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Sunday Book Review: The Great Experiment

[ 0 ] May 11, 2008 |

The Great Experiment, by Strobe Talbott, is one in a broad family of books written by former executive branch officials about their experiences with power. These books often contain some theoretical noodling, bits and pieces of biographical detail, a few mildly interesting anecdotes within a jury-rigged “idea” that purports to hold the whole thing together. Probably 90% of the members of this family are almost suicidally boring, but occasional you’ll find one by someone who really has something to say, and manages to do so in an interesting and forthright manner.

Tragically, The Great Experiment is not one of these outliers. Rather, it is firmly within the ersatz Ambien family. The great experiment, according to Talbott, is the group; the idea that ever larger communities of people can hold together in more or less stable groupings over an extended period of time. From the dawn of agriculture until now, such groupings have included empires, city states, and nations. The future of such communities is, according to Talbott, international organizations such as the United Nations. This story fills the first half of the book, and contains a few tangential citations of the extraordinarily vast literature on statebuilding and community formation; Talbott indicates, for example, that he’s read at least some of the works of Benedict Anderson, although the book betrays no great understanding of the arguments contained therein. As such, the first half of the book is pretty much entirely worthless to anyone with an academic knowledge of the subject, and pretty misleading to anyone without such a background.

The second half of the book concerns Talbott’s direct experience in and around the Clinton administration, and is mildly more interesting. We learn a bit, for example, about the influence that Al Gore had in the administration, and about the White House’s relationship with the media. On the latter Talbott is careful to demonstrate his credentials as a Washington insider, noting that he regularly plays chess and conducts civil political conversations with Chucky Krauthammer. Talbott also includes a series of critiques of the Bush administration from the point of view of a Clinton administration official, critiques which are somewhat interesting but not terribly novel or illuminating. They are the sort of wonky, margin-emphasizing critiques that you would expect from someone who is, broadly, within the community of Democratic foreign policy thinkers that found itself flummoxed by the charge for the Iraq War, and utterly incapable of understanding what the Bush administration was trying to do.

I am largely sympathetic with his basic policy argument, which is that the continuing institutionalization of the international system is a positive thing, and ought to be pursued. To make this case in the contemporary American context, however, you have to do better than painting a broad historical stroke, then explaining that international institutions are the natural end state of human kind. It simply isn’t true that we’ve steadily been moving towards larger human groupings; the Roman Empire, the China-centric state system that held in the Far East, the Habsburg Empire, and perhaps most notably medieval Christendom all represented quasi-institutional efforts that waxed and waned over time. The historical story doesn’t tell us what Talbott wants it to tell us, and consequently can’t carry the weight that he places on it. International institutions can be argued for on their own merits, apart from any teleological narrative that’s supposed to make them quasi-inevitable.

To sum up, if you have trouble sleeping but can’t get another prescription, check out The Great Experiment. If not, avoid it like the plague.

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On the "Unity Ticket"

[ 45 ] May 11, 2008 |

Armando requests a more detailed argument about why it would not be irrational for Obama to choose someone other than Clinton for his running mate. (And let me be clear: I am not saying that there aren’t reasonable arguments in favor of Clinton, just that the merits of the idea are hardly self-evident. In addition, of course, I was not criticizing “Clinton supporters” but rather blogs featuring apparently serious arguments that Obama is in danger of losing New York and California in the general election.) Since I aim to please, here it is.

First of all, I completely reject his central premise, that the party cannot be unified in the fall if Clinton is not on the ticket. It is of course true that Clinton has many strong and deeply committed supporters, for good reason. But this is also true of any substantially contested primary. And, historically, not matter what they’ve said in the immediate aftermath of defeat, partisans of the losing candidate have generally supported the winning one, even in cases as bitter is GOP 2000. I simply don’t believe that most supporters of Hillary Clinton are narcissistic enough to want John McCain to be elected out of spite should she be a powerful and influential senator rather than a vice presidential candidate, and certainly it’s going to take a lot more than bare assertion for me to take this condescending attitude towards her supporters. (I do agree with Armando on one narrow point: I think Obama’s prominent supporters should follow his lead, be gracious, and not say anything about the VP slot. Kennedy’s comments are indeed not terribly productive. But whether he’s wrong on the merits is a separate question that we bloggers surely can discuss.)

So, I simply don’t believe that this is the only criterion that should be considered. And there are others on which Clinton is a less-than-ideal VP candidate, some of which I’ve already mentioned. First, by far the biggest impact of vice presidents on the ticket is the potential to bring a swing home state into the fold, which Clinton doesn’t offer. Second, if the idea is to shore up Obama’s “foreign policy cred” you want someone with military experience but who opposed the war (such as Webb or Clark); Clinton of course is the opposite. Third, the media. It’s hard to know what to do about the media’s grossly unfair treatment of Clinton; if I was convinced that she would make the best president I wouldn’t let it dissuade me. But when picking a running mate, surely this has to be considered a great deal more important. Fourth, partly because of the unfair treatment she receives from the media, she has much higher negatives than you would prefer in a VP candidate. Finally, even if you assume this is a lot more important than I do I should note that the fact that Clinton appeals more to lower-class whites and older voters 1)compared to Obama and (this is the important step for those of you who don’t understand why it’s illogical to make inferences about the general from primary results) 2)among people who vote in Democratic primaries hardly means that she is the optimal choice to appeal to these voters compared to other possibilities.

Of course, there are points in her favor. I think she fares very well on the important question of whether she would make a good president if necessary, for example. Her mastery of policy detail would be especially useful (although when it comes to health care I’d much rather have her putting plans together in the Senate, where any plan is going to rise or fall.) The fact that she inspires strong commitments from a lot of voters is also important. And, of course, it all depends on who the other possible choices are. But, on balance, there are other choices I would prefer, and I certainly can’t see how it’s irrational to believe that the #2 spot on the ticket isn’t the best role for Clinton’s future in the party.

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The Transition

[ 0 ] May 11, 2008 |

MoDo seems regretful that she will have less reason (at least outside the context of blind dates) to snigger about Bill Clinton’s sex life. But she holds out faint hope for a Vice Presidential nod:

Aside from the delight Bill would get from living at the Naval Observatory and having a huge telescope to window-peep with, there wouldn’t be much joy in Hillaryland.

Hahahahahahahaha! That’s the kind of legendary wit that can get you a Pulitzer prize, or the Tuesday night slot at Yakov Smirnoff’s comedy club in Branson if Carrot Top cancels at the last minute. But won’t Obama think of poor Dowd? After all, if Clinton isn’t on the ticket, how will she continue to discuss completely fabricated pseudo-scandals?

But in a return engagement with Obama at the top, could she really wake up every day in the back seat and wish him well, or would she just be plotting? (Fourteen vice presidents have ascended, after all.) Wouldn’t she be, in Monty Python parlance, the Trojan Rabbit behind the gates?

On a positive note, maybe she could bring back all that stuff she pilfered on her way out.

Sure, this doesn’t make any sense unless you conflate “theft” with “taking some personal gifts with you, with a lesser total value than the previous administration,” but when have facts ever stopped MoDo from smearing the Clintons before?

Anyway, as Cole points out this is the key part in terms of how the smears on Obama are going to proceed:

Now Barack Obama faces a true dilemma: how best to punish Hillary Clinton.

After 15 months of fighting her off, as she veered wildly from bully to victim, as she brandished any ice pick at hand, whether racial, sexual, mathematical or marital (in the form of her Vesuvian husband), Obama must decide the most efficacious means of doing to Hillary what she has been trying to do to him: putting her in her place.

In addition to the obvious projection, I trust you can see what’s going on here. If Obama doesn’t choose Clinton as a running mate, it’s because he wants to “put her in her place.” If he does choose Clinton, it’s because he wants to “put her in her place.” See, when you’re setting up the inevitable endless stream of columns about how Obama is really an womanly effete elitist woman who’s probably lactating even more than Al Gore, you win either way! The country, not so much.

I know that some people in the Clinton Hackosphere are trying to set up the argument that a decision by Obama to choose anybody but Clinton must be motivated by personal animus, because there simply can’t be any rational argument (such as, say, her high negatives, the fact that she would muddy Obama’s message on the most important issue of the Bush era, and the fact that she doesn’t represent a swing state, etc.) against it. But at least I believe that they would be satisfied if Obama picks her.

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Yes, I know it’s a manufactured holiday, but happy mother’s day to all you moms.

And, in true LGM fashion, in “celebration” of mother’s day, I am posting the most depressing article on motherhood I have read in a long time (via Bitch Ph.D). I’m not sure what is more frustrating and sad about this article: that so many incarcerated California mothers would only have the opportunity to see their kids once a year, when the state provides free transportation to the prisons (which are often very far from home), or that even when given the opportunity, only one woman’s child came. The photos of the “party” going unattended are just devastating. Just another problem of our “correctional” system — that women’s prisons are not located in or even near the communities from which they come, making staying connected to family and community nearly impossible, and reentry all the more difficult.

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Presidential Statement of the Day

[ 2 ] May 10, 2008 |

George W. Bush, announcing National Hurricane Preparedness Week, 10 May 2005:

Each year from June through November, Americans living on the Eastern seaboard and along the Gulf of Mexico face an increased threat of hurricanes. These powerful storms can create severe flooding, cause power outages, and damage homes and businesses with their high winds, tornadoes, storm surges, and heavy rainfall. The effects of these storms can be devastating to families and cause lasting economic distress. During National Hurricane Preparedness Week, we call attention to the importance of planning ahead and securing our homes and property in advance of storms.

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When You Put it that Way, it Almost Seems Like a Pattern

[ 28 ] May 10, 2008 |

Chris Bowers:

  • African-Americans support Democrats by about an 8-1 ratio. All 42 African-American members of the House and Senate are Democrats.
  • The LGBT community supports Democrats by about a 3-1 ratio. Both of the LGBT member of Congress are Democrats.
  • Non-Christians support Democrats by a 3-1 ratio. Both Buddhists and both Muslims in Congress are Democrats. Only three of the 43 Jewish members of the House and Senate are Republicans. . I’m also going to take a guess here and state that there are no publicly declared atheist Republicans in Congress.
  • Latinos support Democrats by more than a 2-1 ratio. Twenty-one of the twenty-five Latino members of Congress are Democrats.
  • More than 60% of Asian-American voters choose Democrats. All eight of the Asian-American members of Congress are Democrats.

Traitors, all.

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Headline of the Week

Republicans Vote Against Mothers; No Word Yet on Puppies, Kittens

Really (The article’s pretty good too). The GOP in the House voted against recognizing the extraordinary contributions of mothers in America (in honor of Mother’s Day) yesterday. The vote shows both the party’s weakness right now (they did this as a tactical move to try to bring the House to a standstill), and its ugly underbelly of misogyny. Would the GOP men have voted against celebrating themselves for Father’s Day? I am going to guess not. But this vote was a twofer for them – attempted (and failed) procedural mayhem and a chance bring those uppity women down a notch.

(via Bitch Phd)

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Annals of Desperate Hackery

[ 9 ] May 10, 2008 |

The nice thing about constructing an “electability” argument is that since you’re largely dealing with the unknowable you can say a great many things without saying anything that’s obviously false. Some Clinton supporters, however, have decided that this wouldn’t be any fun, and have decided to put forward this classic:

As you know, Hillary has racked up victories in bellwether states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and now Indiana

Indiana’s recent presidential election results:

2004 GOP +20
2000 GOP +16
1996 GOP +6
1992 GOP +4 (Perot 20%)
1988 GOP +20
1984 GOP +24
1980 GOP +18
1976 GOP +7
1972 GOP +33
1968 GOP +12

By the standards of Clinton’s backers, then, Obama can definitely count North Carolina and Georgia as victories in crucial “bellwether” states.

In fairness, perhaps they’re just trying to console their candidate. If Indiana is a “bellwether” state, the Democratic nomination was really never worth having in the first place…

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Pennism: Fallacious and Offensive

[ 1 ] May 9, 2008 |

Matt says that while Clinton’s assertions about the importance of her greater appeal to “working, hard-working Americans, white Americans” are “one part fallacy, two parts baseless speculation” they’re not “offensive.” Let’s assume that she misspoke and didn’t intend the fairly overt racism of her literal comments; they remain problematic, but it’s a fair assumption. But even given a more charitable interpretation, the fallacies in her argument are precisely what makes it offensive.

The baseless speculation, I assume, is the transparently illogical claim that because Clinton attracts more working-class whites against Obama that she would therefore attract more against McCain. But even if we assume that Clinton would perform better among this group in the general, we are left with the fallacy central to Mark Penn’s approach to politics. Particularly when you consider that turnout as well as margins are not static, there’s no reason why Obama’s lesser performance with respect to any particular demographic can be assumed to be problematic. If Obama does worse among working-class whites in Pennsylvania but compensates by getting a higher turnout among African-Americans and young professionals, so what? The fact that the latter two groups are more reliably Democratic doesn’t matter. If you get an extra 100,000 votes (whether by higher turnout or higher margins), the fact that the relevant demographic was already majority Democratic is wholly irrelevant.

This glaring logical fallacy leads us to what’s offensive. Precisely because which group such analysis chooses to focus on is entirely arbitrary, the choice always reflects political interests (in Penn’s case, inevitably with center-right results.) Clinton has outperformed Obama among a number of demographics, but surely it’s no a coincidence that Clinton — as is usually the case when people make this argument — identified white workers rather than, say, Latinos or older women. It reflects the Bill Schneider assumption that there’s something suspicious about a coalition that doesn’t rely enough on white voters. Jon Chait’s article about Clinton’s desperate embrace of reactionary populism correctly identifies the context in which Clinton’s comments should be evaluated:

Historically, the conservative populist’s social divide ran along racial and ethnic lines. In recent years, overt racism has all but disappeared from mainstream political life, and even racial hot button appeals like the 1988 Willie Horton ad have grown rare. What remains is a residue of nostalgia about small towns–whose residents are said to have stronger values and work harder than other Americans, and who also happen to be overwhelmingly white. In 2004, after John Kerry declared that some entertainers supporting him represented “the heart and soul of America,” George W. Bush embarked upon a national tour of small- and mid-sized cities, where he would say, “I believe the heart and soul of America is found in places like Duluth, Minnesota,” or other such places.

Likewise, Bill Clinton recently declared, “The people in small towns in rural America, who do the work for America, and represent the backbone and the values of this country, they are the people that are carrying her through in this nomination.” The corollary–that strong values and hard work is in shorter supply among ethnically heterogeneous urban residents–is left unstated. Hillary Clinton’s statement about “hard-working Americans, white Americans” simply made explicit a theme that conservative populists usually keep implicit.

The obsessive focus on Obama’s purported weakness among rural or small-town whites in particular clearly reflects the general framework that they are “Real Americans” while people who live in racially diverse urban centers are not. This is not only grossly offensive nonsense — the flipside of condescending, stereotyped portrayals of midwesterners — but offensive nonsense that is greatly beneficial to the Republican Party.

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Just wondering….

[ 5 ] May 9, 2008 |

….when Condoleezza Rice is going to explain that these are the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.”

Of course, if you’re Jules Crittenden, you’re pretty much dancing with glee, since this offers you another opportunity to argue that the US should just go ahead and Bomb(x5) Iran. After all, he notes — and I wish I were making this up — the cold war was filled with smaller hot wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Cambodia, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, so screw it.

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Presidential Statement of the Day

[ 6 ] May 9, 2008 |

Richard Nixon, speaking at a Republican fundraising dinner, 9 May 1973:

In the American political process, one of the most difficult tasks of all comes when charges are made against high officials in an administration. That is a very great test of an administration, and many times in the history of our country, administrations have failed to meet the test of investigating those charges that might be embarrassing to the administration, because they were made against high officials in an administration.

We have had such a situation. We have been confronted with it. We are dealing with it. And I will simply say to you tonight that this Nation–Republicans, Democrats, Independents, all Americans-can have confidence in the fact that the new nominee for Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and the Special Prosecutor that he will appoint in this case will have the total cooperation of the executive branch of this Government. They will get to the bottom of this thing; they will see to it that all of those who are guilty are prosecuted and are brought to justice. That is a pledge I make tonight and that I think the American people are entitled to.

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Good Policy: Sometimes Good Politics

[ 0 ] May 9, 2008 |

In assessing a potential unity ticket, Mark Schmitt says:

Obama is in many ways the most plain-spoken liberal to win the Democratic nomination since Walter Mondale. But while Clinton is probably inherently more cautious than Obama, her record marks her as more conservative on only one issue, and that’s the one on which she is most out of step with the vast majority of Americans–the decision to go to war in Iraq. And yet, she still suffers under the reputation, developed during the 1990s, that she is some sort of quasi-socialist. That’s the worst possible combination: perceived as more liberal than she actually is, while being demonstrably more conservative only on less popular points.

Yglesias, in addition, notes the craziness of adding Clinton to the ticket for foreign policy “cred.” It’s just bizarre that there are still Democrats who seem to think that taking a politically and substantively disastrous position on the most important issue of the Bush era is some kind of asset. At any rate, since I think these arguments were the best ones against Clinton’s candidacy for the top of the ticket, it’s not surprising I also think they’re good ones against making her veep. Support for the Iraq War should be a disqualifying factor or something close to it.

There is, I think, and important larger point here. Some people have talked about this week’s primary as being salutary because Clinton’s silly gas tax pander failed, but that’s a trivial example. The war is the big one. Admittedly, this is the kind of counterfactual that’s impossible to prove, but my guess is that if she had voted against the war Clinton would be the Democratic candidate. Given the closeness of the race, her inherent advantages going in, and that the war had to be a liability it’s hard to imagine that she wouldn’t have prevailed without the Iraq albatross. Whether or not Clinton’s support was sincere — I don’t think it really matters — sometimes getting big policies wrong really is politically damaging. (See also the 2006 midterms.) This is evidently a good thing.

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