No conservation law for political vitriol

Yes, Obama will be attacked if he becomes the nominee. No, he will not be attacked as successfully has Hillary Clinton would be.

John Cole and Glenn Greenwald argue that, kumbaya or no, if Obama wins the nomination he will be subjected to the same sh*tstorm of abuse as would Hillary Clinton would be. I’m not convinced.

Will the wingnuts attack Obama with every vile claim they can invent? Of course. That’s who they are.

But the question isn’t whether the attacks will be made. The question is whether the attacks will stick.

Actually, I don’t think that even Hillary-bashing would work as well this year as it has in the past, simply because voters desperate to get rid of the GOP won’t want to hear anything bad about the Democratic candidate, whoever that might be. Reagan got away with being obviously senile in 1984 because Mondale never made the case that he was a plausible replacement. That’s also how Nixon got away with being obviously Nixon in 1972: as soon as McGovern had been safely disposed of, the media and the political class became ready to believe Watergate. The same sort of cognitive-dissonance effect will help protect whoever is the Democratic nominee this year.

In addition, not all candidates pose equally target-rich environments for vitriol. I think that’s true of Obama as compared to HRC. But let’s take it from our side. It’s predictable that Atrios and Kos and CrooksandLiars (and, of course, your humble obedient servant) will have vicious things to say about this year’s Republican nominee. But consider how much easier it would be, how much more enthusiastic we would be about it, and how much more of our attacks would get through to the voters, if the nominee were Giuliani or Huckabee rather than Romney or McCain or Thompson.

Similarly, on Election Day in November I think that Barack Obama as the nominee would excite far less Republican enthusiasm than would HRC.

In defense of New Hampshire voters

Sure some of them have moved since Obama’s victory in Iowa. But didn’t that victory, and the speech that followed, contain important information about choosing a nominee?

Kevin Drum:

In related news, apparently the flinty-eyed independents of New Hampshire aren’t quite as flinty-eyed as they’d like you to believe. After a solid year of town halls, coffee klatsches, and early morning doorbell ringing &#8212 because, you know, New Hampshirites take their electoral responsibilities so much more seriously than the rest of us &#8212 all it took was a few thousand Iowans to flip them from one side to the other in less than 24 hours. Feh.

Well, yes … and no. As a long-time resident of Massachusetts, I’m always happy to join in on bashing the moochers and free-loaders of Cow Hampshire, who ought to get honest and change the state’s motto to “Live Free At Someone Else’s Expense.” And of course the notion that Iowa and New Hampshire are virtuous because they are mostly rural and Northern European is pretty damned offensive.

But … is it so unreasonable for a voter to have changed his or her mind after Iowa? The critique of Obama is that he doesn’t know how to get things done, and that he makes promises based on hope that he can’t deliver. He’s been claiming that he can get Republicans in Washington to work with him to pass progressive legislation, which seems pretty implausible given the last fifteen years. It’s hard to figure out whether he can pull it off without actually electing him.

On the other hand, he’s been pushing some equally silly-sounding ideas: that he can attract hordes of independent and Republican voters, that he can mobilize young voters, that he could win Iowa against the Clinton machine and Edwards’s union backing.

And guess what? Those silly-sounding ideas turned out to be correct, in the one trial so far. Why shouldn’t a dispassionate observer weigh that fact pretty heavily in judging whether Obama’s “theory of change” ought to be believed?

On top of that was The Speech. Why should we expect New Hampshire voters to be any more flinty-eyed than, let’s say, Ezra Klein? Moreover, in politics words are weapons, and it’s not unreasonable to want to nominate a well-armed candidate.

Footnote Ezra is taking some ribbing for his enthusiastic words, but that just reflects the basic Kool Kidz rule of never appearing to be impressed by anything. I, for one, don’t count being moved by oratory as a sign of mental deficiency. It’s not the tone-deafness of people like Mickey Kaus that’s so infuriating; it’s the pride they take in their tone-deafness.

Theory-of-change Dep’t: “It won’t hurt you”

If you know who you are, if you know what you believe in, if you know what you are fighting for, then you can afford to listen to folks who don’t agree with you, you can afford to reach across the aisle every once in a while. It won’t hurt you.

Barack Obama:

If you know who you are, if you know what you believe in, if you know what you are fighting for, then you can afford to listen to folks who don’t agree with you, you can afford to reach across the aisle every once in a while. It won’t hurt you. You won’t be compromised and you will be able to form the majorities that will defeat the special interests and win elections

Obama against police torture

Obama pushed through the Illinois legislature a bill requiring that all police interrogations of suspects be video-taped. That took both courage and skill.

Here’s an impressive Barack Obama accomplishment I’d never heard of until Charles Peters wrote about it:

The problem he wanted to address was that too many confessions, rather than being voluntary, were coerced — by beating the daylights out of the accused.

Obama proposed requiring that interrogations and confessions be videotaped.

This seemed likely to stop the beatings, but the bill itself aroused immediate opposition. There were Republicans who were automatically tough on crime and Democrats who feared being thought soft on crime. There were death penalty abolitionists, some of whom worried that Obama’s bill, by preventing the execution of innocents, would deprive them of their best argument. Vigorous opposition came from the police, too many of whom had become accustomed to using muscle to “solve” crimes. And the incoming governor, Rod Blagojevich, announced that he was against it.

Obama had his work cut out for him.

He responded with an all-out campaign of cajolery. It had not been easy for a Harvard man to become a regular guy to his colleagues. Obama had managed to do so by playing basketball and poker with them and, most of all, by listening to their concerns. Even Republicans came to respect him. One Republican state senator, Kirk Dillard, has said that “Barack had a way both intellectually and in demeanor that defused skeptics.”

The police proved to be Obama’s toughest opponent. Legislators tend to quail when cops say things like, “This means we won’t be able to protect your children.” The police tried to limit the videotaping to confessions, but Obama, knowing that the beatings were most likely to occur during questioning, fought — successfully — to keep interrogations included in the required videotaping.

By showing officers that he shared many of their concerns, even going so far as to help pass other legislation they wanted, he was able to quiet the fears of many.

Obama proved persuasive enough that the bill passed both houses of the legislature, the Senate by an incredible 35 to 0. Then he talked Blagojevich into signing the bill, making Illinois the first state to require such videotaping.

(Some additonal process discussion on Kevin Drum’s blog; apparently the bill had very hot opposition, which Obama had to work deftly to overcome,)

Now, I hardly needed any more persuading on the Obama question, but I find this (along with the other examples Peters cites) incredibly persuasive, for three reasons:

1. Obama was completely right, and on an issue directly relevant to the more recent debates about torture. Taping interrogations is an issue that really only has one legitimate side, since there’s no reason to think it prevents any true confessions, while it certainly prevents false confessions (over and above the legal and moral reasons for disapproving of police use of “enhanced interrogation methods”).

2. Pursuing it had very little political payoff, as evidenced by the fact that Obama has not (as far as I know) so much as mentioned this on the campaign. Standing up for the rights of accused criminals in a contemporary American legislature requires brass balls.

3. Getting it through required both courage and skill. The notion that Obama is “too nice” to get things done can hardly survive this story: he won’t face tougher or less scrupulous political opponents than the self-proclaimed forces of law and order. Yes, in this case the change was helpful to the cause of crime control, since every innocent person imprisoned displaces a guilty person. But that didn’t make the politics of it any easier.

Can anyone name a comparable-sized accomplishment &#8212 as opposed to effort &#8212 by any of Obama’s rivals for the Democratic nomination?

Update Hilzoy points to a wide range of useful but non-flashy Obama iniatives in his first two years in the Senate: on loose nukes, bird flu, lead, genetic testing standards, and chemical plant security, among others.

Footnote The notion that Obama is “too nice” to win may well survive two or three more crushing defeats inflicted by him on his rivals, just as the myth that GWB was stupid survived his string of political triumphs. As the Bush story demonstrates, being misunderestimated can be advantageous.

Obama’s 100 Days

About a year ago, I had dinner with a friend who knew Barack Obama in law school. He thinks very highly of Obama, and is supporting him strongly in the campaign. So as an undecided Democrat, I asked him, “Okay. What is the centerpiece of the agenda for the first 100 days of the Obama Administration? What’s the thing in his gut that he really cares about and is going to fight for?” And my friend answered, “I don’t know.”

I suppose that’s why I’ve always leaned towards Edwards. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I know that he cares a lot about poverty and the uninsured. (These are not causes that figure to win you the Presidency, so you’d better believe in them if you’re going to run with them at the heart of your campaign.). The centerpiece of the Edwards Administration would be universal health coverage.

It’s not good enough to cite policy proposals. I want to know what the candidate really cares about. I think that’s why people are still wondering about Obama.

Now that Edwards seems fatally wounded, I’m still wondering whom I should vote for. So I’ll ask it again: what is at the center of the Obama Administration’s first 100 days?

Does anyone know? And how do they know it?

Update Mark responds

Concerning mendacity

Yes, there are more black men under 35 behind bars than there are enrolled full-time in four-year colleges. Richard Cohen needs to retract his charge of “mendacity.” I’m not holding my breath.

Richard Cohen is at it again. So is Michael Dobbs.

Here’s my letter to Cohen (somewhat edited). I copied Dobbs and Deborah Howell, and got a quick response from Dobbs, who denied copying and asked me to supply some additional numbers (reflected below). I did so promptly; he hasn’t responded again. I’ll report on any further follow-up

Dear Richard Cohen:

When you call someone a liar, you ought to make sure you have your facts straight. Your reliance on Michael Dobbs as a source of truth turns out to have been a mistake. (It turns out that Dobbs didn’t even bother to do his own work; his item is mostly borrowed from a right-wing website.) [UPDATE: Dobbs denies having copied. Duly noted.]

Just to give some background: I teach public policy at UCLA, concentrating on crime control and drug policy. In the Reagan Administration, I ran the policy shop for the Criminal Division of the Justice Department. So — unlike Dobbs — I actually know what I’m talking about.

There were 534,000 black men in prison at year-end 2006. (P. 6.)

There were another 296,000 blacks in jail (as opposed to prison)

Since about 85% of jail inmates are male

that means roughly 240,000 black males in jail.

Another 36,000 black males were held in “secure” (i.e., locked) juvenile facilities:

That gives a total of 810,000 black males behind bars at any one time.

By contrast, according to the Census Bureau there are 370,000 black men enrolled full-time in four-year colleges, plus another 40,000 in graduate school.

As always, the number you get depends on the definition you use. Iain Murray, from whom Dobbs copied, arbitrarily decided that only those under the age of 24 counted as “young.” He also counted part-time and community-college students as “enrolled in college.” So it’s not fair to accuse Murray of “mendacity”: he merely chose the numbers he wanted to make the point he wanted to make.

If you restrict both the inmate population and the college population to the under-35s, the comparable figures are 400,000 behind bars and 380,000 in college.

So Obama’s claim is perfectly defensible, and your reference to his “mendacity” had no basis. You owe your readers a public retraction and, and Sen. Obama an apology.

Yours,

Mark Kleiman

Second update Now Daniel Schorr of NPR has picked up the same false claim of falsehood.

Schorr also retails the old chestnut about Joe Biden’s “cribbing” Niel Kinnock’s claim about being the first in his family to go to college. In fact, Biden was in the habit of citing Kinnock (by name) to make his point about equal educational opportunity. The claim made no sense if made in Biden’s own name, since he wasn’t in fact the first in his family to go to college. In the exhaustion of non-stop campaigning, on one occasion he recited his usual line but left out the quotation marks.

Schorr also gets on HRC for claiming that Bush has cut the NIH budget. In fact, NIH funding has been just about flat in nominal terms since 2003 which means a substantial cut in inflation-adjusted terms, especially if we use rates of medical inflation as the right measure.

I have great regard for Schorr, and little for Biden or HRC. But I continue to be awed by the willingness of reporters to accuse politicians of lying on the basis of facts and numbers the reporters only half understand.

Jiu-jitsu

Obama turns the “rolling the dice” argument around the other way:
“The real gamble in this election is playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expecting a different result. And that’s a risk we can’t take. Not this year. Not when the stakes are this high.”

Obama turns the “rolling the dice” argument back on its maker:

The real gamble in this election is playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expecting a different result. And that’s a risk we can’t take. Not this year. Not when the stakes are this high.

And then he squashes the “inexperience” argument, again in jiu-jitsu style:

In this election, it is time to turn the page. In seven days, it is time to stand for change.

This has been our message since the beginning of this campaign. It was our message when we were down, and our message when we were up. And it must be catching on, because in these last few weeks, everyone is talking about change.

But you can’t at once argue that you’re the master of a broken system in Washington and offer yourself as the person to change it. You can’t fall in line behind the conventional thinking on issues as profound as war and offer yourself as the leader who is best prepared to chart a new and better course for America.

The truth is, you can have the right kind of experience and the wrong kind of experience. Mine is rooted in the real lives of real people and it will bring real results if we have the courage to change. I believe deeply in those words. But they are not mine. They were Bill Clinton’s in 1992, when Washington insiders questioned his readiness to lead.

Not only is Obama’s skill as a rhetorical counter-puncher a joy to watch in action, it’s also a substantial shelter from the sh*tstorm that’s certain to hit any Democratic nominee. I don’t think that’s as big a threat this year as it has been in the past &#8212 voters disgusted by Republicans won’t be very receptive to tittle-tattle about Democrats &#8212 but it’s going to happen, and it would be nice to have a nominee who knows how to deal with it.

“Kumbaya”? Not so much

Obama appeals over the heads of the Republican leadership to Republican voters. That’s a much greater threat to their power than ranting about how evil they are. Why would you call a candidate who knows how to hit his opponents where it hurts “naive”?

The critique of Obama’s theme that it’s possible to transcend partisan and ideological bitterness &#8212 what Kevin Drum, among others, has called his “Kumbaya shtick” &#8212 is that it takes two sides to make a dialogue, and the leadership of the plutocrat/lobbyist/imperialist/Christofascist coalition that is the modern Republican party isn’t interested in compromise &#8212 cf. the S-CHIP debacle &#8212 and needs to be destroyed, not temporized with.

I never thought Obama was naive about Jerry Falwell or Grover Norquist or HIAA or PhARMA, any more than I think he’s naive about Ahmadinejad or Castro. It seems to me that he’s directing his “Kumbaya” message over the heads of the Republican leadership to (some of) the voters who have, often to their own disadvantage, supported GOP candidates out of their fear and hatred of the libruls who make fun of their religion and who want to regulate their thermostats, take away their guns, and teach their children twelve different ways to have sex.

But of course I’m as capable as anyone else of projecting my beliefs and plans onto the politicians I’m currently supporting. So I was pleased to see Obama, in his “closing argument” speech, lay out a “theory of change” on exactly that principle:

I’ve spoken to veterans who talk with pride about what they’ve accomplished in Afghanistan and Iraq, but who nevertheless think of those they’ve left behind and question the wisdom of our mission in Iraq; the mothers weeping in my arms over the memories of their sons; the disabled or homeless vets who wonder why their service has been forgotten.

And I’ve spoken to Americans in every corner of the state, patriots all, who wonder why we have allowed our standing in the world to decline so badly, so quickly. They know this has not made us safer. They know that we must never negotiate out of fear, but that we must never fear to negotiate with our enemies as well as our friends. They are ashamed of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and warrantless wiretaps and ambiguity on torture. They love their country and want its cherished values and ideals restored.

It is precisely because you’ve experienced these frustrations, and seen the cost of inaction in your own lives, that you understand why we can’t afford to settle for the same old politics. You know that we can’t afford to allow the insurance lobbyists to kill health care reform one more time, and the oil lobbyists to keep us addicted to fossil fuels because no one stood up and took their power away when they had the chance.

[big snip]

There’s no shortage of anger and bluster and bitter partisanship out there. We don’t need more heat. We need more light. I’ve learned in my life that you can stand firm in your principles while still reaching out to those who might not always agree with you. And although the Republican operatives in Washington might not be interested in hearing what we have to say, I think Republican and independent voters outside of Washington are. That’s the once-in-a-generation opportunity we have in this election.

For the first time in a long time, we have the chance to build a new majority of not just Democrats, but Independents and Republicans who’ve lost faith in their Washington leaders but want to believe again – who desperately want something new.

We can change the electoral math that’s been all about division and make it about addition – about building a coalition for change and progress that stretches through Blue States and Red States. That’s how I won some of the reddest, most Republican counties in Illinois. That’s why the polls show that I do best against the Republicans running for President – because we’re attracting more support from Independents and Republicans than any other candidate. That’s how we’ll win in November and that’s how we’ll change this country over the next four years.

You want to be really, really, nasty to the goon squad that now runs the Republican party? Don’t rail at them; it runs off them like water off a duck’s back. If you want to hit them where it hurts, you have to take away their voters. I don’t know how much of that Obama would be able to do, but I’m confident that he could do more of it than either of his rivals for the nomination.

Update Mark Schmitt’s (pre-speech) take is the pretty much same as mine: like me, he sees in Obama a Machiavelli dressed up as Mother Teresa.

Kerrey, again

“Secular madrassa”? Give me a break!

I was willing to give Bob Kerrey the benefit of the doubt about his “Barack Hussein Obama” comment. But if his “secular madrassa” comment wasn’t a deliberate smear, then Kerrey must really and truly be as dimwitted as his detractors insist. There are some people so nasty that they can’t see a belt without wanting to hit below it. And there are others so verbally clumsy that they never open their mouths except for the purpose of inserting a foot. I’m not sure which one Kerrey is, but I’m sure glad he didn’t get to be President.