a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Decision 2008

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th October 2008

McCain and Obama after third debate, Hofstra University, 10/15/08
McCain and Obama after their third debate, Hofstra University, 10/15/08.

The image comes via Jonathan Schwarz, who is kinder about it than I will be: “In any case, the point here really isn’t that John McCain is a ridiculous person. It’s that he’s a person, and hence ridiculous.” That’s true. I have no doubt if 100 photographers were snapping away at me for 15 minutes, they’d catch a ridiculous expression or five by the time it was over.

But it’s also true that this particular moment didn’t come out of nowhere; for me, the image captures and crystallizes a difference between the two men.

First, throughout the debate, McCain was fidgety; Obama was calm.  McCain was dismissive and derisive of incredibly inappropriate things, rolling his eyes when Obama mentioned the murders of labor leaders in Colombia, and sneering about a mother’s health as a valid reason for late term abortions.  He also would jump in to interrupt Obama frequently.  To me, Obama was more polite and, for lack of a better word, more mature than his elder rival.

Second, rolling the tape clarifies the moment a little.  McCain had (somewhat inexplicably) begun following Obama around the table to shake moderator Schieffer’s hand, even as Schieffer was continuing to move in the opposite direction, to meet McCain on his side of the table.  McCain caught himself, and executed an exaggerated, “look how loose I am,” …. what’s the word I’m looking for …. erratic doubletake to reverse course.  “Must attack” had been replaced by “must shake hands and appear friendly.”

The debates themselves are generally uninformative compared to reading the news, and generally disappointing in that even the preferred candidate often makes concessions to conventional wisdom and the putative “center” that I wish he or she wouldn’t.  (Still, here’s a transcript of the third one via the L.A. Times.) I sort of hate watching them in the same way I hate watching gymnastics or figure skating competitions: things can only go wrong, a stumble or a spill often determines the winner more than their best effort does.  I can’t even handle the second hand pressure of it all.

But the candidates need to be able to handle it; there will be tougher challenges than that in store for the winner.

And in an election that has a subtext about who’s ready for that 3 a.m. phone call, who’s the “steady hand at the tiller,” it seems to me that Obama has won that comparison by now — and by quite a margin.  The photo above isn’t necessarily evidence, but it is an apt symbol.

UPDATE, 10/23: At, jbc goes into the goofy moment in more depth, and links to good commentary by Atlantic Monthly’s James Fallows.  Among jbc’s many good observations: “But in the contrast it makes with Obama’s much more serious tone, it really highlights a difference in temperament between the two. Obama takes this effort really seriously. McCain, on some level, not so much.”;

Posted in Post | No Comments »

Rating the Debate

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th September 2008

I didn’t get to see the knockout blow by Obama last night I confess I’d been crossing my fingers for; instead, the debate was a vivid demonstration of how narrow the field of debate is, and/or how unwilling Obama is to run outside the hash marks and set up some of that change he’s been promising. Examples (debate transcript via the New York Times):

I actually believe that we need missile defense, because of Iran and North Korea and the potential for them to obtain or to launch nuclear weapons  […]

Senator McCain is absolutely right that the violence has been reduced as a consequence of the extraordinary sacrifice of our troops and our military families.  […]

And to countries like Georgia and the Ukraine, I think we have to insist that they are free to join NATO if they meet the requirements, and they should have a membership action plan immediately to start bringing them in.  […]

[Iran has] gone from zero centrifuges to 4,000 centrifuges to develop a nuclear weapon.

To the contrary: if we’re ever hit by a nuclear weapon in the U.S., it will almost certainly arrive here not by missile, but in a container on a ship, truck, or train. The surge didn’t reduce violence, the successful conclusion to ethnic cleansing and al-Sadr’s decision to pocket his gains did. Fast-tracking Georgia into NATO is of less than no value to American interests compared to locking down loose nukes, something Obama said in the next breath was something he also wanted; he may have to choose. And while I seem to be the last person on the East Coast who remembers it, it was not one year ago that a National Intelligence Estimate stated, and I quote, We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.

Even on Iraq, Obama couldn’t forebear to lead his criticisms with the observation that “We have weakened our capacity to project power around the world because we have viewed everything through this single lens,” as if our capacity to project power is itself the goal and point of American foreign policy.

I think Josh Marshall misses the point here: “I know that many Obama supporters are disappointed that he passed on various opportunities to deliver a smackdown that McCain couldn’t recover from. But having watched the guy for 18 months now, for better and worse, that’s not who he is.”  I realize that Obama is temperamentally not inclined to go for the jugular, and that may even be smart politics.  As hilzoy argued, his graciousness compared to McCain’s rudeness may be the dominant impression that many take away from the debate — something that burnishes his “bipartisan, get it done” credentials (not to mention his “not an angry old coot” credentials) much more than McCain’s.

The point wasn’t that Obama failed to smack McCain down, though I wish he had — say, on voting against the Webb G.I. bill, given McCain’s teary praise for vets.  (Bonus: would have got McCain mad, always good to watch for those just tuning in.)  No, it was actually and simply that he agreed on too much with McCain. As Jim Henley wrote after the debate:

As a symptom of the constriction of elite opinion, the debate was instructive less for the answers than even the questions. “Foreign policy” consists of wars and nothing but wars. It’s about whom you bomb or don’t, and whom you do or don’t convince to help you bomb someone.

The debate certainly also proved that there’s plenty of important stuff Obama is right about and McCain is wrong about.  But even if and when Obama wins this election, that will not be the end of all that’s wrong with our military and foreign policy.

Not all of that is Obama’s fault by any means.  Tonight, I saw a video by a group heretofore unknown to me: United Against Nuclear Iran.  It featured lots of ominous music, and repeated yet again the claim that Iran was building nuclear weapons. The video has one Richard Sokolsky talking about military measures as a way of stopping Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions. And while known neocons Fouad Ajami and James Woolsey were two of the talking heads involved, so were ex-Clintonistas Dennis Ross and Richard Holbrooke.

Posted in Post | 1 Comment »

Presidential campaigns in a democracy don’t work this way

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th September 2008

Every night now, my 10 year old asks me, “has Sarah Palin done anything stupid today?” And every night — except for the “war with Russia? like, whatever” interview with Charlie Gibson — I have to answer that Ms. Palin hasn’t done anything at all, really.  As days have turned into weeks and Palin has yet to face a press conference, the McCain campaign has succeeded in prolonging her honeymoon with the right wing base, and controlling the terms of her coverage towards precisely the kind of “celebrity” status they once derided Obama for.

That’s why there’s some glee in the leftish blogosphere about CNN’s refusal to go along with a completely transparent ploy for free air time.  CBS News reporter Scott Conroy reported that hours before a Palin grip-and-grin with her first pair of foreign leaders (Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Colombian president Alvaro Uribe), Palin’s aides notified CNN that while the TV coverage pool and CNN video cameras were welcome, the CNN producer wouldn’t be allowed to be at the proceedings. As Conroy explained:

This means that the McCain/Palin campaign would get the benefit of free pictures of Palin’s meeting with world leaders without having to face the possibility that the candidate might have to answer a question from the media.

CNN threatened to pull its coverage, leaving Palin invisible for another day — and the McCain/Palin campaign relented, allowing a a producer to attend the so-called “photo spray.” The Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen was pleased — maybe a little too easily pleased — with the pushback:

Good call. The McCain campaign’s overbearing handlers are panicked at the notion of a candidate for national office hearing an unscripted question for which she has not been prepped. As a result, they want the benefit of the images, without the risk of embarrassment. As it turns out, presidential campaigns in a democracy don’t work this way.

Sure they do — McCain’s has so far. Several points: (1) “democracy” had nothing to do with the result Mr. Benen applauds; Ms. Palin merely ran afoul of CNN company policy. (2) What’s more, the decisionmakers involved would have instantly changed their minds if the event had been too juicy to pass up.  And finally, (3): the CNN producer, Peter Hamby got all of 29 seconds of access time, in which he was able to hear Mr. Karzai explain his son’s name to Ms. Palin, and apparently was unable to ask any questions.

As this MediaMatters video (“Change the Debate”) demonstrates all too clearly, the major media have accomplished nothing substantial in this election campaign other than to embarrass themselves and the country. If CNN, CBS, ABC et al are wondering how it came to pass that they’d be asked to be publicity cameramen for a nincompoop mayor from Alaska, they need only look in the mirror.

Still, as it turns out, Mr. Benen has a point after all: presidential campaigns in a democracy don’t work this way.  At least not for us.

UPDATE, 9/26: Well, I’ll finally have something to tell Maddie again; it appears that Ms. Palin has shown how extremely stupid and/or deer in the headlights and/or talented a word salad maker she can be in that Katie Couric interview.  The Editors at the Poor Man Institute have two clips of the interview and one useful comparison.

Posted in Post | No Comments »

Told you it could have been worse

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th August 2008

With all due skepticism about Joe Biden, at least he’s no Sarah Palin, who as far as I can tell has three and only three simple virtues: two X chromosomes, a pulse, and paleolithic political views.

She also appears to have the de rigeur Alaska scandal brewing — a kind of mini-Attorneygate featuring a state police officer she may have tried to improperly force a public safety commissioner to fire (the trooper was in the middle of a messy divorce with her sister). More will doubtless bubble up about this at Talking Points Memo in the days ahead.

A common point being made now is “there goes McCain’s argument about Obama’s lack of experience.” And that’s true enough.

But there’s a deeper, more damaging message Obama and Biden should hammer home mercilessly. It’s that the two leading candidates — after long, secret, and full deliberation — made diametrically opposite calls about who they would tap as their potential replacements: one chose a veteran, the other a tenderfoot. One chose conservatively, the other chose a news cycle bump. One chose to ensure and insure the future of the country, the other chose to risk it.

Biden may not be a “harbinger of change,” as I put it when his nomination was announced. But were he to succeed to the presidency because Obama were incapacitated or dead, people including myself would accept that he would have a good idea of who to talk to, what to say, and what to do. So would any number of other choices, of course, but Biden’s the one, and he’ll do on that score.

By contrast, to be brutally frank, I think about 90 percent of the country would immediately break out in an ice cold sweat if a Vice President Sarah Palin, 44, learned she was to be the next president of the United States.

Having insinuated over and over that Obama isn’t ready for the job, all of a sudden it’s McCain — not Obama — who has chosen to gamble the future of the United States on an unvetted unknown. And it’s McCain — who if elected would be the oldest President ever — who did this as a transparent campaign ploy.

It’s one thing to say Obama doesn’t have enough experience on the national and international stage, and that that matters more than judgment, temperament, and wisdom. Obama knows otherwise, but he also knew he had a responsibility to nominate someone both he and the country knew was a reasonable choice for the job of the Presidency in the event of his death — rather than pull some eccentric stunt to shake up the election campaign.

To put it another way: when they need it and can get it, grownups make different choices about life insurance than gamblers do. Same with vice presidential picks.

SELECTED REACTIONS: Not too surprised Andrew Sullivan had similar thoughts; quite a bit more surprised that NRO’s David Frum and Rannesh Ponnuru share them, and share them publicly. Ezra Klein, watching the teevee, writes “The base may be happy, but the coverage here is reminiscent of nothing so much as the reception that greeted Harriet Miers.” That didn’t work out so well for Harriet, as I recall. Eagleton II?
EDIT, 8/30: “when they need it and can get it” added.

UPDATE, 9/2: Wow. When I said “unvetted” I meant by the country; now it looks like she was essentially unvetted by the McCain campaign. The New York Times’s Elizabeth Bumiller reports: “A Republican with ties to the campaign said the team assigned to vet Ms. Palin in Alaska had not arrived there until Thursday, a day before Mr. McCain stunned the political world with his vice-presidential choice.” Via hilzoy, who points out that means McCain isn’t just reckless with the country’s interests, he’s reckless with his own — making him an essentially unpredictable man. Talking Points Memo relays an Andrea Mitchell NBC report that more vetting is currently underway — days after the announcement — confirming an Alaska GOP rival’s report forwarded by John Cole.

Posted in Post | No Comments »

Good for a grin

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th August 2008


# Jonathan Schwarz (“A Tiny Revolution”) — “Almost all political conflict, especially in the US, boils down to a fight between the Sane Billionaires and the Insane Billionaires. It generally follows this template:

INSANE BILLIONAIRES: Let’s kill everyone and take their money!
SANE BILLIONAIRES: I like the way you think. I really do. But if we keep everyone alive, and working for us, we’ll make even more money, in the long term.

Works in China, too.

# — because we don’t just need a president who puts Barney Smith before Smith Barney, we need a president who IS Barney Smith.

# YouTube Comment Snob “is a Firefox extension that filters out undesirable comments from YouTube comment threads. You can choose to have any of the following rules mark a comment for removal: * More than # spelling mistakes: The number of mistakes is customizable, and the extension uses Firefox’s built-in spell checker. * etc. etc. # All capital letters# No capital letters # Excessive punctuation (!!!! ????)…” etcetera etcetera. Patrick Nielsen Hayden asks the right question: “Can we have this for the entire Internet?”

# Take A Load Off Fannie at “CalculatedRisk”: “The story of Fannie Mae, as narrated by The Band.”

# The Guardian: the whole world’s only source for backup Fafblog. It’s true.

HAT TIPS: Aviva Othirtytwo (Barney), Andrew H. (Fannie)

Posted in Post | No Comments »

Hey Senator Obama! Why not buy some airtime for this great ad?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th August 2008

Dear Senator Obama, I realize we Internet folks have been asking you NOT to do a lot of stuff. Please don’t vote for telecom immunity. Please don’t make Evan Bayh your VP. Nag, nag, nag… right?

Well, this time we’d like to ask you TO do something. There’s a great independent ad up on youtube, you can see it here:

We think your campaign should get behind it, and buy it some air time on TV! Its a great ad on its own merits, and it would show that you understand the power of user-created media.

So please, Senator, get behind this ad.

(Text and ad via the facebook group named, appropriately enough, “Hey Senator Obama! Why not buy some airtime for this great ad?”)

Posted in Post | No Comments »

2008 presidential candidates on executive power: an interactive, downloadable spreadsheet

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th December 2007

The spreadsheet below organizes the responses of twelve presidential candidates* to twelve questions about their views on executive power, in light of President Bush’s myriad abuses thereof. The questions were posed by the Boston Globe’s Charlie Savage; the Boston Globe web site with the questions and all the answers is here (“Candidates on executive power: a full spectrum,” Dec. 22).

I developed this so I could play around with grading the responses and see if I could find someone head and shoulders ahead or behind the rest of the pack. Rather than give the full answer to each question, I’ve excerpted the key part or summarized the answer; the full answer can be accessed via the candidate or question links. I graded on a fairly generous 0-4 scale, with answers I saw little or no problem with getting a 4, little problems getting a 3, and so on. I also gave -1’s to “declined to answer” or the like. The last two questions (about who advises the candidates, and whether they think all candidates should answer) struck me as less informative for my purposes, so I gave them lower weights in my results. The weighted average scores — 3.8 for Obama, 3.6 for Clinton in the image above — are the overall score to look at.

The upshot: I see much to welcome about the three top Democratic candidates — or at least expect of them — and little to make me think one or the other is definitely best on this score. Edwards spoke in more of a campaign soundbite format, Obama tended to give long answers. I was mildly surprised that I thought Biden (also prone to some very long answers) did the best overall of the Democrats, but again, the differences were slight. While I’m an Edwards supporter, his answers were sometimes not fully responsive to the question or my concerns for the future; thus, I didn’t reward him merely saying he didn’t “envision” disregarding a congressional statute limiting troop deployments. I’m not sure what happened to Kucinich and Gravel, but they’re missing from this survey, which seems a shame to me.

On the Republican side, I thought Ron Paul was far and away the best of the bunch, though he’d be merely in the middle of the Democratic pack given his answers to congressional limits on troop deployments, and making detainee habeas rights a matter of the specific war involved. McCain was, I thought, noticeably worse than any of the Democratic candidates — yet he’d be a huge improvement on Bush. Romney, on the other hand, distinguished himself by giving one disturbing answer after the other, perhaps most notably his answer to Question 7:

If Congress defines a specific interrogation technique as prohibited under all circumstances, does the president’s authority as commander in chief ever permit him to instruct his subordinates to employ that technique despite the statute?

ROMNEY: A President should decline …to provide an opinion as to whether Congress may validly limit his power as to the use of a particular technique…

… but also Question 10:

Is there any executive power the Bush administration has claimed or exercised that you think is unconstitutional? Anything you think is simply a bad idea?

ROMNEY: The Bush Administration has kept the American people safe since 9/11. The Administration’s strong view on executive power may well have contributed to that fact.

So given a chance to put some daylight, any daylight at all between himself and Bush, Romney chose not to. Elect this man at your peril, America.

But Giuliani, Thompson, and Huckabee, by contrast, distinguished themselves by not answering at all — something I can understand for one or the other question, but not for all of them. To me, the issue of overreaching executive power is one of the most fundamental and important issues of the past 7 years, and of this election; a candidate who refuses to inform the public about any of his positions doesn’t deserve anyone’s vote, and his voters are raising their hands that they’d like to live in a dictatorship.

But why take my word for it when you can download this spreadsheet and come to your own conclusions? I don’t see the stuff above as my final answer, for that matter; I could be convinced I’ve got the scores wrong for one set of questions or another, or for one candidate versus another.

Anyway, have a look. For a more convenient look at the spreadsheet itself, go here. To download it to your computer in a useable, interactive Excel form, click here.

* Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel either weren’t asked or didn’t respond in time — judging by how they’re not listed as “declined to state” for any of the questions.

UPDATE, 1/15: For other reactions to the questionnaire, see the estimable law professors Marty Lederman and Jack Balkin (”Balkinization”), as well as Andrew Sullivan, Arianna Huffington, Glenn Greenwald, and more.

Posted in Post | 14 Comments »

Not your call to make, Senator McCain

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st September 2004

Not so very long ago, Senator John McCain called the Swift Boat Veterans attacks “the same kind of deal” Bush supporters pulled on him four years ago. Yet he has now pressured Kerry to drop an effective advertisement (“Old tricks” on the Internet, “Shame” on the unreleased TV ad) pointing out that very thing. AP reporter Deb Riechmann reported:

…McCain said he wanted Kerry to stop using him in advertising that denounces the anti-Kerry swift boat group. “I very much do not want them to use clips from my primary campaign against the president,” said the Republican, who lost to Bush in 2000 and is joining the president on the campaign trail this week. The Kerry campaign pulled those ads on Thursday. (via Salon)

Kerry wasn’t alone in seeing a familiar — and effective — Bush tactic. Wayne Slater, Dallas Morning News writer and author of a book about Karl Rove, was recently quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle: “In every case, the approach is the same: You have a surrogate group of allies, independent of the Bush campaign, raising questions not about the opponent’s weakness but directly about the opponent’s strength,” Slater said. “In every case it works.”

I was part of the McCain swoon back in the spring, briefly hoping that he and Kerry might join ranks, marginalize the loony right, and form an unbeatable ticket. McCain decided against that, and therefore that’s the right thing all around. Just as I don’t regret my daydream of a “sanity unity” ticket, I hold no grudges against McCain for going his own way (unless the whole pas de deux was a calculated trick from the outset by McCain, which seems unlikely as far as I know).

But I must say it’s disappointing hypocrisy on McCain’s part to ask Kerry to stop pointing out Bush’s m.o. and his clear association (“I can see why he’s mad at us“) with the Swift Boat Innuendists and Liars by using McCain’s own words from a similar situation four years ago. And it seems like foolish chivalry to me for John Kerry and his campaign to honor that request.

On Friday, Dan Balz of the Washington Post reported this statement from McCain:

I think from what we learned during the campaign, the president’s people were behind that [a third-party ad attacking him] and many, many other things that happened in South Carolina. But the most important aspect of this whole thing for me is to not look back in anger. … For to me to look back in anger at something that happened in the year 2000 is, one, sore loser, which Americans don’t like, and two, would impair my ability to serve the country.

(via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Fine, Senator, don’t look back in anger, don’t be a sore loser. But don’t think you get to ask the rest of us not to remember Bush/Rove tactics, or that Dubya’s newest buddy once froze him in the headlights about them. How or whether to remember history, even if you were in it, is not a call you get to make.

The BagNewsNotes blog notes that the Kerry ad can still be seen at the American Museum of the Moving Image “Living Room Candidate” online exhibit.

Posted in Post | No Comments »

Boeing air tanker lease deal approved

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th May 2003

U.S. Senator John McCain, Friday, May 23:

I am extremely disappointed that the Department of Defense has approved the lease of Boeing 767 aircraft for use as aerial tankers, a profligate waste of federal revenues. This is a great deal for the Boeing Company that I’m sure is the envy of corporate lobbyists from one end of K Street to the other. But it’s a lousy deal for the Air Force and for the American taxpayer.

For background, see my earlier posts (04/20/03, 01/01/02), but also a reader e-mail comment mentioned on 05/04/03. After the famous Far Side cartoon, here’s what I imagine the Bush administration heard:

blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah blah. This is a great deal for the Boeing Company blah blah blah…

McCain points out that the Defense Department appears to have ignored a specific Congressional requirement to provide an “analysis of alternatives”, or AOA in the jargon, and comments, I know of no other weapon system that has been procured by the Pentagon without an AOA.” The senator notes that the Armed Services Committee will look into the matter, and promises he will hold hearings in the Commerce Committee on aspects of the lease.

Posted in Post | No Comments »