Archive for May, 2008

Ms. Clinton Meet Mr. Freud

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

The Clintons have been nothing if not persistent opportunists whose immunity from embarrassment coupled with an entitlement attitude have produced a governor, a senator, and at least one president. Persistence is the Clinton lesson.

After the success of the first Gulf War, the first President George Bush reached a remarkable approval rating of 89%. The conventional wisdom held that 1992 would be a Republican year and President Bush would sweep to re-election. Prominent Democratic hopefuls decided to pass up the 1992 Democratic nomination. Big names like Senators Lloyd Benson, Bill Bradley, and Al Gore as well a popular New York Governor Mario Cuomo decided to sit out 1992. However, relatively unknown Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton beat out Governor Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown for the Democratic nomination.

The economy soured in late 1991. Although it recovered in part by November 1992, President Bush’s popularity reached more conventional levels. Then third-party candidate millionaire Ross Perot parlayed his populist message to 19% of the popular vote. It lured enough moderates and conservatives away from Bush to yield the election to Clinton who won with a plurality of  43%. This  victory was, when perceived, from a year earlier  a unlikely turn of events that taught the Clintons: you can never tell what will happen if you keep your hat in the ring.

Since the Democratic nomination will almost certainly go to Senator Barack Obama, it is reasonable to ask why Senator Hillary Clinton remains in the race. The reason is probably because you can never know what will happen. Moreover, if she stays in, she may be able to force herself onto the ticket. As a vice-presidential nominee she would likely succeed Obama as presidential nominee in years ahead. If for some reason, Obama was not be able to complete his term a Vice-President Clinton would step in. In any case, if someone else becomes Obama’s vice-president, it would introduce a new and potential potent rival on the Democratic side.

A couple of days ago, Senator Clinton brought up Senator Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination with regard to how long primaries last. At this risk of practicing psychology without license, I offer the speculation that Hillary committed a Freudian slip. She did not mean to encourage assassination or invoke some sinister possibility. She was thinking out loud her thoughts about why to remain in the race for the nomination. She was simply pulling the curtain from the private Clinton motto of refusing to concede because you never know what will happen.

Bush’s Speech in the Knesset and Appeasement

Sunday, May 18th, 2008

From those on the Left we heard the refrain that we should care about what are allies think of us. The unpopularity of Bush among Europeans is marshaled as evidence as to the failure of his foreign policy. What conclusion are we the draw when Bush appears at the the parliament of a US ally to a standing ovation? I guess not much if that ally is Israel.

This week George Bush delivered a well-received speech to the Knesset reaffirming the commitment of the US to Israel. Masada is a plateau overlooking the southern end of the Dead Sea, where first century Jews committed mass suicide rather than submit to the the Romans. It is a potent symbol of Jewish resistance. Bush invoked this symbolism when he said to receptive audience, “Citizens of Israel: Masada shall never fall again, and America will be at your side.

Later Bush criticized those, many of them in Europe, who wish to attempt to purchase peace at the expense of Israel”

“Some people suggest if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away. This is a tired argument that buys into the propaganda of the enemies of peace, and America utterly rejects it. Israel’s population may be just over 7 million. But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong, because the United States of America stands with you.”

As noteworthy as these commitments are, we are in a election year and the speech was received with political sensitive ears. Bush warned against empowering terrorists with the legitimacy of negotiation:

“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.” We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

Senator Barrack Obama was not named and the paragraph would have likely been ignored after single day  like the rest of the speech by a media that isn’t much interested. Yet Obama considered it a “a false political attack.”

Why he really reacted the way he did?  Perhaps it was just political calculation. It is not obvious that the paragraph was intended as an attack, at least not directly at Obama, but what was false about it. Certainly, Obama does not dispute the history of Nazi appeasement. So his objection must reduce to whether negotiation with “terrorist and radicals” amounts to appeasement. Does unconditional negotiation grant terrorists and radicals an implicit concession of legitimacy? Obama says he is ready to debate anywhere and anytime about foreign policy.  Allow me to submit the debate topic for which Obama can take the affirmative: “Negotiation with terrorists is not appeasement.”

Appeasement is not the same as negotiation nor is it even identical to  trading land for peace.  Rather it is acquiescence to aggression with the hope that the aggression will be forestalled. The quintessential example was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement in 1938 with Nazi Germany. Chamberlain agreed to cede Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland to “appease” Hitler expansionist ambitions. Chamberlain’s subsequent boast of “peace in our time” was contradicted when a year later Hitler invaded Poland.

Nonetheless, the “land for peace” equation is not necessarily appeasement. The Israelis managed to swap the Sinai Peninsula, originally seized from Egypt in the Six Day war, for a peace that has lasted decades. The Israelis found  a earnest partner for negotiation in Anwar Sadat. Unfortunately, Sadat was assassinated by the same radical Islamic movement that Bush warned about in his speech to the Knesset.

Hence, the question about negotiation that lies in the debate between Bush and Obama reduces to whether Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah more closely resemble Sadat or Hitler as a negotiation partner. At present, given the vicious anti-Semitism of radical Islam, the case for an affinity to Hitler rather than Sadat is easier to make.

Choosing a Narrative

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

It is hard to be insightful and original and much safer to avoid contradiction of the conventional wisdom. In journalism the prevailing conventional wisdom is the simple narrative that most in media subscribe to. There are many stories that could be written about, but those that support the implicitly agreed-upon media narrative gain traction by constant repetition. You can tell that a narrative has achieved a certain prominence when it becomes the basis for jokes by late-night comedians.

President Gerald Ford was a star high school and college football player.  Nonetheless, after a few physical mishaps, the media drew a narrative of a physical klutz. Every time Ford, as would any normal human being, tripped or bumped into some object, the event would receive play in the media. As a consequence, Ford received an undeserved reputation. The media had used isolated, unrepresentative facts to create an untrue picture of Ford.

In another example, former vice-president Dan Quayle, despite being an attorney and Senator, acquired the media reputation as a simpleton. Hence, when he misspelled “potato,” the event comported with the media narrative and was continually repeated, reinforcing the media picture of Quayle.

By contrast, Al Gore, had the reputation for being smart. Hence, when he misspoke a metaphor and said, “A zebra does not change its spots,” the incident did not receive much media attention. The incident was not consistent with the prevailing narrative of an intelligent Gore,  so it was not accorded much media attention.

It is important to be aware of this effect because we are likely to witness it this election year. Since Senator John McCain is 71, some of his political opponents would like to persuade sympathetic elements of the media that the appropriate narrative should paint McCain as loosing his mental capacities due to age. In pursuit of this narrative, it is likely that silly misstatements by McCain, mistakes that we all make, will be given undo attention.

When such events occur, it should be remembered that anyone can misspeak, and that even someone as intelligent and verbally gifted as Senator Barack Obama can momentarily believe that the US is composed of 57 states.

Just Another Politican

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

President Bill Clinton has been reported as observing that Republicans fall in line when selecting the next Republican in queue for the presidential nomination, while the Democrats must fall in love with their nominee. Clinton did not continue to explain that it is an inherited ideological trait  born of Democrats who look back wistfully to a central leader, the paternal figure that can grasp control of the country firmly, run the economy, dominate the political debate, and give hope: the President Franklin Roosevelt model. Republicans tend to be conservative in temperament as well as ideology. They prefer tested competence and therefore tend to select the next senior candidate for their nominee. The advantage to the Democratic approach is that they tend to present exciting new faces. The advantage of the Republican approach is that their candidates are typically more vetted. For good or for ill, Republican candidates tend to be known quantities.

This year, the likely Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama has captured the mantle of the new candidate of hope and “change.”  Obama is an attractive well-spoken blank slate upon which Democrats were free to paint their visions. Part of his appeal is that the notion that Senator Obama is a transformative figure beyond conventional politics and politicians. Moreover, Democrats are too morally exhausted to nominate one of a pair of history’s quintessential politicians: the Clintons. Obama was not  a mere politician. He was not burdened by a morally questionable history.

Obama’s problems with the recent controversy surrounding the rantings of his pastor and spiritual adviser Jeremiah Wright has less to do with whether or not Obama agrees with Wright and more to do with the fact that the extemporizing politician in Obama has been revealed.

Although Obama was clearly close to Wright, no one really believes that Obama shares the wild notions of Wright: that the US government invented AIDS or that the US should be damned. However, they no one believes he was unaware of the extent of Wright’s extremism.  Obama, as a young lawyer blessed with an Ivy League education and political aspirations, needed an introduction to the Chicago  political community. Joining Rev. Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ was one way to earn the necessary street credentials.

On March 18th, while disputing Wright controversial statements, Obama declared, “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.”  Indeed, the suggestion was made that Wright comments were somehow not truly reflective of Wright’s views. The odious words were mere excerpts from much longer sermons that provided context. After Wright continued to repeat the statements that so disturbed America at the National Press Club, Obama was forced to separate himself from Wright. The separation exposed Obama as just another politician not above calculating electoral self-interest.

In 1995, Illinois State Senator Alice Palmer selected Barack as her successor and endeavored to introduce Obama to the influential political leaders of the 13th District. These mainstream local leaders included 1960s’ radicals, really home grown terrorists, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. It is not likely that Obama is sympathetic to the idea that Ayers expressed in a NY Times piece published ironically on September 11, 2001 that “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we did not do enough.” I would like to believe, that Obama does not even feel comfortable in the presence of Ayers or Dohrn, but his willingness to jump through the 13th Districts political hoops as necessary indicate a willingness to make the compromises of just any another politician.

The vocation of a politician is a difficult one and certainly one can not be disqualified for office simply on that basis. Being a politician is a necessary step to political power in a republic. Politics can be noble calling. However, what has hurt Obama in the last few weeks is not a belief that he holds radical beliefs, but rather that he is a politician just like all the others, not a prophet and not a messiah. The luster has worn off and the public is reassessing its opinion of the slender politician from Illinois who seeks to  secure the office once held by another slender Illinois politician.