Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 June 2008

Best is Best

[For comment on Hillary’s exit, click here.]

Well, we did it, we the American people! We managed to identify the two best candidates for president.

We did it despite a disinformation blizzard. We survived the heaviest dose of propaganda and demagoguery since Joe McCarthy (not to be confused with Gene) picked the number of Communists he claimed had infiltrated our State Department out of thin air.

We overcame the abysmal performance of our media. National icons like CNN, the major networks’ TV news and the New York Times outdid the old National Enquirer in tabloidism. They focused on the horse race, personalities, personal foibles and gaffes. While not spreading gossip, they obsessed over distractions of race, gender, guns, gays and abortion. They eagerly particpated in an orgy of guilt by association. Indeed, they led it.

As a result, Reverend Wright got more intense and sustained attention than any vital issue save (perhaps) health care. After a campaign of sixteen months, hardly one in ten voters can accurately identify any candidate’s positions on Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, Hamas and Hezbollah, energy, global warming, the mortgage crisis, our economy generally, poverty in America, or the decline of our middle class.

But in retrospect it should be obvious to most of us (except perhaps some of Hillary’s diehard partisans) why the two remaining candidates are the best.

John McCain is a genuine war hero. He voluntarily stayed in the “Hanoi Hilton” and suffered permanent abuse to his young body, rather than agree to go home ahead of his fellow soldiers. He has a quarter century of intense congressional experience, including over twenty years in the Senate. He has a long record of smart, worthy, public-spirited, and independent struggles, in which he bucked his own party at political cost to himself. He stood strongly against corruption (albeit with occasional lapses), against mismanagement of the war in Iraq by Dubya and That Idiot Rumsfeld, for bipartisan work on energy, for nuclear energy (our only medium-term alternative to destructive coal), against torture whatever the pretext, for stem-cell research, and for evolution, despite an orgy of pandering to religious extremists by his opponents.

McCain’s chief opponents were three men who never served a day in the military. Rudy never held any office higher than mayor. He based his candidacy on his response to 9/11, but his incompetence and bullheadedness were factors in the deaths of many firemen on that grim day, plus the crippling environmental illnesses of many others in the months that followed.

Mitt Romney was a former governor and a successful business consultant with no experience in national government. His problem was not just having no military or foreign-policy experience. Nor was it being a Mormon. It was being Mitt Romney. His campaign revealed him as a man with no character, no principles but an eagerness to pander, and a well-deserved reputation as the biggest jerk in national politics for generations. Then there was Mike Huckabee, a smooth fellow with a common touch and a refusal to believe in evolution.

Had any of these three bozos become our president, it would be time to emigrate and seek a civilized, modern, well-run country in which to survive the coming storm. Is it any wonder that McCain prevailed, and so soon?

On the Democratic side, we expected Hillary’s coronation. As Barack Obama’s brains and political skill emerged, the conventional wisdom became myth. The two candidates, the story went, were equally matched. So it was OK to choose between “making history” with gender or with race.

But if there’s one thing you could always count on for the last seven years, it is the “inaccuracy” (to use Obama’s euphemism) of conventional wisdom—especially when endorsed by our lame-brained media. The voters eventually figured that out, although not by a huge majority.

The best way to understand the result is to think business, not politics.

One of two candidates is pushing for the CEO job. She wants to replace the CEO who made the biggest blunder in company history. But she herself supported that blunder at the time it was made, without doing her homework. She never tried to use her considerable influence to slow down the blunder, and she never apologized for her failure. She based her claim to the CEO’s job on her work while spouse of a former CEO. But she never identified anything specific and notable that she did as spouse. She did run a task force that failed to achieve its goal, alienating both her opponents and some of her supporters. She demonstrated her understanding of business by proposing a “solution” (a gas-tax holiday) which business people universally condemned, plus other solutions (interest-rate freezes and health-care mandates) that many business people ridiculed.

When things inevitably got tough, she pleaded gender, complained about the media, smeared her opponent by demagoguing his preacher, with the media’s active and enthusiastic complicity (after all, it was good gossip, wasn’t it?). Then she pointed to the voter confusion that her smears and demagoguery created as proof of her opponent’s weakness and her superior staying power. She even promised to “obliterate” (literally) an anti-Semitic competitor to attract Jewish support among shareholders.

If anybody in business tried to land a job that way, he or she would see the door in nanoseconds. Only in politics can you do so much that is so outrageous and hope to remain credible. It helps if you’re the first woman to seek the job, for whom ancient moral codes and modern feminism both demand extreme indulgence.

Selecting the best candidate despite these appalling conditions was a triumph of common sense. The result gives us hope that, when the chips are down (as they are today), the American electorate can resemble a collection of reasonably well-informed adults.

But let’s not start patting each other on the back yet. There is still plenty to suggest that—as P.T. Barnum once said—you never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Dubya, Cheney and his beloved Halliburton certainly didn’t.

We made the right decision in the primaries, but only by the skin of our teeth. Worse yet, the conditions that made deciding so hard are still present, and many of them are growing. With rare exceptions, our media are lazy, stupid, gossipy and herdlike. Our national institutions are stodgy, unimaginative, inefficient and corrupt.

So the basic task of our next president is to kick butt. The butt he has to kick is not Iranian, North Korean, or even Al Qaedan. It is our own.

He has to kick the butt of our industry scofflaws, radical environmentalists and lunatic fringe who are holding back our nuclear power industry—our clearest path in the medium term to achieving energy independence without destroying what remains of our clean air and eventually the world. He has to kick the butt of our business people, who think that shuffling paper, writing websites and producing yet bigger gas guzzlers is industrial innovation. He has to kick the butt of the economic parasites that are keeping health care from millions, making the practice of medicine a nightmare, and depriving our doctors of control over our health.

He also has to kick some military butt, as Secretary Gates to his credit belatedly recognized. He has to get our complacent, irresponsible and backward generals to take some personal responsibility for their huge bureaucracy. And he has to get our Air Force to drop its cozy relationship with a bloated military-industrial complex that has become incredibly expensive and virtually obsolete. He has to start planning and building twenty-first century weapons, especially unmanned aircraft, including lots of small, agile, cheap ones.

Our next president also has to kick our regulators’ butts. They’ve believed far too long in the fairy tale that markets do no wrong, the calumny that government does no right, and the perversion of capitalism according to which greed is good. Our president has to bring us back to the good old days, when we understood that most of us do right only when someone is watching. And yes, he has to kick the butt of teachers who think that seniority and tenure are reasons to deprive our kids of a future.

Most of all, our next president has to kick the butt of those who believe in happenstance. Our nation simply can’t succeed in a difficult, complex, ever-changing world without intelligent planning. Our next president must kick the butt of those who believe that it took an intelligent and loving God to “design” a human being but that a highly diverse society of 300 million of them can arise and succeed by accident, guided only by individual greed. The bitter fruits of that twisted philosophy lie all around us.

So we have yet one great task ahead of us. We must select the best of the best to kick our own butt. We need the president who can best whip us back into shape, whether by goading or inspiring us or by forming new and powerful coalitions to kick the butt that most needs to be kicked.

For too long we’ve been lazy, stupid, greedy, selfish, inefficient, complacent, self-righteous and corrupt. We Americans have a comeuppance to face, the sooner the better. We need to buckle down, work smarter, accept intelligent leadership, put the common good above personal fulfillment, and take the long view. At the same time, we must help the rest of the human community fight nuclear proliferation, terrorism, hunger, disease, and global warming.

The years ahead are not going to be easy. It won’t be easy to pick the best man, and it won’t be easy for him to govern, let alone arrest our precipitous national decline. But now we can begin.


Hillary’s Exit

I thought I had written my last about Hillary Clinton. But I must say a few words about her exit.

Unlike much of her campaign, it was a class act. She finally did the right thing. She recognized Obama’s win, endorsed him and his candidacy, and promised to work hard to put him in the Oval Office.

Hillary delivered her concession with grace, apparent sincerity and passion. To considerable applause, she recommended Obama as the new vehicle for her own supporters’ energy and drive.

So far so good. Now let us hope that she and her supporters put as much energy and passion into making her words real as they did in tearing Obama down during the primaries.

In that regard I want briefly to address two persistent myths common among Hillary’s supporters, echoes of which found their way into Gail Collins’ column in the New York Times today.

Hillary did not lose merely because her campaign was flawed, far less because she was the victim of misogyny, gender prejudice or media bias. She lost because she was not the best candidate. Her flaws were matters of substance, not just style.

She is a good debater, a well-trained advocate, and a skilled demagogue. And her tenacity as a campaigner is now legendary. But she is no leader. Leading means picking a right direction— one in which others have not gone before—and getting others to follow.

On the most vital issues of our day, Hillary followed. She followed Dubya into war in Iraq, apparently for her own political reasons. By voting to declare Iran’s Quds force a terrorist organization, she gave every indication of following Dubya into war with Iran, too. She followed Dubya in Pakistan, excoriating Obama for daring to express a distrust of Musharraf that later proved uncannily prescient. In supporting Israel she has followed AIPAC and Dubya. That is, she pandered to the most short-sighted and self-defeating American Jewish and Israeli leaders. To this day, she has never outlined a strategy for defeating our worst enemy (Al Qaeda Central) as bold, comprehensive and thoughtful as the one Obama articulated last August.

Foreign policy is most important in evaluating a presidential candidate because a president acts virtually alone in that field. But even in domestic policy, where a president’s every initiative is checked and balanced by Congress, Hillary has never led, at least not successfully. Her divisive 1993 health-care plan failed spectacularly. The children’s health-care program that became S-CHIP was an initiative of Senators Kennedy and Hatch, which Hillary followed and supported.

Hillary did try to lead on a few domestic economic issues, but she led in the wrong direction. Her 1993 plan failed in part because of mandates, but she kept them in her 2007 plan. She proposed mortgage interest-rate freezes (for the mortgage crisis) and a gas-tax holiday (for high gas prices), both of which economists universally condemned. Then, in the last days of her campaign, she rejected economists and economic learning entirely. That’s not leadership; it’s reckless demagoguery.

After Super Tuesday Hillary tried to rescue her failing campaign by demagoguing race, gender, and “elistism.” Her husband enthusiastically assisted, and together the nearly succeeded. Everyone now says their flying wedges made Obama a better candidate. Maybe so; he might have to face similar demagogic nonsense in the general election.

But Hillary and Bill didn’t do it for Obama, the party or the country. They did it for themselves. The tactics that they used were straight from Nixon’s Southern Strategy. They gave aid and comfort to the enemy—racists, know-nothings, and Republicans. They undermined four decades of consistent Democratic policy. They resurrected all the old specters of division, plus a new one: a divide between the working class and the intelligentsia like the ones that laid post-revolutionary Russia and China low.

The Clintons were playing with fire. They are both smart enough to know better. The spark they set will continue to smolder through the general election and for years to come. If it bursts into flame, it could destroy our country. Their betrayal of Democratic principles and good judgment, not to mention self-restraint, indelibly tarnished the Clinton brand.

This brings me to the second myth: that Hillary’s candidacy was an unalloyed triumph for women everywhere. Of course a woman making a serious run for president—and being taken seriously—is a step forward for gender equality. But Hillary’s deeply flawed candidacy was not an unmixed blessing. Gail Collins rightly points to ridicule as a sword often used to deny women their rightful place in society. Yet toward the end of her campaign Hillary sharpened that sword by making herself ridiculous and contemptible.

We do not need a sophisticated, highly educated (dare I say “elite”?) 61-year old candidate posing in a working person’s bar with a shot and a beer, any more than we needed Michael Dukakis posing in a tank. We do not need a presidential candidate who promises to “obliterate” an enigmatic adversary or to ignore the teachings of economic science. And we certainly do not need a Democratic candidate who takes several pages from Nixon’s book in a last-ditch effort to save her failing candidacy.

Any ridicule or contempt directed at Hillary for these reasons has nothing to do with her gender. It is based on her actions and is well deserved.

More generally, this election is not about gender or about race. It is a contest to replace the most incompetent president in a century—perhaps ever—with someone who knows what he or she is doing.

In that regard Obama excels. He is not only intelligent and superbly trained, better than Hillary. (Hillary was not president of her law school’s premier legal journal; Obama was of his.) Obama is also thoughtful, deliberate, careful, circumspect, self-restrained, understated and diplomatic. He can predict and evaluate consequences and has done so repeatedly. He can bring disparate groups together for a common purpose. He is the antithesis of the division that John Edwards’ and Hillary’s campaigns personified.

In these respects Obama is better than John McCain and far better than Hillary. He is better than anyone we have seen for forty years. He may be as good as Lincoln.

To lose to such a once-in-a-century rival is no shame. To run a ridiculous and despicable campaign is.

The sooner Hillary’s partisans separate her helpful symbolism and her passion for the common good from her decidedly unhelpful candidacy and tactics, the sooner the “women’s movement” and the cause of equality in which we all believe will recover from her loss. And the sooner we can get on with the business of undoing the enormous damage of seven years of grossly incompetent leadership, from which even John McCain would provide welcome relief.

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