2008 - %3, September

Gaffe Watch

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 5:39 PM EDT

GAFFE WATCH....Sarah Palin, peeking out from a thicket of pre-scripted talking points in Colorado Springs, goes off message briefly and explains what went wrong in the home mortgage market:

The fact is, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they've gotten too big and too expensive to the taxpayers.

A gaffe! But how does it measure up? On a technical basis, I'd say it's impressive. Until now, Fannie and Freddie haven't cost the taxpayers a dime and their current problems aren't really related to their size either. This leaves only a few conjunctions and proper names as sensible parts of this sentence.

On artistic merit, however, the judges have to score this one for Palin. Nobody cares about the minutiae of how GSEs work, after all, and liberal attacks on this score are almost certain to backfire because (a) we're obviously harrassing her unfairly over trivia because she's a small town mom and (b) we're just trying to show off how smart we are. Besides, as Palin said, John McCain is in favor of "reforming things," so he's obviously the right guy to tackle whatever problem it is that Fannie and Freddie suffer from. For liberal critics, then, there's no there there.

Actually, what's really impressive about this is that even though Palin obviously didn't know what she was talking about, she managed to dig smoothly into the standard movement conservative playbook to say something pleasing to the base anyway. Got a problem? It must be government's fault! Something somewhere got too big and too expensive and conservatives need to rein it in. Nice work.

Anyway, I'm sure more like this will crop up soon. In the meantime, though, I'll be a little quiet for the rest of the afternoon because the U.S. Open is um, I mean, because I have some important research to do for an upcoming article. Yeah. That's what I meant.

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Meanwhile....

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 1:25 PM EDT

MEANWHILE....Over in Thailand, it's possible that a constitutional crisis will be averted because the prime minister also hosts a cooking program on state TV. From the Guardian's report, here's a sentence you don't see every day:

The cooking show, Tasting, Grumbling, a mix of tips on traditional Thai cooking and rants on subjects of his choosing, represents the most immediate threat to his power.

That's right. If a court rules that Samak Sundaravej's show violates the constitution, then he'll be out of office with no muss and no fuss. Perhaps we could import a similar system into our country?

Why Every Liberal in Your Office Is Depressed Today

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 12:58 PM EDT

A new USA Today/Gallup poll has McCain leading Obama 50-46 among registered voters and a stunning 54-44 among likely voters. USA Today points out, a bit incoherently, that the convention has seriously energized the Republican base: "Republicans by 47%-39% were less enthusiastic than usual about voting. Now, they are more enthusiastic by 60%-24%, a sweeping change that narrows a key Democratic advantage."

There are a number of reasons not to freak out, of course. A lot can change between now and November, polling isn't everything, Gallup isn't super-reliable, the debates are an X-factor, yada yada yada. I suspect that won't be calming a lot of fluttering hearts. Maybe this will: Obama still holds a decisive lead in the electoral college tally.

The Expectations Game

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 12:30 PM EDT

THE EXPECTATIONS GAME....Time's Karen Tumulty says that Sarah Palin was very good in her 2006 gubernatorial debate and offers this advice:

That's why Joe Biden should be wary, especially since she will have expectations very much in her favor.

I know this is a dumb question, but why exactly should expectations be in her favor? It's true that she's going to be relying on four weeks of intensive briefing rather than a lifetime of experience, but high school juniors do this in debate competitions all the time. There's really not much reason to think that's a big problem. And all the other critiques of Palin (Bridge to Nowhere, Troopergate, book banning, tax raising, lack of vetting, etc.) have nothing to do with whether she's likely to be effective in debate.

Conversely, it's almost universally acknowledged that (a) Palin is a natural politician and a good speaker, (b) she has a nice folksy manner, (c) Biden has a lifelong habit of running off at the mouth, and (d) he's going to have to walk on eggshells to keep from looking like a boor who's hammering away at a poor little housewife from Wasilla. Given all this, why is the press once again playing the game of insisting that the Republican candidate will be the de facto winner if she merely avoids catastrophe? I mean, I know that's the spin coming out of Steve Schmidt's shop, but it's not really true, is it? The fact is that, all things considered, Palin is the favorite in this contest — though perhaps also a bit of a wild card since catastrophe is always a possibility for someone so new to the national stage.

In any case, this game ought to cease. There's simply no reason that Palin's expectations should be low for October's debate. If anything, it probably ought to be the other way around.

The Bailout

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 12:10 PM EDT

THE BAILOUT....So what would have happened if we'd just let Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fail? I mean, we've got to draw the line somewhere, right? Tyler Cowen provides the nightmare scenario:

But let's say that the Treasury did not support the debt of the mortgage agencies. The Chinese bought over $300 billion of that stuff and they were told that it is essentially riskless. The flow of capital from them and from other central banks, sovereign wealth funds, and plain old ordinary investors would shut down very quickly. The dollar would fall say 30-40 percent in a week, there would be payments system gridlock, margin calls at the clearinghouses would go unmet, and only a trading shutdown would stop the Dow from shedding half its value. Most of the U.S. banking system would be insolvent. Emergency Fed/Treasury action would recapitalize the FDIC but we would lose an independent central bank and setting the money supply would be a crapshoot. The rate of unemployment would climb into double digits and stay there. Many Americans would not have access to their savings. The future supply of foreign investment would be noticeably lower. The Federal government would lose its AAA rating and we would pay much more in borrowing costs. The deficit would skyrocket.

Well, um, OK then. I guess rescuing them was the right thing to do. I'm still a little taken aback by the apparent fact that American banks are now almost flatly unwilling to make mortgage loans unless they're backed by Fannie or Freddie, but that seems to be the case whether it takes me aback or not. So rescue them we must. I suppose my next question is whether it's worth thinking about how to restructure the American home mortgage industry so that it can operate efficiently even in the absence of massive levels of government backup. Or is Fannie/Freddie style backup just the way the world works these days and there's no point fussing over it?

Biden Addresses (and Readdresses) Partition in Iraq

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 11:44 AM EDT

I wrote before Joe Biden was picked for VP that his endgame for Iraq appeared fundamentally at odds with Obama's. That has changed: Biden has softened his support for a plan to partition Iraq into three sect-based regions and has embraced Obama's plan to withdraw combat troops in 16 months. A Biden insider told Politico, "There's no daylight between these guys on Iraq now. None."

But things are not so simple in Joe Biden's brain. Asked to comment on the one-time disagreement, Biden spoke for 13 minutes and 20 seconds. ABC News has the full response. It's really something to behold, and touches on almost every aspect of the war in Iraq. The overarching point that Biden makes is, "Withdrawal by itself doesn't work. Partition by itself doesn't work. Staying the course by itself doesn't work. The situation is complex. I understand the complexity."

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Sebastian Mallaby Has Had Enough

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 1:54 AM EDT

SEBASTIAN MALLABY HAS HAD ENOUGH....Sebastian Mallaby, not exactly a raging liberal, on the transformation of John McCain from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde:

McCain used to be a real straight talker. On campaign finance, spending earmarks, Iraq and immigration, he has fought bravely for his principles; and that record might have been a trump against an opponent who has taken almost no such risks. But we are now witnessing what might be called McCain's Palinization. McCain once criticized Christian conservatives as agents of intolerance, but he has caved in to their intolerance of a pro-choice running mate. McCain claims to be devoted to his country, yet he would saddle it with a vice president who is unprepared to serve as commander in chief. In the same sad way, McCain has caved in to his party's anti-tax fanatics. The man of principle has become a panderer. The straight talker flip-flops.

The question is: how many other people are going to finally notice this? The second question is: how many will care? Tune in a couple of months from now for the answer.

Sarah Palin's Secret Emails

| Sun Sep. 7, 2008 10:51 PM EDT

sarah-palin-secret-emails-250x200.jpg

The Palin administration won't release hundreds of emails from her office, claiming they cover confidential policy matters. Then why do the subject lines refer to a political foe, a journalist, and non-policy topics?

In June, Andrée McLeod, a self-described independent government watchdog in Alaska, sent an open records act request to the office of Governor Sarah Palin. She requested copies of all the emails that had been sent and received by Ivy Frye and Frank Bailey, two top aides to Palin, from February through April of this year. McLeod, a 53-year-old registered Republican who has held various jobs in state government, suspected that Frye and Bailey had engaged in political activity during official business hours in that period by participating in a Palin-backed effort to oust the state chairman of the Alaska Republican party, Randy Ruedrich. (Bailey has been in the national news of late for refusing to cooperate with investigators probing whether Palin fired Alaska's public safety commission because he did not dismiss a state trooper who had gone through an ugly divorce with Palin's sister.)

In response to her request, McLeod received four large boxes of emails. This batch of documents did not contain any proof that Frye and Bailey had worked on government time to boot out Ruedrich. But there was other information she found troubling. Several of the emails suggested to her that Palin's office had used its influence to reward a Fairbanks surveyor who was a Palin fundraiser with a state job. In early August, McLeod filed a complaint with the state attorney general against Palin, Bailey, and other Palin aides, claiming they had violated ethics and hiring laws. Palin, now the Republican vice-presidential candidate, told the Alaska Daily News that "there were no favors done for anybody."

But more intriguing than any email correspondence contained in the four boxes was what was not released: about 1100 emails. Palin's office provided McLeod with a 78-page list (PDF) cataloging the emails it was withholding. Many of them had been written by Palin or sent to her. Palin's office claimed most of the undisclosed emails were exempt from release because they were covered by the "executive" or "deliberative process" privileges that protect communications between Palin and her aides about policy matters. But the subject lines of some of the withheld emails suggest they were not related to policy matters. Several refer to one of Palin's political foes, others to a well-known Alaskan journalist. Moreover, some of the withhold emails were CC'ed to Todd Palin, the governor's husband. Todd Palin—a.k.a. the First Dude—holds no official state position (though he has been a close and influential adviser for Governor Palin). The fact that Palin and her aides shared these emails with a citizen outside the government undercuts the claim that they must be protected under executive privilege. McLeod asks, "What is Sarah Palin hiding?"

Charlie and Sarah

| Sun Sep. 7, 2008 3:58 PM EDT

CHARLIE AND SARAH....I see that the McCain campaign has decided that two weeks is enough time for Sarah Palin to become plausibly knowledgable enough about national affairs to face an actual reporter. It's not official or anything — and presumably depends on the continuing good behavior of ABC News in the meantime — but AP is now reporting that an interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson is scheduled for "later this week in Alaska."

I expect the interview to go fine. After all, two weeks is a lot of briefing time and Palin is, by all accounts, both a quick study and a good politician who knows how to change the subject, run out the clock, and provide vague answers whenever necessary. She should be OK.

Unfortunately, part of the reason she'll be OK is that I expect Gibson to screw the pooch. So here's a tip: there are several questions that Palin is obviously going to be prepared for. "What makes you prepared to be vice president" tops the list, so don't bother using up your time on that one. Ditto for questions about her daughter, her Christian faith, and moose hunting. Conversely, Troopergate, the Bridge to Nowhere, and earmarks are probably good subjects, but only if you really know your stuff. She's not exactly going to be surprised by those topics either. And I'm sure you know this already, but idiotic gotcha questions ("Can you name of the president-for-life of Berserkistan?") are also no-nos.

So: pick some serious topics. Pick some unexpected topics. Don't be an nitwit but don't go easy on her either. Mix it up a little. After all, this is probably your last chance to speak with her until after the election. You might as well make the most of it.

And now, back to the U.S. Open.

Drill, Baby, Drill

| Sun Sep. 7, 2008 1:14 PM EDT

DRILL, BABY, DRILL....Daniel Larison watches the Republicans in St. Paul:

When the theme of the convention seems to have been, "Drill, baby, drill," which is an energy policy in exactly the same way that, "Tax, baby, tax" is a fiscal policy (i.e., it isn't), slogans are obviously all that the party has left. Even if you think that increasing oil exploration and supply through more offshore drilling makes sense, you cannot really take these people seriously.

Unfortunately, yes you can. This, by the way, was the moment when I completely gave up on the convention. It wasn't Giuliani, it wasn't Palin, and it wasn't McCain. They were just the closing acts. It was when I realized that the most reliable applause line on the convention floor was "Drill, baby, drill." Even by the low standards of political campaigns, this is a slogan so imbecilic that it makes you fear for the future of the Republic.

Then again, you can hardly blame them, can you? Here is the LA Times doing one of those obligatory man-in-the-street pieces in Uniontown, Pennsylvania:

Waitress Judy Artice, "Miss Judy," as she is known at Glisan's roadside diner, declared Palin "the perfect candidate" after watching her Wednesday speech. That said, Artice had already decided that her vote would go to the first candidate who mentioned gasoline prices.

"And — I'll be danged — it was Obama," Artice, 46, said between servings of liver and onions during the lunch rush.

Needless to say, Obama will have the same short-term impact on gasoline prices as McCain: none whatsoever. But apparently he won a vote in Uniontown merely by the good fortune of holding his convention first and making sure to mention gasoline prices in his acceptance speech. If that's what you're up against, I suppose that "Drill, baby, drill" makes perfect sense.

In other words, we're all doomed. In the meantime, though, I have named my cat consul of the empire and plan to repair to the living room to watch the Hannah-delayed remnants of the U.S. Open. I might as well enjoy myself while I can, right?