Monday, September 15, 2008

Honesty and Policy

Honesty is not policy. The real honest man is honest from conviction of what is right, not from policy. -- Robert E. Lee

In this week's Sift:

  • Does the Truth Matter? Everyone from liberal bloggers to Karl Rove agrees that McCain is lying. Does the electorate care?
  • The Palin Trap. What if we spend all our time tearing down Sarah Palin and forget to mention that Obama has a health care plan?
  • Short Notes. Another Monday, another financial disaster. McCain's roommates. Wind power. Voter suppression. The latest from ONN. And Craig Ferguson on voting.

Does the Truth Matter?
Here's how a normal presidential campaign works: You stretch facts a little, you take your opponent somewhat out of context, and if the media starts to call you on some particular distortion, you back off and find some other facts to stretch. Serious lying is reserved for outside-the-campaign groups, like the Swift Boat Veterans who smeared John Kerry's war record.

This week the mainstream media started to notice what bloggers (and Brave New Films ) picked up some while ago: McCain has thrown that playbook away. He and Palin tell whopping lies, and if the media calls them on one they just keep repeating it. A lead paragraph in Wednesday's Washington Post seemed taken aback by this bold trail-breaking into new frontiers of mendacity:
From the moment Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin declared that she had opposed the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," critics, the news media and nonpartisan fact checkers have called it a fabrication or, at best, a half-truth. But yesterday in Lebanon, Ohio, and again in Lancaster, Pa., she crossed that bridge again.
The article quotes a Republican strategist:
The more the New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there's a bigger
truth out there and the bigger truths are she's new, she's popular in
Alaska and she is an insurgent. As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter.
Which answers exactly what Post columnist E. J. Dionne was asking in that same edition: Does the truth matter any more?:
This is not false naivete: I am genuinely surprised that John McCain
and his campaign keep throwing out false charges and making false
claims without any qualms.
Friday, Associated Press started cataloging McCain lies. ("Even in a political culture accustomed to truth-stretching, McCain's skirting of facts has stood out this week.") By Saturday, DailyKos' Chris Carlson was seeing a widespread John-McCain-is-a-liar meme, quoting articles in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Dallas Morning News. On Sunday, even the Army Times chimed in. And Karl Rove, no less.

What's striking about this coverage is the directness. Typically, the media turns all disputes -- even disputes about checkable facts -- into he-said/she-said stories, something like: "Vice President Cheney said today that the sky is green and has always been green. Some Democrats objected, claiming that the sky is often blue." That's considered balanced reporting. If a journalist actually went out, looked at the sky, and told us that Cheney is wrong, that would be taking sides. (Because, as Stephen Colbert has pointed out, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias.") But apparently McCain has crossed some line, and now reporters feel justified in acting like ... well, like reporters.

Democrats are also getting more aggressive. In this clip from MSNBC, Ari Melber takes apart a Republican flack. The lie in this case was the McCain ad claiming that Obama had voted for comprehensive sex education in kindergarten, when in fact he supported teaching kindergarteners how to avoid sexual predators. When called on the ad, the Republican retreats to "We don't know what was in that bill" -- which seems to be the McCain standard: It's not up to us to verify something before we claim it.

When McCain appeared on "The View" Friday, he got a hard grilling from the regulars, including being told by Joy Behar that his ads were "lies". Undaunted, McCain told a true whopper later in the show. Barbara Walters pushed him to get specific about what "reform" really means, so he started talking about Sarah Palin refusing earmarks. "She also took some earmarks," Walters observed. "Not as governor she didn't," McCain lied.

This is exactly the kind of thing that Dionne had expressed "genuinely surprise" over two days before. It's checkable, there's no interpretation about it, and it's false. As governor, Palin requested earmarks that are indistinguishable from the ones McCain ridicules in his stump speech. McCain likes to talk about a $3 million earmark "to study the DNA of bears in Montana". Gov. Palin requested a $3.2 million earmark to study the DNA of seals, and half a million to study the mating habits of crabs.

But McCain can look into a camera and with absolute sincerity tell a national audience that this never happened.

Now, in some sense this kind of stuff is trivial. A $3.2 million earmark isn't what's wrong with our government. (Earmarks in general are pretty trivial, if you're talking about trying to balance the budget.) But honesty and integrity aren't trivial. Paul Krugman connects the dots:

I’m talking ... about the relationship between the character
of a campaign and that of the administration that follows. Thus, the deceptive and dishonest 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign provided an all-too-revealing preview of things to come. In fact, my early
suspicion that we were being misled about the threat from Iraq came from the way the political tactics being used to sell the war resembled the tactics that had earlier been used to sell the Bush tax cuts. And now the team that hopes to form the next administration is running a campaign that makes Bush-Cheney 2000 look like something out of a civics class. What does that say about how that team would run the country?

The interesting question is whether any of this will move the polls. Maybe, after eight years of Bush-Cheney, the electorate finds it perfectly normal that political speech is completely manipulative and has no significant informational value. We've been told that tax cuts don't cause deficits, that we'd capture Bin Laden dead or alive, that it didn't matter whether we captured Bin Laden, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, that wiretaps are only done with warrants, that the United States doesn't torture people, that the Iraqi insurgency was in its last throes, that the Iraqis could finance their own reconstruction, and God knows what else. What kind of fool would expect a president to be bound by the truth?

If that's the case, then I think the American republic is in real trouble. How meaningful is our vote, if we can't get any reliable information to vote on? At that point it's all just American Idol.

Psychologically, I think it's fascinating the way McCain is re-running the sleazy campaign that Bush ran against him in 2000 in South Carolina: the untraceable negative rumors about Obama, the disregard for truth, and now the slogan-stealing. McCain ran with a reform theme in 2000, and after he won in New Hampshire Bush stole it right out from under him. "Reformer with Results" said the banners behind Bush. It worked. So now McCain is trying to steal "change" from Obama.

I'm reminded of George Wallace, who in the 1950s was fairly liberal for a white Alabama politician. But losing his first gubernatorial campaign to a hardline segregationist transformed him. "I was out-niggered," Wallace said privately. "I will never be out-niggered again."

The PalinTrap
The biggest topic of discussion on liberal blogs this week was whether we should be focusing on the various Sarah Palin issues or ignoring them. Looseheadprop on FireDogLake sums up the ignore-her case:
Why do you think they wanted a candidate with Troopergate,
Librariangate, and all the other salacious issues that belong on Jerry Springer? So that we would waste energy and precious time giggling over this stuff instead doing the right thing--specifically tying Bush/Cheney around the neck of each and every GOP candidate, starting with McSame, like the millstone they are and then throwing that GOP candidate overboard to sink under the weight of Bush/Cheney failures.
McCain's only hope to win, in this analysis, is if people ignore the issues. His strategy relies distraction, on tossing up a whole series of bright, shiny objects that will draw the electorate's attention away from their worries about the economy, whether they'll be able to afford health care, whether we're going to end these wars or start new ones, or anything else that's important. Palin is the brightest, shiniest object yet. If we talk about her from now until November, McCain wins.

Framing expert Jeffrey Feldman says that McCain's shift back to the culture wars has given Obama a winning move if he can take advantage of it: the Solve Real Problems frame. Every message -- even charges that McCain is lying -- should be rooted in a basic message of Obama trying to solve real problems and McCain trying to derail that effort. (A Daily Kossack backs this up with his experience working an Obama phonebank. The undecided voters he talked to like Palin, but are swayed when he talks about Obama's programs and solutions.)

The focus-on-her bloggers, on the other hand, say McCain relies on mythology triumphing over facts. If McCain and Palin are the Maverick Twins who are going to ride in from the West, clean up this here capital city, and run the varmints out of town -- he wins. If that myth were true, maybe he even should win. But it's false in just about every particular. Over the past eight years McCain has sold out all of his principles to support the Bush administration. (In February he even backed down on torture.) And Palin is the scariest kind of right-wing extremist -- vindictive, cruel, proudly ignorant, and willing to use today the tactics that she denounced yesterday. ("George Bush with big hair" says Garrison Keillor.) "Reform" means replacing people she doesn't like with people she likes -- nothing more.

In addition to the practical aspects of tearing down the Palin myth, there's the pure emotional response liberals have to the pro-Palin double standard. (That's the real point of the Palin-Hillary SNL skit.) For example, there was a big hoo-hah when Michelle Obama made a comment that could be taken out of context and construed as a lack of patriotism. But it's no big deal that Todd Palin belonged for years to the Alaskan Independence Party -- a party for people who don't want to be Americans at all. And I recommend not even trying to imagine the right-wing reaction if Chelsea Clinton had gotten pregnant in 1997, when she was 17.

It seems weird to use a celebrity interview as a man-on--the-street reaction, but this Matt Damon clip really captures how scary the prospect of President Palin is to a lot of us: "I need to know if she really thinks dinosaurs were here four thousand years ago. I want to know that, I really do. Because she's going to have the nuclear codes." (Sadly, like most celebrity liberals Matt is misinformed about Biblical chronology. Bishop Ussher pinpointed Noah's Flood -- when the dinosaurs became extinct -- at 2348 BC, and some young-Earth creationists today think it happened nearly 5,000 years ago. Four thousand years -- dinosaurs in 1992 BC -- would just be nutty.)

I find myself in the middle. The McCain strategy resembles that of a stage magician: Tell an attractive-but-false story about what you're doing, while managing the stage effects to take the audience's eyes off the real sleight-of-hand. The Maverick Myth needs to be blown up, but that point needs to be made quickly, not dwelt on. (Like this: "McCain tried running as a maverick in 2000 and he lost. So for the last eight years he's been selling out to the Bush administration and the far right wing -- because being president is more important to him than having integrity.") If that point gets challenged, you don't need a laundry list, you just need one telling example: torture. ("If there was any issue you'd think McCain would stand up for, it would be torture. But he even sold out on that.") If somebody tries to use Palin as a positive argument, make them bring up specifics. The Obama-campaign argument should just be a flat: "All that stuff about Palin and reform is a fantasy. They made it all up." Keep all the other stuff in your back pocket in case you need it, but don't bring it up: troopergate, book-banning, and the rest.

In other words, make the point and move on to talk about Solving Real Problems. Don't fall into the trap of talking endlessly about Palin and not at all about Bush and Cheney. And don't kid yourself that there's still plenty of time. The Republicans have a blizzard of false negative ads about Tony Rezko and Bill Ayers waiting to run in October. Anything we haven't brought up by then will get drowned out.

OK, I can't resist continuing to talk about Palin long enough to link this clip made from her Gibson interview, where she sounds like a C-student taking an oral exam.

This Obama ad is a pretty good attack: McCain is lying to distract us from his connections to Bush. But it needs to be a one-two punch with this ad of Obama talking straight to the camera about what he wants to do.

Colbert King gives us a quick lesson on racism and classism by comparing Bristol Palin's pregnancy with the letters he got after writing a column on teen pregnancy in inner-city Washington. The public reacts very differently to a middle-class white pregnant teen-ager than to a poor black pregnant teen-ager.

Short Notes
One disadvantage of writing on Mondays is that so many big financial deals get worked out over the weekend that it's hard to figure out what to make of them Monday morning. This morning, Lehman Brothers declared backruptcy after failing to find anyone to buy what was one of Wall Street's big names not too long ago. Merrill Lynch, apparently in bad shape but not quite so bad as Lehman, sold itself to Bank of America. Insurance giant AIG (which had already lost $14 billion in the first half of 2008) is trying to get a $40 billion loan from the Fed. If they don't get it, they might go bust too. The Dow dropped 300 points in response.

What makes all this so worrisome is that cacading bankruptcies are precisely what precipitate depressions. Last week the value of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac preferred stock -- once considered quite safe -- cratered. That may have had something to do with destabilizing Lehman and Merrill. And now you have to wonder whether there are firms whose balance sheets looked fine Friday, but now they have to look at the money Lehman or AIG owed them and wonder how much of that they'll ever see again. Maybe that makes them insolvent too. Or maybe it just makes their customers worry about insolvency and start moving their money somewhere that looks safer, and that pushes the firms into insolvency.

Nobody knows where it's going to stop. In case you're wondering whether to sell everything you own and hide the cash in your mattress, the FDIC insures bank accounts up to $100,000 and the SIPC protects brokerage accounts up to $500,000 (protects them against the bankruptcy of the the brokerage, not against trading losses).

The best short online political video I've seen in a while is a two-part (so far) series called "McCain's Roommates". The premise is two ordinary guys who share an apartment with John McCain. McCain is always off-screen, all his lines are taken from the audio of his public appearances, and the roommate problems parallel what's going on in the campaign. In the first episode, the roommates are trying to complain to McCain about the mess he left on the kitchen table, but he responds to every criticism by talking about his POW experience. In the second episode, the roommates are trying to talk McCain out of inviting Sarah Palin to move in with them. "We're worried about you as a friend, man. You're rushing into this. You don't know anything about this girl."

The Onion News Network has a great piece -- it's from the primary campaign, but it's still relevant -- "Candidates Compete for the Vital Idjit Vote." And they analyze the possibility that an even older, more curmudgeonly candidate might steal votes from McCain. They also profile the No-Values Voters, who are looking for an evil candidate they can support. "The tenor of the political debate right now seems focused on helping people and making positive change, and that's very alienating for people like us." And in sports news, ONN reports that the Jacksonville Jaguars forfeited a football game when "the pre-game coin toss caused the Jags to realize the randomness of life and the triviality of their own existence."

The challenge of wind power is that while you can build a coal-fired power plant anywhere you want and burn the coal whenever you need the electricity, you have to put a wind farm where the wind blows and you can't control how much power you'll get from one hour to the next. So you either have to be able to move the power to where it's needed or to store it somehow.

This article is about the limitations of the current electrical grid, which can't move large quantities of power even from upstate New York to New York City. This one is about off-shore wind farms, which seem to make a lot of sense in the Northeast. They're more expensive to build than land-based wind farms, but the wind is steadier offshore, and you get power a few miles off the East coast rather than in the middle of North Dakota. So the windmills are more expensive but the grid improvements are cheaper.

The dirty tricks to suppress voter turnout begin.

Did you hear that Venezuela and Boliva expelled their U.S. ambassadors? Me neither. You'd think somebody might have mentioned it to us.

You have to love Craig Ferguson's view of his adopted country's democratic process. Voting's not exciting or cool; it's a pain in the butt. But "if you don't vote, you're a moron." This is actually a fairly old idea. The word idiot comes from the same Greek root as idiosyncrasy. The original idiot was somebody who cared only about his own affairs and not at all about the community. The whole routine in the link is fabulous.

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