Today’s Right-Wing Ship-Jumper

Well, yesterday’s actually: It’s Christopher Hitchens. And even though he goes out of his way to tell us all the ways in which he doesn’t want to be the friend of any flower-waving liberals, he’s devastating in his indictment nonetheless:

“The most insulting thing that a politician can do is to compel you to ask yourself: ‘What does he take me for?’ Precisely this question is provoked by the selection of Gov. Sarah Palin. I wrote not long ago that it was not right to condescend to her just because of her provincial roots or her piety, let alone her slight flirtatiousness, but really her conduct since then has been a national disgrace. It turns out that none of her early claims to political courage was founded in fact, and it further turns out that some of the untested rumors about her—her vindictiveness in local quarrels, her bizarre religious and political affiliations—were very well-founded, indeed. Moreover, given the nasty and lowly task of stirring up the whack-job fringe of the party’s right wing and of recycling patent falsehoods about Obama’s position on Afghanistan, she has drawn upon the only talent that she apparently possesses.

“It therefore seems to me that the Republican Party has invited not just defeat but discredit this year, and that both its nominees for the highest offices in the land should be decisively repudiated, along with any senators, congressmen, and governors who endorse them.”

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With yet another close election in the offing, the media are starting to focus on undecided voters. After last night’s joint candidate appearance, BBC America talked to two young Yanks in London who said they remained undecided. Ditto on NPR this morning, which had a feature on some persistent undecideds in New Mexico. How it’s possible to remain undecided, I don’t know; if you’ve been paying attention even occasionally you know more about the candidates than you do about most members of your own family.

The fact is, though, that the “debates,” as we persist in calling them, aren’t about changing minds. They’re about playing things safe, sticking to scripts, and hoping that the other candidate will be struck dumb or collapse into a heap a la “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” OK, sure, there’s more to it: The hopefuls want to look good, too. The consensus among brilliant political minds is that the debates are about avoiding changing people’s minds in a negative way–about not doing anything that would turn an undecided against you. That way, you keep them in play. Then nature takes its course. You get as many of those votes on election day as you lose, and plenty of the people who can’t make up their minds never do and join the one-third of the eligible electorate that never votes at all. Who’s to argue with the work of smart and richly compensated strategists?

Leave it to the rest of us, exposed to the realities of an economy, a government, and political system that appear to be unraveling, to show some unguarded concern about it. When I say us, I mean the host of friends and relatives who are for the first time volunteering for campaigns, sending out alarmed emails about our situation, or who like my friend Pete, up in Oregon, or Ron, in Texas, or “blog friends” Marie, in Illinois, and Rob, in Louisiana, are provoking discussions about the race. Or former TV colleague Steve, who posted a link recently to perhaps the most clear-sighted rant all year on what’s wrong with the election and the electorate.

Somehow, I feel like I’m getting a more focused sense of what this campaign is about and should be about from the people I know than from the candidate I support. Somehow, I wish my candidate would drop the script for just a few minutes and let me know he gets the depth of concern–hell, despair–that so many people are feeling out here. I don’t expect him to, though, and certainly not during the next “debate.”

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Just One Thing About That

And now a word about The Campaign: John McCain has decided that our economy is so strong that he needs to leave the campaign trail to make it stronger. It would be unseemly to put Country Second and indulge in something so vulgar as politics by debating his opponent. Stop for a moment and admire McCain for trying to execute a clever political gambit by trying to haul himself above the muck of politics for a moment. Then consider the election-year crises that the country has come through while candidates carried on their campaigns:

2004: The whole Iraq endeavor coming undone.

1992: Economic recession.

1980: The Iran hostage crisis.

1968: Intensified fighting in Vietnam, assassination of leading national figures.

1964: Nation in turmoil over civil rights campaign in the South.

1952: Korean War.

1944: World War II.

1940: World War II.

1936: The Depression.

1932: The Depression.

1916: World War I.

1864: Civil War.

1860: Slavery/disunion crisis.

1856: National coming apart at seams over slavery.

1812: War with Britain.

Gee, we managed to have an uninterrupted campaign during 1864? When the nation was sufferiing through an appallingly bloody series of battles? You mean Lincoln didn’t try to put a hold on politics while trying to fulfill his duties as commander-in-chief? Neither world wars nor economic calamity put campaigns off the rails? Stunning.

The history shows what an empty gesture McCain’s move is. Obama got it right when he said that this is exactly the moment when the candidates need to be in front of the people.

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Numbers ‘n’ Stuff

The New York Times op-ed page today features a column by Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium. To be honest, what drew my attention was a display quote in the column that says, “The math says that [Hillary] Clinton is quitting while she’s ahead.” Like many others who have watched the Democratic race, I’ve found it perplexing that Clinton won nearly all the biggest states but not the nomination. That’s an interesting and important topic—history will eventually show that despite Clinton’s insistence Barack Obama is some sort of defenseless naïf, he and his campaign just plain outsmarted her and hers—but that’s not what Tyson is writing about.

No—he’s taking a method of analyzing political poll results developed by another astrophysicist, Princeton’s J. Richard Gott III, and torturing it to come up with the claim that “if the general election were held today, Barack Obama would lose to John McCain, while Mr. McCain would lose to Mrs. Clinton.”

That’s a bold declaration, and you’d sure like to see it backed up. But that’s not what happens in the column. Instead, Tyson cites a paper by Gott and another author “that has been accepted for publication in the journal Mathematical and Computer Modelling” (meaning: you and I can’t read it to check the accuracy of Tyson’s summary of it or, feeble-minded as we is, try it out for ourselves). Here’s how Tyson describes what Gott & Co. discovered with their as yet unpublished new tool:

“[I]n swing states, the median result of all the polls conducted in the weeks prior to an election is an especially effective predictor of which candidate will win that election — even in states where the polls consistently fall within the margin of error.”

That’s it: no definition of “swing states,” no useful definition of “the median result of all the polls,” not even a precise statement of the time frame. But those details are dispensable, because this analysis is so powerful, Tyson writes, that Gott was able to correctly predict 49 out of 50 state races in the 2004 contest between Bush II and John Kerry. So Tyson decided to put it to work looking at the 2008 race, with results as mentioned above. Tyson says, with the certainty of Ptolemy describing the sun’s orbit around the Earth, that “this analysis does not predict what will happen in November. But it describes the present better than any other known method does.”

Being generous, one can only say about Tyson’s “analysis” that it reads as if substantial sections of explanation have been edited out to make the piece fit the page. His examples don’t illuminate much about Gott’s method. Beyond that, two flaws seem transparent. Tyson acknowledges one: that public opinion shifts over time. My translation: It’s ridiculous to project the electoral landscape in November based on iffy reading of polls five to six months ahead of time. Ask Michael Dukakis if you don’t believe me.

The other major flaw in Tyson’s “work” is his attempt to use a tool applied to a two-candidate race nearing the finish line in a single election and applying it to a wildly different set of circumstances. Poll respondents asked whether they’d prefer Obama or Clinton over McCain in May were being asked a theoretical question. Yes, it was certain that either Obama or Clinton would oppose McCain. But the very nature of the campaign at that point, as unsettled and increasingly divisive as it was, might skew the result. You wonder if Gott himself would make the predictive claim for his method, as applied here, that Tyson does.

(If Tyson’s piece was heavily edited, the Times would perform a public service by publishing the full piece. It would also help to have a link to Gott’s paper so that readers can judge for themselves whether Tyson is representing it accurately.)

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Surrender Date

Opponents of the congressional effort to attach an operational timetable to new funding for our Iraq War and World Improvement Project (IWWIP — trademark pending) have long since adopted a catchy label for the proposed troop withdrawal schedule. Led by the likes of John McCain, the critics condemn timetables as setting a “surrender date” in the war.

McCain and the critics have one thing right: It’s messy for Congress to step into managing the war this way. But there’s nothing unconstitutional or unprecedented about it — in fact, the Constitution gives Congress the power and responsibility, by way of its control of funding, to participate in warmaking decisions on the people’s behalf. The “no surrender” types apparently would continue to cede their power and responsibility to an executive who has proven careless and arrogant in its exercise. The timetable critics’ alternative — to continue writing blank checks and waiting for the executive’s current plan, or the next, or the one after that, to work — is an extension of the same plan that’s killed thousands of U.S. troops, tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and laid waste to a place that was supposed to turn into the Eden of Mideast democracy.

The “no surrender” types speak of the awful consequences of leaving Iraq “before our work is done.” What I’d like to hear someone in Congress talk about is the awful consequences of surrendering again and again to a president who ignores both the lessons of experience and the clear voice of his people.

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John McCain was on Letterman Wednesday night and announced (or pre-announced) that he’s running for president. There was a moment a few years back when I felt pretty good about McCain. You know: stand-up guy, moderate, rational, independent thinker, as demonstrated by his willingness to go against Bush, Cheney and company on the issue of the United States employing torture against detainees enemy combatants. McCain managed to rally veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress for his anti-torture bill and got Bush to publicly acquiesce and sign the thing. Here’s what’s strange about that story, though, and a hint about what’s wrong with McCain’s quest for the presidency: He uttered not a whisper of public protest when news reports disclosed that Bush had appended a signing statement to the new law that said, essentially, the executive branch would enforce it as it saw fit.

Why would McCain not raise a fuss about that? It’s as if, having made his principled stand, having won his public relations victory, he couldn’t be bothered with confronting Bush’s designs to thwart his work. It’s as if the only way he can imagine becoming president is to be part of the team that’s running things now.

And then, of course, there’s Iraq. McCain not only supports the “surge,” a piece of window dressing designed to buy time, but he has long called for the United States to send a far larger force into Iraq. That’s his answer to the Bush/Rumsfeld/Cheney “mismanagement” of the war–an American army big enough to bang heads together and “create the conditions” for peace. I’ll give Letterman credit: He left off fawning long enough to ask McCain a hypothetical question that was at least as probing as what he’d get from the likes of Tim Russert or Katie Couric:

“The country of Iraq is stabilized, the government is now, as you described, stabilized, the violence is now significantly reduced; the net benefit to the United States, beyond Americans have stopped losing their lives there, is what?”

To which McCain responded:

“Probably that we have a functioning democracy or a government that will become a democracy, that there will be oil revenues which will then be used by the Iraqis to build up there own country. And maybe it will spread in the region. You know, there are really only two democracies in the region, Israel and the other is Turkey, in the whole region, and obviously we would like to see that.

“I think I know what you’re getting at, and that is should we have gone in in the first place. There was massive intelligence failures and books have been written about the mismanagement of the war, and I would recommend ‘Fiasco’ and ‘Cobra Two’ or one of these other books. But we are where we are now–we are where we are now–and rather than reviewing all the problems we have, if we withdraw early, every expert I know says it will descend into chaos, sectarian violence and even genocide, so that’s why when I say this may be our last chance to succeed, because Americans are very frustrated and they have every right to be. We’ve wasted a lot of our most precious treasure, which is American lives, over there.”

So, part one of the answer is the same old fairy tale: If we try hard enough, we’ll turn Iraq into a functioning democracy or start the evolutionary process toward democracy in motion (hey, a Republican who believes in evolution!). And maybe it will spread to the other benighted corners of the Middle East, like those governed by our closest Arab allies.

Part two is also getting to be an old saw: If we withdraw, there will be unimaginable violence (senator, check your morning paper). In short, this is the same answer we’d get from Bush, complete with occasional signs of the same fractured syntax (though I note that McCain slipped and said American lives have been wasted in Iraq, which is a heresy among the true believers; if some Democrat had said that, Fox News and the whole right-wing opinion mob would be flaying them alive, the mainstream media would be picking up on it, and a mealy-mouthed clarification/apology would be in the works).

The bottom line is nuts: We’re gonna fight our way out of this, only smarter this time. Don’t ask what it costs, because we can’t afford to fail.

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