its happening. And the "debate" is no longer mentioned in the news articles.

Gore managed to do something no liberal or scientist could do for the past two decades--convince the nation and its leaders that we need to act on global warming. Since the movie came out, the three west coast states have passed legislation to immediately begin addressing it. The Democrats were swept into power in part because the administration was so obviously untruthful about Iraq--and things like economic equality and global warming. They are now in a position to start addressing this critical issue.

Global warming is now a serious issue in American politics, and the question is now how to deal with it. Without An Inconvenient Truth, we'd still be conducting an absurd debate with oil men about whether it exists. In the absence of a serious press whose willing to question the lies of a powerful and pervasive coalition, we need couragous movies like Gore's. In fifty years, we will still be talking about it.

So the special Jeffy goes to Al Gore. He lost the election, but he won the debate. Good man.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Critics and the Money

How to rate art? It is not only subjective among appreciators, it's variable across time. We relate to movies differently in the moment than we do after months or years of reflection. (Subtle movies fare better in my memory, once the evanescence of emotion has evaporated.) As a crude example, witness how the critics responded to movies at the time.

Below are aggregate scores of a selection of critics from around the country assigned by Metacritic. The scale they use rates movies from 1 to 100. No movie in its initial release has ever scored above a 98, and only one movie did that; the next-highest is 94. The movie receiving the 98 was this year's Pan's Layrinth, full of emotionan and imagination. But when it came time to rank their best movies of the year, only seven cited Pan's. By contrast, ten cited United 93, which only received a 90 at the time it was released. The Departed, which got an 85 by the critics at the time of release, was remembered retrospectively by eight as the best of the year. Go figure. Below are the Metacritic rankings and critics' best-of movies:
Metacritic aggregate
Pan's Labyrinth - 98
The Queen - 91
United 93 - 90
Borat - 89
Letters from Iwo Jima - 89

Cited by critics as best of the year
United 93 (10)
The Departed (8)
Pan's Labyrinth (7)
Letters from Iwo Jima (6.5)
Children of Men (5)
Babel (4)
The Queen (4)
Flags of our Fathers (3.5)
Another way of looking at movies is how they fared in the various awards ceremonies:
Best Picture
Babel (Golden Globes), The Queen (British Academy), Departed (Boston and Chicago Critics, Critics Choice), Letters from Iwo Jima (LA Critics, National Board of Review), Pan's Labyrinth (National Society Of Film Critics), United 93 (NY Critics)

Best Director
Martin Scorsese (Golden Globes, Directors Guild, Boston, Chicago and NY Critics, Critics Choice, National Board of Review), Paul Greengrass (British Academy, LA Critics, National Society Of Film Critics)
Of course, the least accurate, but most heavily-weighted metric in Hollywood (and one that comes into play at awards time), is money. It is axiomatic in the modern era that the best movies are never the most successful, and so it was in 2006:
1. Pirates of the Caribbean $423 million
2. Cars $244 m
3. Night at the Museum $239 m
4. X-Men: The Last Stand $234 m
5. The Da Vinci Code $218 m
What's more interesting is how good movies do at the box office. Many believe that Scorsese continues to lose out at the Oscars because his films just don't do that well. Until this year, he'd never had a $100-million-dollar movie. Could it be that Little Miss Sunshine is being taken seriously this year because it's made respectable money for an indie? And could it be that Clint, respected as much for his art as his commerce, has no real chance at this year's Academy Awards?

To turn the axiom on its side, you might also say that a movie, no matter how fantastic it is, can never achieve the level of cultural transcendence without making some money. Probably this has more to do with the communal aspect of movies--we like to share the experience, talk about it, and reflect on the meaning with others. If a movie is too obscure, it withers in obscurity. Witness the IMDb top movies--nary an obscure pic among 'em. (It's based on averages, so there's no reason an obscure movie couldn't be there.)

So, whether crass or credible, money matters. Below is a list of the major Oscar contenders and their grosses through 2/23 (best picture candidates starred):
15. The Departed $132 m*
17. The Devil Wears Prada $125 m
19. Dreamgirls $100 m
52. Little Miss Sunshine $55 m*
62. The Queen $52 m*
92. Flags of Our Fathers $34 m
93. Babel $33 m*
94. United 93 $31 m
95. Pan's Labyrinth $31 m
145. Letters from Iwo Jima $12 m*
Bode well for the Departed? Badly for Babel? Time will tell.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Jeffies

It is that time of year again, when Hollywood will gather to pay obsequious honor to Jack Nicholson (from his throne in the front row) and snub Martin Scorsese; when members of the Academy will pretend to honor art for one night before calling their publicists to whine about their air time on Entertainment Tonight; when Americans gather in living rooms to watch a spectacle that only confirms (again!) how small moving pictures seem to have gotten. Ah yes, there's Oscar in the air.

Since the Academy almost always botch it, I hold a concurrent awards ceremony that is uninfluenced by crass commercialism or nepotism (or importance, but that's another matter): the Jeffies. It's my chance to right a few wrongs, at least on this here blog.

(Wrongs? How about Robert Zemeckis beating Woody Allen, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Robert Redford for Forrest Gump in 1994? Or Kevin Costner's win over Coppola, Frears, and Scorsese in 1990?)

It was an off year for movies and for my enjoyment of them. I saw fewer films this year than at any time since I was in grad school, mainly due to my essential boycott of movies that show in Regal Cinemas, which have a near monopoly in town. Still, I was selective and tried to catch the best-reviewed and managed to do pretty well on that score. So look out, I plan to forge ahead. Next stop, Jeffies 2007.

Is Anyone More Aptly Named Than Dick Cheney?

From the man who told a US Senator to go fuck himself and then shot a friend in the face, here are three more from the Veep:
"I think the key to the issue right now is the security situation in Baghdad. I think the Maliki government is off to a pretty good start. Only time will tell. I'm fairly optimistic that going forward with this strategy will, in fact, work."

"I think, in fact, if we were to do what Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Murtha are suggesting, all we'll do is validate the al Qaeda strategy. The al Qaeda strategy is to break the will of the American people. In fact, knowing they can't win in a stand-up fight, try to persuade us to throw in the towel and come home, and then they win because we quit."

"And the point I made and I'll make it again is that al-Qaida functions on the basis that they think they can break our will. That's their fundamental underlying strategy, that if they can kill enough Americans or cause enough havoc, create enough chaos in Iraq, then we'll quit and go home. And my statement was that if we adopt the Pelosi policy, that then we will validate the strategy of al-Qaida. I said it and I meant it."

Vilsack Out

This isn't surprising: Tom Vilsack has pulled out of the Presidential race. He's citing money:

"We have everything to win the nomination and the general election," said Vilsack in a statement released by his campaign. "Everything except money."

Vilsack added that the frontloading of the primary process -- with states like California and Florida planning move their primary dates up to early February -- put even more emphasis on the need for campaign cash.

In a little over a month, we're going to see how bad things are being skewed by money (what's the over/under figure for Hillary--$50 million?), but Vilsack's embarrassing foray was not affected by money. In his home state of Iowa, 47% thought it was a "bad idea" for him to run; only 40% thought it was a "good idea." Sometimes you just have to admit the obvious.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Blood and Taxes

It's tax (revenue) and budget (expenditures) time, and I've been thinking (with a little help from my friends) about how much of my money is funding the American war machine. It's a lot. Exactly how much depends on how you slice the pie, and mostly, it's sliced to minimize how much of your money goes into defense. I've worked out a rough roadmap based on a few assumptions.

Let's work backward, moving from what the median American makes. (Medians are better than means because the more income inequality, the less "average" the mean. Medians measure the incomes exactly in the middle of the distribution--half are higher, half are lower.) For our puruposes, let's use $46,326--the median household income, which increased in 2005 (the most recent year of census data) for the first time since '99. It's impossible to find an "average" filer, but let's assume a family of paycheck-earners who is in the 25% tax bracket. That means this family will send $11,582 to fund items in the federal budget.

Very important note: paycheck-earners also pay a tax instantly to the government in the form of payroll taxes, which gets diverted to pay for Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. So our median family actually pays over $15k in federal taxes, but only the income taxes go into discretionary spending--which is what Congress votes to approve every year. This is where the entire defense budget is funded, so I'm using just the income taxes for the following calculations.

Now, there are two ways to look at the budget, and the media generally reports the one the government offers, which minimizes military spending by including Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. But these social programs are funded through the payroll tax that go into Al Gore's much maligned "lock box" (which wasn't locked very tight: Bush actually dipped into it to pay for his war). If you include them in the calculation, defense looks like a modest 21% of spending; remove them, and defense skyrockets to 51%.

Okay, so let's go back to the median family. Here's how their $11,582 is divvied up by the Feds:
  • $5,907 - All military spending
  • $3,706 - human resources (HHS, Education, Social Security admin, etc.)
  • $1,389 - general government (government agencies, interest on the debt)
  • $579 - physical resources
Military spending breaks down into the following categories:
  • $2,316 - past military obligations
  • $2,780 - current military spending (excluding wars)
  • $811 - wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
Nearly six grand. For the median family that's 47 days of income. A lotta money to fund the neocons experiment in bringing "peace" and "democracy" to the Middle East.
Disclaimer: Cavaeat Emptor. I believe all of this is accurate and current, but I'm more of a humanities guy than an accountant. So don't take up arms or anything based on these data.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

John McCain is Old

The Gallup poll making the rounds has highlighted the resistance Americans have to Mormons (24% said they wouldn't vote for one). But even more unelectable are men thrice-married (30% oppose) or 72 years old (42% oppose), as are Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, respectively. In fact, only gays and athiests are more objectionable than old men.

Of course, those are generic numbers, and people are probably more positive about McCain than they are worried about his age. Still, it demonstrates the problem he confronts. Below is a handy Table of the Objectionable and the corresponding candidate who fits the slot.
Category________No Worries___Worries___Candidate
____________95%________4% _______NA
Black_______________94%________5% _______Obama
Woman______________ 88%________11% ______Hillary
Hispanic___________ 87%________12% ______Richardson
_____________ 72%________24% ______Romney
Married 3x
_________ 67%________30% ______Giuliani
72 years old
_______ 57%________42% ______McCain
I also wonder whether people are more likely to tell the truth about their worries about age (no social stigma) than race (a big one). In any case, interesting.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Hillary's Inadvertant Metaphor

Hillary made a conscious decision long ago to try to game the system: she decided that rather than be a courageous, inspiring leader, she'd be a safe, moderate inevitability. So she set about girding herself against everything her attackers would use against her, irrespective of the reality of things. She would use the Senate to carefully construct a facsimile of herself from a tapestry of statements and votes. It would be Fort Hillary.

An example is the current Iraq posture. Everyone knows that she cast the vote for war because she calculated that Fort Hillary could not stand the charge of "weak woman" had she opposed it. Now she's in the unenviable position of rolling Fort Hillary out to try to explain why she voted for the war:
"I take responsibility for my vote. It was a sincere vote based on the facts and assurances we had at the time. Obviously I would not vote that way again if we knew then what we know now."
Much as she thought she couldn't afford to vote against the war for political reasons, she feels she can't admit she was wrong to vote for it now. The barrage she suffers at every press conference will continue because the explanation rings hollow.

All of this is a metaphor for why people aren't excited about her campaign: they don't want to have to vote for another human facsimile who doesn't have the courage to come out and speak from the heart. It is no secret that the two candidates most dangerous to Hillary are passionate truth-tellers. Obama shouldn't even be running for office after less than half a term in the Senate, but he's willing to sacrifice his fort for his heart. (Funny thing is, when he gives them the truth, they don't think it's hell--they love it.) Hillary can't tell the truth on Iraq and everyone knows it. They also know it's a metaphor for her entire candidacy. What's to get excited about?

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Pint for George

You may be under the mistaken impression that it's "Presidents' Day." It is not. In 1885, Chester Arthur signed Washington's birthday into federal law--perhaps in the Dubya-like wish that he might also one day be so exalted. (Unlikely.) Later, commerce took over, and department stores implemented the more egalitarian "Presidents' Day," which has, without the imprimatur of law, supplanted Arthur's writ.

So let us put aside Abe (and Reagan and Harrison) and raise a pint to the humble general/brewer, who would have abhorred the honor of a federal holiday (too monarchist). How he would have felt to know that official recognition of his birthday had been supplanted by the dictates of commerce we can only guess about. Maybe not so bad--it's a triumph of the people, sort of.

Happy 275th, Mr. President.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Dave Brooks, Then and Now

The man who has tried to cultivate the image of himself as above the partisan scrum, an honest, authentic broker of truth, justice, and the American way, today ("No Apology Needed"):
Far be it from me to get in the middle of a liberal purge, but would anybody mind if I pointed out that the calls for Hillary Clinton to apologize for her support of the Iraq war are almost entirely bogus?
I envision him in his signature pose, sadly shaking his head at liberals who fail to see truth as it is, blinded by their own twisted biases.

It was much the same pose he struck in 2003, when he wrote:
I'm curious about how all the war opponents are going to react if things continue to go well. Sure, they opposed Saddam, they will say. They just didn't want to do anything about him. They had no practical suggestion for how to end his murderous reign and spread freedom. They were tolerant. Tolerant of tyranny. They doubted, and continue to doubt America's willingness and ability to serve as a force for good in the world. That was their crucial mistake.

I suspect they will not even now admit their errors. I doubt the people of Europe will say: We were wrong. You really are the liberators of the Iraqi people. I doubt the Arab propagandists will say: We will never spread such distortions again. We will never again be so driven by resentment and dishonesty.

Sad to say, human nature doesn't work that way. The rump 15 percent of Americans who still oppose this war may perhaps grow more bitter, lost in the cul-de-sac of their own alienation.

All of this is via the month-old Horse's Mouth, a subsidiary of the Talking Points Memo media empire, and a very fine addition to the blogosphere.

(Note: I'll be out of town for the next five days and not near any computers. Regular blogging to resume Tuesday 2/20)

The Bush Press Conference, Abbreviated

You may have missed avoided Dubya's press conference yesterday. Perhaps wisely. Nevertheless, he is your president, and you should have at least a passing familiarity with his activities. I therefore offer the following summary, abbreviated for your busy schedules.

BUSH: (Opening statement) Thank you. I wanted to apprise you of the situation in Iraq. The military leaders I haven't fired assured me that my plan to surge 20,000 troops was well-considered and is proceeding without difficulty. Things are a little grim, as you may have seen on television, but failure is not an option. Although we can't stop the suiciders, we can secure the capital, which as you know was why we entered this war in the first place. To secure Baghdad. Don't listen to the chumps in the House when they vote against this plan; I know I won't. Okay, I'll take your questions now.

First Qestion: Is the Vladimir Putin who said the United States is undermining global security and provoking a new arms race the same Vladimir Putin whose soul you looked into and found to be trustworthy?*

Bush: Yes.

Questions 2-4, 6: Are you going to recklessly invade Iran?

Bush: (winking) No.

Question 5: Even Bolten thinks you bungled the North Korea deal. Did you?

Bush: First of all, guards, will you remove that man and have him beaten? Secondly, no. Sure, this was a deal we could have made six years ago, before they made the Korean penninshoola nukular, but hey, better late than never.

Q 7: Are you cooking the intelligence on Iran like you did on Iraq?

Bush: (winking) No.

Q 8-9: Is Iraq in the middle of a civil war?

Bush: We're striving for "relative peace" there. It's hard for me, living in this beautiful White House, to give you an assessment, firsthand assessment.* I haven't been there.* (Coyly) You tell me.

Qs 9 and 10 were boring.

Q 11: Does the House vote against your surge embolden the enemy?

Bush: I could beat around the bush here and equivocate and mince my words, but the short answer is yes.

Q 12-15 about the Libby trial; Bush won't comment.

Q 16: The press is losing its interest, asks two pro forma questions about, respectively, our allies and the effect of Iraq on the '08 elections. As if Bush cares.

Bush: (yawning) That's an interesting question.

Q 17: Can a regular American oppose your plan and still support the troops.

Bush: I don't care what a regular American does, as long as Congress funds my war.

Following Q 17, Bush pauses for a moment to mock the press. Then onto...

Q 18: You aren't really going forward with this bipartisan nonsense, are you?

Bush: You know, the Dems may actually work with me on immigration, and that'd be cool. But no, not really.

Final question: Past presidents sat down to face-to-face talks their enemies. Will you sit down with the leaders of Iran?

Bush: Those nuts? Are you crazy?

You've been a great audience--good night, everyone!

*Actual question/quote

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Latter-Day Saint

I lived for thirty-odd painful months in Salt Lake City, from November of my sophomore year until I came to Oregon to go to college. I roared at the oppressive, invasive culture, which is no place for a libertine non-Mormon. In those dark days (the 80s) and before, liquor laws prevented you from buying anything stronger than a 3.2% beer in a bar. You had to take your own bottle of wine to a restaurant and then pay an "uncorking fee" to drink it (a law intended to mark and punish non-believers). You even had to have membership at coffeeshops to get a cup of thin java. I actually engaged the religion a little more thoughtfully many years later, when
I returned and shot a documentary about the "Mormon Olympics."

I mention all of this because, despite his announcement in the very normal, very blue state of Michigan, Mitt Romney's bid to be president is going to raise the specter of his religion. It is strange, and its expression within the culture is strange, and unlike Joe Lieberman's Judaism, that's going to be a problem for Mitt--more so than Hillary's gender or Barack's skin color.

As a political bloc, Mormons have a lot in common with Evangelicals--they're socially conservative, agressively pro-market, family-oriented, and wear a lot sweatshirts and jeans. But this could be said of any fundamentalist faith, from Hinduism to Islam. Oregon's Senator Gordon Smith is mormon, as are Utah's elected officials. Utahns are reliable GOP votes, and when the issue is gay rights or abortion, Mormons and Christians stand shoulder to shoulder.

Electing a president is another matter. Chris Cillizza does a good job of breaking down the barriers of a general audience:

Digging slight deeper into the Gallup numbers, more skepticism becomes apparent. Of those 66 percent of Republicans who said they would cast a vote for a qualified Mormon, 54 percent said they would be "completely comfortable" with that decision while 12 percent expressed "some reservations" with that choice.

Combine those two questions and here's what you get: 54 percent of Republicans in the Gallup poll would vote for a qualified Mormon without a second thought; 42 percent would either not vote for a Mormon or would do so with some level of doubt.

Worse, a lot of those 54% are answering the question in the dark. When CBS asked people what they knew about the religion, only 10% knew a great deal, while 57% knew nothing at all. And only 25% had a favorable impression of it (second worse to Islam). For non-believers, the religion is pretty bizarre--so bizarre that it's mainly disguised behind a tapestry of benign Biblical beliefs. The facts--which surely will emerge--are less benign. (Below, I'll include a largely accurate, but enormously irreverant South Park that details how Joseph Smith founded the religion).

They'll learn about the strange cultural elements of the faith--men as the absolute head of the family, basements full of canned peaches for judgment day, the sphere of heaven being based on the number of kids families produce (!), the secretive weddings that happen privately in Mormon temples, the funny underwear Mormons wear--the list is long.

Mormonism's history, famous for polygamy, less so for its overt racism, poses difficult problems. (The faith believes that the Native Americans are a lost tribe of Israel who "had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations." Utah Mormons actively tried to adopt Native American children to bring them into the light. It wasn't until 1978 that Mormons allowed blacks ordination. And so on.)

Ironically, it will probably be Romney's own party who launches the viscious attacks I anticipate. Because, while Evangelicals are happy to join with Mormons as a voting bloc, they seem less willing to elect them president. All of this dirty laundry is going to come out, and I suspect many of the fringe leaders will attack Romney. More importantly, he will lose a sizeable percentage of Evangelical base voters, and the ones he keeps won't be the kinds of voters who put Dubya on their shoulders in 2000 and 2004. Romney's campaign will be a non-starter, and I'm willing to go so far as to predict* he'll withdraw before Super Tuesday next spring.

Okay, enough of the analysis, here's the entertainment portion of our post:

*Record, including sports predictions, through 2007: 9.2% accuracy. A word to the wise.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Black and White

"Whites, on the other hand, are engaged in a paroxysm of self-congratulation; [Barack Obama] is the equivalent of Stephen Colbert's "black friend." Swooning over nice, safe Obama means you aren't a racist. I honestly can't look without feeling pity, and indeed mercy, at whites' need for absolution. For all our sakes, it seemed (again) best not to point out the obvious: You're not embracing a black man, a descendant of slaves. You're replacing the black man with an immigrant of recent African descent of whom you can approve without feeling either guilty or frightened. If he were Ronald Washington from Detroit, even with the same résumé, he wouldn't be getting this kind of love. Washington would have to earn it, not just show promise of it, and even then whites would remain wary."

--Debra Dickerson, Salon
Americans have always had a rough relationship with race. Each new wave of immigrants, from Irish to Mexican, has been targeted by the most vile kind of bigotry. But eventually, immigrants become absorbed into the American mainstream; except for fringe racists, America becomes colorblind until the next generation arrives.

The exception are blacks, whose integration has been legal at best. We--Americans--hold blacks in a special category. And it's not just whites who maintain this cultural apartheid--Dickerson's piece, widely reviled in the blogosphere, isn't isolated. We have constructed elaborate projections about not only what race means, but what it means to people on the other side of the aisle. We have boxed up what it means to be black and white and sealed it in a time capsule. Whites can either admit to their racism or displace it while blacks must embrace a preset definition of "blackness" or stand accused of complicity with white racists.

Last week, Stephen Colbert had Dickerson on his show and managed to expose these ridiculous dichotomies. Listen:
DICKERSON: Well, I think that's what's going to happen. I think Barack Obama is a wonderful person, we're proud of him, but--and this is not a critique of him, what this is is a critique of white self-congratulation, of saying we're embracing a black person, when we're not really. It's a way of--if he were sub-saharan African--

COLBERT: Well listen, if you hadn't told me he wasn't black, I would have thought that I was supporting a black person. And then I would have been supporting all black people. But now I won't because he's not.

DICKERSON: (Laughs uncomfortably) Well, then that would make you a racist.

COLBERT: (Ponders) Hmmmm. If I were white.
COLBERT: So it sounds to me like you are judging blackness not on the color of someone's skin, but on the content of their character. Which I think realizes Dr. King's dream in a very special way.
Barack Obama's candidacy is going to create a lot of discomfort as we work through these issues again. That Obama's black, far more than that his middle name is Hussein or that he's a moderately liberal Democrat or that he's relatively inexperienced, is going to make it nearly impossible to get elected. He's getting strafed by the Dickersons of the left even while Fox News has set up an entire bureau devoted to slandering him. But what comes out of his candidacy may have some positive results. Maybe we can break out of these ancient boxes.

Incidentally, here's the clip of that Colbert-Dickerson interview.

Monday, February 12, 2007


The days go by, the posts get fewer. A slow unwinding of what was once. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. But mostly, I'm just busy--

Friday, February 09, 2007

Holy Moly

I used to do satire on Friday (until the White House and Jon Stewart made it obsolete), so don't be confused about what I'm about to quote--it's not a joke. The exchange happened on Hardball with Chris Matthews, Eric Cantor (R-VA), and Steve Israel (D-NY). Cantor is not some bumpkin from the sticks--he's the Chief Deputy Whip of the US House of Representatives.
MATTHEW: Congressman, what's the role of Congress in war and peace?

ISRAEL (D): Congress, under the Constitution of the United States, authorizes war; and the War Powers Act requires Congress to vote on whether we should insert troops into hostile situations. The law is clear. And we're not going to spend time--

CANTOR (R): --Absolutely not!

ISRAEL (D): Come on, Eric--

CANTOR (R): Absolutely not, it's the Commander in Chief. The Constitution--


CANTOR (R): The Constitution gives the Commander in Chief--

MATTHEWS: Congressman Cantor, why did the President ask for approval of Congress before he went into Iraq.

CANTOR (R): Well I certainly think that his counsel gave him guidance as to why he needed to do that. But at the end of the day the Constitution gives the Commander in Chief the right to send our troops into battle.
What you miss, in this transcript, is the smug, grinning face of Cantor as he deigns to explain this most simple of legal facts to Chris Matthews. Crooks and Liars has the vid--no one's posted it yet on YouTube.

For the record, here's Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution (the section on the scope of legislative power):
"The Congress shall have power ... To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;"

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Netroots Linkage

Due to my extraordinarily high-profile in the national blogging community, I get spam from random campaigns. Two in today that I'll pass along.

Mike Gravel (Gruh-VELL, I think), a guy who knows something about obscurity, is not only a US Senator, but a candidate for President. There is an interview with him at a Nevada blog, a fact relevant to you because of his proposal for a national sales tax. He doesn't have a shot, but maybe he'll effectively get this proposal some national attention. It's intriguing.

Also, the netroot supporters of Barack Obama have launched a site designed to elicit policy ideas. It's called Obama Grasstank, which suggests biofuels more than think tank, but perhaps that ain't bad. It's just getting off the ground, but you might keep your eye on it if Obama's your man.

The Politics of Iraq

The Republicans are nothing if not consistent with spin. Listening through a couple weeks of podcasts of the various talking heads shows, I heard the same argument, almost word for word, coming out of every hack's mouth: "Sure, every single decision we've made about Iraq has been wrong, but we are decisive. The Democrats aren't credible because they just don't have a plan."

There are many layers of lies here, but they are all in support of what seems a very authentic belief: strong decisions made by flinty men, no matter how catastrophic the consequences, are always better than Nancy-boy equivocation. (It is, sadly, a view most Americans share, and is why they re-elected an incompetent who couldn't find his own ass in a dark room.) Never mind that Dems have a number of plans, even if they are mostly provisional (Biden's partition proposal excepted), never mind that Bush's own plan is for withdrawal over the next two years, and never mind that the Dems won't be in power to implement any plan they might have for almost exactly two years (at the earliest). That's the spin.

It is subtlely pursuasive to many people and nearly all journalists, but Dems are hedging for a reason. If they come out with strong proposals on Iraq now, those proposals, and the candidate's chances, will become casualties of history. They have no ability to even consider the war--debate will be stymied in the Senate unless the terms are set by the minority--much less actually implement any plan they might offer. Worse, the election isn't for 21 months. No plan would be relevant in six months, much less two years. Trying to offer more than general frameworks is political suicide.

The GOP know this, and that's why they continue with their attack on Democratic equivocation. The MSM, playing the rubes, are once again making the talking points for the GOP when they accept the terms of this argument.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Why Hillary Will Probably Win

Note: I originally composed this for Hog, then thought that, because of the advocacy component, it should probably go up at BlueOregon. But I'm still posting it here, since it fits in with the other posts I've put up lately.

George Will doesn't
get very much right anymore, but when he told George Stephanopooulos the primaries were "already in the fourth inning," he was on the money. It may only be February, and most voters may not be planning to tune into the election for another year, but Hillary Clinton already has a sizeable advantage that lesser candidates will find nearly impossible to overcome. There's a little wiggle room for Obama and Edwards, but not much, and it's going to fade fast. By summer, we will be in a two-person race with a dark horse candidate (ala Dean '03) trying to hang on.

The reason? Money and resources. Primaries require vast infusions of cash for advertising and staffers on the ground. This will cost millions for every state primary a candidate seriously competes in. There are only so many people who can give that kind of money, and a relatively small pool of staffers with the kind of chops to win elections. And so, while it may only be February, Hillary is doing her best to corner the market and deliver an early coup de grâce to her competition:
Last night, the New York Democrat invited about 70 top fundraisers from around the country to a reception at her Washington home. The guest list included such major Democratic donors as Haim Saban, a Hollywood studio investor, Alan J. Patricof, a New York financier, and Kevin O'Keefe, a Chicago lawyer.

The high-dollar rainmakers committed to collect at least $250,000 each during the presidential campaign for Clinton, and many have pledged $1 million, participants said. In addition, each agreed to raise $50,000 by the end of this month to bolster the campaign's first-quarter report due at the end of March.
Hillary has enormous institutional advantages: thanks to Bill, her Rolodex Razr has the number of every major Democratic donor and political hack in the country. Money is attracted to power, not ideals, and Hillary is very strong. Being an early funder for the next president gives the kind of access the big players want. And of course, the more Hillary raises, the more she looks like a sure bet. By summer, major donors will have selected their (wo)man and candidates who aren't considered serious will find that the wells have gone dry. Finally, at a certain point, the Democratic establishment will have to pick sides, and if team Hillary is far out in front, she will be able to count on institutional party support, PAC, and special interest backing.

As they appeal to donors, Edwards and Obama are trying to make the case that they can challenge Hillary, and it's likely that one will out-raise the other substantially, relegating the loser to dark horse status. In March, we'll have our first look at fundraising totals and Hillary's goal is to demonstrate stunning superiority. By April first, most of the Dems will be dead men walking. Hillary isn't a shoo-in, but the time to derail her is running short.

Speed Bumps
A few variables may slow Hillary down. The most obvious is Hillary: she is respected, but she isn't loved. She's a polarizing figure even among Democrats. If she manages to win the nomination, it will be by running a stellar campaign, not because there's a groundswell of support. Other factors make her less than ideal: her pro-war stance and lingering questions about whether a woman can win the White House. Ultimately, some donors will wait and see if another candidate can make a charge. This is also the case with staffers--Obama and Edwards are more inspirational figures and will find talented people who can't work for Hillary.

The grassroots will not support Hillary. She's a corporatist and a hawk, and she lacks personal appeal. Dean demonstrated that by reaching beyond the big players and the party apparatchiks, money and talent are available. Obama seems the most likely to tap into a well of support, and he might raise $30-40 million in small donations, as Dean did. The grassroots are the last to lose the faith, and they can breathe life into a candidate that looks dead otherwise. I can't imagine a candidate winning with the grassroots alone, but combined with minority institutional backing and weak support for Hillary, it could make the difference.

The final question mark is Al Gore. If he runs, he will match Hillary name for name in donor contacts and staff talent. This not only advantages Gore, but other candidates who are in jeopardy of being crushed under the Clinton juggernaut. Gore is the only candidate who can enter late and still make up the difference, and he is the only candidate who can radically alter the political and media landscape by running. Gore isn't a shoo-in, either, but he's the one candidate who can match Hillary in each of her strengths.

If you back someone other than Hillary Clinton, now is the time to get involved. I'll link a few sites here so you can go find out how to help other campaigns. Don't delay--

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Strange Snickers Ad

I watched about twenty minutes of the Superbowl on a friend's Tivo, and so didn't see any of the vaunted ads. It wasn't until this morning that I heard about the huge Snickers fracas. (Thumbnail: two guys are working on a car and one starts eating a Snickers candy bar. The other, bizarrely, starts eating the other end until, ala 101 Dalmations, they arrive lip-to-lip. They jump back, one says "do something manly" and they tear clumps of chest hair out. While it appears to be a parody of homophobia, the reality, detailed at Americablog, is the opposite. A furor thus ensued, and Snickers has been recanting like crazy.)

When I YouTubed the ad to see what the fuss was about, I stumbled across this Australian ad:

Somebody at M&M Mars thinks gay comedy is heeelarious. Is the ad agency foreign, perhaps? I don't have any commentary at all to add.

Dangerous Dark Horse: Chuck Hagel

"I believe firmly in Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment: 'Thou shall not speak ill of a fellow Republican.' But it's very hard sometimes to adhere to that where Chuck Hagel is involved."
_______- Dick Cheney, January 2007
Yesterday I argued that the GOP was dead in the water in 2008. I should have included an asterisk for Chuck Hagel. He's not on anyone's radar now, but he has the most upside and almost zero downside (we're talking Republican politics here).

Let's start with his resume: a decorated Vietnam vet, corporate star, maverick senator. He's often compared to John McCain, one of his best friends in the Senate. His politics are old-school GOP--pro gun and anti-tax. He's a hawk and would expand the military and anti-terror spending. He'd defund the arts and drill for oil in ANWR. He's against abortion. On the other hand, he's not a radical--he'd also increase funding for alternative fuels, expand services to the poor, increase funding for health care, and get rid of the trade embargo on Cuba (among other things).

But his biggest strength is that he has never been a fan of Bush, was an early critic of Rumsfeld, and was the first and most outspoken Republican to oppose the White House on the way it's conducting the war. Unlike McCain, whose straight talk is reserved for moments when it's not controversial, Hagel has taken stands.

Of all the candidates, he's the only one who has the chance of reuniting the core constituents of the GOP coalition: hawks, fiscal conservatives, Evangelicals, and libertarians. Of the candidates who appeal to cultural conservatives, he is the only one who won't wig out the rest of the country.

So far, he hasn't said he's running. Let's hope he doesn't.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Republicans in 2008

As it stands now, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, or Mitt Romney are going to be the GOP candidate in 2008. That's very good for the Dems and very bad for the GOP. Candidate by candidate analysis in a minute, but first, let's set the stage.

Republicans enter the campaign with a president with a 30% approval rating. They have held the presidency 28 of the last 40 years, and have won seven of the last ten elections. They have cobbled together a coalition of disparate parts--fiscal conservatives, libertarians, evangelicals, and hawks--and dictated government policy since 1980. They have managed to implement a numbero their major reforms, from tax cuts to invasions, and have very little else to offer voters and keep the coalition together. With the collapse of Iraq, the coalition shattered, and the only way to beat the Dems in '08 is to somehow reconstitute that coalition. Each one of the major GOP candidates thinks he knows how to do it, but the odds are extremely long: the GOP has spent a generation building a vicious, aggressive political machine, and now it's turning on itself

John McCain
After his defeat in 2000, McCain has tried to add Evangelical chops to his image of a principled moderate. He has waffled about gay marriage, paid fealty to Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, and for his trouble, remains distinctly distasteful to the Christian right. His jump to the right has eroded his "straight talk" cred. Equally as bad, he has kowtowed for Bush and is strongly associated as a supporter of the war. Finally, he has long argued for a troop escalation, and although Bush's "surge" didn't meet the numbers McCain has said were needed, he'll go down with any failures the surge results in. One further barrier, and a rather serious one, is McCain's age: he'll be 72 at the time of the election--and would be the oldest president elected (Reagan was 69).

In the primaries, McCain will be savaged by the Evangelical right and caricatured as a Bush stooge. His own base will be attracted by Giuliani and is less supportive of the "straight talker" in any case. McCain is in serious trouble.

Rudy Giuliani
Giuliani is the other "straight talker" in the election, and he will find a base of support among the old school New England GOP--those who don't care about social issues. Giuliani clearly hopes the glamour of his 9/11 moment will carry Evangelicals along, but there are a couple problems. His New York background (failed marriages, infidelity, living with gay men) will be too distasteful for a lot of Dixie voters who would have trouble voting for anyone named "Giuliani" in any case; add these infractions, and he'll get killed in the primaries. It's also not clear that being a stand-up mensch during 9/11 will translate as adequate experience. He has had no national political experience. I suspect Rudy would make a decent foe for a Democrat in the general--particularly if it were a novice like Obama or Edwards--but he'll never get that far. The social conservatives will bury him in the primaries.

Mitt Romney
Two years ago, Romney wouldn't have thrilled Evangelicals--he's good on social issues, but his Mormonism would have been a problem. (In private, Christians would admit that he's headed the same place as godless Taxachussets liberals.) But the landscape has changed, and he may be the best of a bad lot. For me, the x-factor is whether Evangelicals are going to stay politically active. They'll vote in 2008, but with the failures of Bush to implement bedrock goals (abolishing abortion and gay marriage) and the loss of Congress, this is the most enervated faction of the GOP coalition. That's bad news for the GOP in general: they were also the most energetic political activists. Can Mitt rally them for one more campaign? My guess is no. In his early Massachussets campaigns, he was notably liberal with regard to social issues. That's going to be a major problem down the road. He also doesn't have a great deal of foreign policy credibility. He will be looking for some of the fiscal conservative vote and hoping to get the majority of the Evangelical vote. It probably won't be enough in the primaries, but, if it is, it definitely won't be enough to defeat the Dem.

Newt Gingrich
I have a hard time thinking Newt will actually throw his hat in the ring, but it would be entertaining if he did. Gingrich now believes his own hagiography: he was a principled conservative and clear-eyed intellectual who used reason to spark a populist revolt against corruption. Now he sees himself mounting the white horse to sanitize his own party. What he and his supporters seem to forget is that he was a nasty man whose populism never extended beyond his home district, and that he was the intial cause of the very corruption he now claims to want to address (he was an autocrat and a notorious pork barreler). In the primaries, he would mainly polarize the South against the other Northern and Western candidates, inject a flood of bile into the race, and remind moderates and independents why they want Dems to have a shot. He doesn't have any chance of winning in the primaries, and if he enters, he could seriously damage the campaign of the man who ultimately defeats him.

I don't know that this is a widely-shared view among Democrats and liberals, but the GOP don't really have much of a shot in 2008. They have to hope for a very weak candidate to emerge from the Democratic primaries and then pray for scandal. Anything else, and it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the White House stays in Republican control.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Final Word on Global Warming

There hasn't been any doubt in my mind for a long time, but now it's official:
There is no longer any reasonable doubt that human activities are warming the planet at a dangerous rate, according to a new worldwide assessment of climate science released today by the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Al Gore for President.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Assessing the Candidates: Two Minors of Note

As shocking as it is to think, it's nearly too late for minor candidates to jump in and hope to build the kind of momentum it takes to unseat the Hillary juggernaut. The field is so crowded at the top that it has claimed a few notables who might have made noise--Mark Warner, Russ Feingold, John Kerry, Evan Bayh. That leaves among the contenders a few no-chancers (Al Sharpton, Mike Gravel, Tom Vilsack, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and, sad to say, Dennis Kucinich) and two who might be legit dark horses: Bill Richardson, who has formed an exploratory committee, and Wes Clark, who has not.

Neither one can run a traditional campaign. They must go viral, mount a charge like Dean did, and hope they can get enough press to vault them into serious contention.* Even then, the odds are very long. However, even without winning, they might be able to affect the course of things.

Bill Richardson
The resume of Bill Richardson will surprise folks mostly unfamiliar with the New Mexico governor. He served for 15 years in Congress before being tapped by Clinton as Secretary of Energy. He was later appointed as Ambassador to the UN, where his record earned him nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. But it is his record as governor that gives him the most credibility. He managed to impress rural and urban voters by balancing the budget and targeting poor citizens with tax cuts. He cruised to a second term victory last year with 69% of the vote.

As a candidate, Richardson is the only major declared candidate with executive experience. He can lay claim to the Clinton school of economics by what he did in NM, while the three Senators spar over dubious votes they were forced to cast as members of the minority. But he doesn't give anything away in terms of foreign policy experience--a rare combo in a candidate.

Of course, the big thing is his background: his mother was Mexican, and Richardson is making the bid to become the first Latino president. This would add an interesting political element to the campaign in any year, but given the furor over immigration, his candidacy has extra import. Furthermore, as a Western-states candidate, he can subvert the usual New England/Dixie Nascar/Elite Liberal dichotomy into which the presidential race inevitably devolves. I don't think he'll emerge as a major candidate, but if he plays his cards right, a Veep nod could come.

Wes Clark
First things first, Wes Clark is probably not running. Despite his resume and the impressive supporters who came forward in 2004, Clark bombed in the primaries. With even stiffer competition in '08, I can't imagine a smart guy like Clark thinks he's got a shot. On the other hand, he could run purely as a service to Dems as the credible war liberal.

Dems have still not found their voice following the Iraq debacle. Obama has been a consistent anti-war politician, but he's not yet perfectly comfortable talking foreign policy. Edwards would rather avoid the subject altogether. Hillary's Thatcherite grit isn't a foreign policy so much as a PR strategy for the first serious female contender. Foreign policy isn't an either/or prospect, and the most credible candidates know this. But former generals, unlike young Senators, don't sound wishy-washy when they talk nuance. A military candidate could be a huge boon to the Dems as they cast around for direction. He can't win, but he can play an important role.

Clark also makes an attractive Veep candidate for a strong enough top-halfer on the ticket (ie, not Edwards).

*To get a sense of how far back the minor candidates are in terms press coverage, if you do name searches on "Bill Richardson," you get 8300. Wes Clark gets a mere 1100 hits. Hillary gets 23,000, and Obama 20,000.