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

16 October 2008

Soothing: The Last Debate


NEWS FLASH I (10/17/08): In a balanced and candid editorial, the Washington Post has endorsed Barack Obama for president. The Post is the only one of our three great national newspapers that is ideologically neutral, so its endorsement carries special heft. (The New York Times is generally seen as having a “liberal” orientation, while the Wall Street Journal is generally seen as “conservative” and pro-business.)

NEWS FLASH II: Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and former Secretary of State, will appear on Meet the Press this Sunday, October 19. No doubt he will have something to say about the presidential election. Check the MSNBC Website for your local time and channel.
[For speculation on a surprise John McCain still might have in store, click here.]

Despite John McCain’s relentless attacks—on both distractions and things that matter—I found last night’s last debate strangely soothing. Barack Obama repelled the attacks with equally relentless imperturbability. He showed calm reason, patience and occasional wit. With quiet determination, he kept control of himself and the situation. He deftly extinguished the fighter pilot’s fires in the cockpit.

We haven’t seen that kind of calm, deliberate and unflappably confident leadership for a long, long time. And Obama showed it without demonizing his opponent, the opposing party, or any person or ideology. He didn’t just claim he knows how to fix our broken system and mindless partisanship. He showed how, in the face of direct and sometimes personal attacks.

In an unguarded moment, McCain seemed to foresee his defeat. The mikes were still open after the debate, and McCain could be heard telling Obama loudly, “Good job! Good job!”

I think he meant it. His outburst was an acknowledgement, by a man who still knows how to talk straight when not scripted, of Obama’s unimaginable talent. It was a replay of Hillary Clinton’s “whatever happens” swan song from the Texas debate. Deep down, McCain knows that it’s no shame to lose to the most talented politician we’ve seen in 40 years, maybe since Lincoln.

The most important thing to come from the debate was Obama’s hints about his Cabinet. As I had hoped he would do, he named names. He mentioned Warren Buffet and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker as economic advisers. On foreign policy—besides his running mate Joe Biden—he named Senator Dick Lugar (R., Ind.) and General Jim Jones, NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander (Europe).

Can you imagine Warren Buffet as Secretary of the Treasury? We would have a man in that office who understands both finance and industry. He might teach us how much more we need real innovation in industry, like good batteries, than yet another new and poorly understood financial instrument.

And what a stylistic change Buffet would make from Secretary Paulson! Paulson reflexively favors Wall Street, where he spent his entire career. He often speaks as if he’s having a difficult bowel movement. In contrast, Buffet is everybody’s favorite billionaire. He’s a natural, plain spoken, honest and likeable man. His word is his bond, and he bases investing judgments on people’s character as well as balance sheets. Everything he does, he does for the long haul.

Buffet is the very model of the spectacularly successful businessman. He deserves his success and would bring honesty, competence and foresight back to American finance and industry. He’s a perfect role model for a disillusioned nation at a difficult time.

Lugar is one of the very few honest, smart and courageous Republicans left in Congress. He stood up to his president and his party on Iraq, climate change, and energy. I had hoped he would become Energy Secretary, but perhaps Obama sees a foreign policy role for him. Whatever role he plays, he will bring a deep intellect, honesty, independent judgment and bipartisanship to Obama’s Cabinet.

Paul Volcker was a good Fed Chief, but at 81 he’s a bit old for a front line job. He could serve as advisor, either informally or on the Council of Economic Advisers. Like Paul Krugman, who just won the Nobel Prize for path breaking (and conventional wisdom busting) research on international trade, Volcker is an expert on globalization. Both he and Krugman have Princeton connections, so perhaps Volcker can help Krugman secure a place at the Cabinet table, where he ought to be.

Jim Jones is hardly a household name. My first choice for Secdef is still Colin Powell, whose record of sound judgment on the crucial issues of our age is unmatched. At 71, he’s a year younger than John McCain. But if Powell is not chosen or declines to serve, Obama could do worse than keeping Secretary Gates in place, as least for an extended transition period.

Besides Obama’s names, last night’s debate covered no new ground. Both candidates still adamantly refused to say (in any way that makes sense) how they would pay for all their goodies in the midst of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. McCain still pushed the tired Republican orthodoxy that got us in this mess: lower taxes, smaller (and less competent) government, and heavy reliance on the private sector. He still touted buying up and renegotiating mortgages. But he still refused to say at what price—the crucial issue that will determine whether the plan is a bailout of Wall Street or a hand up for Main Street.

Both candidates still lauded so-called “clean coal,” although no such thing exists. Obama still downplayed nuclear energy, which does exist (more abroad than here), refusing even to mention it in his list of means of securing energy independence. No doubt he hopes to win Nevada’s five electoral votes by pandering to last-minute morons, now tuning in for the first time, who want to exclude spent nuclear fuel from their sparsely populated state at any cost, even if it’s national energy and climate suicide.

For those of us who’ve followed this exhaustive and exhausting campaign from the beginning over eighteen months ago, it has been a long, long haul. Even Gail Collins couldn’t overcome her ennui and fatigue enough to maintain her usual sprightly humor.

Maybe some day we’ll limit our campaigns to a reasonable period, like the 30 days of Canada’s campaign just concluded. Then those of us who care deeply and keep informed can tune in at the same time as those who wait until the last minute, treat the campaign like an episode of American Idol, and ultimately pick our president.

Anyway, it’s now pretty clear who is our collective choice and why. All Obama has to do—skilled politician and basketball player that he is—is run out the clock.

P.S. McCain: Dying Gasp or Strategic Retreat?


More than McCain’s post-debate “Good job!” outburst suggests he knows he has lost. In the debate he “took the gloves off” as promised. He revived the old smear relating to Bill Ayers and started a new one, based on alleged “voter fraud” by ACORN, a voter rights organization.

His attacks posed two problems for his campaign. First, ACORN is an obscure organization. Few know it exists, besides its own members and fans of the right-wing talk shows that demonize it. McCain tried to explain the complex charges of “voter fraud” against it, but his explanation was incomprehensible. So he must have been speaking to his own base alone.

The attacks in general confirmed that point. Every recent poll shows McCain’s “attack mode” losing him independent and moderate voters, although perhaps energizing the Republican base. So it seems that McCain (or the dominant faction of his campaign staff) has concluded that he no longer has any hope of winning over undecided voters, most of whom are independent or moderate. He can only move more of his own base to vote.

Energizing the base might seem a strategic retreat, but this year Republicans have a distinct disadvantage in both absolute numbers and new registrations. McCain simply can’t abandon independents and moderates and hope to win.

So what is going on? Assuming that McCain or his campaign has not become irrational, this feint to the right wing may presage a surprise last-minute lurch toward the center.

One pro-McCain blog commenter suggested ditching Palin and selecting Mitt Romney instead. At first, I discounted the idea, both because I think McCain detests Romney and because Romney is a jerk who repels moderate voters. But that tactic might make some headway, and it needn’t involve Romney. Anyone with arguable qualifications to be president and a credible claim to economic expertise would do. The bait-and-switch tactic could even confuse the religious right’s rank and file (not always the brightest bulbs in the marquee) by having Palin continue to campaign although no longer the vice-presidential nominee. (McCain might secure her aid by promising her an ambassadorship or minor cabinet post, or campaign help in Alaska, if elected.)

Hillary didn’t give up until long after her “whatever happens” concession. I don’t expect McCain to do give up easily either, even if he knows deep down that he’s already lost. The fighter pilot will still do what fighter pilots do—that is, the unexpected. I don’t think it will change the result, but it may provide some nervous moments and dispel the tedium of a campaign that already has run on far too long.

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