October 31st, 2008 by Rightsideup

I’ve started seeing the post-mortem pieces appearing in the media about what went wrong for John McCain, how the Republicans are out of touch and need to change, and whether Palin will be the candidate in 2012. Aside from the obvious point about doing an autopsy on someone who’s still breathing, there is a lot of muddled thinking in all that’s being written.

Firstly, the problem for the Republicans in this election isn’t too much conservatism. In fact, it’s the opposite. For president they’re running an apathetically middle of the road Republican with very little personal charm, a notoriously bad temper, serious health issues and very little track record of successfully running anything, who tried to use his VP pick as a bandaid to patch several holes in his own candidacy (youth, gender and conservatism being the obvious ones).

Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress have been doing their best impersonation of Democrats for so long that voters figured they might as well have the real thing. Spending has increased more and more quickly under the Bush administration than under the Clinton administration, and not just because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The utter failure to use their combined occupancy of the White House and the majority offices in Congress from 2000-2006 to push through any meaningful changes or improvements in the way the country is run was reason enough to kick them out. But the fact that they also presided over such a bloating of the government with so little effort to reduce not only pork barrel but also all other forms of spending was a disgrace. They gave their natural supporters so few reasons to vote for them it’s remarkable that they still have so many seats. Of course, that will change next week too.

The idea that conservatism has had its day, or that Sarah Palin represents anything like the kind of candidate needed to revive its fortunes, is preposterous. Republicans (conservative ones, at least in theory, with the exception of Bush 1) have occupied the White House for 20 of the last 28 years. They also had majorities in Congress for a good chunk of that time period. Voters are rejecting not conservatism, but a Republicanism that’s lost its teeth and no longer knows what it stands for. If you vote Democratic, at least you know that the bigger government, higher taxes and increased regulation are all deliberate and coordinated attempts to achieve a certain goal. When Republicans enact the same policies it’s out of lassitude and spinelessness.

The Republicans in Congress were punished in 2006 for not being conservative enough and instead of learning their lesson they nominated one of their own number for President in the face of several other options with no connections to Congress (the only institution in the country with a lower approval rating than President Bush). Far from being a Washington outsider with the power and will to change the status quo, McCain was Exhibit A in all that’s gone wrong in the nation’s capital for the last few years. As such, for all his speeches attempting to misappropriate Obama’s change message, McCain was powerless to say what really needed to be said in this election: that Republicans had abused the trust of the American people and he intended to regain that trust by being true to the core principles of the party. Instead we get this misguided stuff about standing up to his own party: does anyone actually want that? Don’t we really want him to stand up against his colleagues in Congress and be true to his party, which surely consists of registered Republican voters?

Sarah Palin as a candidate in 2012? Why on earth would that be a good idea? She was a terrible and cynical choice for the VP role, simultaneously exposing McCain’s poor decision making and fondness for a gimmick, and neutralising the best attack against Obama that McCain had: the former’s inexperience. If we’ve learned anything since Palin was nominated, it’s that she has very little meaningful executive experience, she’s way out of her depth in a national campaign, and perfect SNL fodder. She has brought no lasting bounce to McCain’s campaign and arguably has hurt it considerably. If all we want for president is someone with reliable conservative instincts and two X chromosomes, there are plenty of choices out there. But if we want someone capable of not just winning an election but running the largest country in the world we surely need much more than that.

Imagine now that Mitt Romney had been either the Republican presidential candidate or McCain’s VP pick. How different things would look. Against Obama’s inexperience and the combined Democratic ticket’s Congressional background, you’d have a true Washington outsider, someone who’s only been tainted by politics for four years, with all four spent in an executive role. Someone who truly understands the economy and money, and could explain it all to voters with patience and credibility. As VP, he would be a wonderful counterpoint to McCain’s crusty maverick – reliably conservative (who wants a maverick with his finger on the nuclear button, anyway?), confidence-inspiring, with economic and executive experience, and ready to take over at any minute should McCain not last the full four years. It’s too late for all that now, of course, but why couldn’t voters and McCain see this at the time? Was McCain really that desperate?

At any rate, the post-mortems will begin in earnest on the 5th, and there will no doubt be much self-examination in the Republican party. I just hope they learn the real lessons from this campaign rather than the lessons the media wants them to learn.

March 26th, 2008 by Rightsideup

According to a new Gallup poll, just over a quarter (28%) of Clinton supporters say they will vote for McCain rather than Obama if she doesn’t win. By contrast, just 19% of Obama supporters say they will support McCain. As with any poll, especially one taken so far ahead of the event it relates to, this must be taken with a large dose of salt, but it’s educational nonetheless.

Allahpundit over on Hot Air suggests that this is a measure of “sore-loserness” but I think that misses the point. The point is that there are at least two reasons why someone willing to vote for Clinton would be more likely to switch to McCain than someone who wanted Obama. The first is that, for those few people who can accurately place all three candidates on a traditional left-right spectrum, Hillary is closer to McCain than the comparably more left-wing Obama.

The second, though, and one more likely to be at play here, is that those favoring a serious candidate will prefer both Clinton and McCain over the less substantive Obama. While Clinton has of late taken to embellishing her own credentials she has overall focused far more on specifics and has a greater record on which to draw than does Obama. It’s likely that voters favoring experience and substance shy away from Obama and prefer Clinton to McCain by a greater or lesser margin.

Allahpundit goes on from his initial premise that this is about Hillary supporters being sorer losers to suggest that they key to keeping these numbers high is to make those supporters as sore as possible. But I think the correct strategy would actually be to continue to highlight Obama’s lack of substance, which is behind at least some Democrats’ distrust of him.

February 22nd, 2008 by Rightsideup

A huge dustup over the last couple of days about the New York Times’ article on John McCain and his ties to lobbyists, and in particular Vicki Iseman. The visceral reaction from the McCain campaign itself and many conservative commentators, bloggers, radio hosts and politicians is now been followed by a more measured approach to evaluating the article.

The Times has indeed erred in several key ways here:

  • it appears to have taken from December until this week to publish an article, virtually all of the details of which were known from the beginning of that period, and appears to have rushed the article to publication in response to a pending article from the New Republic. The Times denies this, but at the very least, this denial requires belief in a huge coincidence of timing. The timing is also convenient in that the Republicans now have their nominee, and the only way it can influence voters’ minds is in the general election, not the primaries, in contrast to, say, three weeks ago.
  • it uses innuendo and implication to suggest a romantic (if that’s the right word) relationship between McCain and Iseman despite the fact that none of its sources – even the unnamed ones – actually outright claimed this was the case.
  • it rehashes old scandals in great detail, even when one of them happened 20 years ago and the other was adequately explained as a non-scandal at the time.

The most egregious excerpt is the following:

A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.

That there was a romantic relationship – or any inappropriate closeness – has been denied by the one aide quoted by name in the article and by everyone associated with the McCain campaign now and previously. There is no doubt that the Times screwed up on this one, both in telling a story without basis in fact, and in its claims about the timing. It has also been ridiculously defensive since the publication:

Later in the day, one of Mr. McCain’s senior advisers leveled harsh criticism at The New York Times in what appeared to be a deliberate campaign strategy to wage a war with the newspaper. Mr. McCain is deeply distrusted by conservatives on a number of issues, not least because of his rapport with the news media, but he could find common ground with them in attacking a newspaper that many conservatives revile as a left-wing publication. [my emphasis]

Since the New York Times’ views on war are well known, it’s perhaps not surprising that it sees any counter-attack by an entity it doesn’t like (whether McCain or the United States) as “waging a war”, but this does seem a particularly long stretch even for the Gray Lady. At any rate, it puts its endorsement in exactly the light in which several of McCain’s Republican opponents suggested it should be seen: as ultimately self-interested from a paper with an agenda that includes electing a Democratic President. Since that endorsement came during the time between the paper’s first thoughts about publishing the article and its eventual publication, the contents of the article must have been in the editorial board’s minds as they wrote it. It neatly excludes any positive or negative references to McCain’s character or integrity, leaving the door open to the smear they published this week.

However, despite all this – and the likelihood that the suggestions of an affair are a complete fabrication, the article itself (four pages long in its online version) does make some reasonable points which have more substance to them. The article it should have written is the one the Washington Post wrote today. There are real problems with McCain’s ties to lobbyists, and a big part of the problem is that McCain himself doesn’t seem to realise it. This was also what Mitt Romney was referring to when he said he didn’t have lobbyists running his campaign, although that conversation turned into an argument about semantics as they related to Romney’s own campaign instead of heading where it should have. The Post article summarises as follows:

But when McCain huddled with his closest advisers at his rustic Arizona cabin last weekend to map out his presidential campaign, virtually every one was part of the Washington lobbying culture he has long decried. His campaign manager, Rick Davis, co-founded a lobbying firm whose clients have included Verizon and SBC Telecommunications. His chief political adviser, Charles R. Black Jr., is chairman of one of Washington’s lobbying powerhouses, BKSH and Associates, which has represented AT&T, Alcoa, JPMorgan and U.S. Airways.

Senior advisers Steve Schmidt and Mark McKinnon work for firms that have lobbied for Land O’ Lakes, UST Public Affairs, Dell and Fannie Mae.

McCain really does have lobbyists running his campaign, but he doesn’t seem to think it matters. While doing all he can through McCain-Feingold and other means to restrict the kinds of activities candidates can engage in to avoid the appearance of impropriety, he seems to believe all he has to do himself to avoid such an appearance is to simply state “there’s nothing to see here”:

“I have many friends who represent various interests, ranging from the firemen to the police to senior citizens to various interests, particularly before my committee,” McCain said. “The question is . . . do they have excess or unwarranted influence? And certainly no one ever has in my conduct of my public life and conduct of my legislative agenda.”

And we’re just supposed to take his word for it? Aren’t there other campaign managers around who aren’t (or haven’t been) lobbyists? The problem is that McCain believes so strongly in his own integrity that he can’t see why others wouldn’t, even when faced with glaring conflicts of interest. It reminds me of Tony Blair (see this previous post) of whom it was said:

Mr. Blair suffered from a condition previously unknown to me: delusions of honesty.

McCain, too, seems to suffer from delusions of honesty, or at least integrity. And he is blind to the things he does which give an alternative view. This is a legitimate cause for concern and legitimate fodder for newspaper articles, from left-wing and right-wing organs alike. He must confront it head on, and ideally he should clean house, as he has occasionally done before when confronted with previous lapses in judgment. He also needs to have someone in his campaign who has his ear and is not afraid to tell him when he’s wrong. This has been a huge problem for President Bush (Rumsfeld’s Rule #20 notwithstanding) and McCain must avoid it being a problem for him too, not just in the campaign, but also in the presidency.

UPDATE: not a huge fan of the Boston Globe, but it appears they made the right call on this and actually did run the article the Post wrote instead of the one the Times wrote, despite being owned by the Times company:

But one interesting aspect of this combined political and professional controversy went widely unnoticed. The Boston Globe, which is wholly owned by the New York Times, chose not to publish the article produced by its parent company’s reporters.

Instead, the Globe published a version of the same story written by the competing Washington Post staff. That version focused almost exclusively on the pervasive presence of lobbyists in McCain’s campaign and did not mention the sexual relationship that the Times article hinted at but did not describe or document and which the senator and lobbyist have denied.

February 12th, 2008 by Rightsideup

It appears that Obama may actually have a policy we can really associate with him, albeit one which seems to be being pursued more aggressively by another Senator keen to use his name just at the moment (no prizes for guessing why). The Hot Air blog highlights an interview with Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio published by the Nation in which he states the following:

I’ve talked to Barack a lot about his Patriot Corporation Act, which is not trade per se, but it’s certainly part of the economic package around globalization. The Patriot Corporation Act has not gotten the attention that I would hope it would. But, basically it says that if you play by the rules, if you pay decent wages, health benefits, pension; do your production here; don’t resist unionization on neutral card check, then you will be designated a “Patriot Corporation” and you will get tax advantages and some [preference] on government contracts.

So we have something Barack Obama apparently believes in enough that he was willing to put pen to paper (or have his staffers put pen to paper) to craft legislation to make it a reality. And is it the kind of soaring, high-minded proposal we’ve all come to expect based on that wonderful rhetoric of his? Er, no.

It’s clear where the Nation’s own William Greider stands on this – he thinks it’s wonderful. But it’s just a tiny bit shortsighted, isn’t it? For starters, it ignores the main reasons why companies offshore and outsource in the first place – high labor costs (thank you Democrats), lots of burdensome regulation (thank you Democrats), high taxes (thank you Democrats) etc. etc. It reminds me of the experience we’ve all had sometimes – we have a table or chair where one of the legs is short, so we trim the others to make them symmetrical, but then we realise we overdid it, and now we have to go back to the original one and shorten that a bit too. Pretty soon we realise the table or chair is now about the right height for a garden gnome and give up and throw it away. The Democrats’ tendency to want to intervene throughout the economy will lead to the same result – one bit of tinkering leads to another and before long we’ve completely hamstrung the entire business sector and have nothing but a mountain of unemployment and a recession to show for it.

I’m just glad we finally know where Obama stands on something, and it’s particularly wonderful that it highlights the heavily left-leaning, interventionist philosophy we all know is hiding beneath the “yes we cans” and the unity message. Now if we could just infiltrate the mainstream media enough to actually get them to report on this stuff…

February 11th, 2008 by Rightsideup

Immigration is of course a major topic in the current election cycle, although at this point it seems unlikely to be an issue on which much will turn, with Iraq, the economy, social/moral issues and others taking precedence. But it’s certainly one of the most complex issues over which there’s serious debate at this point, and it’s worth looking at in detail. (Update – it appears this issue has just been resurrected in Congress).

My own position on this issue is, I think, more nuanced than that of many others, and it’s strongly influenced by my status as a recent legal immigrant. I arrived here in the US three years ago and received my green card just last year. The process involved in getting that green card was long, difficult and expensive. And I’m about as high-scoring a candidate as exists, since I’m married to a citizen, in my early 30s, am well qualified and working in a sector with high demand for my skills.

This is the main reason why the idea of “amnesty” (one of those words which no-one but its detractors actually uses) or anything like it grates badly for me. The idea that someone who came here illegally and is making every effort to continue to elude the authorities now, illegally, should somehow be let off the hook and allowed to stay for around the same amount of money I paid to become a legal alien through the proper channels just winds me up in a big way.

Mark Steyn, a fellow Brit and conservative commentator, opened his remarks to the CPAC conference with these words:

As you can tell [from my accent], I’m an immigrant. I hasten to add, I’m not an illegal immigrant. I’m a legal one, and boy, I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

He’s joking, of course, but for those of us who arrived via the legitimate route (the modern day equivalent of Ellis Island rather than the Rio Grande), the proposed solution to the problem of illegal immigration does make us wonder why we went to all that trouble.

My other main problem with the proposals put on the table by John McCain and others is that they feed into the much wider problem of “unenforceable laws”. It has become more and more common for the statute books to say one thing, and the actions of the police and the courts to say another on a given issue, because there is a mismatch between the intention of the law and the resources dedicated to enforcing it. Drug policy is an obvious example, but illegal immigration is another.

Yes, we need immigrants, both at the top and the bottom of the economic ladder. There really are jobs which most American citizens consider beneath them, and if there are immigrants willing to do those jobs, we should let them. At the other end of the spectrum are the Asians and to a lesser extent others who come here for a world-class education and then can’t stay, so they take their American-made skills back home with them in a new form of the brain drain, further bolstering their countries’ ability to compete with the US. But we don’t solve either of these problems by simply failing to apply current policy adequately. The latter group don’t come in illegally if they can’t get in legitimately – they just don’t come at all. While the former group simply comes anyway, and then fails to pay taxes, vote, drive with a licence or otherwise become a fully-fledged part of society.

The solution is to sit back and decide what level of immigration is appropriate among both those groups, and others inbetween (including relatives of those already here). We need a proactive immigration strategy, and then we need to enforce that strategy appropriately. Yes, we need to deal with the 10+ million who are already here, but we need to make it easier and cheaper for those who are willing to take the proper route and arrive legally than we make it for those who are already here illegally, to preserve incentives for those yet to arrive. And we need to tighten up the borders to ensure that we – and not the hordes of illegal immigrants who arrive each year – make the decision about who gets in and who doesn’t.

February 10th, 2008 by Rightsideup

There have been a lot of stories in the papers this week dissecting Mitt Romney’s campaign, but a lot of them have focused in particular on the Mormon connection. Those that have done so have focused on one of two things:

  • Whether Mitt’s Mormonism hurt his campaign
  • Whether Mitt’s campaign hurt Mormonism

The first question has had far more coverage during the course of the campaign, with polls showing percentages ranging from mid-teens to over half of certain groups saying they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon candidate. Now, we all know the stock answer to these polls, which is, in Mitt’s words, “If you’d asked people in the late 70s whether they would vote for a divorced actor for president, they’d have said no then too.”

Ultimately, people make up their minds based on the candidates which are available, despite their theoretical preferences (and it is for this reason that McCain will get the support of most Republicans even though many would say he wasn’t their first choice). But prejudice does matter, if it’s strong enough, and especially when there is an alternative candidate with some of the same desirable qualities but not the one that gives them pause.

If Mike Huckabee hadn’t been in the race, Mitt might have captured more of the votes of Southern evangelicals than he did, because those most likely to baulk at voting for a Mormon wouldn’t have had an obvious alternative. Would their distaste have been strong enough to get them to vote for a candidate with a weaker position on the values issues that are most important to them? And would their churches and pastors have been as vigorous in slamming Mormonism if he was their best hope of putting a social conservative in the White House? Mitt Romney and his people need to do some serious, statistically significant polling, especially in the South, to determine how much this was a factor, because there’s no point running again in four or eight years if this is a major sticking point. It’s not going to just go away, and I’m not sure there’s anything Mitt can do to change perceptions even if he’s proactive about it.

So, on to the other question – whether his campaign hurt Mormonism. I’d argue that it had three primary effects:

  • It raised Mormonism’s profile, with far more positive, negative and neutral articles appearing in the press than in any other similar period since (and perhaps even including) the Salt Lake Olympics
  • It highlighted both to members and non-members the uglier side of the Mormon question – all the objections that other religious groups but also atheists, all kinds of journalists and various activists and professional anti-Mormons have to the Church.
  • It forced the Church to take a stand about how active to be in defending itself and spreading its own message while a member was running for President.

The first point can be taken either way. The old trope about all publicity being good publicity is over-simplistic, but missionaries certainly got more questions than before, which likely presented them with more opportunities to teach. It got profiles of the Church, some of them neutral, some positive (which was a pleasant surprise), and of course some negative (the PBS series being a prime example), in front of people who knew little or nothing about the Church, and likely stimulated missionary opportunities in that way too.

One of the less pleasant side-effects was the way in which the extra publicity the Church got presented some of the more virulently opposing views to Church members who are normally sheltered from them. Any Church member who spends any time on the Internet looking for information about the Church outside of the official site knows how much of this stuff is out there. But for many members, lds.org has everything about the Church there is to know on the Internet (and all credit to the Church for the huge steps it’s taken since it first had a simple holding page for the first few years of the Internet just 10 years ago).

For them it was unsettling, and some reacted by rejecting everything they were told, even those things with a basis in fact. They flooded the comments sections on blogs and articles, where their relative ignorance about the more nuanced elements of Church history was perfect fodder for opponents who used this as further evidence of the sheltered existence Church members sometimes live. I doubt any of this did huge damage to Church members and their faith, and it probably did them some good in that it forced them to know a little more about our history and therefore make more informed decisions about that faith.

Lastly, the Church leadership took a studiously neutral position during the campaign, and in some ways was too quiet, as it has itself acknowledged this week. It was so careful not to be seen to be endorsing Romney’s campaign that it said very little other than restating some of its core doctrinal positions and the occasional press conference. Elder Ballard’s call to action at BYU Hawai’i went some way towards giving members of the Church position to answer the critics in a way that arguably carries more authority, but we’re all still amateurs at this game and I’m not sure how much impact it has had yet.

I think the most positive thing to have come out of all of this, though, is that Romney’s campaign hasn’t done the Church any lasting damage, and in fact has probably prompted members to come out of their shells and do a better job of telling our own story. I’m not sure the rest of the world comes out of it as well, since there is considerable evidence of real bias exhibited by voters. There’s still a lot to do, but there’s also been some good progress.

January 31st, 2008 by Rightsideup

James Taranto in his Best of the Web column today puts into words very well something I’ve been thinking for some time but haven’t been able to express nearly so well:

Such empty oppositionalism has been the dominant theme of Democratic politics at least since the emergence of Howard Dean in 2003. But there is a weird genius about the way Obama, with his soothing style and inspiring persona, is able to present it as if it were something of real substance.

This is the real issue with Obama – there’s no substance there and yet he’s able somehow to convince his supporters that there is. Will the media ever call him on this? Or will the scales fall from the electorate’s eyes at some point anyway? I find it hard to believe that he can really keep this up for another nine months, but with the media’s help it’s perhaps just possible.