quinta-feira, 30 de outubro de 2008

George F. Will: Call him John the Careless

Call Him John the Careless

by George F. Will, Washington Post, October 30, 2008

From the invasion of Iraq to the selection of Sarah Palin, carelessness has characterized recent episodes of faux conservatism. Tuesday's probable repudiation of the Republican Party will punish characteristics displayed in the campaign's closing days.

Some polls show that Palin has become an even heavier weight in John McCain's saddle than his association with George W. Bush. Did McCain, who seems to think that Palin's never having attended a "Georgetown cocktail party" is sufficient qualification for the vice presidency, lift an eyebrow when she said that vice presidents "are in charge of the United States Senate"?

She may have been tailoring her narrative to her audience of third-graders, who do not know that vice presidents have no constitutional function in the Senate other than to cast tie-breaking votes. But does she know that when Lyndon Johnson, transformed by the 1960 election from Senate majority leader into vice president, ventured to the Capitol to attend the Democratic senators' weekly policy luncheon, the new majority leader, Montana's Mike Mansfield, supported by his caucus, barred him because his presence would be a derogation of the Senate's autonomy?

Perhaps Palin's confusion about the office for which she is auditioning comes from listening to its current occupant. Dick Cheney, the foremost practitioner of this administration's constitutional carelessness in aggrandizing executive power, regularly attends the Senate Republicans' Tuesday luncheons. He has said jocularly that he is "a product" of the Senate, which pays his salary, and that he has no "official duties" in the executive branch. His situational constitutionalism has, however, led him to assert, when claiming exemption from a particular executive order, that he is a member of the legislative branch and, when seeking to shield certain of his deliberations from legislative inquiry, to say that he is a member of the executive branch.

Palin may be an inveterate simplifier; McCain has a history of reducing controversies to cartoons. A Republican financial expert recalls attending a dinner with McCain for the purpose of discussing with him domestic and international financial complexities that clearly did not fascinate the senator. As the dinner ended, McCain's question for his briefer was: "So, who is the villain?"

McCain revived a familiar villain -- "huge amounts" of political money -- when Barack Obama announced that he had received contributions of $150 million in September. "The dam is broken," said McCain, whose constitutional carelessness involves wanting to multiply impediments to people who want to participate in politics by contributing to candidates -- people such as the 632,000 first-time givers to Obama in September.

Why is it virtuous to erect a dam of laws to impede the flow of contributions by which citizens exercise their First Amendment right to political expression? "We're now going to see," McCain warned, "huge amounts of money coming into political campaigns, and we know history tells us that always leads to scandal." The supposedly inevitable scandal, which supposedly justifies preemptive government restrictions on Americans' freedom to fund the dissemination of political ideas they favor, presumably is that Obama will be pressured to give favors to his September givers. The contributions by the new givers that month averaged $86.

One excellent result of this election cycle is that public financing of presidential campaigns now seems sillier than ever. The public has always disliked it: Voluntary and cost-free participation, using the check-off on the income tax form, peaked at 28.7 percent in 1980 and has sagged to 9.2 percent. The Post, which is melancholy about the system's parlous condition, says there were three reasons for creating public financing: to free candidates from the demands of fundraising, to level the playing field and "to limit the amount of money pouring into presidential campaigns." The first reason is decreasingly persuasive because fundraising is increasingly easy because of new technologies such as the Internet. The second reason is, the Supreme Court says, constitutionally impermissible. Government may not mandate equality of resources among political competitors who earn different levels of voluntary support. As for the third reason -- "huge amounts" (McCain) of money "pouring into" (The Post) presidential politics -- well:

The Center for Responsive Politics calculates that, by Election Day, $2.4 billion will have been spent on presidential campaigns in the two-year election cycle that began in January 2007, and an additional $2.9 billion will have been spent on 435 House and 35 Senate contests. This $5.3 billion is a billion less than Americans will spend this year on potato chips.


quarta-feira, 22 de outubro de 2008

Maureen Dowd: Moved by a Crescent

Moved by a Crescent

by Maureen Dowd, New York Times, October 21, 2008

Credit: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Colin Powell had been bugged by many things in his party’s campaign this fall: the insidious merging of rumors that Barack Obama was Muslim with intimations that he was a terrorist sympathizer; the assertion that Sarah Palin was ready to be president; the uniformed sheriff who introduced Governor Palin by sneering about Barack Hussein Obama; the scorn with which Republicans spit out the words “community organizer”; the Republicans’ argument that using taxes to “spread the wealth” was socialist when the purpose of taxes is to spread the wealth; Palin’s insidious notion that small towns in states that went for W. were “the real America.”

But what sent him over the edge and made him realize he had to speak out was when he opened his New Yorker three weeks ago and saw a picture of a mother pressing her head against the gravestone of her son, a 20-year-old soldier who had been killed in Iraq. On the headstone were engraved his name, Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, his awards — the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star — and a crescent and a star to denote his Islamic faith.

“I stared at it for an hour,” he told me. “Who could debate that this kid lying in Arlington with Christian and Jewish and nondenominational buddies was not a fine American?”

Khan was an all-American kid. A 2005 graduate of Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin, N.J., he loved the Dallas Cowboys and playing video games with his 12-year-old stepsister, Aliya.

His obituary in The Star-Ledger of Newark said that he had sent his family back pictures of himself playing soccer with Iraqi children and hugging a smiling young Iraqi boy.

His father said Kareem had been eager to enlist since he was 14 and was outraged by the 9/11 attacks. “His Muslim faith did not make him not want to go,” Feroze Khan, told The Gannett News Service after his son died. “He looked at it that he’s American and he has a job to do.”

In a gratifying “have you no sense of decency, Sir and Madam?” moment, Colin Powell went on “Meet the Press” on Sunday and talked about Khan, and the unseemly ways John McCain and Palin have been polarizing the country to try to get elected. It was a tonic to hear someone push back so clearly on ugly innuendo.

Even the Obama campaign has shied away from Muslims. The candidate has gone to synagogues but no mosques, and the campaign was embarrassed when it turned out that two young women in headscarves had not been allowed to stand behind Obama during a speech in Detroit because aides did not want them in the TV shot.

The former secretary of state has dealt with prejudice in his life, in and out of the Army, and he is keenly aware of how many millions of Muslims around the world are being offended by the slimy tenor of the race against Obama.

He told Tom Brokaw that he was troubled by what other Republicans, not McCain, had said: “ ‘Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim. He’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no. That’s not America. Is something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?”

Powell got a note from Feroze Khan this week thanking him for telling the world that Muslim-Americans are as good as any others. But he also received more e-mails insisting that Obama is a Muslim and one calling him “unconstitutional and unbiblical” for daring to support a socialist. He got a mass e-mail from a man wanting to spread the word that Obama was reading a book about the end of America written by a fellow Muslim.

“Holy cow!” Powell thought. Upon checking Amazon.com, he saw that it was a reference to Fareed Zakaria, a Muslim who writes a Newsweek column and hosts a CNN foreign affairs show. His latest book is “The Post-American World.”

Powell is dismissive of those, like Rush Limbaugh, who say he made his endorsement based on race. And he’s offended by those who suggest that his appearance Sunday was an expiation for Iraq, speaking up strongly now about what he thinks the world needs because he failed to do so then.

Even though he watched W. in 2000 make the argument that his lack of foreign policy experience would be offset by the fact that he was surrounded by pros — Powell himself was one of the regents brought in to guide the bumptious Texas dauphin — Powell makes that same argument now for Obama.

“Experience is helpful,” he says, “but it is judgment that matters.”

Link to article: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/22/opinion/22dowd.html

quinta-feira, 16 de outubro de 2008

Roger Cohen: Presley, Palin and the Heartland

Presley, Palin and the Heartland

by Roger Cohen, New York Times, October 16, 2008, Branson, Mo.

Credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

I never imagined that a Republican mayor from Bible-belt Missouri would revive my faith in American democracy, but Raeanne Presley did just that.

As a high-energy brunette running a small town, she’s been ribbed since Sarah Palin became her party’s nominee for vice president. “Guess you’ll be moving on to governor soon,” she gets told. “And up from there.”

But Presley’s not interested. She’s Midwestern practical to Palin’s rabble-rousing frontierswoman. Common sense interests her more than aw-shucks nonsense. She prefers balanced budgets to unbalanced attacks.

Presley — no relation to Elvis — runs the capital of the American heartland. Branson, population 7,500, is to country-western, country-first, evangelical culture what Haight-Ashbury once was to the hippie movement: its mother lode.

You won’t find gambling in wholesome Branson. Food gets deep-fried, Christmas gets celebrated from Nov. 1, churches get filled.

On the gridlocked “strip” — more theater seats than Broadway — nobody blows their horn. The featured speaker at veterans’ week in November will be Oliver North, the Reagan-era rogue of the Iran-contra scandal. He’ll get a cheer: this area of southern Missouri voted about 70 percent Bush in 2004.

What you do find on the strip are the 8 million tourists — more than a thousand times the population — who come here annually in search of religious, family and patriotic entertainment. Dream on, Wasilla.

(If the Branson population-tourist ratio applied in New York, the city would get upward of 8 billion tourists a year. It gets around 46 million.)

Entertainment includes country-western music, the “Dixie Stampede” rodeo show, old favorites like Andy Williams, Chinese acrobats, Irish tenors, and a Veterans Memorial Museum. A Japanese violinist does country and Cajun.

“For skimpy costumes or harsh language,” Presley, 50, said, “you go to Vegas or New York. We’ve no rules against a racy show. You’re welcome to give it a shot. But we hope you don’t succeed.”

One thing Branson does not have is foreign tourists. Head-shaking Europeans bewildered by “the other America” should check it out. The town, with its more than 50 theaters (Broadway has 39), would be an education.

My own did not go according to plan. I came to Branson and its mayor with my liberal prejudices and was disarmed. Presley reminded me of my ex-mother-in-law, another brisk, pragmatic, funny, no-nonsense Republican Midwesterner with little tolerance for debt, delinquency, dumbness, or dereliction of duty. She also reminded me of a great American virtue: getting on with it.

And it dawned on me that Palin, with her vile near-accusations of treason against Barack Obama, her cloying doggone hymns to small-town U.S.A., her with-us-or-against-us refrain, is really an impostor.

She’s the representative of a kind of last-gasp Republicanism, of an exhausted party, whose proud fiscal conservatism and patriotism have given away to scurrilous fear-mongering and ideological confusion.

It’s a party in need of a break from power after the Bush years in order to re-learn what Presley represents: the can-do, down-to-earth, honest, industrious, spend-what-you-earn civility of the heartland. That civility has been usurped into Palin’s trash talk.

Presley’s busy, in a tough economic climate, balancing a $61 million budget, trying to preserve jobs, getting a new $500 million convention center rolling, seeking a better balance between development and the environment.

I asked her about the election. “This is an exciting moment,” she said. “An African-American at the top of the Democratic ticket. As Americans we should be proud of that. A woman running for vice president. We can be proud of that, too.”

I asked her if she was a closet liberal. She laughed.

She said her oldest son, Nick, went to Stanford, and she expected him to come back from California “with a tattoo and a piercing.” But, no. He’s now working at the family’s Country Jubilee Theater.

It was one of the first to open on the strip. I’m 53, and I reckon the night I saw the show I lowered the audience’s average age to about 78. Fall is “empty-nester” season — oceans of gray hair.

The audience roared when a hillbilly idiot said something dumb and was rebuked by his father: “Next thing, you’ll believe in global warming!”

So go the culture wars in Branson.

This is red-state central, dear to evangelicals. But Presley has few illusions. Obama has been surging in bellwether Missouri with its long and almost perfect record of voting for the winner. He is now neck and neck with John McCain in the state polls.

Americans still vote their pocketbooks — always have, always will.

“I can see how the drift is going, but we’ll move on,” the mayor said.

A speech four years ago brought Obama to the national stage: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There’s the United States of America.”

I found that spirit in Branson, the last place I expected. And it gave me hope, in these sobering days, for a nation aching to unite behind a new start and uplifting endeavor.

Link to article: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/16/opinion/16Cohen.html

segunda-feira, 13 de outubro de 2008

Roger Cohen: History and the Really Very Weird

History and the Really Very Weird

by Roger Cohen, New York Times, October 12, 2008, Peculiar, Mo.
(Credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Back when he was vice president, Dan Quayle noted that: “People that are really very weird can get into sensitive positions and have tremendous impact on history.”

He was right, as the Germans know, even if his own impact was limited by the fact the president he was understudying for stayed alive.

Quayle’s words came back to me because, like a lot Americans, I’ve come down with Palinitis: the acute fear that Sarah Palin might get into one of those “sensitive positions.”

This is no ordinary moment. More than two trillion dollars have disappeared from Americans’ retirement accounts. The hedge-fund high priests of the universe have suspended their Warhol purchases. Iceland, de-banked, has gone back to fishing (if there are any fish left). On the next president will hinge the choice between recession, with a small “r,” and Depression, with a big “D.”

It’s not a time, in history’s great sweep, for Quayle’s very weird people to run the world. Tremendous might prove an inadequate description of their impact. What we need is a safe pair of hands. Or we’ll all be fishing.

Then I pulled into Peculiar.

I’d decided to go for a spin around Missouri because this bellwether, battleground state has voted for the winner in every election since 1904, with the sole exception of 1956. In many respects, it is America miniaturized.

Of its more than 100 rural counties, all but one voted Republican in 2004. But its big cities, St. Louis and Kansas City, are another story, trending heavily Democrat. Rural, Bible-belt, America-first Missouri tends to views St. Louis as the fallen East Coast.

The growing number of conservative, Evangelical voters led John Kerry to abandon campaigning here four years ago; he lost heavily to President Bush. In Peculiar (motto “Where the ‘Odds’ are with you”), Democrats are rare. Cass County, where it’s located, voted 61.6 percent Bush.

There’s not a lot to Peculiar, a smattering of low-slung buildings off Highway 71 in western Missouri. At a general store, I asked about the name and a woman told me: “When they incorporated the town, they tried a few names, but those already existed, and somebody wrote back saying we should try something more ‘peculiar.’ And, son, we did.”

End of story.

Or not quite: America’s become a place where Peculiar folks think the city folks have lost the plot and city folks think the rural folks are peculiar.

In this culture war, where Palin’s hockey moms and Joe Sixpacks are supposed to be the only patriots left standing, believing in a woman’s right to choose gets cast as unpatriotic. (Remember: belief in regulating markets used to be unpatriotic too.)

I pulled out of Peculiar, passed a sign saying “Nothing’s hard for God,” cranked up the radio and got the Eagles: “And I wanna sleep with you/ In the desert tonight/ With a billion stars all around/ Cause I got a peaceful easy feeling/And I know you won’t let me down ...”

Man, that felt good: a peaceful easy feeling is not something I’ve had about the U.S. in a while. But around Humansville (I didn’t ask), a country music station brought me this: “I’m just a common man/ Drive a common van/ And my dog ain’t got no pedigree/ I’m just happy to be free/ Way I wanna be/ Because highbrow people lose their saniteeee ...”

That did it. Not wishing to lose mine, I asked Kenneth Warren, a professor of political science at St. Louis University, how Missouri’s battle of the Republican common man and the Democratic highbrow crowd was going since the Dow dived and the Bush presidency began its final descent into flames.

“There’s strong movement in Obama’s direction,” he said. “He was trailing by 10 points in August, and now two polls show him ahead. You’ve got a perfect storm for him. With the financial collapse, the Republican White House gets blamed. McCain’s looking rattled and disconnected on the economy. And Palin’s become a liability because she doesn’t look qualified for a crisis.”

In Branson, in southern Missouri, I met Gail Hinshaw, a business executive. He told me he’s an independent who’s “leaned Republican.” But, he said, “I’m an orthodox Republican, not big on big government, and who’s spent more or grown government more than this president?”

Hinshaw said no person has all the answers. So he’s looking for someone who can pull people together. It’s time, he said, to paint or get off the ladder. He senses movement toward Obama as independents like him decide. “We got to do something different.”

Missouri’s still a toss-up. But if the Hinshaw drift continues in Republican areas and Obama wins the state, he’ll likely be elected president by a landslide. Compared to Missouri, most other battleground states look more comfortable for him.

I’m starting to believe in a Republican bloodbath. You can’t fool all the people all the time. As Quayle noted, “The future will be better tomorrow.”

Link to article: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/13/opinion/13cohen.html

sábado, 4 de outubro de 2008

Dick Cheney, Role Model for Sarah Palin?

Dick Cheney, Role Model

New York Times, October 3, 2008

In all the talk about the vice-presidential debate, there was an issue that did not get much attention but kept nagging at us: Sarah Palin’s description of the role and the responsibilities of the office for which she is running, vice president of the United States.

In Thursday night’s debate, Ms. Palin was asked about the vice president’s role in government. She said she agreed with Dick Cheney that “we have a lot of flexibility in there” under the Constitution. And she declared that she was “thankful that the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president also, if that vice president so chose to exert it.”

It is hard to tell from Ms. Palin’s remarks whether she understands how profoundly Dick Cheney has reshaped the vice presidency — as part of a larger drive to free the executive branch from all checks and balances. Nor did she seem to understand how much damage that has done to American democracy.

Mr. Cheney has shown what can happen when a vice president — a position that is easy to lampoon and overlook — is given free rein by the president and does not care about trampling on the Constitution.

Mr. Cheney has long taken the bizarre view that the lesson of Watergate was that Congress was too powerful and the president not powerful enough. He dedicated himself to expanding President Bush’s authority and arrogating to himself executive, legislative and legal powers that are nowhere in the Constitution.

This isn’t the first time that Ms. Palin was confronted with the issue. In an interview with Katie Couric of CBS News, the Alaska governor was asked what she thought was the best and worst about the Cheney vice presidency. Ms. Palin tried to dodge: laughing and joking about the hunting accident in which Mr. Cheney accidentally shot a friend. The only thing she had to add was that Mr. Cheney showed support for the troops in Iraq.

There was not a word about Mr. Cheney’s role in starting the war with Iraq, in misleading Americans about weapons of mass destruction, in leading the charge to create illegal prison camps where detainees are tortured, in illegally wiretapping Americans, in creating an energy policy that favored the oil industry that made him very rich before the administration began.

Ms. Couric asked Joseph Biden, Ms. Palin’s rival, the same question in a separate interview. He had it exactly right when he told her that Mr. Cheney’s theory of the “unitary executive” held that “Congress and the people have no power in a time of war.” And he had it right in the debate when he called Mr. Cheney “the most dangerous vice president we’ve had in American history.”

The Constitution does not state or imply any flexibility in the office of vice president. It gives the vice president no legislative responsibilities other than casting a tie-breaking vote in the Senate when needed and no executive powers at all. The vice president’s constitutional role is to be ready to serve if the president dies or becomes incapacitated.

Any president deserves a vice president who will be a sound adviser and trustworthy supporter. But the American people also deserve and need a vice president who understands and respects the balance of power — and the limits of his or her own power. That is fundamental to our democracy.

So far, Ms. Palin has it exactly, frighteningly wrong.

Link to article: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/04/opinion/04sat1.html

quinta-feira, 2 de outubro de 2008

Roger Cohen: Nixon, Bush, Palin

Nixon, Bush, Palin

by Roger Cohen, New York Times, October 1, 2008
Credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

In 1970, in the midst of the longest bear market since World War II, President Richard Nixon declared: “Frankly, if I had any money, I’d be buying stocks right now.”

The market soared.

Now, I’ve been asking myself, just for the heck of it, what would happen if President Bush tried his own jawboning of the market and said: “Frankly, if I had any money, I’d be buying stocks right now.”

My conclusion is: Mr. President, please, please do not say that! I reckon the market could tank in ways that would make this week’s one-day 777 point plunge look paltry.

I’m not about to write a paean to Nixon. I watched him quit in a bar in Bolinas, Calif.; I can still hear the cheer. But even his tortured, sleazy nature betrayed some essential seriousness about the fate of the United States. By contrast, the Bush crowd has gambled the future of this country with abandon.

(And Nixon did resign as impeachment loomed. Whatever happened to the notion that someone — a cabinet member, a Wall Street C.E.O., the inventor of credit-default swaps — might actually fall on his or her sword? Shame has become a quaint chivalric notion, like honor, a thing of another American time.)

A closer look at the Bush gamble is merited because the first person to reprice risk on the basis it no longer existed was the president. Now, that’s leading by example.

The gamble involved going to war in Iraq at an estimated cost to date of about $700 billion (does that figure sound familiar?), while opting not to raise taxes but to lower them. It involved going into that war, and another in Afghanistan, while asking not for shared sacrifice but a great collective maxing-out in the service of: shopping.

At the same time, Bush, who often seemed to need directions to the Treasury, opted to allow an opaque derivatives market to grow into the trillions without supervision, regulation or information. The market knew best. Turns out that what the market knew best was how to turn capitalism into a pyramid scheme for trading worthless paper.

The cost is now clear. But we should be grateful for small mercies. Remember Bush wanted to throw Social Security into the casino, too, by privatizing it!

Market capitalism is a sophisticated thing that calls for transparency, ethics and rules. Bush and his crowd gambled that some “new paradigm” meant these things were passé.

They’re not. We have to be careful now. Already the contagion of bank failures has spread to Europe. People are asking of the United States: what became of this country?

The Chinese have been ready to treat U.S. Treasuries as a rock-hard store of value and loan us the dollars they accumulate at a very low interest rate. But what if they start to doubt the U.S. government will repay its debt?

“We are getting closer to a tipping-point,” said Benn Steil, an economist. “People are asking: can we really trust the dollar as a store of value?”

The Bretton Woods system of monetary management collapsed in 1971, under Nixon. Since then the dollar’s been the primary reserve currency. Now, we’re reaching another point where a rethink of the foundations for a global economy is needed.

Global trade and capital flows are essential to prosperity. But it’s illogical to have a global system with no global reserve as insurance. Perhaps the trillions of Gulf and Chinese surpluses could be used to finance that. Or perhaps it’s time for a return to the gold standard.

I know one thing: this is no time for further gambling. John McCain rolled the dice on Sarah Palin. I’m grateful to Bob Rice of Tangent Capital for pointing out that the actuarial risk, based on mortality tables, of Palin becoming president if the Republican ticket wins the election is about 1 in 6 or 7.

That’s the same odds as your birthday falling on a Wednesday, or being delayed on two consecutive flights into Newark airport. Is America ready for that?

The lesson of the last eight years is this: when power is a passport to gamble, people can end up seriously broke or seriously dead.

There is one capable, sober guy in the Bush administration: Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He recently said that U.S. forces in Iraq had to learn counterinsurgency on the job. “But that came at a frightful human, financial and political cost,” he noted.

Gates warned that “warfare is inevitably tragic, inefficient.” He urged skepticism of any notion that “adversaries can be cowed, shocked or awed into submission, instead of being tracked down, hilltop by hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block.”

In short, he lambasted the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Bush war effort for its gambler’s irresponsibility. The financial equivalent of reckless “Shock and Awe” has been “Sub and Prime.”

And people’s houses across America really did go up in smoke.

And fear stalked the land.

Link to article: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/02/opinion/02Cohen.html