Kevin Drum - October 2008

John McCain, Holy Man

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 6:15 PM EDT

JOHN McCAIN, HOLY MAN....David Gelernter says that John McCain's big problem is that he's just too damn modest about his own saintliness:

Of course no candidate can advertise his own moral stature; he can use weak words like "maverick" and "I have been tested," but can't quite say "I stand before you as a hero of proven nobility."

No, I guess he can't, can he? Luckily, Gelernter does it for him: "In Hebrew he would be called a tsaddik — a man of such nobility and moral substance that he approaches holiness." Here's an example of McCain's alleged holiness:

McCain is only a part-time conservative and has never inspired enthusiasm on the right; but no one doubts that each of his leftward excursions has been a matter of principle and not convenience. His outspoken, unwavering support for Israel in the face of American Jewish indifference is a perfect example of principled versus self-interested politics.

I admit that I hadn't realized before that unwavering support for Israel was such a gutsy stand for an American politician to take. Live and learn.

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Obama the Cautious

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 4:49 PM EDT

OBAMA THE CAUTIOUS....More Ezra, this time on the likely impact of a Barack Obama presidency:

If the fact of Obama's candidacy has been remarkable, however, it's hard to escape the signs that his presidency will be rather less transformative. Obama's domestic policy proposals were the weakest of the three major Democrats. His legislative instincts, as he's frequently admitted and as his career suggests, are fairly cautious. His staff is primarily comprised of competent representatives of the center-left. His campaign picked no major fights with Democratic Party orthodoxy.

This is what makes the eleventh-hour conservative meltdown over Obama (he's a socialist, a street thug, a terrorist lover, a radical leftist, etc. etc.) so strange. It's true that Obama is something of a Rorschach test, with all of us seemingly projecting on him what we'd like to see (or, in some cases, fear to see), but the reality of the man sure doesn't seem to support anything very apocalyptic. Yes, he's young, black, and charismatic, but let's get real: the real reason most people are thrilled with him is that he's not George Bush. After eight years of Republican misrule, the Democrats could have nominated Austin Powers and the world would have breathed a sigh of relief.

As for Obama himself, Ezra is responding to a Jack Shafer column that complains about reporters being completely smitten by "the notion that Obama's candidacy is momentous, without parallel, and earth-shattering." But the links he provides — presumably the best he could Google up — are pretty thin fare, mostly just a few pundits claiming that Obama might help restore respect for America abroad. In fact, what's struck me most about pro-Obama campaign punditry both in the blogosphere and the MSM is how little of it has been motivated by an active defense of Obama. Andrew Sullivan aside, the vast bulk has been anti-McCain and anti-Bush. The blogosphere, the country, and the world are just tired of Republicans. Obama has run a good campaign, but if Hillary Clinton had won the nomination (or Al Gore or John Kerry or Socks the cat) they'd all be ahead by seven points too.

Language Watch

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 2:28 PM EDT

LANGUAGE WATCH....Yesterday a regular reader emailed me about that famous quote from a McCain advisor calling Sarah Palin a "diva":

It's sad how the Republicans struggle with sexism and it shows (brutally) in the slamming she is starting to take. Sadly, though, if the internal warfare goes unchecked, Palin will be a stereotype — the single-mindedly, narcissistic, aggressive woman who is striving for self-aggrandizement at all costs, who lacks any intellectual depth and is ultimately shallow — a true Diva. And while part of me would be very happy if Palin's capitol exposure is forever limited to tours, another part of me sees the risks of more roadblocks for women.

I've been watching the growing grumblings and have been wondering how long it would be before we saw the reference to Diva, a great put-down of powerful women. Why can't she just be another self-interested but charismatic politician who is woefully out of her element and not appropriate for this position. And leave it at that. No, I bet you'll see more sexist-based disparagement from the right before this is done.

As a father of two strong-willed girls, the whole spectacle is frustrating.

Today, Mike Allen reports the latest:

In convo with Playbook, a top McCain adviser one-ups the priceless "diva" description, calling her "a whack job."

"Whack job" isn't sexist, is it? How about that instead?

A Tiny Violin

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 1:42 PM EDT

A TINY VIOLIN....Yesterday I read that Porsche had increased its ownership stake in VW to 74% and was seeking a "dominance" agreement that would give it control over the company. Today, via Tyler Cowen, the Financial Times reports that hedge funds are pretty unhappy about this:

VW shares rose 147 per cent after Porsche unexpectedly disclosed that through the use of derivatives it had increased its stake in VW from 35 to 74.1 per cent, sparking outcry among investors, analysts and corporate governance experts.

....The sudden disclosure meant there was a free float of only 5.8 per cent — the state of Lower Saxony owns 20.1 per cent — sparking panic among hedge funds. Many had bet on VW's share price falling and the rise on Monday led to estimated losses among them of €10bn-€15bn ($12.5bn-$18.8bn).

"This was supposed to be a very low-risk trade and it's a nuclear bomb which has gone off in people's faces," said one hedge fund manager.

Technically, the complaint is that Porsche has been less than transparent about its maneuverings, and it might well be that current German regulation is too lax in this regard. That aside, though, can I just say that my heart is not exactly breaking for the hedge funds who got burned here? The whole point of most hedge funds is to invest vast sums of money with the least possible transparency possible, and now they're complaining because somebody else has executed a slick maneuver that made what was "supposed" to be a very low-risk trade into a money loser.

Well, guess what? There's are no tablets from Mt. Sinai that guarantee hedge funds access to low-risk-high-return investments. Their bet turned out to be a bad one, and now they're unhappy about it. Boo hoo.

For more, check out the first commenter to Tyler's post. He explains pretty well what happened here and how the hedge funds got burned.

Plan vs. "Plan"

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 12:58 PM EDT

PLAN vs. "PLAN"....Ezra Klein catches McCain advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin accidentally telling the truth about McCain's healthcare plan:

John McCain's health care plan aims to do something very simple: Raise taxes on the employer health insurance market so individuals move to the individual health insurance market. What Doug Holtz-Eakin just said is that even McCain's top advisers realize that this will mean much worse health care coverage for everyone involved. As he put it, "what they are getting from their employer is way better than what they could get with the [tax] credit."

Poor Douglas Holtz-Eakin. He's stuck having to defend a healthcare plan that's really a healthcare "plan." It doesn't work in theory, it doesn't work in practice, and it's not something that would appeal to most Americans in any case. But McCain needed a plan to compete with Obama's plan, and Republicans like tax credits, so that became the basis of his plan. The fact that it doesn't make sense isn't something that McCain really cares much about.

UPDATE: More here from Time's Karen Tumulty: "If Doug Holtz-Eakin doesn't believe that young, healthy people would leave the system, he might want to talk to Mitt Romney, who actually studied the situation in the real world when he was reforming the health care system in Massachusetts. It's not — as Holtz-Eakin suggests — that these healthier citizens would choose between staying with their employer-provided benefits or buying them on the open market. It's that they would decide to go uninsured entirely — leaving older and sicker people in the employer-provided system. That would make it even more expensive for employers to continue to provide coverage for their workers, accelerating a trend that we are already seeing, in which fewer and fewer companies are providing coverage."

Stimulate Me!

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 12:22 PM EDT

STIMULATE ME!....We have a long, hard recession ahead of us, and monetary policy has already done about as much for us as it can. That means we need fiscal stimulus and plenty of it. But what kind? Mark Zandi from Moody's Economy.com provides the answer and EPI makes it into a chart for your consideration. Basically, they suggest that the money is best spent (a) on low and middle income workers who will actually buy things with it, (b) infrastructure, because the recession is likely to be long and infrastructure projects take a while to get up and running, and (c) aid to states, who would otherwise have to cut back spending and thus blunt the effect of the stimulus package. Works for me.


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Civil War Watch

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 11:48 AM EDT

CIVIL WAR WATCH....From the LA Times:

The social conservatives and moderates who together boosted the Republican Party to dominance have begun a tense battle over the future of the GOP, with social conservatives already moving to seize control of the party's machinery and some vowing to limit John McCain's influence, even if he wins the presidency.

In skirmishes around the country in recent months, evangelicals and others who believe Republicans have been too timid in fighting abortion, gay marriage and illegal immigration have won election to the party's national committee, in preparation for a fight over the direction and leadership of the party.

Obviously this sounds crazy to liberal ears, but I guess I can't blame them. After all, the job of a true believer is to believe. And turning elections into culture war battlefields certainly seems to have worked in the past for them.

But times change. Among vast swathes of the young, the culture war has lost its salience. Worse, it's become an albatross, a sign of intolerance and hatred that young voters despise. The results are crystal clear in party ID polling: twenty-somethings have fled the Republican Party in numbers not seen since the Great Depression, and if social conservatives manage to wrest control of the GOP and start shrieking 24/7 about banning abortion and hating gay people, they'll be guaranteeing Democratic dominance among an entire cohort of voters for decades to come.

Which is fine with me, of course. But the adults in the Republican Party better plan on knocking heads very hard and very fast if they don't share my attitude. Sarah Palin isn't the future of their party, she's the future of mine.

Mosul

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 1:53 AM EDT

MOSUL....For years, Iraq observers have been warning about the ongoing tensions in Kirkuk between Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds. That tension is now in danger of exploding into outright war, but it turns out the initial flashpoint isn't Kirkuk after all. It's Mosul:

The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is squeezing out Kurdish units of the Iraqi Army from Mosul, sending the national police and army from Baghdad and trying to forge alliances with Sunni Arab hard-liners in the province, who have deep-seated feuds with the Kurdistan Regional Government led by Massoud Barzani.

...."It's the perfect storm against the old festering background," warned Brig. Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, who oversees Nineveh and Kirkuk Provinces and the Kurdish region. Worry is so high that the American military has already settled on a policy that may set a precedent, as the United States slowly withdraws to allow Iraqis to settle their own problems. If the Kurds and Iraqi government forces fight, the American military will "step aside," General Thomas said, rather than "have United States servicemen get killed trying to play peacemaker."

I don't blame Thomas for taking this attitude. At the same time, if American troops aren't there to keep the peace, what are they there for?

The War Against Gore

| Mon Oct. 27, 2008 7:39 PM EDT

THE WAR AGAINST GORE....Today Bob Somerby finds yet another excuse to remind us all of how badly Al Gore was treated by the press during the 2000 campaign. And, as usual, he's pissed that the rest of us aren't as obsessed by this as he is:

To this day, our side has agreed to keep its traps shut about the trashing of the Clintons and Gore. As we've done so, we've given away a giant political advantage. Millions of people [] hear that the press corps just hates Big Republicans. And they rarely hear a peep from our side. We've agreed not to tell them the truth.

In large part, our side has kept its traps shut about the Clinton/Gore era for corrupt, careerist reasons....Kevin won't tell you. Josh won't tell you. Ezra spoke once, then shut the f*ck up. Your "nominal allies" are very quiet. Atrios rarely offers a peep.

First things first: Yes, Gore was indeed treated badly. He never said he invented the internet, he never said he discovered Love Canal, he wore pretty much the same clothes he'd always worn, he didn't hire Naomi Wolf to teach him how to be an alpha male, and he wasn't a serial liar. Etc. Bob is right about all that stuff.

But here's what I don't get: why does Bob think that liberals are giving away a "giant political advantage" by not harping on this constantly? Frankly, I'd be delighted to harp away if I actually thought this was one of the top 100 issues that might help the future of liberalism, but it's not, is it? Media criticism in general helps our side, but what exactly would it gain us to relate everything back to Al Gore's decade-old mistreatment with the Ahab-like intensity that Bob does? Wouldn't it just cause everyone to tune us out as cranks and fogeys? Anyone care to weigh in on this, on either side?

Stevens Guilty

| Mon Oct. 27, 2008 5:34 PM EDT

STEVENS GUILTY....Ted Stevens, whose defense against corruption charges was that he was just "borrowing" stuff from campaign donors, lost his case today:

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was convicted today of lying on financial disclosure forms to hide tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and renovations to his Alaska home that were financed mostly by a powerful business executive and his oil services company.

....Despite the guilty verdict, Stevens remains on the ballot in Alaska, where he is locked in a tight race with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.

If he can pull off an upset victory, Stevens could remain in the Senate for months, if not longer, if he chose to appeal the verdict. Tradition allows him to exhaust his appeals before the ethics committee begins expulsion hearings, according to the Historical Office of the Senate.

A reader asks, "If Stevens is re-elected and the US Senate then kicks him out, can Palin then name herself to replace him?" I assume the answer is no, and I further assume that even if the answer is yes Palin wouldn't have the chutzpah to do it. But of course, those are my big city values talking, so I might be off base here.

In any case, I assume that Stevens is now considerably more likely to lose his seat next week, thus making this point moot. Any Alaskans care to weigh in on how this is going to play up in the Great White North Last Frontier?

UPDATE: False alarm. Sorry. After Frank Murkowski appointed his daughter Lisa to an open Senate seat in 2002, Alaskans approved a ballot initiative to change the law. An open Senate seat in Alaska is now filled via a special election.