Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: US Politics

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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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.

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 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.

A 10th of the way there

This morning brings with it the news that Maine is now the 5th state of the American Union to grant full equality regardless of sexual orientation, and in a legislatively endorsed manner too (joining Vermont; with Connecticut, Iowa and Massachusetts granting it through court decisions).

Maine Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, signed LD 1020 shortly after the legislation passed the Senate with a 21-13 vote — a margin not large enough to override a veto.

“In the past, I opposed gay marriage while supporting the idea of civil unions,” Baldacci said in a statement read in his office. “I have come to believe that this is a question of fairness and of equal protection under the law, and that a civil union is not equal to civil marriage.”

Good for him. Now, when will Australia (you know that supposedly modern, secular, tolerant, ‘social laboratory’ land down under – unlike the god fearing Yanks) get around to removing such discrimination from its laws.

In 2006 the Howard Government blocked the ACT’s ‘Civil Unions Act’ and the Rudd government quickly re-endorsed the move upon taking office in 2007 (though local residents and political watchers put that down as much to Stanhopes incompetence as Rudd’s conservatism). Either way, it’s still a far cry from actual equality of marriage as being between any two consenting adults. Rudd deserves some praise for his efforts to removal of discrimination against de facto gay couples, putting them almost on par with married heterosexual couples, but he should sniff the way the political winds are blowing and go for it in the next election. Whilst the upcoming election will be tough, it is also a pretty safe bet for Labor, and as such a perfect vehicle to introduce into the debate and gain a mandate to implement post-election a number of other progressive issues. Likewise, given the ACT Labor governments re-election in late 2008, the public debate would be well served by another push by Stanhope, and perhaps his (openly gay) young minister Andrew Barr to push the Federal government on the issue again. Though not on Civil Unions this time, but full marriage. Nothing else is worthy of a great nation like this.

Image of newly married couple from Flickr user sfbart used under a creative commons licence

Sensing the political winds

Via Matthew Yglesias today comes news that both Rudy Guiliani and Newt Gingrich are gearing up to become the new fervent defenders of marriage. As followers of US politics will know (or if you follow through the links) both men have been married multiple times, with long standing accusations about infidelity following them to. Yglesias makes the obvious & easy case of the sheer hypocrisy of such men trying to defend the institution of marriage. But there’s a more interesting question at play: Given both come from the much more socially liberal wing of the Republican party, and neither are that religiously observant, why are both choosing to help remake themselves by becoming just one more right winger to rail against the supposed civilization destroying evil that is two people of the same gender wanting to get married.
Both are looking at a return to politics, fearful their best days are behind them. Gingrich perhaps just to maintain his standing as a commentator, but word is Rudy wants to run for Governor of NY (Where current Governor David Patterson is currently introducing a new bill to allow same-sex marriage, a move which already has 53% popularity.Both also seem much more comfortable with homosexuals in their own lives than say Pat Robertson, so given this move is entirely political, wouldn’t the smarter political move be to come out in favor of homosexual marriage?

Such a move would be bold and cause a lot more attention to be paid to them and their opinion on the full gamete of issue (For instance much like Meagan McCain, daughter of the failed presidential candidate who is steadily building a career as a republican commentator in part by supporting equal marriage).
Likewise, as the polls indicate, in their area’s Rudy & Newt frequent of NY and Washington such a move is already quite popular, and critically that number is sure to rise. The biggest split on the issue of marriage is generational, though you can also expect an effective socialisation to ripple through the public body, as people come to see that Massachusetts, Vermont, Iowa & Connecticut have not sunk into the sea, or turned into wild cesspit of immorality by allowing people to commit themselves for the rest of their lives to each other in a legally and morally binding ceremony. In short, the case against Gay Marriage is a losers cause, and whilst it will be a long time before it’s uncontroversial (and so currently is useful for riling up the republican base), the public mind is changing and the direction it is changing is perfectly obvious for even the dullest political minds to see.
Which raises my final point, perhaps the best days of these two men really are behind them, by challenging their party on such an issue and help leading its change, homosexual marriage presents a great legacy issue for both. Whilst everyone forgets the names of the souther states democrats who challenged and held back the civil rights movement for as long as possible, those who came to see the need for change and acted are remembered as hero’s. Lyndon Johnson’s record whilst smeared by Vietnam and the end of the Great Society project, will always be tied with his great acts on Civil Rights. In the face of his party, and perhaps some of his own opinions too, Johnson made the changes which were necessary, and forthcoming, and tied his name indefinably to the cause. For that, he will always be remembered, and forgiven his other sins. Leading the charge to allow equal marriage would be a similar (though smaller) cause for both men. It would guarantee that they would always be associated by history with having lead on an issue their party resisted, as having courageously stood up (one shouldn’t underestimate the controversy this would bring), but end up ensuring both men end with a much more positive record for history, and for having been no more foresighted than to have read the polls and known which way the ground was shifting.

Both want to stay relevant and listened to. Both have vaulting ambitions (not least of all to end the careers in the oval office), and yet here they have both taken the dull and predictable move of re-branding themselves as strong opponents of homosexuals getting married. Coming out in support of such a change however would get them noticed, make them much more acceptable to the young voters they would need to win back from Obama, lets them re-claim their parties tag as concerned with liberty, and whether it works or not, ensure they go down in history as leaders not followers on a major issue.

Taking Your Beatings

Being in opposition is never a fun time. One of my first clear political memories was of Paul Keatings concession speech in 1996, and were it not for the outrages I felt at the Howard Governments actions, I may never have found my way into politics or academia. But, whilst the impulse is to get back into power as quickly as possible, there is much to be said for the benefit of accepting your loss, and keeping your desires restrained whilst in this doldrum period. Take Thailand where the overthrow of one government is predictably leading to a similar challenge against the new one:

Protesters have been defying a state of emergency announced by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Sunday, one day after violent supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra forced the cancellation of a 16-nation Asian summit meeting.

Shortly after the emergency announcement, protesters attacked Mr. Abhisit’s motorcade as he left the Interior Ministry, injuring several people in the cars, but the Prime Minister reportedly escaped through a back door of the building.

Speaking to protesters by telephone link, Mr. Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup in 2006, called for a revolution and said he was prepared to return to join them.

It’s this kind of back and forth that makes me uncomfortable seeing scenes such as the tea-bag protests in the USA. If you havn’t been following the story, following Obama’s election win, passage of a stimulus package, a tax cut for 95% of people, and a return of taxes for high income earners to 1990’s Clinton levels of 39%.

So this April 15th, at events across the nation (Google Map here) people will be emulating the Bostonians who in 1773 rejected taxation without representation. What is the new mob’s concern this time? Well it’s rather hard to tell:

In late February, I attended a tea party in Lansing, Michigan, and will be there again next Wednesday. While there, I spoke with several people, and, while everybody attended for the same “big picture” reason, many had their own reason to be there.
For some it was wildly excessive and confusing tax laws. Others were there out of concern for their children and grandchildren. Some were there because they’re maddened that the same glorious policies that have made Detroit look like Bangladesh after a garbage haulers strike are being introduced on a national level, a few were upset because the same people who created these massive problems are charged with fixing them, others don’t want their country sold out to some global entity, and one man I saw had a sign that said “‘Government job’ is a contradiction in terms.” Many were there for the reason of “all of the above.”

Obama’s sins are not great or even significant, and the justifications claimed for the event are wide and varied. So what is really leading these protests ? Largely it seems a general anti-democratic discontent with the idea that Republicans and the right wing is now out of power. This of course can’t be admitted publicly, but it is pretty clear that the real object of hate here is not the taxes of Obama, but the votes in 2008 of their compatriots that put him in the White House.

Even more dangerously than just some fringe rants, is the clear evidence that Fox News, the largest Cable news channel in the USA has decided to support this anti-democratic movement

Fox anchors Sean Hannity and Neil Cavuto boarded the bandwagon first by signing on with tax day tea parties in Atlanta and Sacramento. Now Glenn Beck will be broadcasting from the Alamo in Texas and Greta Van Susteren will party in Washington, D.C., amounting to hours and hours of rotating live coverage of the anti-tax, anti-spending events.

“This year Americans across the country are holding tea parties to let politicians know that we’ve had enough,” Beck said yesterday. “Celebrate with Fox News.”

Whilst i’m not alledging violence Thailand style is imminent, an instructive lesson can be drawn from Venezuela. Whilst Chavez is an incompetent, possibly deranged leader, who makes up policy on the fly, and has wasted the equivalent of a few dozen Marshall plans in oil revenue without any substantive improvement in his countrymen’s welfare, he is well served by his opposition. Despite all his follies and flaws, the fact that the opposition media routinely calls for coup’s against him (and assisted a failed attempt in 2002), has essentially helped consolidate Chavez as the sane and moderate one. Instead of an acceptance of their position and re-orientation towards addressing the primary concerns of the Venezuelan people (poverty, regional relations & developing industries beyond oil) the opposition have confirmed their status as boosters and sycophants for the ultra elites. There’s many other issues of course, but it’s an instructive case study.

For these reasons, it was therefore pleasing to this unaligned political observer to note that Malcolm Turnbull has stepped back from his shadow treasurer’s reckless threat to block supply after the may budget.

Mr Turnbull said the opposition would reserve the right to oppose measures in the May budget it considered misconceived or poor policy.

“That’s been done in the past on many occasions by every opposition over many years,” Mr Turnbull told reporters in Terrigal, on the NSW central coast.

Any suggestion the coalition would block supply or block the budget was completely wrong.

“We will not block any of the appropriation legislation, so we won’t block supply bills.”

Such a move brings to mind Fraser & Kerr’s 1975 coup against Whitlam. And whilst the historically illiterate on the right are comparing Rudd to Whitlam (A true apples and oranges comparison), it was Fraser as much as anyone who suffered for the illegitimate means by which he obtained power. As Peter Costello writes in his memoirs:

‘An elected government is, or should be, entitled to expect that its money bills will pass… If Malcolm Fraser had not deferred Supply but let parliament run, he still would have been elected, probably in an even greater landslide. What is more, he would not have had to face the argument – which he always had to face – that somehow he had got into office through illegitimate tactics. I believe Fraser felt de-legitimised by this tactic and this is one of the reasons he was cautious in office and later began to court progressive opinion’. – Peter Costello The Costello Memoirs, 2008 page 24

In short, opposition is about as bad a time as you can have in politics. Your job is always on the line, your colleagues will end up doing more harm to you than your opponents as they either seek your job or want to put an acolyte into your seat. The media ridicules you and the public ignores you. After a decade, perhaps an entire career spent knowing power, the desperation to make it all go back to how it was, by means fair or foul must be overpowering. But such strategies almost never work, and de-legitimize you when they do. And, whilst I’m sure all the tea-party goers are loyal Americans, they need only look back to the history of the Roman Republic from Marius to Caesar to know the damage they could wreck on their young republic. One of democracies greatest strength is giving space for ambitious individuals to compete, but that only applies so long as they remain within the system, however great the temptation for ultimate conquest may be. They should like their wounds and rebuild. After all in 2004 everyone was talking about an eternal republican majority, and now look where the democrats are. The rights time will come again, until then such actions look at best foolish and arrogant, at worst anti-democratic and potentially treasonous to the very institutions and traditions of their own society.

Photo by Flickr user swansdepot. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Of Politics and Mockery

Just over a month ago Michael Steele was elected Chairman of the GOP. In most western democracies party officials are largely ignored in the public debates, but in the USA due to the convoluted (or lack of) leadership roles in American Political Parties (other than the President & for 4-5 months every 4 years his nominated opponent) it remains a major position. Yet already calls for his resignation are coming through. Ross Douthat makes the obvious point that the RNC-erred in assuming Steeles charisma was the ship that would restore their balance.

Both Steele and Palin are extremely charismatic, as American politicians go, which is a big reason why Republicans of different stripes – moderates for the Marylander, conservatives for the Alaskan – have been so excited about them. But they’ve both attempted (or been asked) to chart a new direction for the Right on style alone, and they’ve floundered as soon as they’ve been pressed for substance. Steele has responded by telling his interlocutors whatever they want to hear, Palin responded by telling her interlocutors next to nothing at all – and the results, in both cases, are and were unfortunate

But whilst right, this doesn’t fully explain why Steele is under attack. Plenty of politicians, especially in the media driven atmosphere of US politics lack the substance required for their job, but fill it with charisma and certainty (See Bush, George.W). Steele’s problems relate in part from the mistake that led to his election, and from what he has attempted to fill that intellectual gap with.

First, though most are reluctant to ever say it, the African-American Michael Steele was in large part elected because the Republican party has a race issue and they assumed skin colour would override ideology and lead black americans back to the party. Just as McCain had a gender issue and tried to fill it with Palin, such identity politics however doesn’t work:

Women strongly preferred Obama to Senator John McCain (56 percent for Obama, 43 percent for McCain), unlike men, who split their votes about evenly for the two presidential candidates (49 percent for Obama, 48 percent for McCain). Defined as the difference in the proportions of women and men voting for the winning candidate, the gender gap was 7 percentage points in 2008, with 56 percent of women versus 49 percent of men voting for Obama. The gender gap this year is consistent with other presidential elections, where gender gaps have ranged from a high of 11 percentage points in 1996 to a low of 4 percentage points in 1992. There
was a similar 7-point gender gap in the final vote in 2004.

Republicans made the mistake of assuming that they could counter the first african american president with one of their own, but this was a mistake and the RNC is only now starting to realise this. Steele is not responsible for this mistake, (though he certainly benefited from it) but he will be hung for it.

Friedrich Nietzsche

- Friedrich Nietzsche 1885

The second error however is one of Steele’s making, and in it lies the heart of his true problems. Steele has made himself a target for mockery, and nothing in politics kills you faster than being laughed at. Politicians can be disagreed with, despised, denounced and degraded. But make them a joke and the veneer of authority disappears. Modern democratic society is built upon the presumption that the people willingly accept the authority of people who lead political parties, or merely participate in the debate. These are not people who can in any way coerce us to accept their authority (unlike the President who has the military & law enforcement to sustain his rule), and yet we accept that because someone is a “Chairman” of a political party they have some authority. Become a punch line and that acceptance of authority instantly vanishes. (There remains an opportunity for a great book to be written on politics and humor. The two go so naturally together)

From his call for republicans to have a “hip-hop makeover” to his insult & then next day public apology to Rush Limbaugh, Steele has been a boon to comedians and wanna be wits everywhere. Democrats could attack him on any issue from abortion (though there he contradicts himself) to economics to torture with as much vehemence as they could muster and it wouldn’t have half the impact of your neighbours joking aside about Steele turning the GOP into the Gangsta’ Only Party.

Unless Steele can find a way to return his image to one of seriousness and solid common sense (which Bush somewhat achieved over his last two years, after the left had got bored of its jokes) then he is not long for the position, and will drag the GOP -further?- down with him. Yet like many politicians in a similar position the expectation is that as he flounders he will keep retreating to what worked before, his natural charisma, and ignore the substantive issue which is killing his reputation. Insisting on party dogma more and more feverently so as to keep the base happy wont help either. The media know all the old reasons why GOP’ers are against abortion and for lower taxes, Steele needs as Douthat notes to have “something intelligent and fresh-sounding to say”.

(As an aside, I wonder how many people are suddenly linking to and reading Douthat now that he has been named the next big thing, via his selection to the New York Times Opinion Pages. I’m not sure if my own actions are from a blogger like pile on, or the old Australian habit of going after the tall poppies, or just resentment that he got such a position at 29, and at 25 I’m yet to be offered anything like it :P. As I forgot to do so last post, I should congratulate Douthat on his new position. A very strong choice by the NYT over that old hack William Kristol who, appropriately for our theme of the day, made an embarassment of himself with his repeated corrections for wrong information and utterly predictable columns.)

Of media old and new

Let me get this straight: Networks pay professional commentators for their views and insights into the daily political process, gleaned from experience and long list of contacts. One such instance of regular discussion is revealed between the White House Chief of Staff and three senior political commentators for CNN/ABC. And right wing bloggers are angry about this ?

To my mind this goes back to a distinction the Australian academic Jason Wilson noted a little while ago in an interesting post:(Via Margaret Simons’ excellent Content Makers blog)

there are some important, relevant and remaining differences between amateur bloggers and industrial journalists. For me, a big, obvious one is: journalists use telephones.

Bloggers are so used to being outside the bubble, and without connection to the actual players of the political game that they take it as a badge of objectivity. But if these media figures (ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent George Stephanopoulos, Paul Begala of CNN and James Carville of CNN/Everything) arn’t regularly connecting and talking with the White House and other political players then just what do the bloggers think they are being paid for by the networks ?

There is obviously a line that could be crossed, and in this case the ire is because all four are closely tied to the Clinton Administration (which is also the origin of the regular call; having been running for around 17 years).But as Wilson noted: Journalists use telephones. And whilst all four are surely addicted to their email, the phone is still the essential tool for their generation in finding out and gathering information. So what exactly is the problem here bloggers?