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

21 June 2008

Why I Gave Obama Another $2,300


1. I love my country, but it needs real change
2. We need leaders with education and brains
3. We need self-restraint in our leaders
4. We need a leader without psychological baggage
5. We need cold-blooded realism in Iraq
6. We need to finish our worst enemy
7. We need solutions, not ideology
8. We need to reform the Republican party
9. It’s the team, stupid
10. Conclusion
P.S. A Note on Campaign Financing

Last Thursday I made my second maximum allowed contribution to the Obama campaign—one for the primary election and one for the general. I did it just minutes after learning of his refusal to accept federal funding for the general election.

My wife and I aren’t rich. We’re comfortable, upper middle class, and we’re both penny pinchers. We don’t easily spend money like that even on ourselves.

Yet I feel better having spent it on Obama’s campaign that I would having spent it on a vacation, a few new suits, or some new appliances. My wife plans to make a similar contribution a bit down the road. Here’s why.

1. I love my country, but it needs real change. When I was growing up, we were first in everything. We had just won the biggest war in history, and our mainland was untouched. When the troops came home, everything boomed. We had the best science, the best technology, the best entertainment, the best schools and the best standard of living. We were all kings and queens, and everyone had a bright future.

During the war, we had developed atomic weapons, atomic energy and synthetic rubber. When the Soviets later beat us into space, we turned the tables in ten years and beat them to the Moon. There seemed to be nothing we couldn’t do. When the civil rights and women’s rights revolutions arrived in the sixties, it looked as if we were going to expand the reach of our blessings to everyone. We were industrious, confident and proud.

In the aftermath of the Great Depression and the War, we also had some sober virtues. We were patient, frugal, cautious and smart. Under constant threat of nuclear annihilation, we waited 40 years to win the Cold War. Our patience paid off in victory without a shot fired. We had self-restraint and brains to match our wealth and might.

Yet somehow we lost our way. Before the sixties were over, assassins had killed three of our greatest leaders. The domestic upheavals that followed produced turmoil unseen since our Civil War. After Nixon and Watergate, we entered a long, stagnant period in which ideology replaced thinking.

Dubya’s presidency is the culmination of that period. We fought a war for false reasons. The nation that had helped beat Nazi Germany, had beat Imperial Japan alone, and had faced down the fearsome Soviet Union couldn’t take down a few fanatics hiding in caves. We couldn’t take care of our own people or protect them from natural disasters or ill health. Our industry and politics foundered on ambition and avarice.

Eventually, bad character and bad policy infected even our economy, and it tanked. Greed, incaution and stupidity overtook us. Most of what we have done as a nation for the last thirty years—from energy policy, through health care, to military preparedness and action—has been ill-considered, premature, poorly planned, poorly executed, or all of the above.

Today I hardly recognize my country. I know we need change more than anything else. We need to restore our competence, honesty, and confidence. To do that, we need strong, dynamic, intelligent leadership in a totally new direction. No one but Obama offers anything like that.

2. We need leaders with education and brains. We can’t wish our way out of the hole we have dug for ourselves. Nor can we fight our way out. We have to think our way out.

Barack Obama will be the best educated president in nearly a century, since Woodrow Wilson. He graduated near the top of his class at Harvard Law School. In a series of secret ballots, he was elected president of the Harvard Law Review, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious legal journal. For ten years he was a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, one or our top law schools. Even his parents were well educated: both earned Ph.D.s.

In contrast, John McCain graduated near the bottom of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy. He had no academic distinction and was known as a cut-up, fighter and troublemaker. Today he is courageous and in many ways an admirable man. But his education and scholastic record rank below average for a national politician.

After seven years of being governed by a C student at Yale, we need a different kind of leader. We need someone who can think six moves ahead in the global games of chess. Obama did that when he predicted, in 2002, precisely the result of our misadventure in Iraq. He was six months ahead of the pack in recommending a reassessment of our national indulgence of Pakistan’s Musharraf.

We desperately need a leader who can see around corners like that. Although he saw through That Idiot Rumsfeld earlier than many, I can’t recall John McCain making any remotely comparable prescient judgment.

3. We need self-restraint in our leaders. Dubya alarmed the world and his own people by saying “Bring it on!” and “Wanted, dead or alive!” In the recent primary campaign, a candidate threatened to “obliterate” Iran.

I lived through the entire Cold War, but I can’t recall any American politician of either party making any similar threat. It was Nikita S. Khruschev, the rough Russian peasant, who said “We will bury you!” Our leaders countered with understatement, wise policy, courage, and silent determination. And we won.

McCain is far from stupid. He is not Dubya redux. But I worry about his temperament. And so do many others, including his colleagues in the Senate.

McCain has had several outbursts of intemperance, anger, sarcasm, and over-the-top discord with his colleagues, some of which nearly provoked fisticuffs in the halls of government. Psychologists tell us that is just the sort of behavior to expect from someone who endured McCain’s suffering and sacrifice in Vietnam. While we can admire his courage then and now and sympathize with his suffering, do we really want an unpredictable “loose cannon” in charge at this critical time in history?

When McCain joked about staying in Iraq for 100 years, I cringed. We need a leader who is understated, cool, cautious, deliberate, and restrained in both word and deed. That’s Obama, not McCain.

4. We need a leader without psychological baggage. McCain’s courage and sacrifice in Vietnam were admirable. But he seems to bear the psychological scars of that history. He seems to confuse his own suffering and humiliation in Vietnam with our military’s and our country’s. He wants to purge them, if not avenge them. That attitude could cloud his judgment.

On the substance, my view of Iraq is equidistant between Obama’s and McCain’s. I like the part of Obama that said—many times—“we must be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in.” I like the part of McCain that said, albeit belatedly, that we could have all our troops out by 2013.

After all our expense, sacrifice, and pain, we can’t pull out willy nilly, abandoning any gains we may have made or any good we may have done. But we should not remain there one more minute than we must in order to leave a stable, viable society behind.

I worry about McCain’s expectations. I think he imagines songs, salutes and victory celebrations when we leave. But there will be nothing of the kind. If we do it right, we will leave slowly, imperceptibly, and unevenly. There will be no victory celebrations because there will be no victory in any traditional sense. It will be better for all concerned if our withdrawal goes almost unnoticed.

At best, there will be delayed and private satisfaction in our military for a difficult, costly and dangerous job well done. But that satisfaction may not come until months or years after the last boot has crossed the border.

I worry that McCain expects too much, and that his expectations are unrealistic. Nowhere are unrealistic expectations more dangerous than in Iraq.

5. We need cold-blooded realism in Iraq. Whatever happens there, the outcome will not be the unified, peaceful western democracy that Dubya envisaged. For the foreseeable future, Iraq will be more Islamist, more chaotic, more violent, more divided and more dependent upon Iran than we would like.

The important thing is that we’ve planted the seeds of democracy and stability. Iraqi Kurdistan is already a stable, functioning democracy. The Sunni Awakening Councils are the beginning of a crude, tribal Sunni democracy, free from Saddam’s Stalinist tyranny. What’s happening in Shiite Iraq is also promising: Parliament is beginning to look like a place where bargains get made and laws approved, and Al Maliki is beginning to look like a real leader who controls a real army.

So far, so good. But the next big step is the provincial elections now scheduled for November. To the extent we had any control over their timing (which is unclear), they were probably postponed until after our general election because the outcome is unlikely to confirm Dubya’s pipe dream of a unified, secular Iraq. More likely, the outcome will confirm the sort of de facto, soft partitioning that is inevitable and healthy but that Duyba and McCain have neglected in pursuing a pipe dream.

And that’s the nub of it. The last thing we need in Iraq is more utopian wishful thinking. Politics is the art of the possible, and, as Von Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means. What we need in Iraq is a cold-blooded assessment of the possible, a hard-headed accounting of costs and benefits.

We need to leave as soon as the tree of democracy and stability that we have planted is viable, no matter how scraggly it may seem. We must cold-bloodedly assess the likelhood of further gains against the huge cost we have already paid and all that we have recklessly left undone at home and abroad.

In making that trade-off, McCain can’t help but be influenced by irrelevant events that occurred over thirty years ago half a world away. He supported the war in Iraq from the beginning, and his support was partly responsible for its horrendous mismanagement. He has lots to prove.

Obama opposed the war from the beginning and has no responsibility for its mismangement. He has nothing to prove. His hands are free. He can take a fresh look with fresh advisors. He is therefore much more capable of making the cold-blooded, rational tradeoffs that must be made. His open and inclusive approach to diplomacy is more likely to engender slow but steady regional changes that increase the chances of Iraqi democracy surviving.

6. We need to finish our worst enemy. Al Qaeda Central, now in Pakistan, is our worst enemy. In the last three decades, it has done us more direct harm than all our other adversaries combined. We need to finish it off, economically, politically, ideologically and militarily.

No one but Obama has ever taken this enemy as seriously as it should be taken. Chances to kill bin Laden were missed on both Bill Clinton’s and Dubya’s watches. Teflon Condi never followed up the warning memo on her desk. Dubya and That Idiot Rumsfeld got sidetracked in Iraq after 9/11. Although Defense Secretary Gates has been slowly changing the focus, Dubya still thinks only of Iraq, his biggest mistake.

No political leader in either party has ever presented a public plan to beat Al Qaeda as bold, strong, and comprehensive as the one Obama presented in August of last year. If Obama becomes president, I doubt bin Laden or Zawahiri will survive his first term in freedom.

With all his personal heroism and his bluster about Iraq, McCain doesn’t seem to get an essential point. We must dismantle Al Qaeda and capture or kill its leaders before they or their proxies acquire nuclear weapons. Time is not on our side. Obama knows this, and his presidency will help me sleep more soundly at night.

7. We need solutions, not ideology. When historians recount the history of the last thirty years, they will call it our age of ideology, our “Soviet period.” Just as the Russians once put their faith in Communism, a new “Soviet Man,” and simplistic economic nostrums, so we put our faith in markets alone, believing they could do no wrong. We idolized entrepreneurs, believing that the sum of their individual greed would add up to common welfare.

It hasn’t worked out that way. After thirty years of increasingly self-evident failure, we know this ideology is bunk—a simpleton’s view of a complex world. No such nostrums can describe or govern a complex, technological-industrial nation of 300 million people. We have to be smarter than that.

Markets can indeed be powerful. But to serve the common good, they must be directed, guided, managed and regulated. We learned that lesson in the last century. FDR molded laissez faire capitalism into a well-regulated free-market economy that beat the Great Depression, helped us win history’s greatest war, and made us the strongest, richest society in human history. We will never have a decent health care system, let alone rational energy policy, unless we repeat that performance.

John McCain is a good man and a courageous man. But he is not the man for this job. He is a captive of Republican and conservative ideology. He still thinks that tax cuts will solve all economic problems, despite experience to the contrary since Reagan. He still argues that unfettered markets will solve our energy and health crises, when it is clear that failure to guide and regulate markets has exacerbated both.

McCain’s economic ideas are as old and tired as he seems when he takes the podium. He cannot think outside the box of his Republican orthodoxies. Yet he accuses Obama of being a traditional “tax and spend liberal.”

That lie is easy to refute. Obama is beyond ideology. He solves problems—including health care—whichever way is best.

Of course Obama favors strong federal leadership in energy and health care. We’ve never had it, and we need it. Of course he favors tighter regulation of carbon emissions and financial markets. So does every expert analyst. After all, it was the lack of regulation and leadership that got us into this mess.

But Obama is no ideologue. He understands the power of markets, private enterprise and private incentives. All his detailed proposals involve public-private partnerships. He knows economics far better than any candidate in either party. He understands that our economy is a precision instrument that you adjust and fix only with intelligence and care.

If you doubt that, read his health-care policy carefully; it’s a marvel of detailed and nuanced economic understanding. Obama won’t kill or sicken our markets. He will make them healthier and better serve the public good by converting the last thirty-years of free-market religion into an exact science.

8. We need to reform the Republican party. Our politics and government rely on a two-party system. Like it or not, the nation needs a strong second party. But the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt has gone badly astray.

A Republican has governed us for all but twelve of the last forty years. During that time, we have lost one war and are in danger of losing a second. Our standard of living has stagnated, and our middle class has begun to lose hope. Our social safety net has disintegrated. Economic inequalities have become as large as they were in the Gilded Age over a century ago. Despite its vaunted technology and training, our military has gone from the world’s finest and most respected to a semi-privatized, over-stressed force controlled by a bloated and largely obsolete military-industrial complex. Our enemies no longer respect it, let alone fear it. Our infrastructure is falling apart, and we are dependent upon dictators for over half our domestic transportation needs. We have become a pariah abroad and a basket case at home.

Republicans’ style has become even worse than their substance. The recent face of the Republican party has been Gingrich, DeLay, Dubya, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, Gonzales, Cornyn and Kyle. Its tactics have been distraction (abortion, homosexual marriage, and fundamentalist religion), demagoguery, dishonesty, discord and deceit. It has promoted rigid moralizing, evasion of responsibility, awe-inspiring stupidity, and unwillingness to compromise. For ideas it has proposed tax cuts and privatization for every economic problem and unilateral, moralistic jingoism for every problem abroad.

Except for McCain, Chuck Hagel and a few others, Republican leaders lately have adopted all the intelligence, finesse and discretion of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly. It is a tribute to their skill at demagoguery that anyone at all still trusts these liars and scoundrels.

No wonder John McCain—a candidate many Republicans consider an outsider—is the Republicans’ nominee! Only a maverick like him could credibly maintain the fiction of new ideas and any hope of winning the support of independents and undecided voters.

I believe in markets, and I respect the marketplace of ideas. In that marketplace, Republicans are bankrupt and have been for some time. The fruits of their failure lie in the ruins all around us. They don’t need just a new CEO, especially not a mistrusted and exhausted one like John McCain. What they need is a complete reorganization in bankruptcy.

If Republicans are to see the light and restore the Grand Old Party to any semblance of its former greatness, they need a big dose of creative destruction. They must suffer an electoral debacle on the order of Goldwater’s rout by Lyndon Johnson in 1964. With his intelligence, charisma, political skill, and message of change and hope, Obama is just the one to deliver it.

9. It’s the team, stupid. Late last year, in a post called “Dream Team,” I speculated on what an Obama Cabinet would look like. I put John McCain in as Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs.

After what promises to be a bruising general-election campaign, that probably won’t happen. But my speculation illustrates the quality of the team that Obama will put together.

In that post I emphasized how important the team is. A president doesn’t act alone. Just imagine, for example, what Dubya’s presidency might have been if Colin Powell had been Vice President and Cheney and That Idiot Rumsfeld had stayed in private life.

Both McCain and Obama have promised bipartisan cabinets, and I believe them. But there’s a big difference in quality.

To see how big, review the transcript of the recent on-air debate on energy policy between Jason Grumet, Obama’s economic advisor, and Douglas Holz-Eakin, McCain’s. For every point made by Holz-Eakin, Grumet made two or three, and all were crisper and more important. Grumet appeared younger, smarter, more enthusiastic, quicker, better informed, and more at ease with facts and figures. He reminded me of FDR’s brain trust. Holz-Eakin looked and sounded like a tired, middle aged male doing his job and waiting for retirement.

10. Conclusion. I could go on, but that’s enough for now. John McCain is a good man. Despite increasingly frequent instances of pandering to the Republican base, he won’t really be Dubya redux. Unlike Dubya, he might even make a decent president, a good caretaker.

But a caretaker is not what we need right now. We’re sliding down the slippery slope of a dramatic national decline. We need a strong leader able to bring real change. We need someone with a superb education, extraordinary intelligence, sterling and steady character, wisdom, judgment, self-restraint, and a team whose every member is first class. That’s Obama, not McCain.

So after making my second $2,300 donation, I had no buyer’s remorse. I know—as I have known for over a year—that I’ve made the best possible investment in the future of the country I love.

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P.S. A Note on Campaign Financing


The propaganda du jour requires me to address the issue of campaign financing. Barack Obama’s opponents accuse him of dishonesty and “flip-flopping” for declining federal campaign funding and the $84 million limit that goes with it.

It would be nice if the coming campaign promised to be fair enough to justify his accepting the limit. About two weeks ago, I myself expressed that hope. But subsequent events have proved me hopelessly naïve.

Senator Obama labors under a handicap that reeks of four centuries of unfairness. We all know what it is.

Since I wrote that post, the drums of racism have started beating ceaselessly. Obama is “angry,” they say. His lovely, amiable wife is “angry” and “resentful.”

We all know what these words mean. They are code words for the sort of racist speech that is no longer acceptable in polite society. They are subtle echoes of the “Willie Horton” ad.

When twisting facts is not unfair enough, detractors make up “facts” that never happened. Obama is a Muslim, they say, even while castigating the “anger” and “racism” of his former Christian preacher in his former Christian church. He took his oath of office on the Koran, not the Bible. His wife, a woman of superb refinement who has worked with Caucasians all her adult life, used the crude epithet “whitey” in an unguarded moment.

It doesn’t matter how many times these lies are refuted. They echo endlessly on the Internet. The mainstream media delight in giving them credence by repeating them, even while purporting to deny them to maintain their own credibility. They know exactly what they are doing.

Murdoch’s goons on Fox News even accuse Obama of plagiarism. Those boorish philistines would sell their children to be able to write and speak as well as Barack Obama. Yet they accuse him of plagiarism!

John McCain’s own seething anger often lies just below the surface of his twisted smile. It is there for everyone with eyes to see. He has reason to be angry. He spent over five years in prison under torture and has never forgotten. Yet no one mentions his anger because he’s 100% white, even though it could affect his critical judgment as president.

I had hoped that he would do the honorable thing, just as John Edwards did. I had hoped he would say, and repeat often, “If you plan to vote for me because I’m white, or because you think Senator Obama is a Muslim, I don’t want your vote.”

That would have been easy enough to say. But McCain didn’t. He’s honorable enough not to repeat racist lies, but not honorable enough to disown racism conclusively, or the boost it gives his campaign.

For four centuries the poison of racism has infected our body politic. It is a potent and persistent poison. Every time we thought we had an effective antidote—the Civil War, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Act of 1964—it somehow managed to escape complete eradication.

The only real antidotes are time, education, familiarity with the “other,” and free speech. But the campaign calendar doesn’t give us the time to educate all the people whose unconscious, latent racism might deprive us of the greatest leader we have seen in forty years. Conscious racism is too persistent even to try.

So we have to pack effective education, familiarization and free speech for millions into the next five months. To do that Obama must have the biggest, brightest and loudest megaphone ever known to humankind. He must tell his own remarkable story even as he drowns out racist lies.

That takes money. New Corp.’s second-quarter profit was $832 million; that’s over $ 3.3 billion per year. Its annualized revenue was over $ 34 billion. That’s the kind of money Obama is up against. And they want him, like David facing Goliath, to lay down his arms and pick up the slingshot of $84 million in federal funding. Not this time. Obama is no John Kerry.

Those who chastise Obama speak of fairness. But this country has not been fully fair to someone of his African descent for four centuries. Unfair and irrational racism lurks in the psyches of an unknown but still significant segment of our population. Obama’s opponents and enemies know this well; otherwise they wouldn’t be trying so hard to exploit it.

Fighting racism is not just a concern of “black” people, Democrats, or any minority group. It is a national necessity. If we fail to elect someone with Barack Obama’s self-evident superiority when we need him so much, we all—white, black, brown and yellow—may end up in the dustbin of history. And we will deserve it.

Money is the only way to fight back. It’s the only way to level the playing field. So dig deep. Give big.

We can’t let this one go by. Not this time. We can’t let our national shame and disgrace deprive us of the only person in forty years with the skill to bring us back from the national precipice over which we are falling. If preventing racist smears from winning the day is “flip-flopping,” then count me in. I’ll learn to do a triple somersault.

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