Chasing the Norm

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

Category: US Politics

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.
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.

The Importance of Atmosphere

Under the Bush Administration Fox News had a charmed position, under Obama, not only is it in opposition, the White House has gone after its credibility as a news organisation. Conventional wisdom is that it is a mistake to beat up on the media, but here’s perhaps why Obama is really going after them:

I think some people are under the impression that the White House wants Fox News to disappear. Nothing, I suspect, could be further from the truth. The White House is in fact delighted that Fox News and its merry cast of commentators exists. Nor is the White House vexed that its every pronouncement concerning Fox News solidifies Fox’s core audience; that’s actually the plan. The point is not to moderate Fox News by accusing it of being biased/not a real news organization/running or being the propoganda arm of the GOP; if anything, the point is to make it more extreme in the views it airs….
At the end of the day, Fox News’ nightly audience in the third quarter of this year was 2.25 million viewers in primetime (source). For perspective this means that it has roughly the same audience as your average Dollhouse episode, which was just yanked by Fox (the broadcast network, not the cable news network), so that its ratings wouldn’t stink up November Sweeps. Even with Fox News’ ratings going through the roof because of its little war with Obama, the actual number of viewers is minuscule. Or to put it otherwise, 2.5 million Americans watch Fox News, which means that 297.5 million Americans don’t.
Which makes it a low-risk ideological foil for the White House.

All politicians would love to have unchallenged power, whatever their motive or ideology. But given that is thankfully impossible (well most of the time), sometimes the next best option is not to have a meek opposition, but a crazy one. The more Obama seems to stoke Fox News’s extremism, the better he looks by comparison to lukewarm supporters, and the more he seems the only option for true independents. If Obama is facing a consistent backlash of 30% of the country whatever he does, then there is no way for his opponents to use that as evidence Obama is on the wrong track. If any single policy gets the same angry response as any other, then who can say if his healthcare is radical or just opposed on spite. Who can say if the 30% have a better understanding of warfare in opposing his afghanistan policy, or they just want him to fail.

You see this regularlly around the world, where canny politicians seem to benefit from the over the top reactions they inspire, despite their outwardly moderate nature. One who isn’t a moderate but still benefits is Hugo Chavez. Chavez may be slowly draining Venezlela of its democracy, but he is also making significant moves to combat poverty and illiteracy. Yet his opponents, from his first election win in 1998 have seen him as an entirely illegitimate leader, and so sponsored coup after coup against him. The extreme nature of their media opposition (Fox looks mild in comparison!) makes him seem a much more centrist and nationally focused leader. After a while people tend to see such consistent opposition to any one politician as due to the desires for power of those who attack them, and reflection on their character, than a actual response to the leaders actions. So Chavez can monumentally screw up (and has) but since the opposition already wen’t nuclear there is no way to tell from the reactions what is bad policy and what is just run of the mill.

Likewise during the Howard era in Australia there was a core group of opposition to John Howard. I think this opposition gets somewhat overplayed, as there was a strong effort by Howard and conservatives to try and delegitimise any criticism as proof you were a ‘howard hater’, but with Howard’s removal, the times and his policies also look a fair bit more moderate from this vantage point. Yet this is something which I think no author has yet truly managed to capture. One of the big let down’s of Paul Kelly’s book ‘March of Patriots’ was its absence of discussion on the atmosphere that pervaded during the time. Capturing that is a opportunity only immediate first and second drafters of history can, and to properly understand it, it is extremely necessary. On the left there was a palpable sense of anger about what was happening to our country. Events such as Tampa, Cronulla, Iraq and the debasing of institutions such as Parliament and the ABC left many feeling adrift and deeply distrustful of the core motives of this government. And yet Kelly (who set out to write a more policy focused book) not only ignores this, but calls it ‘March of Patriots’ as if Howard was warmly embraced by the community, or even upheld as a hero. Howard was popular at some times, at other times deeply unpopular late 1997 to early 2001 and early 2006 to his final loss in late 2007. He was also very popular during other times, or with certain segments of the population (he was excellent during a catastrophe ala Port Arthur, Bali). To miss or worse dismiss the opposition to Howard as simply crazy means you present an incomplete image of the period. And yet like Obama and Chavez, Howard also immensely benefited from the nature of his opponents and their consistent rejection of all his actions.

Obama is somewhat playing with fire by being seen to go after his opponents, and after a specific media outlet. But come the 2010 elections, Glenn Beck et all are likely to drive far more votes to the democrats (or away from Republicans) than they are likely to harm him. So its a net win, all for being hated. I first endorsed Obama because in 2006 I was sick of the Center-left losing elections and he was clearly the best political strategist I had ever seen. He makes some mistakes, I think he’s still slightly too cautious in acting (such as repealing Dont Ask, Dont Tell and not prosecuting on torture) but he is clearly still leagues ahead of anyone else in the country in reading the politics. It’s why health care will pass, why the democrats will keep the House and Senate in 2010 (they will lose some seats though not enough) and why he should coast to re-election in 2012).

Obama’s hidden healthcare weapon

While we’re all still waiting for the definitive campaign strategy books on the Obama 2008 campaign to be written (I’m looking at you David Plouffe), one thing is patently clear: Obama won because he mobilised people to assist his campaign in a way never before seen in America. Instead of just asking volunteers to grab a phone call and begin calling, he had a motto of ‘Respect, Empower, Include’. Volunteers were instead asked to go find 5 more people who would also join. Those who managed this were made team leaders, with similar opportunities for advancement for those new members in a similar fashion. People were given increasingly harder tasks to see if they could deliver, and then were rewarded with being team leaders. Neighbourhood teams were set up across the country, each invited to build their own networks. This process continued for months and months, before any phone calls were made, emails sent or doors knocked. That could come later, and did, delivering perfectly on election day.
Why am I recounting this history? Because, a lot of the self-obsessed media have forgotten about Obama’s Organizing For America organisation. The media like to imagine that their shows as the only forum for real political discussion(far more real in their eyes than even the legislative chambers), with polls simply rating how the people react to various lines or positions. But Obama’s still organising, even with the power of the Presidency in his hands.

On the 20th of October, Organising for America set out to make 100’000 calls to members of congress to encourage them to support health care reform. That was passed easily. So they set it for 200’000. Again too easy. From Obamas facebook this morning:

obama_facebook_small Barack Obama Yesterday’s numbers are in. The final tally was not just 200,000 calls placed or pledged — it was 315,023. You’ve taken America one giant, irreversible step closer to passing health reform. Thank you.

Just imagine trying to field all that as a staffer in some Republican Senators office! (or wavering Democrat) While many Republican’s took comfort in the anger expressed at the town halls in August, it’s clear those events, (including members of the public bringing guns to public meetings, and numerous comparisons of Obama to Hitler), along with the Presidents speech to Congress, began to turn people towards supporting healthcare.


While Republicans raged, Obama’s network kept organising, holding functions, parties, door knocking, and continually organizing and seeking to expand. To Respect, Empower and Include their neighbors, friends and colleagues in the wider movement. Obama has already gotten closer than FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter & Clinton to delivering Universal healthcare reform in the US. The Democrats policy has many flaws that would make it almost unacceptable to many in other western first world countries, but for America it’s still a big and important step. His big speech was important, as was his deliberate outreach to Congress, and decision to let it choose its path (rather than draw up the policy in private inside the White House as Hillary did in 1994). But when Health Care reform passes, a large part of the credit will have to go to the 2 million active volunteers (& 13 million supporters) who signed up to help elect Obama’s, and now are invested in his success.

It’s not just about having a flashy website, its about getting people involved any way possible. The internet just helps break the hold talking heads have on politics. As I discussed a few weeks ago, if people feel invested in your success, they will work harder and longer, than any bribe or pork barrel could possibly compel. And if Republicans think this network will have dissipated by 2012, or let them waltz into the White House on the back of public anger over SOCIALISM! they have a great big surprise coming. It’s going to be fun to watch, and a very important lesson for all future political strategists, not just in the USA and countries with voluntary voting, but also Australia.

Why Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

Pretty much everyone in the world has had a rant on Obama, and outside the choosing committee it has been a resounding NO. But though my immediate reaction was like almost all others ‘really? Why so soon?’, I’ve come to think the pick of Obama is an inspired choice. I’d been meaning to post about it, but thought a few days reflection worthy (if nothing else to avoid the Obama-worship claim) and then this comment seemed to pick up an important point:

[Max] Weber states [in “Science as a Vocation”] that in an increasingly rationalized society there is a “disenchantment of the world,” as “the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.”

It would appear that the Nobel committee at least partially picked Obama for his renewed faith in public discourse to bring about peace and change in the world. Tim Rutten argues in the Los Angeles Times that the award was rightly given to the President for “words” rather than “deeds.” I would further argue the prize most appropriately went to Obama for finding a midway through Weber’s predicament in the above passage. Obama’s rhetoric has sought to enchant the political realm through sublime values that no human being can live without—for example, through the trope of “hope”…. In one of his speeches, Obama espouses a faith in public discourse: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter. ‘I have a dream.’ Just words? … At a minimum, Obama’s prior speech-actions have performed a role to which all those who love peace can aspire—enchanting the world with sublime but accountable words

Obama has not achieved as much as many other worthy candidates (though the timing works against them, the numerous quasi-leaders of the Iranian resistance, or more appropriately Zimbabwe’s Morgan Tsvangirai), but it is impossible to argue that any one person has had as much impact in changing the international atmosphere in recent decades. America’s standing in the world has radically rebounded, beginning even before his inaguration, and well into his term. Even closely allied (and militarily dependent) Australia has seen a 23% increase in trust of the US from 2006 to today. Which reveals a guilty secret of modern International Relations. The world wants to like America (though it prefers the cultural/political to the military side, however much it sleeps easy under its protection).

The biggest problem Obama faces is simply the cynicism of the modern world. He is the inheritor of not just an administration which launched two deeply unpopular wars, but did so under the blanket of freedom. The National Security Strategy of 2002 declared that:

“The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise..These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages..”

Despite the obvious set backs of the first term, Bush’s second inaugural speech is a case study in utopian rhetoric:

“We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner “Freedom Now” – they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty”.

Given how far apart Bush’s rhetoric and record have been, is it any wonder that when an ambitious, idealistic, young US president speaks grand words to the world they immediately turn and demand action first, words later.

Obama is seen by most of the world (though not his domestic opponents or international partisans) as trying hard, moving in the right direction, honest in his dealings and speech, and potentially a source for future break through’s that had once seemed impossible. In North Korea, Kashmir, Palestine, Pakistan, Obama is seen as a new hope for change. In China, South America, and Eastern Europe people are looking to a reinvigorated America that can slip under the defences of their elites and spread if not democracy at least prosperity. In the west, the people of the british isles, the commonwealths such as Australia, and even in the heart of ‘Old Europe’ France and Germany, people are looking for the West to once more be proud and on the advance, rather than defensive and embarrassed about its own record.

The world has had too much of fine words from unworthy mouths. Obama may have thus far just offered words, but the world has judged him worthy to speak it. And these are words we so desperately want to hear. Peace is not a condition of material resources. Not when the there are potentially 23’000 nuclear weapons in the world. Instead, it is a state of mind. A state of acceptance, tolerance and good will. And that is begun, and ended, with words. Obama may be judged by history as unworthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, but right now, he’s the best shot the world has for peace. Cynics aside, that ought to mean something.

Why is Libertarianism so unpopular ?

If you take a regular gander at libertarian voices in this country, you often find they arn’t a very happy bunch. Despite thirty years of economic reform running almost entirely in their direction, they always have a nervous skittishness about any sign of backtracking, with frequent prophetic warnings about imminent economic doom. A large part of this is based on the widespread recognition that libertarian and indeed free market ideas arn’t actually that popular in most countries in the world. What better demonstration could there be than the 2007 dumping of the Howard Government for its support for WorkChoices, or the public embrace of Rudd and his heavy spending on health and education (the two area’s which always lead public opinion polls in terms of focus area’s over tax, security or immigration). The Liberal Democratic Party, the closest to a Libertarian party in this country, receives well under 1% of the vote

Yet Libertarian views have four significant advantages:

1) They advocate more freedom: Whatever minor philosophical differences there are, Libertarians can generally be identified as favouring social and economic freedom. Of course in individual circumstances there are debates about the consequences and the like (ie drugs, abortion, fireworks), but in general being identified as being in favour of such a key western value is of tremendous value. Conservatives have spent 30 years grasping for that mantle, and only sometimes succeed in getting anywhere near it.

2) They play to people’s self interest. Despite the obvious flaw in this reasoning, most people think they are above average, and would like a little more of their own tax dollars. Now while this can certainly be over-sold, (and the strongest vote against workchoices came from those not affected by it) this is a pretty good platform from which to appeal to people. Instead of having to make a moral or ethical case about caring for the ‘other’ as social democrats do (witness Obama’s struggle for health care in the US), Libertarians can appeal to your personal sense of competence, capability and resilience. You should choose who your doctor is, where your kids go to school, how to spend your money, etc etc. Most people seem to recognise that the common wealth benefits us all, but still see themselves as seperate from and more capable than most they run into. Libertarians get to play to this, with a clear set of policy proposals that have a logic of their own (you make it, you keep it) rather than the re-distributionism of the big government advocates (we’ll give you more in handouts).

3) It seems to work: After thirty years of general movement towards free market policies we have western societies that sit on the right side of ‘History’, have seen significant growth in GDP, disposable income, attainable products and services, quality of life, brought over a billion people out of poverty, and had few of the claimed major consequences of opponents rhetoric. Sure, the welfare state and very slow changes have been there to buffet the winds of change, and markets clearly don’t work in some areas (defence, health, education) in the way they work in others (ie need some public input to achieve outcomes), but we have reduced taxes, sold off assets, and deregulated our markets for great public benefit. Yet the favoritism for free trade and libertarianism doesn’t seem to have significantly budged despite these successes.

4) And most importantly: They are the natural party of wealth in our society. Money has always had and always will have a significant influence in democratic societies. Indeed most of the big fights that lead to democracy in the west have been centered around the wealthy trying to exert their influence (the original kings councils that ushered in the parliamentary system in Britain) and to protect that wealth from undue government control (the US ‘no taxation without representation revolution). Elections are very expensive businesses and while money usually follows power (meaning the major parties abilities to enact current changes will drive corporate interest), most businesses, entrepreneurs or wealthy agents in society would also be very sympathetic to those proposing less regulation, less taxation and an outsourced, reduced government.
The Australian Labor party is one of the most successful left wing parties in the west precisely because their union beginning and links gave them a financial base to compete with the big money interests who supported the conservatives. But given the Conservatives in Australia have only a half-hearted endorsement of free market and libertarian ideals (at the same time as introducing WorkChoices, Howard was presiding over the highest level of Government welfare spending in this country’s history), it is a wonder that business elements, especially those trying to challenge the status quo of a particular market, or those so sure of their capability in a particular arena dont try and pull the Conservatives towards the Libertarian side of the dial with strategic donations.

Despite these three great advantages, appealing to individual desire for freedom, individual self-interest and the natural alliance with the moneyed interests in a country, it is a wonder why Libertarian voices havn’t done that well. Perhaps the main reason I can see is that Libertarians have usually been unable to even agree to enter the political debate, and as such have little to no public face. Without a professional effort at public advocacy, what arguments are made for Libertarian views are usually either pitched as high economics or simplistic scare stories. Indeed whilst I am often very sympathetic with their overall ideals, and spend a fair bit of time reading libertarian literature and chatting with them, I so often feel somewhat talked down to. The answer is usually so obvious to them that your greed or ignorance seems the only reason you don’t fall to your knees and accept their wisdom.
Likewise, when presented to much of the general public, Libertarian views are seen to be representative of greed and avarice, while they see the economics and logic of their positions both more just and more likely to benefit the disadvantaged. (On that there is some scope for debate, but it’s defendable, and certainly shouldn’t be as dismissed as it currently is). Finally, both for reasons of ideology, and because of the reception that the ideology has recieved, there is a quite clear distrust if not contempt for democracy amongst a clear minority of Libertarians that then slows or even damages efforts to promote their ideas to the public.

So why then is Libertarianism such a disregarded and discredited ideology in Australia, indeed in the world?

Liberals and Foreign Policy

I intend to write more on the passing of Ted Kennedy, but whilst most of the forthcoming commentary will focus on his efforts towards domestic policy (particularly that on health care given the current debates), its worth noting how this unwavering liberal came out on foreign policy:

From the NYT Obituary

Mr. Kennedy had less impact on foreign policy than on domestic concerns, but when he spoke his voice was influential. He led the Congressional effort to impose sanctions on South Africa over apartheid, pushed for peace in Northern Ireland, won a ban on arms sales to the dictatorship in Chile and denounced the Vietnam War. In 2002, he voted against authorizing the Iraq war; later, he called that opposition “the best vote I’ve made in my 44 years in the United States Senate.”

In any frank assessment, History is going to regard every one of those moves as the right actions. Of course his career is much longer and more complex than this tiny snapshot, but it’s worth remembering when you see conservative claims that they and they alone know how to divine history’s path and know it’s lessons.

We’ve lost a great one tonight.

Post Script – Kennedy died just before midnight on Tuesday. Within an hour his family had already released a press release. Soon after 2am President Obama was woken and told the news, and within 20 minutes of the announcement of his death, Fox News was focusing on Mary Jo Kopechne and William Kennedy Smith. Stay Classy Fox News.

A tortured route to healthcare

Rhetorically, the single best thing the Obama Administration has done to advance healthcare in recent weeks has been its release of the CIA report into torture during interrogations and announcement of a special prosecutor. Torture may indeed end up providing healthcare reform for the US.

When fighting a losing war of words in politics there are only two real choices, fight or flight. In the past I have been strongly of the view that fighting for it is the only way. Whilst your party may still be behind in public sympathy, the mere fact of your talking about a subject helps re-enforce your seriousness and knowledge. The public may favour the other guys, but you’ll come out the stronger for having fought and kept in the battle. Those who attempt to keep changing the topic back to safer ground, look like they cant handle the conversation, and therefore unsure or incapable to make good policy in that area. In Australia in 2004, the Labor party did this to disastrous effect, changing each discussion of economics or national security to one on healthcare and education. While the public prefer Labor on health and education, their end judgement was that the leader, Mark Latham couldn’t be trusted on economics and national security. Flight from area’s of opposition strength had simply made the Labor party look rhetorically weak.

But what to do when you are fighting an issue you are normally dominant in. Again fight is usually the better offer. John Howard and Bob Hawke both backed themselves time and again to take on and change the public mind, and through a lot of effort, media interviews and a few liberal uses of government funded ‘education’ campaigns came through victorious. But in the US Obama doesn’t have the guarantee of party discipline or treasury funds to help his campaign. In fact it’s largely not up to him to sell the ideas to the public, what he needs instead is to buy time to cover the politicians passing the bill without feeling at the mercy of the nutbaggers who see this as the creeping hand of Nazism.

Instead, by changing the topic to one of torture, Obama allows the sensationalist media to focus on another topic, one where he is enhancing transparency, and trying to reduce the size of government, whilst expanding it in the health care debates. In 1994 the Clinton’s cooked up a healthcare plan and then presented it to the public for acceptance. The republicans rebelled, brought down the plan, and re-vitalised themselves with their ‘contract with America’. Obama has taken the alternate course in his own health care plans, with a very public debate and working directly through congress, but now is coming the time to give the bill some cover and to demand its resolution (with a vote for late october/november). The Republicans this time around, whilst much louder are also much more isolated from the mainstream public views, and lack the leadership and organisation to make any significant attack on the democrats at the 2010 congressional elections. The fundamentals of Obama’s position and the democrats is still very very strong, despite the noise.

Torture is a difficult issue for Obama, and I’ll return to the subject later, but rhetorically this is a very useful piece of distraction for an Administration which is starting to be buffeted not just by the right, but by the left which is loosing confidence in him. This isn’t surprising, the left does tend to over-panic at times, (such as during the election), but needs to trust Obama’s judgement, and political skills. So long as he is able to keep using issues like Torture or the Economy to give the lawmakers some time, and distract the media he should be able to secure his bill.

During the election this image went around the net. Via Richard Wolfe’s book on the campaign Renegade we find that Obama saw it and laughed saying ‘that’s exactly what I feel’. I suspect he may be thinking the same thing today.

Distractions of the eyes

John Adams – HBO series, still as yet unreleased in Australia. Keeping a reasonably consistent link to history, this powerful costume drama is not only great TV but provides a history that would do wonders if well known both around the world, and particularly in Australia. Worldwide such a history lesson may help temper anti-american prejudices, recognising the utopian ideals which have guided the american spirit ever since. Here in Australia, a country I love more and more for its sense and pragmatism towards common welfare and wealth, the story of America’s birth is still inspiring for its radicalism, idealism and principled stand. Characters such as John Adam’s were undoubtedly flawed, and just 125 years later, Australia’s great statesmen would achieve similar independence without bloodshed or civil strife. And yet I can’t help but be moved by the sheer bravado and principle of the American struggle for liberty. It may be headstrong and foolish, but it’s authentic idealism can not be questioned, then or now

The Hawke Memoirs – Part of my quest to read biographies of every Prime Minister (by my count 11 of 26) this is a surprisingly readable account of the rise to power and Prime Ministership of Robert Lee James Hawke. Though only 20 years past, it represents a starkly different world, and yet it still contains most of the seeds and debates that shape the modern Australian political landscape. Hakwe isn’t reticent about crediting himself with the changes and progress of the era, and yet their is an undeniable charm and larikanism that flows through his writing. I had picked up the book having just finished Abbott’s book, and looking for another well written insiders account of local politics. And whilst Abbott seems the closest to Hawke in representing an authentic Australian character, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Turnbull. But for political timing and personality differences Hawke and Turnbull seem similar men, vaulting through Australian society, bounding towards Parliament, and yet for these slight differences history is likely to regard the one as one of our greatest prime ministers, and the other as a never was, or what could have been. Aside the self-agrandisement and snide attacks on Keating (it was written only 3 years after he lost power to the man), it is still a very enjoyable account.

Kangaroo: D.H Lawrence

Written in 1923 by an Englishman, it is still regarded as one of the best engravings of the Australian character and identity. I’m still yet to pass judgement on that line, but it’s a good read, well written though slightly slow, and interesting for its picture of early post federation Australian society.

Seven Ancient Wonders: Matthew Reilly
I have read most of Reilly’s work before, and returned to this one to fill a gap in my reading, but it reminds me of the pure joy of this local australian authors work. A master in recognizing the content and style demanded by his audience, Reilly has made a name and living writing the type of fiction which people want to read, rather than that as favoured by far too many intellectuals the type they would like to have others read. A good bloke from my own limited interactions with him (at a book signing many years back) he is as worthy an australian voice as the Winton’s and Carey’s. Of course history will never regard him in such terms, but that’s its flaw, not his.


The ‘daily outrage’ in the US last week was been the arrest of a black harvard professor for breaking into his own home. Gates understandably got angry at the officer who arrested him. What exactly happened at the time no one other than those two know, and in my view no one else should care. But this is America, home of the busybodies and so that has been the big news, rather than say the fact 48 million americans have no health care insurance. What was more surprising however was that Obama, normally one to avoid the ‘daily outrage’ waded into the debate: calling the police officers actions ‘stupid’. Of course this just made things worse and Obama has had to walk it back, and wasted a few days. The real highlight of this story however is the perfect acronym that this story now is labeled under: Gatesgate.

Now here in Australian in the aftermarth of Utegate, every 2nd conversation over the bbq (well pumpkin soup, it’s far too cold for the snags atm!) was the ridiculousness of the label ‘gate’ and wondering what next. A farming scandal named ‘farmgate’, a tetanus outbreak named ‘rustygate’, but leave it to the US to beat us to the punch and reduce it to it’s only logically stupid conclusion: Gatesgate.

This all comes at the same time as the original cause of the Gate meme the Watergate Hotel is up for auction and failing to attract any bidders. Whilst the actual break-in to record the Democratic National Committee in 1972 was rather minor in the overall scope of the Watergate scandal, the hotel’s place was enough to become shorthand for the entire investigation, the eventual downfall of a president, and the lasting infernal affix on every political scandal ‘-gate’.

I therefore propose the US, on behalf of political pundits and commentators everywhere purchases the Watergate Hotel and blows it up. Every single piece of that building needs to be destroyed if we are ever to escape the ‘gate’ clause. It seems only fair. Political watchers are the only real interest group which has never got direct government funding. Sports lovers get billions each year, as do seniors, farmers, apprentices, with soldiers, doctors and teachers all taking their pay check direct from the government. But what do political junkies get ? We’re the one’s who have to sit through the politicians boring speeches, endure their spin and lies, send our friends running as we try to explain (for their own good) healthcare policy in micro-detail and the historical origins of the filibuster. And what do we get for it ? Nothing.

So, as a gesture of good faith: Mr Obama tear down that building!

The American Right and Human Government

Palin’s suddent resignation has understandably left most pundits, pollsters and political junkies utterly confused. How can you credibly argue you have the experience and capability to govern the country when you are prepared to resign from governing a tiny state just 2 ½ years into your 4 year term?
Yet to Palin, this seems exactly what she should be doing to serve her community. Take these lines from her (hastily put together) resignation press conference

“I thought about, well, how much fun some governors have as lame ducks,” she said. “They maybe travel around their state, travel to other states, maybe take their overseas international trade missions. So many politicians do that. And then I thought, that’s what is wrong. . . . They hit the road, they draw a paycheck, they kind of milk it, and I’m not going to put Alaskans through that.”

Every leader in a country with fixed term limits eventually becomes a ‘lame duck’ (well save those in South America), but there is still usually a solid years worth of governing to be done that is of great advantage to their constituents, legacy and without the heat or requirements of politics as usual, even the chance for lesser but still significant reforms. Not only in policy, but especially as Hillzoy points out, in improving various departments in ways that only the executive is tasked to do. There’s still a hell of a lot of governing available to anyone president, governor or mayor as long as they hold that office. But Palin’s not only uninterested, but utterly dismissive of the idea, such lame duckers are just wasting space.

For Palin it seems, like many on the American Right, (they are certainly not ‘conservative’ by any sense of the term) what is important are elections, not governing. Elections are the chances to present an image, to crusade, to beat their opponents. Elections are about values, and character. But government is none of these things. It is slow, it is bureaucratic, it is compromised in every step of the process. Government is about choosing between less than satisfactory options and then spending your time arguing over the details. Or simply filling out the masses of paperwork required to do so. How in Palin’s world would such actions prove the values she represents, identify the character she adheres to, disprove the liberal-elites lies and half-truths or defend the American family and individual ethos. Like Bush before her, Palin to me seems utterly disinterested in government. In interest and principle, the American Right has moved from being interested in human government (which is why anyone cares about politics in the first place), to being interested almost entirely on the mere process of choosing government. This is absurd to say the least, but such seems the only explanation for their behavior. One of the most common criticism’s I had of the Bush Administration (and vindications I feel it having been shown a failure) was that of the folly of electing to office men and women utterly dismissive of and disinterested in government. When the detail got complex, or their seemed the lack of a clear value or principle to upheld their interest wandered elsewhere. And where government ran badly, even under their own watch, it was not a call to roll up the sleeves and get to work, but simply evidence that they were right in their dismissal of government as a whole. The worse it ran, the righter they were. So why bother fixing the problems?

You don’t hire a electrician who dislikes machinery, a librarian who only watches TV, or a journalist who isn’t at all curious about the world. Yet somehow a general view that government should be small, combined with a growing sense that they were a culturally and religiously embattled minority has turned the American Right utterly hostile of government as a concept and practice. And yet they love elections. Far from pulling out of politics altogether like many paranoid minority groups before them, this one has instead embraced the process of choosing government wholeheartedly, all the whilst completely losing interest in the actual process and business of government and its day to day operations. This can only be described as a fundamental flaw in the nature of the American Right today. Until they regain an interest in actual governing, rather than just arguing about values in the hothouse of the electoral process, then none of their anointed son’s and daughters should be considered for executive office (though even in the legislature such disinterest carries great costs too). There are many fine conservative Americans out there who believe in a small, efficient, well run government and should be given the chance to demonstrate their case both in elections and in office. But right now they are all but ignored by the booming voice of the far american right who don’t hate government but worship elections. Until that imbalance is reverse they will keep putting up people like Bush and Palin who are simply incapable of the job’s to which they aspire. Palin’s actions have mystified most of the political watchers who assume that government is the reward for winning elections. In Palin’s world, the reward from winning elections is to beat your opponents and drown out their values with your own. Being in government is simply the burden you have to bear for the next few years until the fun can come again in election season. No wonder she want’s to get out early, and spend the next few years giving speeches and pretending she is the next Ronald Reagan and president-in-waiting.

The Stupidest Person on Earth

Sarah “a small-town mayor is sort of like a “community organiser”, except that you have actual responsibilities” Palin is resigning from her Governorship of Alaska. This is because she is either A) being forced due to uber big scandal as TPM is speculating B) give up her addiction to the media and right wing cocoon and go raise her kids or C) stay the course and now pursue full time media junkery and presidential ambitions full time without that pesky Governorship in a remote outpost to distract her. I’m tipping C. Just look at the photo below Palin from Tuesday. Not quite the face of someone headed back to the ranch to raise the family…

If Palin thinks she can beat Obama in 2012 she is drinking the Kool-Aid full time. He could be beat then, but it would only be because people question his executive competence, rather than because of values, being “in touch” with the electorate or the range of far right hot issues like taxes, abortion or their fear of creeping socialism/fascism. Yet here is how she announced her decision:

Sarah Palin in Runners World July 2009

Sarah Palin in Runners World July 2009

“Life is too short to compromise time and resources… it may be tempting and more comfortable to just keep your head down, plod along, and appease those who demand: “Sit down and shut up”, but that’s the worthless, easy path; that’s a quitter’s way out. And a problem in our country today is apathy. It would be apathetic to just hunker down and “go with the flow.”

Though whilst the professionals are already scoffing at her chance of continuing running, it does reflect a curiously american-only trait. Individuals can significant contribute to the daily news cycle, have significant media presence, and be seen as future leaders despite not holding any current office. Think of Mick Romney or Newt Gingrich or Al Gore. Gore at least has a cause, but Newt and Romney are just living off their savings and yet daily injecting their voices into the debate. Whilst former politicians pop up once every few months to complain or beg the public to remember them (Fraser and Keating did so recently, both on foreign policy) but neither is a regular commentator, and certainly there is no effort anywhere to return either man to politics. Yet in the USA, in part due to the independent nature of the office of the President, and the media demand for talking heads, unemployed individuals can compete with Legislators, and Presidents in driving the daily news cycle.

But if Sarah Palin thinks she can walk out on her governorship, spend 2 years doing nothing but media work (and she does that soo well), and then convince the public she is more experienced and capable to handle the vast complexity of issues facing the president in 2012 (and these issues would all have to be even more severe and challenging for Obama to struggle) then she is the dumbest person alive.

Now she may just disappear, but my money is on her belief she can be president in 3 years (funnily enough her language actually mirrors much of what Obama said to friends when he decided to run back in 2006 as told to Richard Wolffe in the new book Renegade: The making of Barack Obama – Look for a full review here in a day or two). In some ways you have to admire the brass balls of this woman. From beauty queen and sports caster to convinced she is the most qualified person out of 300million to lead the USA. But whilst Obama broke all the rules, and gambled highly to make it to where it is, he delivered time and again. Palin failed practically every single chance she has had during the election and after. She is only going to crash and crash badly. I predict no better than 4th amongst the Republican Primaries… if she even makes it that far.

*Update* Bruce Reed of Slate proves he is a longtime reader of this blog and add’s some useful meat to the details of other quitter candidates. Long short: almost always a bad move.