Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: US Politics

Corrupting one’s own figures

Via the Washington Monthy comes the news that the Heritage Foundation has substantially shifted the position of the USA in its Index of Economic Freedom. The USA is now only “mostly free”.

The Heritage Foundation’s latest world ranking of economic freedoms shows the U.S. falling farther than any other large economy in the world. The foundation says the TARP Program, the auto industry bailout and the stimulus package, among other factors, have caused in the country’s economy to go from “free” to “mostly free.” [...]
Factors like business regulation, the labor market, monetary stability, property rights and corruption are used to determine the rankings.

Terry Miller, director of the Center of International Trade And Economics at the Heritage Foundation, says the U.S. ranking may continue to fall.”Certainly looking at the government policies that have been followed over the last year, since our last data cut off, I’m very concerned,” Miller told TPM, adding that health care reform was likely to further hurt our economic freedom.


Heres the top ten on the right for your quick viewing. But it’s an odd list. New Zealand, Canada and Australia all have significantly greater regulations in economic sectors (and weren’t we glad of that in 2008). Likewise all offer true universal healthcare delivery as well as insurance (as opposed to the USA’s just passed universal insurance) and it is hard to argue that property rights and the labor market are in general more regulated in the USA than in Australia.

While Government Spending must be seen as part of the mix, its weighting here seems to utterly distort the figures. You’d therefore have therefore to suspect some ideological politics is at work. The (Conservative) Heritage Foundation gets a 1-2 day headline downgrading the USA as ‘mostly free’ instead of ‘free’, but the long term effect of this is going to damage the credibility of the list. This type of index gets a lot of work in academic circles as a handy reference point, but that’s going to drop off once people start suspecting more than just world view, but domestic politics is interfering with the results. Hardly a worth while pay off.

The physicality of leadership

I’m currently reading the autobiography of Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. If Roosevelt is known for anything these days, and it’s inescapable in his book, it was his enthusiasm for the active life. He was a solider, hunter, naturalist and mountaineer, constantly pushing himself to keep going throughout life. In 1913, 5 years after leaving the White House, and aged 53 he went on a 1000km exploration charting rivers through the jungles of South America. He died some years later in part due to ill health caused by the trip, but no better marker of his identity in the publics mind can be found than the comment by the US vice president at the time that “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.” Roosevelt’s political and philosophical legacy isn’t that relevant anymore (though an early conservationist and he supported Health Care reform in his ‘Bull Moose’ run for the White House), but he still excites the imagination of many because, he offers a link to that original tribal idea of the leader as owed to the toughest, biggest man in the village. Yet how relevant is this idea of leadership today?
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The power of humor: WoT Humor?

An thought provoking and amusing piece from The Jakarta Post:

Do Asians have a sense of humor?
Nury Vittachi
A teacher who wanted only to be known as Man-sir had sent me links to several articles which said the biggest threat to world peace was the culture gap between West and East. “Experts say the best bet for bridging that potentially catastrophic gap is shared entertainment: movies, sport, and in particular, humor,” he wrote.
But that’s the problem. “Westerners consider Asians to be wildly unfunny. And several non-Western cultural groups, such as Muslims and Mainland Chinese, they consider humorless to a dangerous degree,” Man-sir wrote. “We need to prove Asians can be funny.”
Intelligent, sensible people do not waste time on people who insult them. So I dropped what I was doing and phoned him at once. The world’s most pressing problem was a drastic shortage of Islamic humor, he explained. “Locating and distributing this will defuse global tension by showing that Muslims can be funny, charming and self-deprecating.” Thinking about it, I realized words like “funny” and “charming” aren’t used a lot about Osama Bin Laden, the only Muslim most Westerners can name. Man-sir was right about something else, too: Asian comedians are as rare as braincells in the Jonas Brothers’ fan club.

I’ll leave aside the question of asian’s being funny ( Anh Do always cracks me up), but the role of humor as a political weapon is a critical and under-discussed issue in shaping the psychological nature of the war on terrorism. This is something one of my favourite comedians Lewis Black noted way back in 2002: The fundamental difference between the west and its attackers was that we could laugh. We could laugh at ourselves, we could laugh at them, and relief from the burdens of life through humor, and in that we could find perspective. Given our moral descent into torture and the angry stridency that even 7 years later still marks our (esp the US’s) debate on terrorism, it’s worth reminding ourselves of this virtue.
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Don’t be afraid of the public

Discussing the pro’s & con’s of Democrats passing the health care bill in the US, Reason.com’s Peter Suderman writes

the choice for Democrats may actually be whether they want they want to be portrayed as so single-minded in their determination to push their unpopular agenda on the public that they are willing to use party-line voting and any sort of obscure procedural trickery they can come up with to get it passed, or whether they want to be able to make the argument that they responded to the public’s clear concerns and backed off an incredibly unpopular piece of legislation when they had the chance.

Suderman of course doesn’t want the bill to pass, but his reasoning is an all too clear example of the fear the political class have of a voter backlash for their actions. Indeed the political class and Center-Left wing politicians, especially in the USA are almost paranoid in its worry about appeasing the voters, to the extent it ends up doing a much poorer job & therefore looking much less competent than it should otherwise. To fix this, left wing leaders need to take a leaf out of conservatives like Reagan, Bush and Howard and have the courage of their convictions. The media and political class will always be jumpy, but our leaders ought to know better. Obama seemed to promise this at the start, but the fear seems to have crept in of late.
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This is the change I’ve been waiting for

I supported Obama during 2007, 2008 for the skills he represented, far more than the position he held. I was always prepared to be disappointed, he is not my national leader, he was the most conservative of candidates, and yet his strategy of clinging close to the congressional leadership had led him closer to Health Care Reform than any man before him, Republican & Democrat. While believing every man deserves his due support, over the last few months, my enthusiasm has wained, along with his seeming political skill. Yet here, post-Massachusetts, in the depths of despair I find this, the very statement I have been wishing for him to make for the last few months:

Obama in Ohio 22 January 2010

“So here’s the good news: We’ve gotten pretty far down the road. But I’ve got to admit, we had a little bit of a buzz saw this week. (Laughter.)
Now, I also know that part of the reason is, is that this process was so long and so drawn out — this is just what happens in Congress. I mean, it’s just an ugly process. You’re running headlong into special interests, and armies of lobbyists, and partisan politics that’s aimed at exploiting fears instead of getting things done. And then you’ve got ads that are scaring the bejesus out of everybody. (Laughter.) And the longer it take, the uglier it looks.

So I understand why people would say, boy, this is — I’m not so sure about this — even though they know that what they got isn’t working. And I understand why, after the Massachusetts election, people in Washington were all in a tizzy, trying to figure out what this means for health reform, Republicans and Democrats; what does it mean for Obama? Is he weakened? Is he — oh, how’s he going to survive this? (Laughter.) That’s what they do. (Laughter.)

But I want you — I want you to understand, this is not about me. (Applause.) This is not about me. This is about you. This is not about me; this is about you. I didn’t take this up to boost my poll numbers. You know the way to boost your poll numbers is not do anything. (Laughter.) That’s how you do it. You don’t offend anybody. I’d have real high poll numbers. All of Washington would be saying, “What a genius!” (Laughter.)

I didn’t take this on to score political points. I know there are some folks who think if Obama loses, we win. But you know what? I think that I win when you win. (Applause.) That’s how I think about it.

So if I was trying to take the path of least resistance, I would have done something a lot easier. But I’m trying to solve the problems that folks here in Ohio and across this country face every day. And I’m not going to walk away just because it’s hard. We are going to keep on working to get this done — with Democrats, I hope with Republicans — anybody who’s willing to step up. Because I’m not going to watch more people get crushed by costs or denied care they need by insurance company bureaucrats. I’m not going to have insurance companies click their heels and watch their stocks skyrocket because once again there’s no control on what they do.
So long as I have some breath in me, so long as I have the privilege of serving as your President, I will not stop fighting for you.”

On Friday last week I couldn’t even pick up David Plouffe’s book ‘The Audacity to Win’, such was my disappointment at Obama. If he can however make this speech his widely known creed over the next few weeks & months, then he may indeed be the one we have been waiting for.

Now Pass.The.Damn.Bill

Being a Bad Loser

In Obama’s inauguration speech there was a line that stood out:

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

If one of the defining characteristics of adult hood is the ability to accept defeat and setback and carry on (such as in If by Kipling) then it seems clear that neither US political party has taken that step. Both the Republicans over the past year, and the Democrats over the past 24 hours are showing what bad losers they are.

I’ve never been one to decry hardball politics, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find in the post war period a group as mendacious and arrogant as the Republican party has been since the election loss in 2008. Abusing a rare senate rule, they have declared that Obama has no mandate for any legislation whatsoever, and not even entitled to most of his administration team. While still yet to account for any of the errors of their own period in power, they make demand after demand without the slightest idea of policy proposals to achieve these ends (& vetoing opponents policy that would help).

But just as you can be a bad loser by denying the loss ever happened, you can also be a bad loser by breaking down, and jumping into self-pity as the Democratic party seem to be doing. Democrats lost by just 100’000 votes in a special election, with a god awful candidate in a country of 300 million, and Obama & the democrats still poll above republicans nationally. The option to pass the health care bill is still there (but only by passing the senates bill), along with many measures to make life better for Americans (and show that Republicans are unwilling to aid doing so)
Yet they seem to be giving up, crawling into a ball and telling the people they “heard the message” that they should never do anything ever again, or stand for anything ever again.

Its remarkable really, even in the depths of the ALP’s crisis under Howard or the Liberals under Rudd we saw nothing like that level of arrogant or cowardly behaviour. Only Fraser’s scheming to dismiss Whitlam in 1975 somewhat fits for bad sportsmanship.

Since the 19th century, US political parties have depicted themselves as Elephants and Donkeys. Right now, the brainless Scarcrow and a cowardly Lion seem a better fit. Let’s hope these two listen to Obama’s message and grow up. (Speaking of which, the President himself strikes me as somewhat similar to The Wicked Witch as seen in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (novel behind the hit musical) I.e. possessed of a noticeably different skin colour & slightly grating demand for public morality, who eventually moves from a lack of understanding into being hated by the public without either side quite knowing why.

Analogising Obama

In three days time, Obama will mark his first full year in office. Cue a deluge of historical lookbacks, comparisons and other efforts to get a handle on just what Obama’s presidency means and where it’s going. Today’s SMH.com.au effort by Professor Geoffrey Garrett “Shadow of Past Looms for Obama” is a pretty fair minded (if negative) effort by the chief executive of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney except for his choice of analogies:

Outsiders looking for reasons to trust a system they don’t feel part of and insiders looking for innovative solutions to complex issues, don’t often invest their emotional energies in the same politician. But they did in Obama, just as they did in John F. Kennedy half a century earlier – once-in-a-generation leaders capable of capturing the hearts and minds of not only America but the world.

A year later, Obama seems more like Jimmy Carter than JFK. Jimmy Carter may or may not have had the right stuff to be the next JFK but the one-two punch of stagflation and the Iran hostage crisis doomed him. Obama still may inherit the JFK mantle but a lot is riding not only on managing down the fallout from Islamic extremism but also on the speed and strength of economic recovery.

In the annuals of great figures of history, JFK is right up there, and I’m sure Obama wants to join that team one day. But right now that future rests on first being a great president, and Kennedy wasn’t one of those.

In foreign policy, Kennedy’s strongest area, alongside his support for containment and staring down the Russians over Cuba was his stumble into Vietnam. Domestically Kennedy however was almost invisible. The great progressive social changes, in the Civil Rights act, and the Great Society Agenda were both the work of his former VP & successor Lyndon Johnson. It was Johnson’s knowledge of the senate and ability to wheel and deal to get things done that make the 60′s a progressive highlight, and this is something Obama, with his choice of men like Rahm Emanuel is making a priority.

Missing from Garrett’s picture is the other post-WW2 Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Who got whooped in the first midterm elections, got nowhere on healthcare, and yet for his economic legacy will go down as a pretty capable president. Obama on the other hand is likely to get his healthcare (though absurdly much might depend on Tuesdays race for Ted Kennedy’s old seat), retain control* of both houses in the mid-terms, has already saved the US (if not the world) from a depression via the stimulus package and is showing far better foreign policy vision and determination. All he needs is some luck with economic recovery.

As I’ve said before, FDR is perhaps a better analogy for Obama, (though Peter’s Teddy Roosevelt analogy works too). If Obama is to enter the arena of great presidents he will need to learn from both men, and show the public that he fundamentally understands their anger. FDR regularly railed against the faceless business barons who were destroying capitalism and was willing to fight and lose against these groups to show the people whose side he was on. Obama’s new tax on wall street is a good start, but much more needs to be done.

* Because of the filibuster rule, 41 beats 59 in the US Senate. Therefore a loss in Massachusetts would remove the Democrats teneous filibuster proof 60 seat majority.

Bring out your dead

Politician: 'But i'm not dead yet'

Media: 'You will be soon, get on'

Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of reading Doris Kearne Godwin’s book Team of Rivals on the rise to power and administration of Abraham Lincoln. Not only a great read, it illustrates a point I’d been wanting to make for a while: Our current ‘one strike and you’re out’ culture in politics is historically unique and damaging to the quality of our governance and polity.

In 1860 when Lincoln ran for the Republican party nomination, he had spent a few years in both the Illinois legislature, and House of Reprsentatives, but lost his last two US Senate runs A very able though provincial lawyer, his political career was one of regular failure alongside a constant effort of putting himself forward for office. Likewise his primary challengers and later cabinet members, Seward, Chase and Bates were all career politicians who had failed regularly yet chose to continue running (some like Chase even following Lincolns election!).

Closer to home the same pattern emerges. The most successful leaders seem to have all suffered significant setbacks before rising to power. John Curtin lost his seat in 1931 in the disastrous Scullin Government, before returning to become PM by 41. His rise to power came with the humiliation of Robert Menzies who was deemed unsafe even by his own party to lead the war effort, yet Menzies would go on to become our longest serving Prime Minister. And of course his biggest fan, John Howard was written off by most after his disastrous 1987 campaign, yet he was undoubtedly a better leader for it by the time he became PM in 1996.

Politics has never been a game that offers mulligans, but today we have a media and political culture that offers no second chances either. Tony Abbott is now the 11th Leader of the opposition since 1990. Only one of those got a second shot (Beazley), with 2 going on to become Prime Minister. This compares to only 5 between 1960-80. (Though the case can well be made that Evatt, Fadden & Whitlam held on far too long!).

This is a trend which seems to be driven largely by the media, with the politicians nervously following behind. Witness the outright mockery of Tony Abbott for giving shadow cabinet positions to Kevin Andrews, Browyn Bishop and Phillip Ruddock positions (The last of whom had only an explicit advisory role as cabinet secretary). There seems an unwritten rule that politicians are only on the make or on the demise.

Those who have faltered such as Downer, Beazley, Crean, Latham, Brogden, Nelson, Turnbull, have been quickly cast aside by the press. Downer took years to re-gain credibility as Foreign Minister, while Beazley’s short term role as shadow defence minister under Latham was quickly dismissed despite his outstanding qualifications for the job. His later ascension to the leadership after Latham faltered, was undermined from day one by the media; not because of bias, but because they have seemingly decided that second acts are impossible in Australian politics.

For this we lose significant talent. Malcolm Turnbull has much to offer, as does John Brogden from NSW yet neither are likely to be taken seriously again as future leaders or even significant political figures.. When he loses next year, Tony Abbott too will face this relentless and ruthless principle. Likely he will take the Crean, Downer path of trying to hold on regardless but with significantly reduced credibility. If the person who succeed’s him tries to keep Abbott in their shadow cabinet, they will likely be punished by the media for not following the rule of incessant ‘generational change’.

Of course not all want a second chance (Latham being a prime example), but politics is a profession which takes as much if not more time to learn than any other. Not only do individuals have to be across great swathes of policy detail, they need high level skills in administration, management, media, and understandings of human nature. And yet our media treats them like fireworks, praising their burning lights as they fly up, but quickly looking away once they first seem to level off.

And we joe public are the poorer for this attitude. It reduces focus on the rest of the parliament, reduces the emphasis on experience and puts undue pressure on young career politicians to put themselves forward early, perhaps too early if they want media support. It also makes politicians far too reticent to risk any undue policy or political defeats, when sometimes it is advantageous in the long run (in the publics view) for a politician to fight and lose on an important issue to prove their real commitment.

Of new media and new politics

In an otherwise interesting article on the role of new media and the Rudd Government, George Megalogenis (is there a better journalist working today?) writes:

To paraphrase Keating, when the media changes, so does the government. The wireless age marked the transition from Ben Chifley to Robert Menzies at the end of the 1940s. The colour TV age covered the shift to Gough Whitlam in the early 70s and, more tellingly, from Malcolm Fraser to Hawke in the 80s. The talkback radio age saw Howard eclipse Keating in the 90s. Now we are in the digital age, which began in 2007 when the young nerd, Rudd, trumped the old nerd, Howard.

That’s right, but precisely backwards. It is the leaders ability to utilise media that shapes its importance and their own dominance. Menzies was an undisputed king of TV when it first came in, just as FDR was able to make radio broadcasts his personal domain. Talk Radio wasn’t a new technology for the 1990′s, Howard simply returned to it as a medium in which his natural skills worked best, and that drove attention to it. Contra Megalogenis I don’t think that Rudd has made great use of twitter/blogs/websites, however he has at least done a damn sight better than the conservatives, and that matters (Obama’s advisors on the other hand made his website a key element of their electoral strategy).

There has always been a very strong link between journalists and politicians. Not in a biased way, but as a shared interest in the media and medium. Our second PM Alfred Deakin was a journalist & correspondent his whole life, as was Henry Parkes, Chris Watson, John Curtin, Malcolm Turnbull and his successor Tony Abbott. Our current PM wasn’t a journalist, but he spent his years in opposition being available for (if not inviting) media interviews at any time day or night. Just as you can’t be a good carpenter if you can’t handle a saw, or a good surgeon if you can’t weild a knife, a strength in using emerging media forms is critical to political success. I don’t see anyone in the current parliament who has a great handle on the new technology (here I think blogs have more potential than twitter), but Turnbull and Rudd both show at least a keen awareness. (As does Kate Lundy & Joe Hockey) Whoever does, is likely to become the dominant figure of the next 20 years. Let’s hope Abbott has some good new media advisors, but given his twitter account has only 7 (utterly boring) entries since becoming leader, it doesn’t seem likely.

Doubting the wisdom of men who stick fireworks in their crotch

I’ve not paid much attention to Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the crotch bomber who tried to blow up a flight into Detroit if only because it was a failed attack. That men are out there in the thousands trying to kill civilians of all faiths and creed as part of an anti-modernist religious nihilism is one of the defining but also definable threats of the decade past. All of us over the last 9 years have at some point surely felt fearful of an attack on ourselves and those we love. Whether travelling or simply attending populated areas, the thought has surely creped in. This latest case is no more significant than any other. Only the sensational way in which he was stopped, American right wing demagoguery and a story starved press have caused his actions to be seen as significant. And just as looking deep into the abyss lets the abyss look into you, voices have sprung up in the US demanding that AbdulMutallab be tortured:

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 30% oppose the use of such techniques, and another 12% are not sure.

….The vast majority of Americans have it right: You don’t put an enemy combatant who just committed an act of war into the criminal-justice system — and you certainly don’t give him a lawyer and tell him, “You have the right to remain silent.” You make him tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks.

I suspect (hope) the poll’s wrong and that those surveyed didn’t already know he’s already singing to the FBI, but what’s most interesting is the last line, “tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks”. Why does anyone think this guy knows anything ?

If the attack had gone to plan AbdulMutallab would be dead today, so why then would Al Qaeda tell him about upcoming attacks? Why would they entrust or even let overhear, sensitive details to someone who was so smart that he was incapable of setting off the crudely made device, and so obvious even his father tried to turn him in? Western special force troops with a decade plus of training and field work are still not told what missions other units are undertaking or if any are operating in nearby battlefields, so why would this guy know anything? What part of ‘terrorist cells working in isolation’ have they not understood as described in the literally millions of articles, journals, books and other publicly available analysis about the threat we are facing?

Richard Reid the failed shoe bomber was caught in December 2001 in a similar way, similarly ridiculed, and sentenced in a civillian court, and is now in jail for life. No different step needs to be taken in this case. Only given that this boys only real achievement was to ensure he can probably never breed again, a future-darwin award and extended mockery are his real reward. Attacks like this will probably occur for the rest of our lives, the only way to deal with it is serious sober police work and humor. I suggest more efforts like those below the fold (NSFW). Happy 2010.

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The courage to hope:Obama and the left 1 year on.

From Talk Left:

I knew that his policy positions were like Hillary Clinton’s (or any mainstream Dem, as Kos puts it). But I thought, despite my disagreements with his political style, that the historic opportunity he was presented coupled with his immense political talent would lead him to become our FDR…

It seems pretty clear that I was wrong. Apparently, I was the only one. Everyone else knew what they were getting — small bore, incrementalist, Beltway centrism. Of course this is “better than Bush.” But I thought we would get something bigger and better. Yes, I am pretty darn disappointed.

While some such as Andrew Sullivans understudy Patrick Appel calls it a ‘quote from the cocoon’, I still think the analogy is pretty apt. For all the talk of a new camelot in the white house (Ie JFK only less womanising), FDR has always seemed a more potential analogy to Obama. Neither was a close fit to their base, yet immense political skills and historic times allowed them significant achievements. Their skills as strategists and writers also parallel at heights that Kennedy and Clinton’s don’t reach.

But perhaps the most interesting US political event of 2009 has not been the astoundingly dumb way health care has been debated, nor the tea baggers (or that they choose to call themselves tea baggers), but the lefts rapid desertion of Obama.

9/11 obviously throws things off, but the Republican party and voters largely stuck to Bush throughout his time in office. It was only from 2006 onwards that you had enough voters shift that the republicans faced any real electoral losses, and even by 2008 when independents and democrats couldn’t stand him, a majority of the right still supported Bush.

Yet Obama for all that he has achieved has been deserted by many on the left. That is despite overseeing a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, beginning to close Gitmo and transfer to traditional legal prosecutions, a successful stimulus package, and coming closer than even FDR on meaningful healthcare reform (the public option is dead but something will still be passed).

Of course, left wingers like everyone else have jobs and mortgages and are suffering in a sluggish American economy, but and some changes like Dont Ask Dont Tell and full exposure on Torture have gone begging with no good justification. Yet after the rigid party discipline of the Clinton and Bush years, a style of politics we are very used to in Australia (Rudd’s support ratings amongst ALP voters has barely moved in 2 years, and Howard’s even longer), it is significant how little the bond holds for Obama and the Left.

In part this is because I think many misread him. Yes this could mean the conservatives were right that some saw Obama as ‘the one’, but more likely they thought that he could convince congress just as he had convinced them. There was also a general policy ignorance that let many think his proposals were more liberal than centrist, which closer watchers wouldn’t have thought so. Bush had the same issue (being not as far-right as many boosters thought), but he included enough lines to appease the base that they thought they were getting what they wanted, something the more cerebral Obama has always been very reluctant to do.

The depression on the left also says much about the post 1960′s left’s inherent pessimism and at times infuriating lack of courage in their convictions. Obama consistently said during the campaign that this would be a long slow, tough process, yet after one year of pretty significant successes (though health care is what really matters), many have like the blogger quoted at the top simply given up. Which in turn weakens Obama, in turn reducing their support for him.

I also think its easy to over-read the electoral significance of this shift. When health care is passed, the economy picks up, and Obama hits the road again to campaign both for congressional elections next year and his own re-election in 2012, we can be sure that much of the enthusiasm will return. Secondly, there are still signs that the Organising for America organisation, (ie the volunteers who put Obama in the White House) are still in good shape and keen to get involved again. Obama when campaigning will return the energy many feel has been lost while Obama has been governing.

But it may also indicate a significant shift in the left more long term. Even though they have just taken power for at least 4, perhaps 8 years, the lack of a clear agenda other than fixing the Bush era mess, and bringing America into the 21st century (ie accepting globalisations changed their industries, fixing health/welfare to similar standards to the rest of the developed world), the Left lacks a clear agenda. And so when the individuals at the top get in trouble, it is all too easy to fracture and bitterly divide.

Until liberal/left/centre-left wing politicians, thinkers and writers, begin to coalesce around a clear vision of what society should be, then even the most skilled of smart, pragmatic politicians like Obama are going to have a very tough time keeping the group together. Rudd has only escaped it in part because of a weak opposition but now that the euphoria of victory is slipping away, the left is faced with the same question it was 2 years ago : What do we really stand for? Ie: What should society look for? What are the top 5, top 3 principles we want to see embodied in society? What changes are impossible now but should be advocated for eventual implementation? What does the good society look like?

You can still win elections without answering that fully as Obama and Rudd show (both ran as people to fix the current problems in a pragmatic way), but you’ll struggle to keep the energy and enthusiasm going long term. That vision of a better society was what led the conservatives both in and out of government to dominate politics in the Anglo-sphere for the last 30 years. If the Left wants to do similar it has to do more than just win elections, it needs to return to the books and decide just what it truly wants to use political power for.

Otherwise this is going to be a very short and rather forgettable decade of left wing power.

The mundane is the message: Obama in China

Over at The Lowy Institutes Blog, The Interpreter, Raoul Heinrichs makes the case that Obama was rolled in China

President Obama might have bowed in Japan, but it was China where he was really humbled. Beyond the countless diplomatic formalities and expansive, but typically platitudinous communiqué, the most striking thing about Obama’s recent trip was his inability to wrest a single, meaningful concession from Beijing.

Here’s the problem: since at least the mid 1990s, US China policy has been built on the dubious expectation that China, as it became more wealthy and powerful, would become more cooperative and accommodating of US interests, and more reluctant to upset a regional order that accorded, however imperfectly, with China’s national interests. An increasingly prosperous and secure China was expected by many to be indefinitely satisfied with US primacy in Asia.
Although it’s become de rigueur to pay homage to a shifting distribution of world power, leaders in Washington, including Obama, have never actually grappled with the consequences of that process for America’s power and role in the world. Last week in China, however, it could not be avoided.

What began as an exercise intended to restore confidence in American leadership in Asia culminated, over the course of a few days, in the quiet humiliation of an administration that came face-to-face with a competitor over whom it has very little leverage, and with the uncomfortable reality of its own hegemonic decline.

The charge that Obama’s trip was useless (while certainly it wasn’t spectacular) suffers from two problems, first real achievements were made, and secondly it’s also a question of the hyped expectations we seem to have in our time short world.

The Atlantic’s James Fallow’s has been on a bit of a bent about the first point, noting that this trip achieved firming agreements on containing Iran, Climate Change and increased currency flexibility. None of these are game changers, though the worth of the first two are certainly significant, and timely considering Obama’s overall agenda. Fallows argues that while US reporters had an image of a meek Obama, Western reporters living in China saw it very differently, as did the (Republican & Mandarin speaking) US Ambassador John Huntsman:

“I attended all those meetings that President Obama had with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao,” Huntsman said, referring to the Chinese president and premier. “I’ve got to say some of the reporting I saw afterward was off the mark. I saw sweeping comments about things that apparently weren’t talked about, when they were discussed in great detail in the meetings,” he said.

Ok, so being positive about the president is in Huntsman’s job description, and I’m sure those critical of Obama’s actions could just as easily provide links saying China’s support for censuring Iran and 40-50% targets on climate change are meaningless. The problem however is that we are not really arguing about any of these things.

Instead take a look again at Heinrichs criticism, namely that the US has lost its uni-polar moment and is having to face up to a real challenger. This criticism could however have been made of the US any time over the last decade, what’s more important is how the US deals with it. American (misplaced) triumphalism in 2001 aside, China has been slowly emerging as the biggest threat to the US for a long time. This relationship could very easily (and may still) collapse into rivalry, hostility and even warfare. Instead the US under Clinton, Bush & Obama has carefully tried to position China as a distant but stable number#2 in the world system. This need not be the accommodating/hegemon-supporting image of China that Heinrichs lays at others feet, but instead a clear heirachy of the world system which helps, in the best realist fashion to maintain the peace. Realists love to talk of balance of powers, but clear imbalances often provide far greater peace dividends.
obamaumbrella_china
The problem with almost all the analysis thus far of this trip is that these days we expect every single world trip to be a great game changer. Every time a leader sets off overseas it’s supposed to end with the signing of a grand treaty or bargin, guaranteeing wealth, safety or control. But much as our history books focus on and celebrate events like the Congress of Berlin and Nixon’s venture to China mid-cold war, these are the rare exceptions that occur years after these leaders first met. This was Obama’s first trip to china. In all likelyhood he will be President for another 7 years. The Chinese leadership isn’t going anywhere in that time (with future leaders already known to the US). Instead the real worth of this trip was about getting to know, and trust each other. In countries that lack the historical ties of alliances and joint sacrifices of blood for a common cause, the good will and strength of a relationship is intimately tied to the individuals in the leadership. Hu Jintao and others want to learn what Obama is like as a man, and he want’s to try and understand them. For the moment, there are no great crisis’s (certainly not of the type that is usually needed to precede historic deals), so as continuation of the status quo is actually a victory of sorts for both countries. That was the aim of the administration prior to the trip, and seems to have been met.

International Relations attracts a lot of people because it involves the great events of world history. Grand bargains, bitter hostilities, great personalities, war and peace. But much of it is also routine interaction, of the type found in every business deal and human interaction. As IR scholars we may spend our evenings reading about the great events of history, and as commentators we often want to be the ones to first label these great events, but we must remember that much is mundane and that’s ok. Right now the US just needs China to keep on keeping on, and slowly build the links for when it really needs its help. At such a time, if Obama’s check from China bounces we can look back and call such trips as this a failure, but if it succeed’s, then history will record this last weeks effort a critical building block. So for the moment not reading too much into it is wisest reading.

The end of the US Republican Party?

gop_elephant_dead(7)If you are in need of a laugh, and your sense of humor tends towards the black, then you can’t miss Alan Jones interview last week with Malcolm Turnbull. You have to feel sorry for Turnbull given the squawking queen performance of Jones denying Climate Change, and demanding Turnbull adopt policies he simultaneously knows are impossible (such as forcing India/Pakistan to take the boat people).

That said, however much I feel sorry for Turnbull, his and the Liberal party problems are nothing compared to that faced by their Republican Party colleagues in the USA. This may be a strange thing to write just a few days after Republicans won Governor races in Virginia and New Jersey. But the real heat of the fight was always the congressional seat of NY-23. It’s a very instructive story for the problems faced by Conservatives in the US. They can’t control their base, they are now losing battles they thought comfortably won, and could even split in the face of an insurgent uprising from their right. But first to a small seat in upstate, rural New York:

NY-23 is a small congressional seat that has not voted Democrat since prior to the Civil War. The Local Republican party elected a candidate named Dede Scozzafava. Deciding she was far too moderate for their liking, party Right-Wing heavyweights such as Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Fred Thompson, Tim Pawlenty, Glenn Beck & Rush Limmbaugh endorsed the Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. That is, members & boosters of the Republican Party, including their former Vice-President candidate endorsed a third-party candidate in an ultra-safe seat. And they managed to lead the party to Victory defeat.
Post-election coverage has naturally been spun to say state governorships are the important thing (they arn’t), but they were also very hum-drum affairs unreflective of the national debate. They featured unpopular local governors, poor economic times, and a tendency for voters to swing after big change elections. Not a good result for the democrats, but nothing amazing. Likewise Republican/Independent Mike Bloomberg scrapped back in as NY Mayor by spending about $180 per vote. Ie not a good time for incumbents.

In Australia Turnbull is threatened with the loss of 14% of his coalition at absolute worse should it split. However this would give his party many opportunities for picking up new seats and allow a re-forging of their image. Equally it would let them regain absolute discipline in the party, and improve the leaders image. Not the greatest but manageable with some opportunities included.

The Republicans in the US however have only just held off an insurgent attack from the right on their party, and in the processed sacrificed a safe seat for it in congress. Yet given the nature of the activists they face, the loss has instead encouraged the insurgents. Such is their close connection to reality. In turn the Republican party has responded by capitulating and agreeing not to get involved in or fund candidates in primaries. In Australia you almost can’t win a seat without the establishment pre-choosing you, in the US right, the establishment is afraid of it’s own base.

This is a party which lost both houses, in the Congress and Senate in 2008. Its loss on the presidancy was a virtual guarantee, with its former leader having some of the worst ratings of a President in history. Its chief opponent is smart, moderate, has a unique cool and symbolic status, and is putting electoral victory above ideology. He will be very very hard to beat.

Equally, whatever annoyance Turnbull may face from shrills like Jones, it’s nothing compared to the power of presenters such as Rush Limbaugh. GOP chief Michael Steel had to apologize for calling Limbaugh an ‘entertainer’, along with South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (of hiking the Appalachian trail fame), and congressmen such as Phil Gingrey and Todd Tiahrt all for offending the great Rush. Turnbull ridicules Jones to his face, US republicans grovel before Rush. The comparison is stark.

The only energy on the Republican’s side comes from the extremists of the party, who are holding their own rallies, and supporting extremist theories such as Obama wasn’t born in the USA or is a radical communist. Neither of which endears the public to support them nationally.

The one shining light the Republicans have this year is the heat and noise created by the fight over health care. This is a 60 years plus fight by democrats, that usually has died with a whimper in some congressional committee, and then is forgotten (that’s at best, at worst like 1994 it nearly killed Clinton’s presidency). The one big hope Republicans had was to defeat Obama on this score and prove he was a radical or couldn’t govern. Last night at 11:09pm the US House of Representatives passed their version of the Healthcare Bill. The bill now has to go before the Senate, which was always the real fight.(Actually the biggest challenge is to allow the bill to even be voted on, as I mentioned a few days ago, it requires a supermajority of 60 votes to stop delaying tactics and force a vote. Democrats have 58 members, with 2 independents who support them. But lax party discipline compared to what we see in Australia, or even their US Republican counterparts.)

Health care reform is not yet law, but it has gotten far closer than ever before. If it does pass, it will be with very strong public support, and show that Democrats can govern and deliver on their promises. And (as Republicans really fear) once the public get used to having some level of government involvement (though they already accept Medicare for seniors and veterans/congressional care by govt) then expanding it for all the working poor will be a much easier option than initially pushing through the legislation. So whilst things are pretty horrible for Malcolm Turnbull and Australian conservatives at the moment, spare a thought for their US counterparts. For all the heat and noise they’ve created, their support is cratering, and the insurgents are driving them to the fringe, and the leaders are afraid to fight them. It’s even plausible the party could split if this keeps up, with a “Conservative” Party offshoot.

The GOP is a party that lost the public’s faith in its conduct of War, Economics and Culture. It is being challenged by a President it still doesn’t understand, and is being pushed to the brink on a bill it thought it had defeated 60 years ago, certainly at least destroyed the rationality for 20 years ago with Reagan. It is in a primal scream of rage and impotence, right now, and deeply in pain. Worse, it is facing an enemy not comfortably coming from where the guns are faced, coast ward towards the left, but from the inland, the right. And it’s former hero’s such as Palin and Pawlenty are leading the charge against it. Unlikely, but something to watch. In many ways they remind me of the French revolutionary, who see’s a crowd flooding by and declares “I must find out where they are going so I may lead them”. The GOP leaders, freshly into the benches of opposition are desperate for any way back to power. They have tried to force their ways back into power, to demand it, to insist on it. Yet the public ends up disfavoring them far more thanthe hapless democrats.

So keep your head up Malcolm, in comparison you’ve got it easy.

Twitter as a failed (but useful) experiment

Like a lot of political junkies, I’ve been giving twitter a go, to see it’s use for political information/discussion. I’ve liked much of it, as a time-wasting tool, it is a great resource, and whilst it wasn’t a twitter revolution in Iran, the service surely had some significant effect (real or imagined it’s largely the same thing in such situations). I’ve also found it fun and exciting to be on the feed of some important people, esp journo’s who blog and so therefore usually have too many good links they want to share, or those which just have a quick wit (such as @annabelcrabb).

That said, I have to say I think the medium is an essential failure as a next-gen social media tool. Blogging and facebook clearly have their niches, and serve a lot of people, replicating what we do normally (read articles on paper/gossip with friends in cafes) but quicker and easier via our computers/phones. Both work well for political followers, but twitter seems to be half of one, half of the other, without ever making a whole. The tiny size of each tweet means that it is not quite a blog post, at an infuriatingly short 140 characters. But equally, twitter doesn’t have the mass publishing of blogging, in that unless I know to add you, I won’t ever see your tweets (or will only see 1-2 in a torrent of mass messages, but more on that later). And unlike a bookmarks where I can visit occasionally and quickly get to know what your site is about/like, tweets are too small to be useful as coding devices for working out if someone is worth paying attention to. A few good lines and you add them. And all of a sudden you are following 200+ people and your main page is filled with around 20 messages, each with a small picture, popping up constantly on all sorts of different topics and issues, none quite perhaps what you wanted to read/hear about today. So whilst political/fashion/sport blogs generally stay on fashion, tweeters like to casually range, though only a few bring anything worthwhile to fields outside their main area.

Then there is the problem of following everyone who is talking about a particular topic. Unlike blogs/newspapers and the power of google searches, it is rather hard to find where exactly everyone is talking about a particular issue, due to a lack of clear organisation for what is the right #hashtag to join. During the Iranian uprising a lot of people tweeted that certain #hashtags were being watched by the Iranian intelligence services, sending people scrambling for thousands of different #tags. Now whether they really were being watched or not, it certainly disrupted the service. Even without such nefariousness, it’s hard to find a good channel of commentators as anyone can jump on. Other mass channels such as the “#GoodNight” channel make even less sense as a channel. No one would sensibly want to read such a channel, but it’s common use means it ends up in the top 10 channels almost every night.

Which brings me to my final problem, the sheer amount of people on twitter makes the service rather useless. If you are an Australian political junkie, it’s been a lot of fun recently to watch #qt, the channel for question time in the Australian parliament. Only with the recognition that politicians were joining in, what was a small thing for journalists and those of us who actually enjoy watching question time, has become just another channel for those with an axe to grind or a desire for attention. End result, it feels like you are just being shouted at, and only catching glimpses of the people you want, or able to check about half the links you might like to.

Though Australian tweeters problems are nothing compared to when you watch US events live in twitter. Right now, the US house of congress is about to vote on Obama’s health care bill, and everyone is tweeting on #hcr along with #tcot #pelosibill, #killbill and others. But on #HCR, I’m im refreshing about once a minute with between 200-2000 tweets a minute appearing. These include personal messages “is watching the debate with fascination” or “to my congressman Rep. blah blah – please vote for this bill” “rumor going around 35 dems voting against the bill”
etc etc. Actually finding what is happening in terms of if they are voting yet, how the voting is going, or what the major players think is simply impossible amongst all this noise.

Instead I find myself even more reliant on a good journalist, on location to give me at least some idea of how it is trending, even if they’re sometimes using rumors, they are likely to come back to it and update, and I can easily check if such changes have occurred, or cross reference against a few others I also trust. So i’ve switched to sites like TPM, The Daily Dish and NYTimes and Instapundit.

My guess is that twitter will continue to live as a social media tool, but it’s role will be less vaulted as a home for political junkies than as a stream to dip in and out, or as a side bar for people to comment or to post quick stuff not worthy of a full blog post ala on The Punch or for sporting events where it will be a fun way to follow sporting events or ultra localised events ala #tinpotcountyfair.

Twitter was certainly a useful experiment, and I expect more rather than less people to be updating via phones or pc’s their immediate thoughts/rumors on events. But it probably won’t be presented on just one site or in the cluttered torrent of tweets format that you currently see on twitter. What it most needs is a way to be filtered, sorted and organised, such as upcoming services like Geon. Then it will become a truely powerful tool. Though again, the experience for me really just proves the worth of a good journalist.
And now I’m off to post this blog, and trying and drum up traffic for it on twitter. If you’re interested or disagree, you can follow me here (@AndrewOssieCarr) and tell me why you disagree.

Veto players

Over the last few weeks I’ve surprised a few australian readers by saying that Obama will get his healthcare bills through. Right now that still looks the case, but it’s taken a big wobbly in the last 48 hours with Independent senator (and former Democratic VP nominee) Joe Lieberman saying he will filibuster any bill with a public option included (that is prevent it being voted on). It’s pretty unlikely that Lieberman will be coaxed back from this threat (he isn’t a democrat anymore, and even after supprting McCain over Obama, was allowed to keep his chairmanships of key committees), so now seems likely the Public Option will be sacrificed to the gods of the double demons of Debt and Taxes (despite the fact a public option won’t need tax increases and will decrease the debt)

King George III (1760-1820) still causing americans grief after all these years

King George III (1760-1820) still causing Americans grief after all these years

Either way, healthcare once again proves a very good example of Fareed Zakaria’s argument that the biggest challenge facing the US isn’t economic or cultural, but political. It desperately needs to reform its political system if it is to compete in the 21st century. The US founding fathers were geniuses for their time, but they were fleeing the power of a single individual who ruled the state. So in response they created a system with as many blocks and hold ups to passing legislation as possible. Those who occupy such positions are known as veto players. Of course the President is one, as are the Supreme Court, but given the quirks of the US legislators, majority and house leaders, and the committees, there are many many such players in the American system, any one of which can damage or subvert important legislation. This is unlike Westminster systems in the UK/Aus where there are usually only 2 (PM & GG/Queen/rare actual balance of power holding indpendents)

Today the Democrats hold the White House, Congress and the Senate, with strong public support for their legislation. Yet they can’t enact a bill that will lower the debt, free US businesses of crushing health premiums and give coverage to the millions of uninsured Americans, because of a handful of individuals. Because of changes in practice, every bill now needs a super-majority of 60/100 to pass the US senate. These suddenly powerful individuals have all (unlike the President/without the legal guide of the Courts) been elected by a tiny segment of the population, and know the power of name recognition, regional contacts and money can guarantee their re-election however they vote.

The US system is suffering under the weight of its own history. I certainly don’t think Obama has all the right ideas, or that opponents should just shut up and get out of the way. There are many other good alternative models to seek, or even a return to historic uses of veto’s (such as keeping filibusters rare) would be a strong development. But in a globalised world, where challenges like the GFC can strike with frightening speed, governments need to be nimble enough to respond quickly. The US system, because of the historical era it was built in response to is proving unworkable in the modern era. During the last 100 years parliamentary systems have generally proven vastly superior in raining in the scope of the President to dominate the legislature, now they are proving better in responding quickly to the challenges of the day. Quick policy* is not necessarily bad policy, and we need legislative systems capable of making timely, informed decisions in order to respond.

* Progressive in the US have been trying to push through universal health care since FDR in the 1930′s and utterly failed to get anywhere under Clinton. The US under Obama has been debating health care almost exclusively since March. Nothing about this is quick. Which is kind of my point.