Archive for January, 2008

January 31, 2008

Please Kill Me

A spam email from The Nation:

In an effort to illuminate the importance of literary and cultural matters of the moment, has just launched a new fortnightly column.

The Short of It will be the home of riffs, rants, raves, obituaries, reportage, appreciations, light essays, character sketches, vignettes and digressions. The inspiration is the urban sketch found on the back pages of daily journals and magazines in the nineteenth century.

The debut piece by Barry Schwabsky explores the new New Museum–the building, the opening show, the bookstore and more. Coming up are pieces about the music playlist of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll; a rave about the jazz musician Albert Ayler; an appreciation of Doc Humes, novelist, beat, and old Paris Review hand; a lament about the decline of academic lit crit and a rant about mandarins who lament the supposed decline of reading.

Bullshit is the ultimate unstoppable vampire monster that will kill us all.

Oh, and:

There are no “literary or cultural matters of the moment” that are of “importance.” Fiction died with Steinbeck. Photography killed painting; TV killed photography. Elvis and Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf killed jazz, and thank God for that. Poetry never mattered.

There is more meaning in one Paul Verhoeven film than in the global history of “digressions.”

Death to pretension!

January 31, 2008

Who’s Afraid of Mike Huckabee?

There they go again.

Yesterday, the corporations that order the media around got their way. The best candidate, possibly America’s last chance for redemption and reform, John Edwards, was pushed out of the race—the victim of the media’s decision not to cover his campaign. Now they’re doing it on the Republican side.

My readers know where I stand on Huckabee. Still, despite his flaws—and they are grievous—he has been notable for introducing elements of populism and actual Christian concern for the poor and suffering into the Republican primary race. Unlike McCain and Romney, he isn’t a 100 percent corporate shill. Which makes him dangerous.

Here comes the Edwards treatment.

Consider this from today’s New York Times: “With Rudolph W. Giuliani and John Edwards withdrawing from the race, the two parties have what is, in effect, clean two-way battles for the nomination as they roar into this week leading into Tuesday, when 20 states will vote.

Point one: Huckabee was always more viable than Giuliani. He did, after all, win the Iowa caucuses. Giuliani didn’t win a single primary. And Huckabee polled higher than Giuliani all along. So Giuliani’s withdrawal logically leaves McCain, Romney and Huckabee. Except that the media wants to get rid of Huckabee.

Directly next to the above quote are poll results that directly contradict the framing of the GOP contest as a two-man race. Huckabee, according the Times‘ own polls, is favored to win Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. He’s running second in Missouri. He polls no less than nine percent—significant by any standard—in every state.

I’ve been watching politics my entire life. Never have I seen the media engage so brazenly in using its coverage to choose which candidates receive the attention they need to survive the primary process.

January 31, 2008

Cartoon for January 31

Watching Bush’s last State of the Union Address (OK, his last scheduled State of the Union Address) made me a tad wistful for the arrogant coup leader who threatened a military coup in 2000, suspended habeas corpus, legalized torture and signed himself the right to declare you an enemy combatant and have you murdered by government agents. Such small-bore initiatives! Such a sad spectacle!

If Bush leaves the public arena as scheduled in January 2009, it is safe to say that political cartoonists shan’t see his kind again in our lifetimes. He is what Nixon was to an earlier generation of political satirists: pure gold. Go not gently into that good political night, not-so-gentle fiend!

January 30, 2008

Flash! Edwards Dropping Out

And there goes the Democrats’ best chance to win in the fall. I hope he’ll unite with Obama or Hillary in exchange for the nod as vice president, since that would mean all the difference. Amazingly, the Republicans appear once again to have benefited from liberal numbskullery. The trouble is, this economy can’t take any more Republican supply-side bullshit.

January 29, 2008


Open Primaries Are Killing Democracy

Check out this political mystery: Liberals, a.k.a. the Democratic base, are angry. They’re so angry that they tried to unseat senior senator and former vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman in 2006, who had become synonymous with bipartisanship. Bipartisanship, hell. They’re in the mood for payback.

So why is Barack Obama, a bipartisan accommodationist who promises to appoint Republicans to his cabinet and praises Ronald Reagan, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination? Why is Hillary Clinton, militant centrist of the DLC, running a close second?

Mystery #2: Liberal primary voters are obsessed with choosing a nominee who can win the general election in November. And yet, according to a hypothetical head-to-head match-up, neither Obama nor Clinton qualifies. The most electable Democrat, found the most recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. match-up poll, is John Edwards.

“Edwards is the only Democrat who beats all four Republicans, and McCain is the only Republican who beats any of the three Democrats [in November 2008],” says Keating Holland, CNN’s polling director. But Edwards hasn’t won a single primary.

What’s going on? Why are angry, electability-oriented Democrats voting for the two candidates least likely to win–candidates who want to sing Kumbaya with the Republicans?

As we discussed last week, the media has frozen out Edwards because their corporate owners are scared of him. But there’s a second reason that the Democratic primaries have “gotten terribly off track,” in the words of The New York Times‘ Paul Krugman.

A lot of non-Democrats are voting in Democratic primaries.

Twenty-three states now have so-called “open primaries.” Registered independents are allowed to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary. “What’s everybody talking about now? Independents,” Morris Fiorina, a professor of political science at Stanford says. Huge numbers of Democratic primary voters aren’t Democrats at all: 20 percent in the Iowa caucuses, 44 percent in New Hampshire, 23 percent in South Carolina.

As you might expect, candidates whose appeal crosses party lines have benefited from these open primaries. “Obama is winning independents, McCain is winning independents,” says Professor Fiorina.

Political scientists differ over the moderating effect of open primaries, but history paints a clear picture. There hasn’t been a left-wing Democratic nominee since George McGovern in 1972, or an overtly right-wing Republican one since Barry Goldwater in 1964. (Though they governed differently, Reagan and Bush II campaigned as uniters, not dividinators.) Both parties see open primaries as part of a “big tent” strategy–people who vote for party X in the primaries are said to be likelier to vote for Party X’s nominee in the fall. Open primaries are also supposed to winnow out “extreme” candidates (see McGovern and Goldwater, above) while selecting for those with broad appeal to the overall electorate. But the advantages of open primaries–which have yet to be statistically proven–come at a steep price.

As Larry Gerston writes in the San Jose Mercury-News, “people who identify as Democrats or Republicans operate with different opinions than independents. Partisans tend to have stronger opinions on leading issues, are more aware of current events, have well-developed political value sets and tend to be more involved politically on an ongoing basis. For most independents, politics is much more a spectator sport. These folks are more amused than committed, tend to know less about the leading issues and candidates, and commonly operate with a less defined set of political values.”
Independents complain that “closed primaries”–Democratic primaries are only open to Democrats, Republican primaries to Republicans–deny them a voice. In truth, registered independents choose not to vote in primaries. There is no practical reason to register as an independent. If you want to switch from one party’s primaries to the other’s, all you have to do is fill out a form. And, in the general election, you can vote for any party regardless of party affiliation.

The potential for mischief, on the other hand, is enormous in open primaries: conservatives voting for the worst Democrat, liberals for the worst Republican. Even “honest” independents queer the process by reducing the chances of a hardcore liberal or conservative winning their party’s nomination. This year, they’re boosting Obama and McCain, neither of whom have generated much enthusiasm from their party’s bases. (If these two men face off in November 2008, McCain will enjoy an edge since the GOP tends to better coalesce behind its nominees. Republican party loyalists will also find McCain’s right-wing voting record to their liking. Obama, on the other hand, repeatedly voted to fund the Iraq War.)

Polarization is good for democracy. Voters may claim not to like mudslinging campaign battles, but they turn out in greater numbers when the parties nominate candidates whose views are significantly different. In 2000, Gore and Bush were seen as so ideologically indistinct that many liberals cast protest votes for Ralph Nader. (Little did we know!) Turnout was 51.3 percent. It went up to 55.3 percent in 2004, high water mark of the red-blue divide.

Moderate nominees, er, moderate the enthusiasm of the liberals and conservatives who make up the two major parties’ bases. When your party’s standardbearer doesn’t promise much, there isn’t a lot to win. Nor is there much to lose if the enemy party’s nominee seems relatively reasonable. The Democratic and Republican parties, already so similar on issues like trade, immigration and abortion, become more broadly indistinguishable. Elections offer fewer, less relevant options. Citizens tune out. Over time, some will start to yearn for another, less free but more effective form of government.

Open primaries, wrote Gerston, are “akin to casual sports fans having a voice in the selection of college playoff schedules or newly arrived residents of a town affecting the decision of a long-disputed, festering public policy issue.” If we want to get rid of the two-party system, great. Until then, let Democrats pick the Democratic nominee and Republicans choose the Republican nominee. If independents want to play too, let them fill out a form.


January 28, 2008

Cartoon for January 28

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January 26, 2008

Cartoon for January 26

There’s always been a desire to vote for the most likely winner, but the 2008 presidential race has accelerated this inane trend, thanks in no small part to media coverage that validates determining an early winner (maybe it’s cheaper to cover one candidate than six?). The New York Times, endorsing Hillary Clinton in the New York primary, openly stated in its editorial that it did not consider endorsing John Edwards because he was a “long shot.” (Never mind that he might not be a long shot if the Times endorsed him, or the paper’s conscious–and unconscionable–role in reducing his chances.)

Funny, I was under the impression that we were supposed to vote for the best candidate, and let the election returns fall where they may.

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January 23, 2008

Cartoon for January 24

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January 22, 2008


Media Freezes Out a Threat to Corporate Owners

In 2004 Democrats were determined to pick the presidential nominee who had the best chance of defeating George W. Bush in the general election. That man was the feisty former governor of Vermont, Howard Dean. One could easily imagine him mercilessly flaying Bush in debates before trouncing Yale’s least favorite son in November. Primary voters, mistakenly betting that blandness and moderation would be a better sell, chose John Kerry instead.

The party of Hubert Humphrey and Michael Dukakis seems poised to make the same mistake again, whether with Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Polls show that two-thirds of Americans think the country is ready for a female or black president. But I’m a glass-third-full guy. When a third of the electorate tells you “we’re” not ready for a woman or an African-American commander-in-chief, they really mean that they won’t vote for one. John Edwards is more likely to beat Romney or McCain than either of his history-making rivals, just by showing up with pale skin and a Y chromosome.

But even aside from electability, Edwards ought to be the Democratic frontrunner. His populist campaign, bashing corporations and free trade deals that have led to a decline in wages, seems perfectly timed for an economy everyone admits is in a recession. (In truth, the current downturn began with the 2000-1 dot-com crash, but whatever.) His platform offers more red meat for the party’s liberal base than Clinton or Obama: total withdrawal from Iraq in nine months, Euro-style healthcare, full financial aid for students admitted to public colleges and universities.

A while back I argued for electing Hillary to show girls that the glass ceiling had been smashed, that they could achieve anything. Then she repeated the biggest mistake of her undistinguished political career, voting for a resolution that supported Bush’s campaign to start a war with Iran. It brought back memories of Margaret Thatcher, Indira Ghandi and Benazir Bhutto, oppressive rulers who set their nations back. Clinton’s gender doesn’t guarantee the forward-looking leadership we need after eight years of–it’s a bumpersticker cliché, but it happens to be true–our Worst President Ever.

I never warmed to Barack Obama. Like Clinton, his legislative record is dismal–he repeatedly voted to send billion after billion of war dollars to Iraq. His high-flying rhetoric has the dubious distinction of inspiring us to…to…what? His soaring oratory, purchased on the cheap from 26-year-old speechwriters, signifies nothing. Sure, America needs a black president. But it doesn’t need one who thinks, as Obama does, that the only thing wrong with our war in Iraq is that we’re not wasting lives and taxdollars in Afghanistan instead.

If electing a woman or a black person is more important than what that candidate has done or what they believe, Democrats should draft Condi Rice.

John Edwards isn’t just the most electable Democrat–he’s the best choice. But the media is starving him of the oxygen campaigns require in order to thrive: coverage. Shortly after placing second in Iowa, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that John Edwards received a puny seven percent of national media coverage. Clinton and Obama got between four and five times more; their poll numbers were nowhere close to that much higher than Edwards’.

“The media goes to this very engaging story about a legitimate woman candidate and a legitimate candidate with an African-American heritage, and that drives up their fund-raising numbers,” Elizabeth Edwards told Time. “Then the media folks say, ‘See, that proves we were right to focus on these two candidates’…It’s enough to make you tear your hair out.”

But there’s more to the Edwards story (and non-stories) than reporters dazzled by Clinton and Obama–contenders who, though they don’t seem likely to make political history, add a bit of demographic flavor. There is no precedent in memory of the news media freezing out a major presidential candidate to this extent.

The New York Times
‘ own public editor conceded that his paper had shortchanged Edwards. “In Iowa…John Edwards is close behind Clinton in the most recent Des Moines Register poll,” Clark Hoyt wrote on November 18, “yet The Times has given him comparatively scant coverage. Clinton and Obama have been profiled twice each on the front page since Labor Day, but Edwards not at all this year. Throughout the paper, The Times has published 47 articles about Clinton since Labor Day, only 18 about Edwards.”

“I don’t track our coverage by quantity,” campaign editor Richard Stevenson responded. “In a qualitative sense, we’ve covered him pretty thoroughly, and there is more to come.”

There wasn’t.

Some point to early missteps–the $400 haircut, the big mansion, even his decision to keep running despite his wife’s cancer–as causes of Edwards’ electoral misfortune. But the truth is obvious. Major media outlets–which are owned by big corporations–hate Edwards.

“Edwards was our pick for the 2004 nomination,” editorialized The Des Moines Register. “But this is a different race, with different candidates. We too seldom saw the positive, optimistic campaign we found appealing in 2004. His harsh anti-corporate rhetoric would make it difficult to work with the business community to forge change.” What scares the editorial board of the Register is that Edwards doesn’t plan to “work with the business community” at all, but to empower government to re-regulate big business.

“What’s really behind the media animus toward Edwards,” Jeff Cohen wrote for AlterNet, “is his ‘all-out courting of the liberal left-wing base’ (ABC News) or his ‘looking for some steam from the left’ (CNN).”

When the media gets tough, read the overseas press. Kevin Drawbaugh, a reporter for Reuters, knows what’s up. “Ask corporate lobbyists which presidential contender is most feared by their clients,” he writes for the British wire service, “and the answer is almost always the same–Democrat John Edwards.”

Drawbaugh quotes Greg Valliere, chief political strategist at the Stanford Group think tank: “My sense is that Obama would govern as a reasonably pragmatic Democrat…I think Hillary is approachable. She knows where a lot of her funding has come from, to be blunt.” Edwards, on the other hand, is “an anti-business populist” and “a trade protectionist” who “would be viewed as a threat to business,” he said.

Edwards scares me, too. He’s the first candidate I’ve ever admired. God help me, I actually believe that he’d rein in the corporations whose boundless greed is bleeding the country dry. If a man with integrity and guts became president, what would I do for a living?


January 21, 2008

Cartoon for January 21

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