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

30 March 2008

Hillary Not Reading the NIE


Once again, readers’ comments have inspired me to write a whole new post. Two commenters (or possibly the same one twice) wrote to suggest that Hillary’s not reading the NIE (national intelligence estimate) before voting for war in Iraq was no big deal.

I differ strongly. Here’s why.

One commenter suggested that reading the NIE was a job for staff. That view is wrong for two reasons. First, as a matter of fact, the NIE was highly classified at the time. Hillary was not yet on the Armed Services Committee, and her staff were not yet cleared to read it. Only she could. A special room was set up for senators alone to read it. It was only 90 pages long, and the senators had ten days to read it. (To verify these facts, consult my original post and the New York Times article on which it was based.)

Second—and much more fundamentally—going to war is never routine business. If the last five years have proved anything, they have proved that.

The best analogy is a serious illness of a close relative. Suppose your aging mother or father—or your minor daughter or son—is told that she/he has cancer or a similarly serious condition and must undergo debilitating chemotherapy or major surgery. Now suppose that you are the head of household, responsible for making the medical decision and paying for it.

If you are a rational person and care about your ailing relative, you drop everything else and focus. You procure a second opinion, maybe a third. You ask everyone you know about the supposed medical condition and proper treatment for it. You spend hours surfing the Web for relevant information. You don’t stop until you have turned over every stone and exhausted all your skill and resources in an all-out effort to make a wise and well-informed decision.

For a senator, that is what going to war is like. That’s why our Constitution gives Congress the responsibility to declare war. It’s not a routine decision to be delegated to staff, to be made with the usual half-hearted diligence and one eye on politics, or to be left to the Executive Branch (which means one-man rule). It’s a fundamental decision on life or death that must be made collectively, with every legislator pulling his or her full weight.

Every leader worth his or her salt understood this. The very few real leaders in Washington did. Aging Bob Byrd (D., W. Va.), although fighting Parkinson’s disease, rose again and again on the Senate floor to plead with his colleagues not to rush to war before the upcoming congressional elections, but to take time to study the issue. Three days before the Senate vote, Bob Graham (then D., Fla.) urged all his Democratic colleagues to read the NIE carefully. He made that plea in a Democratic caucus that Hillary attended. He himself read the report and voted against war.

Colin Powell, the only member of the first Bush Administration with sound judgment, famously advised the president of what he called the “Pottery Barn” rule: “you break it—you own it.” Isn’t that precisely where we are in Iraq—five years, over 4,000 American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and (depending upon which estimate you believe) from one to three trillion dollars later? We are still trying to “own” and control this unnecessary conflict that we started so rashly.

As for the NIE itself, one commenter suggests it was ambiguous. Of course it was. But that’s the point. Just as you wouldn’t commit your mother, father, daughter or son to the surgeon’s knife on ambiguous and conflicting information, a senator should not vote for war without clear and compelling reasons for doing so. She should not vote for war when the basic facts justifying the war are hotly disputed, as they were in the NIE.

This commenter also suggests that evidence in the NIE against going to war was of “dubious veracity.” (To reduce the risk of quoting out of context, I reproduce the entire comment below.) But the facts were exactly the opposite: the NIE as a whole (especially the footnotes) pointed out that the reasons for going to war were of dubious veracity.

Specifically, the NIE’s footnotes and qualifications shed doubt on three fundamental supposed “facts” on which the invasion was based: (1) the notion that Saddam had procured high-strength aluminum tubes for use in centrifuges to enrich uranium, (2) the claim that Saddam had tried to buy uranium ore (“yellowcake”) in Niger, and (3) the rumor that one of Saddam’s intelligence agents had met with an Al Qaeda operative in Prague.

The NIE’s footnotes disputed every one of these claims, and today every one is recognized as false or unproven. The aluminum tubes were for use in short-range conventional missiles, not uranium enrichment. The claim of attempts to buy uranium ore in Niger was based on patently forged documents. The supposed meeting with an Al Qaeda operative has never been verified; the sole source of this claim was a single, unreliable Iraqi individual (code-named “Curveball”) with a strong motive to lie and a now-demonstrated history of multiple lies on war-related matters.

What was plain at the time of the Senate vote was that there was strong disagreement in the intelligence community on the supposed reasons for war. There was strong disagreement in the CIA. The State Department’s longstanding intelligence service did not believe a word of these three supposed “facts.” The military’s ad-hoc intelligence services, which That Idiot Rumsfeld had set up for the purpose of second-guessing CIA and State, were the strongest supporters of these now-disproved “facts.” Any sentient being who read the NIE and knew what was going on in Washington would have recognized the existence and strength of this unusual and clear dispute over fundamental facts.

Now return to our disease analogy. Suppose, as head of household, you procured a second opinion that conflicted strongly with the first. Would you go with the first just for the hell of it? Would you say “eenie, meenie, miny, moe” and pick one at random? Or would you dig deeper until you were sure that sending your mother, father, daughter or son under the knife was the right thing to do? That’s what Bob Byrd, Bob Graham and (indirectly) Colin Powell urged everyone to do, and that’s what Hillary did not do.

There are also four more reasons to condemn her rush to war. First, she is the only remaining Democratic candidate who voted for the war. Others may have made similar mistakes, including John Edwards, who has apologized for his. But they are not still seeking our highest office, and rightly so. The buck stops on the president’s desk; he or she doesn’t get second chances, any more than all of our brave troops and the innocent Iraqis who’ve died in this conflict did. Some judgments, right or wrong, are final. Anyone worthy of sitting in Congress, let alone the Oval Office, should understand that.

Second, Hillary voted against the Levin Amendment to the war resolution, which would have required Bush to engage in additional diplomacy before using force. Third, she has based her entire candidacy on her supposed “experience” in Washington. Wouldn’t an “experienced” legislator have read the NIE, if only to get the basic facts directly from their sources: the intelligence analysts who had digested the raw data? And if she had, wouldn’t her “experience” have led her to believe that there was great dissension among the analysts, thereby urging caution and further investigation?

But the final reason is the clincher. Hillary’s entire persona is a policy wonk immersed in facts, figures and data, which she loves to spew in great profusion in her rallies and speeches. Why didn’t she immerse herself in the data on the most important decision she has ever made and probably ever will make as a politician?

There is only one possible answer. Hillary knew that Dubya and Rove would smear her as “weak” if she hesitated to jump on the bandwagon for war. So she voted for war in her own political self-interest, ignoring her duty to her constituents, to us the people, and to history. Hillary’s failure to read the NIE belies her claims of experience, leadership and readiness to serve on day one. Her actions showed whom she really cares about: herself.

I am lucky enough that I have no relative killed or maimed in this unnecessary war. If I did, I know exactly how I would feel about Hillary. I would feel the same way I would feel about a head of my household who, without seeking a second opinion, ordered an operation that killed the patient. I would never forgive or forget that error of judgment, diligence and loyalty.

If you think the war in Iraq is no big deal, then you might think the same about Hillary’s error. As for me, I will never vote for her, because I believe she put her political ambitions above our nation’s welfare, later did so in matters of race, and will do so again.

If by some miracle of misdirection and spin Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, I will vote for John McCain—a braver, more honest, more honorable, more loyal and infinitely more careful person. Although a lifelong Democrat, I will cast that vote with a clear conscience and a happy heart. Virtue, judgment, and perspective matter—much more than cleverness in debate.

In my view Hillary has little to recommend her but a glibness that can justify or elide any half-truth or error, a brilliant public relations team, and her gender. I cannot begin to conceive how, with her record, she would still be in the race if she were male, especially now that her claims of bravery under fire and helping to solve the riddle of Northern Ireland have been revealed as greatly exaggerated.

Update (4/2/08):

As if in confirmation of Obama’s incomparable superiority in matters of foreign policy and national security, Lee Hamilton today endorsed Obama. Hamilton (formerly D., Ind.) was chairman of both the House Foreign Affairs and Intelligence Committees and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group. It would be hard to find any member of Congress more knowledgeable about external threats and opportunities.

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Complete Text of One Comment.

Here’s the second comment, by an anonymous author, in full:
    I’d first like to say that I enjoy your blog very much. This is my first comment here.

    I’m curious if you think reading the NIE would have ultimately made a difference for any of the members of Congress, Clinton included. I have recently watched episodes from Frontline entitled “The Dark Side” and “Bush’s War”. These episodes state that the NIE included information that was of dubious veracity.

    While it is certainly shameful that more officials didn’t read it, I find it highly unlikely that it would have made a difference. Furthermore, it may have given some Senators even stronger resolve to go to war based on the false information contained therein.

    What do you think?





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27 March 2008

The Real Hillary


At last the Clinton Presidential Library has released the previously withheld papers on Hillary’s tenure as First Lady. At last the mainstream media are doing their jobs and digesting them for us. Now we have a complete picture of Hillary Clinton as a candidate for president. Here it is:

1. Hillary voted to authorize the war in Iraq. She did so without reading the NIE, which contained strong dissenting statements. Her claim that her vote was “sincere,” rather than political, is hard to reconcile with her self-portrait of a policy wonk perpetually in command of detail.

2. Like George W. Bush, Hillary missed the importance of events in Pakistan by at least six months. While that country’s democracy was imploding and Benazir Bhutto—a much more courageous woman—was keeping her grim date with destiny, Hillary was calling Barack Obama “naïve” for even raising the issue.

3. Hillary still has not presented a comprehensive plan for dealing with our single worst enemy: Al Qaeda Central, which now lurks in the Pakistani borderlands and has done so off and on since 2002.

4. Hillary’s solution to the mortgage-credit crisis is to freeze interest rates for five years. Most economists believe that doing so would further dry up further credit and make matters worse. No other candidate has proposed such a counterproductive “solution.”

5. With her husband Bill’s encouragement, Hillary has thrown four decades of Democratic credo under her campaign bus. Ever since Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” Democrats have believed that racial equality and racial harmony are the future of this country and of the Democratic Party. Hillary violated that credo by making Barack Obama’s race an issue in the campaign—consciously, deliberately, and repeatedly.

6. Hillary’s allowed her campaign to make a huge issue of intemperate remarks that Obama’s pastor made, not he. Smart mud-slinger that she is, she knew that the media—especially right-wing nutcakes—would pick up the video of those remarks and run it in a continuous loop for as long as Senator Obama is in politics. Most of us who love democracy thought guilt by association went out with our Bill of Rights.

7. Hillary lied repeatedly to inflate her résumé. The media are just beginning to catalogue the lies. She said she flew into Bosnia under fire, but the pictures and news reports depict a peaceful and routine reception, albeit in a troubled region. She said she helped negotiate a solution to the Northern Ireland stalemate, but records show a routine and ceremonial meeting with women’s groups, involving no discussion of substance, let alone negotiation.

If another candidate had any three of these strikes against him, he would be down in Chris Dodd or Dennis Kucinich territory. Any other candidate with all seven of these strikes against him would have been out of the race long ago.

So what keeps Hillary’s campaign “still ticking” like that annoying Eveready Bunny?

There is only one plausible answer: her gender. Women still constitute a majority of the electorate and of Democratic voters. Apparently, there are still enough of them unwilling to give up the dream of a female president, no matter how many flaws she has. Hard reality has ripped all the wings off Hillary’s improbable flying machine, but still she floats on female dreams.

Geraldine Ferraro wisely pre-empted this observation. She threw out a similar accusation against Senator Obama. He would, she said, be nowhere but for his African genes. Then Ferraro fell on her sword for Hillary.

But Ferraro’s charge was patently untrue. If one re-imagines Hillary and Barack as white males, a point-by-point comparison—on all dimensions that matter most—puts Barack far ahead. No white male, including Bill, did (or perhaps could) give the historic speech on race and reconciliation that Obama gave last week. As Bill Richardson said recently in endorsing Obama, he is a “once-in-a lifetime leader.” He would be the best candidate if he were green, like Yoda, with pointy ears.

But Ferraro didn’t fall on her sword in vain. By leveling the false charge against Obama, she reduced that chance that others would notice the obvious about Hillary.

As a male, I can only stand on the sidelines in awe and wonderment. What, I wonder, do successful, powerful women who have real résumés and lifetimes of real achievement think of a candidate whose entire public persona is based on empty public relations gimmickry, the last of which is only now being revealed? Do they think Hillary represents them and does them honor?

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20 March 2008

Obama’s Speech on Race


Readers of this blog may be disappointed that I have not commented on Barack Obama’s speech on race in America. I have good reason. I am conscious of Lincoln’s words and my own “poor power to add or detract.”

No comment on the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, or Einstein’s general theory of relativity could possibly do justice to the thing itself. So it is with Obama’s speech. It ranks with our Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and King’s “I have a dream” speech. No doubt it will enjoy a similar place in history. The only appropriate comment is an exhortation to read it or watch it.

Yet as two days passed, I thought my own personal reaction might be of some interest.

I am a teacher. Part of my job is identifying and nurturing extraordinary talent. I like to think that, over the decades, I have developed some skill in doing so.

Once in a while, a student surpasses the teacher while still in school. Sometimes the student is smarter, sometimes more skillful politically, sometimes of greater courage or better moral character. The recognition of another’s superiority is always bittersweet. But it blossoms into joy when—even in a small way—a teacher is able to help bring great talent out and foster it.

I have never been Barack Obama’s teacher. Yet I approached his candidacy much as I would evaluating a student of mine. I read his books; I studied his papers and speeches; and I watched him grow.

Never in my career have I seen such extraordinary talent. After reading his second book, I speculated in an e-mail to a colleague that he might be our generation’s Lincoln.

For nearly a year I have known that he has the intelligence, judgment, empathy and self-restraint to be exactly that. His speech on race convinced me that he can show those qualities even while under attack, and even on an issue of public policy touching the core of his own persona. That speech revealed not just a brilliant, Harvard-trained technocrat of extraordinary competence and skill—which he is—but a man of outstanding courage and moral character.

Moral character is crucial in this election because we humans have come of age. For the first time in our history, we have the power and the potential to destroy not just our enemies, but our species and our planet as well. We almost did so out of anger nearly half a century ago, in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. With global warming, we can now destroy ourselves and our biosphere just as thoroughly out of greed, indifference and stupidity. Moral character in ourselves and our leaders is therefore no longer just a desideratum; it is a necessity for our survival as a species.

Fortunately, the last century’s brutal tyrants are not our only role models. We also saw leaders who were unusual in human understanding. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela achieved what appeared at the time to be political miracles through clarity of vision, courage, and moral character.

Each of them grasped the best of the human condition and never let go. Obama has done the same throughout his campaign, as he grew from a weak and hesitant debater to a master of the trade.

Like the last century’s great leaders, Obama is no silly idealist waiting for bitter enemies to hug each other and sing “kumbaya.” He is, after all, the first and only candidate to advise not coddling Musharraf and going after our worst enemy in the Pakistani borderlands. He spent three years on the mean streets of Chicago, and he knows when enemies must be brought to heel.

But like those other great leaders, he knows that cooperation and reason are mankind’s only salvation. If we humans fight for resources and supremacy while nuclear weapons proliferate and the world heats, our species’ future will be grim indeed. If we cooperate, we can make the globe on which we evolved the Eden it was supposed to be. It will take a leader—maybe several leaders—of great moral character to move us toward that end. And those leaders will have to come from great powers like us.

In this regard there is a distinction between Obama and the twentieth-century leaders whom he seems ready to emulate. Gandhi, King and Mandela all led oppressed and exploited people against what seemed at the time to be overwhelming odds. Their people had stronger enemies with better weapons and vastly superior economic and political power. Yet Providence sent them leaders who made miracles without the bloodbaths or political turmoil that everyone expected.

If elected, Obama will lead no oppressed people. He will lead the strongest and richest nation on Earth. If a person of great moral character can produce miracles for oppressed people threatened with overwhelming power, think what one can do for the world’s only remaining superpower, and for the world. Providence has sent us such a leader, if we can only recognize him in time.

That’s why Obama’s speech on race in America is not just for white and black, and not just for Americans. Israelis and Palestinians should study it. Pakistanis and Indians should, too. So should the Chinese and Tibetans and the Kikuyu and Luo in Kenya. If anyone can bring order, peace, understanding, stability and reason to a troubled world, it is someone with Barack Obama’s extraordinary moral character, human understanding, competence and political talent. He is truly the man for our times.

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15 March 2008

Racism versus Self-Preservation


What happens when a mild, largely unconscious racism meets the instinct for self-preservation? We’re about to find out.

Mississippi and Ohio illustrate the problem. Older, less flexible white voters and white Joe and Mary six-packs shunned Obama in droves. Hillary and her surrogates are exploiting this demographic phenomenon. They count on the least well educated and informed among us giving her a shot at the White House.

You would think that Joe and Mary six-pack might have learned their lessons. In 2000 and 2004, they forsook basic competence to elect a man they thought they’d like to have a beer with.

That “nice guy” turned out to be the least competent president in a century, maybe our least competent ever. He trashed our economy, our military, our infrastructure, our diplomacy, our international reputation, our national finances, our currency, plus Iraq and a few other obscure places. The only things he served well were his beloved oil and gas industry, the Saudis, and people making half a million or more per year.

The six-pack set didn’t care much until Bush’s cataclysmic incompetence came home to bite them where they live. Now it has.

We have a deflating real-estate bubble, a mortgage meltdown, a credit crunch, an unregulated derivatives debacle, and a crisis in our national currency and international credit—all at once. Millions of people are losing their homes, hundreds of thousands their jobs, and all of us the chance to travel abroad at a reasonable price for the foreseeable future.

Conservative Pollyannas still pray for a soft landing or a short recession. But 70% of economists think we are already in recession. The hard times that Dubya’s blunders have built for seven years are now upon us. As their homes, jobs and children’s futures evaporate, Joe and Mary are just waking up.

The Democratic contest and the general election depend upon how soon their understanding crystallizes. If Joe and Mary wise up and draw the appropriate conclusions, our next president will be Barack Obama. If not, we will have John or Hillary, and our economic problems will get considerably worse. The handwriting is on the wall for anyone to read.

Take John first. A few weeks ago, in a moment of characteristic candor, he confessed that he “doesn’t really understand economics.” Now, of course, he’s trying to prove the contrary. How? He trots out the same stale Republican nostrums that got us into this mess: an allergy to regulation, a reluctance to disturb “free markets” even as they succumb to greed, abuse and incompetence, and a fundamental faith that “trickle down” from the wealthy will sustain us. If you believe that sort of philosophy will clean up a mess of this magnitude, then you deserve the hard times that await you and your children.

Hillary’s charade is bit harder to unmask. She’s a Democrat, so she believes in intervening. The trouble is she’s too interventionist. She wants to try the same sort of price controls that failed Richard Nixon and every leader in Soviet Russia and are now failing Hugo Chavez. She believes that she can order the economy about like some campaign flunky. She doesn’t realize that our sophisticated, specialized, technological economy of 300 million people is a gigantic precision instrument. You can’t fix it like a cheap clock just by moving the hands. Contrary to her bluster, it is she, not Obama, who offers “quick fixes” and airy solutions with no track record.

Obama is the only candidate who understands economics. He knows how complex and delicate our economy is, and how likely “quick fixes” are to have disastrous unintended consequences. His solutions are prudent, cautious, reasonable, and consistent with current economic learning.

Every step that Obama has proposed is tried, tested and reliable. For the housing crisis, he proposes subsidies to keep people in their homes, mortgage renegotiation under government pressure, and strong regulation to prevent further predatory lending. For health care, he proposes subsidies for people who cannot afford insurance. He couples them with sophisticated measures to reduce inefficiency and waste, give patients more information about quality, automate medical records and make them more available, and increase competition among health-care providers and producers of drugs and medical devices.

For the economy generally, Obama proposes to put people back to work repairing our national infrastructure and converting our energy sources from foreign oil. That’s exactly how FDR got us through the Great Depression. His Work Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps gave us our national park system, many a dam and levy, and the basis of our current transportation infrastructure. With today’s dilapidated infrastructure and our crying need for energy independence, Obama can do the same thing, while relying far less on direct government employment and more on the private sector.

Obama’s approach to foreign policy is similar: prudent, reliable, thoughtful and solid. His much-neglected terrorism speech was mostly about simple and solid precautions that Dubya and the other candidates so far have neglected. Obama proposed six steps to reduce our vulnerability at home, including implementing the 9/11 Commission’s neglected recommendations and hardening vulnerable infrastructure like chemical and power plants. Long term, he proposed replacing the madrassas, which teach only the Koran and hate, with real schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He proposed shifting at least two brigades to Afghanistan to fight Al Qaeda central and its Taliban allies. Finally, he proposed going after bin Laden and Zawahiri in Pakistan. Does anyone think our war against terrorists will end while they live in freedom?

If you compare programs and proposals—not speeches—you come away with the firm conviction that much depends on Obama’s victory. Certainly Joe and Mary six-pack’s economic future does. Obama already understands economics, and his proposals reflect that understanding. Hillary and John will have to learn on the job, as Hillary’s mandates and price controls fail and John’s philosophy of “benign neglect” accomplishes nothing.

As for foreign policy, Obama’s comprehensive plan is infinitely more thoughtful, specific, and prudent than his rivals’ approaches. Hillary has nothing more than her track record of poor judgment and her “Day One” mantra. McCain has only commitment and resolve, enough to stay in Iraq for a century. But what we do while there and how we pay for the adventure he doesn’t say. If we have anyone who can direct our limited military resources intelligently to capturing or killing our worst enemies, Obama is the one.

The trick is getting Joe and Mary six-pack to understand. Hillary and her brilliant PR people are throwing up every possible smoke screen for the benefit of a woman who has never solved a foreign crisis, has failed in solving the single economic problem she addressed (health care), and has shown miserable judgment on all four major issues of our time: Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and health care.

But PR is not all that stands between us and a competent president. There is also race.

That’s why recent statements by David Brooks and Mark Shields are so absurd. Both, in different ways, opined that race actually helps Obama. They reasoned that many white voters support Obama because they know that having a president with black African genes will help solve intractable social problems.

That’s no doubt true, and I feel the same way. But it’s a stupid reason to elect a president. It’s just as stupid as electing a female because doing so will help reduce gender discrimination. Anyone smart enough to understand the social benefits of a competent African-American president is also smart enough to know that competence, in itself, is more important by far. Electing a less competent person for “social” reasons will backfire.

In any event, David Brooks, Mark Shields and I are not Joe or Mary six pack. We don’t think like them. We don’t understand how images of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and nameless, fanciful TV hoodlums and criminals swim through their minds when Hillary reminds them—as she and her surrogates do constantly—of Barack Obama’s black Kenyan father.

Most of this racism is unconscious, not conscious. But it is real nevertheless. And Hillary and her crew are trying to exploit in a way more subtle—but no less cynical—than Dubya’s father did in his “Willie Horton” ad in the late 1980s.

To the extent our future depends upon electing the most competent candidate for president, it depends on Joe and Mary six-pack overcoming their unconscious racism. Somehow, the Obama campaign has to make them understand, before it’s too late. Our national rate of decline has now turned so steep that a mere eight years more of incompetent or marginally competent governance will likely forfeit our global leadership forever. Then we’ll all be losers, and Joe and Mary six-pack, as usual, will hurt the worst.

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12 March 2008

Comparing Obama: Three Essential Readings


Are you one of many voters still undecided between Senators Clinton and Obama? Are you confused about their programs, policies and positions? Do you wonder whether there is any real difference between them? Then this post is for you.

The media say there’s not much difference between them. Clinton said she’s got way more experience than Obama. She also says that Obama is all hope and no substance, all speeches and no action.

But none of the millions of voters who know Obama, who have read his speeches, position papers and books, and who voted for him so far (including me) believe any of this. We think what Senator Clinton and the media are saying about him is—to use Obama’s brand of understatement—“inaccurate.”

Would you like to know why? All you have to do is read the following:The first two readings are Obama’s own words. The third is mine. A modest person like Obama never touts his own qualifications, so it’s one of my most viewed posts.

Reading these three things will take you less than an hour. It will open your eyes to the promise of Obama, not just in hope, but in penetrating thought, sound judgment, prudent and comprehensive policy, and strategic action.

You also might want to compare Clinton and Obama in character or leadership, or with a handy comparison chart. The results might surprise you.

You won’t find this information in anyone’s stump speeches or any debate. You won’t find it in the current mainstream media (although the first two items were published there some time ago.) If you want to understand what all the fuss is about, you must read and decide for yourself.

Will you devote an hour to getting informed on the most important election in forty years?

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P.S. For those who want more, I’ve also posted a more extensive reading list. But you can get a good idea of how substantive, thoughtful, prudent and comprehensive Obama’s policies are just from reading the first two items linked above.



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08 March 2008

Back to the Future


Since Tuesday every Democrat has been thinking hard about Ohio. Obama’s close loss in Texas doesn’t matter much because Texas won’t vote for a Democrat in November. Rhode Island doesn’t matter more than New Hampshire; it’s a small, isolated state that will have little influence in the general election.

But Ohio is different. It’s a key battleground state that is likely to be vital in November. So Obama’s campaign has to come to grips with why he lost by ten points there.

Four explanations are in circulation. First, Hillary put Obama off balance with attacks on Rezko and NAFTA—the latter based on an adviser’s statements inconsistent with Obama’s stump speeches. Second, Obama failed in Ohio to make the same inroads into Hillary’s core demographic groups that he did in Wisconsin. Third, Ohio has more of those demographic groups: working folk with no college education and older women. Finally, the recent, steady drumbeat of terrible economic news undermined Obama’s core message of hope. It’s hard to believe in hope when you’ve lost your job and don’t have health care and we’re going into recession.

All of these explanations have at least a germ of truth. But the last one is the key, and it may explain the second.

I agree strongly with New York Times columnist David Brooks that Obama cannot take the low road. If he stoops to personal attacks like the “gotchas” which Hillary’s camp unloads daily, he will besmirch his unique brand. I wrote as much last June when the “D. Punjab” flap broke. Even I might start to lose faith in Obama if he got down in the mud.

There’s a difference between getting down in the mud and drawing comparisons on vital matters of domestic and foreign policy. Obama has been much too slow to point out—in detail and specifics—how wrong Hillary has been on Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan and in proposing economic solutions worthy of Hugo Chavez.

These and other contrasts of judgment and policy are fair game. If Obama makes them with his usual understatement and self-restraint, they will not harm his brand. On the contrary, they will show the toughness that voters demand of a prospective commander in chief.

But policy contrasts go only so far. Policy junkies and overeducated intellectuals like me love them. I doubt working folk do. They don’t have the time, education or patience to parse what seem minor differences in policy. Far less can they understand why a five-year interest-rate freeze and health-care mandates are bad ideas.

What they want is a candidate who seems to care about them and understand their pain. Hillary evidently won their hearts in Ohio, and she didn’t do it with specifics of policy. She captured some Edwards voters—who rightfully belong to Obama—by showing that she cares.

That was a remarkable achievement for her and her campaign. Hillary is a sheltered woman from a privileged, upper-middle-family, who has never experienced any economic hardship in her life. (Bill’s philandering caused her personal hardship, but that’s another story.) Somehow, she managed to convince Ohio’s working people that she understands their pain better than a man who spent three years in Chicago working with people in precisely their position.

So how can Obama turn this setback around? He can go back to the future. He can take a mental trip back to his early days in Chicago and re-learn how to connect with workers who have less than one-tenth his intelligence and education.

Obama can’t do it on hope alone. Those workers have little hope left. Every day’s news chips away at their hope a little more. And a promise of change is just another brand of hope. No wonder cynical Hillary is gaining ground.

David Brooks was prescient on this point. A few weeks ago he opined that events, not campaign strategy or speeches, would decide the Democratic nomination. He was right. In the single month since Super Tuesday, our economic news has changed dramatically. What was once a feared recession is now reality, and hard times are upon us. Obama has to show working people that he’s been there and can help.

He needn’t fight that battle alone. His book Dreams from my Father tells wonderful tales of ordinary people with whom he worked. He helped many change their own lives for the better. Now he should get some of them to join his campaign and tell their stories to voters. They can speak in a language that workers rapidly losing all hope can understand.

However he does it, Obama must connect viscerally to working people who are—with good reason—increasingly worried and afraid. His economic policies are better and more prudent than Hillary’s and more likely to work. But policies won’t close the deal with working folk. If Obama can’t find some way to connect with them where they live, he might yet lose.

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07 March 2008

Response to CJCalgirl


This is the first time that a comment inspired me to write a whole post.

In a belated response to my Dream Team post, which went up last November, a reader calling herself “CJCalgirl” posed the following questions:
    Dear Jay, Would you share your thoughts about Supreme Court appointments and the restructuring of the Justice Dept. Surely there must be a place for John Edwards, Al Gore, and Dennis Kucinich. What can we do regarding the personification of corporations in our Federal Courts? I believe it is wrong to treat corporations as if they were a single citizen defendant, when that allows them to avoid responsibility for damages. Sorry for the ramble, but your site is truly exciting and I’ve told many people about you because you are a rarity of intellect. Thanks again! CJCalgirl
Here’s my answer:

Dear CJCalgirl:

I’m glad that my “Dream Team” post is finally getting some hits.

The expectation of powerful appointments to the Cabinet is one of the most important reasons I support Obama. He seems a secure and well-grounded human being, and he is one of the smartest people I have ever seen in national politics. So I expect him not to flinch at appointing people as smart and politically powerful as he, just as Lincoln did in facing the prospect of civil war.

In contrast, I think Hillary would do what Bill did—appoint people who are bright but have no independent political power or constituency. Robert Reich (Bill’s Secretary of Labor) seemed the brightest of them, but he was and is an academic with little political skill and no independent constituency. Although Madeleine Albright did a passable job as Secretary of State, she seemed grossly underqualified to me: she speaks English much like Dubya.

People like Reich and Albright, who would never have achieved similar positions or prominence without the “lightning strike” of an appointment, often have trouble exercising independent judgment when the chips are down. We learned that lesson the hard way with Alberto Gonzales, and I hope we won’t have to repeat it. The stakes are too high now.

On Supreme Court appointments, I’ve already written two posts. One suggests that Chief Justice Roberts might be a man for the times. Another concludes that Dubya deliberately exaggerated Roberts’ and Justice Alito’s right-wing proclivities in order to energize his radical Republican base.

So far I’ve been disappointed in the Roberts Court’s narrow and technical approach to great issues like torture and habeas corpus. But I hope that Roberts, once he masters his role, may take on the task of preserving democracy. He certainly has the intelligence and political skill to do so. It sometimes requires a few years for the reality of life tenure to sink in and for justices to take seriously their most important role: preserving the legacy of the Magna Carta and the Constitution for future generations.

The question that you raise about corporations’ role in society is a vital one. In fact, it is one of the chief issues of our day.

Corporations are one the greatest social inventions in human history. By exercising a sort of mini-“sovereignty”—albeit for limited purposes—they disperse real power in society, taking advantage of great talent in areas other than politics. (Bill Gates, for example, helped build the PC industry, but would you want him as president?) Corporations are the prinicipal means by which modern, liberal economies have managed to decentralize almost entirely.

It was corporations, not Columbus, that really “discovered” America in the sense of realizing its vast commercial potential. Throughout the world, the most successful and least brutal colonization regimes were those of the English and the Dutch, who colonized primarily through corporations. Wherever business corporations have had relative freedom of action, and have not been overly burdened by taxes and regulation, societies have been the most productive and prosperous. Corporations are one reason why Northern Europe and English-speaking nations have led the world in productivity and wealth for several centuries.

I hope I don’t seem starry-eyed about corporations. I’m emphasizing their benefits here because most Democrats have trouble seeing the benefits. Politicians like John Edwards rail against the corporations that produce the drugs that cure us, the cars we drive, the food we eat, the planes we fly in, the computers and Internet we use to communicate, the TVs we watch, the music that cheers us when we are low, and virtually every physical manifestation of the “good life” we lead.

If you rail against corporations, you are railing against the source of our wealth and prosperity.

But corporations also create awful social problems, like the release of poison gas in Bhopal, the Exxon Valdez disaster, the Blackwater debacle in Iraq, and the current mortgage-credit crisis. The challenge for this century is how to retain the extraordinary economic benefits of corporations while curbing their excesses.

State ownership of business is not the answer. The abject failures of the Soviet Union and “Red” China proved that. So far, we’ve discovered only two ways to curb corporations without killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

One is litigation. Unfortunately, litigation is terribly slow and inefficient. It also can produce bizarre results: injured plaintiffs become wealthy while society continues to suffer, at least until the next lawsuit.

The other well-established means of curbing corporations is regulation. It worked well in the last century, but it’s beginning to reach its limits. Society and corporate activities have become so specialized and complex that it no longer makes sense for politicians or generalists to try to control and “command” business activities in detail. Neither they nor the people who vote for them have the necessary expertise. Would you want Dubya or Congress, for example—or even a committee of political appointees—telling Steve Jobs or Bill Gates how to design software and computer devices?

In my view, the most promising fresh alternative to litigation and regulation is for government to arrange economic incentives for corporations to “do the right thing” and then stand back and let them do it. The tradable “carbon credits” now being used to address global warming provide an example of this model.

Although enlightened private industry began trading carbon credits without government involvement, the expectation of government mandates is what gives the credits economic value today. Business people (including the traders) rightly expect any new administration to take global warming seriously and to impose some sort of legal regime that gives carbon credits real value and therefore provides powerful incentives to conserve energy and seek alternatives to fossil fuels.

Incentive-based approaches may help solve some problems that corporate excesses create, but there is no easy solution for the most dangerous problem: corruption. Corporations necessarily control most of the wealth in our society because they create it. If we allow their wealth to control our political processes, too, there will be no way for society to direct corporate action away from socially damaging self-interest and toward long-term goals. Moreover, as corporations acquire and wield more political power, we may lose our Democracy just as the ancient Romans lost theirs.

In this respect many Republicans, libertarians and our Supreme Court are fundamentally misguided. Money isn’t speech. Corporations don’t have ideas or human needs; people do. Corporations are just legal abstractions with no flesh-and-blood reality. They act only through their officers and employees. The law shouldn’t treat them like people.

Likewise the law shouldn’t treat money as speech under the First Amendment, whether the money comes from corporations or individuals. Doing so simply gives rich and powerful people more speech and more political power. That approach subverts both democracy and the horizontal “free marketplace of ideas” that the First Amendment is supposed to foster.

Barack Obama and John McCain both understand the danger of corruption in their bones. They know how the political power of corporations and the rich gravely threatens democracy and rational long-term social policy. Hillary Clinton doesn’t seem to have a clue. That’s one of the most important reasons why I’ve never thought much of her, and why I’ll probably vote for McCain if she wins the Democratic nomination.

Jay

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05 March 2008

Now Let’s See Tough


Whenever political pundits question Barack Obama’s toughness, he has had a ready answer. He learned politics on the mean streets of Chicago, during his community organizing there.

There is truth in that reply. In his marvelous first book, Dreams from My Father, Obama tells of a night early in his work in Chicago. Loud music from a car parked outside his apartment woke him up. The disturbance went on for some time, but no one in the building did anything about it. So Obama, a newcomer, went downstairs to confront the offenders.

The car was dark inside, hiding the occupants’ faces. He couldn’t even see how many there were. It was a tough, inner city neighborhood with the usual rash of pointless gun murders. For the first time in his work in Chicago, Obama was afraid. But he asked the invisible offenders politely and firmly to move on, and they did.

Obama had every reason to believe that his personal safety—even his life—might be at risk. At stake was only the tranquility of his and his neighbors’ homes. But he acted.

Now, the safety and security of our nation are at stake. The hopes and dreams that Obama has so brilliant nurtured, and that only his intelligence and extraordinary skill can realize, are at stake. This time, the skulkers would mislead the American people. He has to summon that same toughness and courage to tell them, too, to move on.

I am not suggesting for a moment that Obama emulate what Dubya did to McCain or Hillary and Bill are doing to him. He should leave the personal attacks—including the awful tangle of the Clintons’ personal finances—to surrogates not directly associated with his campaign. But on vital issues of public policy, Obama can no longer flinch at showing Americans not just why he is better, but why Hillary Clinton would be worse.

Hillary never read the NIE before voting for war in Iraq. She has never denied not reading it. Every voter needs to know this.

The NIE was only 90 pages long, and Hillary had ten days to read it. For a self-confessed policy wonk, who never ceases to remind us how much she loves to master details, there is only possible explanation for that failure. She had already made up her mind, and her decision had nothing to do with the merits of the war.

Hillary voted for war because she wanted to be president of the United States. Period. Her not reading the NIE compels that conclusion and entirely undermines her claim that her vote for war was “sincere.”

This blog drew these points over eight months ago, as soon as the New York Times broke the story. As far as I know, the Obama campaign started making them only in the last two weeks. This failure of judgment on Hillary’s part should be featured prominently in every stump speech and every campaign announcement from now until Obama secures the nomination.

Pakistan provides a similar contrast. Over six months ago, Obama gave a seminal speech on terrorism and foreign policy. In it, he recommended that we stop coddling Musharraf and go after Al Qaeda Cental in Pakistan if necessary. His speech came months before Benazir Bhutto’s assassination wounded Pakistan’s ability to fight terrorism with popular democracy.

What did Hillary do? She responded by calling Obama naïve and inexperienced. In the Cleveland debate, she accused him of “basically threaten[ing] to bomb Pakistan.” But in fact his recommendations for targeted assassinations had become official (albeit secret) government policy. Our recent missile attack in Pakistan, which killed a highly placed al Qaeda leader, revealed our secret official strategy.

Obama’s campaign should be reminding voters of these differences every day. Neither Hillary nor Bill has ever been an inch ahead of the terrorists. They had their chance, and they failed. Obama has proved himself to be at least six months ahead, and in the very place—geographically and politically— where Al Qaeda and nuclear weapons live in closest proximity. Making these points is not fear mongering; it is showing voters how Obama’s foresight and careful planning would actually keep their children safe at night.

The Obama campaign also needs to take off the gloves on economic issues. Hillary’s Clinton’s chief prescription for our mortgage crisis is a five-year interest rate freeze. No one with any understanding of economics believes that ploy will work: it’s straight out of the book of Soviet central planners and Hugo Chavez. It is sheer economic demagoguery. The Obama campaign needs to make this point every day, perhaps with help from Nobel Prize winning economists who care about their country’s future.

The campaign should make similar points about Hillary’s health-insurance mandates. Mandates won’t just hurt the odd citizen who is fined for violating them and still can’t afford insurance. The whole underlying premise of mandates—that “free riders” are responsible for the high cost of health care in our country—is at best demagoguery, at worst a lie.

Making that point is not easy; it requires an understanding of economics and politics beyond the ken of most voters. But the campaign should try, again enlisting economic experts with high name recognition in the cause.

Finally, Obama’s campaign must directly attack the outrageous myth that Hillary has relevant experience by virtue of her tenure as First Lady. Even Bill’s encomium to his wife, displayed on Hillary’s Website, mentions only two important things Hillary did during that tenure: support what became the S-Chip program and make an inspiring speech for women’s rights near Beijing. The rest of it is fluff, smoke and mirrors. To allow the public to continue to believe that Hillary has a commanding advantage in experience—let alone on foreign policy and terrorism—is a disservice to the American people.

Obama may still win whatever happens. But he risks losing unless voters understand all of his many advantage, including his superior intelligence. His value as a candidate and a president lies not only in his well-publicized ability to inspire hope. It lies also in his realism, care, thoroughness, and attention to detail in public policy. Informing voters by comparing his record with Hillary’s (and Bill’s!) is a necessary step in educating the public about who Obama is and who his opponents are.

There is also a more fundamental reason for a more aggressive Obama campaign. Over the last several decades, public relations and Madison Avenue have overtaken substantive discussion of national policy. Clever and subtle lies have replaced serious national debate. The “3 a.m.” ad is just the most recent and egregious of many, many examples.

The facts are that neither Hillary nor Bill has taken any notably effective action against terrorism in their entire politics careers. Neither has even cared much about the subject, preferring to devote their limited attention and resources to domestic policy, with which they are both more comfortable.

Against that well-documented record, the notion that Hillary would keep us safer from “day one” or at “3 a.m.” is not just a campaign tactic or clever public-relations ploy. It is an outrageous lie. The Obama campaign’s failure to refute that lie early and often is not just what might prove to be a failing campaign strategy. It is a rare and subtle betrayal of the American people.

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02 March 2008

Iraq and Our Elections


Frank Rich is back in form again. His column today sees right through the transparently erroneous jabs that John McCain and Hillary Clinton—in nearly identical terms—are aiming at Barack Obama’s foreign policy. The column is must reading for everyone interested in our current electoral campaign or the future of our enterprises in Iraq and Pakistan.

But Rich’s column has a limitation. As appears to be his wont, he focuses almost exclusively on politics here at home. On that subject he is entirely accurate, but he doesn’t venture beyond domestic politics to issues of foreign policy. I’d like to do that in this post.

We have spent five years in Iraq. That’s more time than we spent in World War II, the Korean War, or Gulf I. So far, our effort has cost nearly four thousand American lives, uncounted Iraqi lives (estimated in the hundreds of thousands) and close to a trillion dollars. The war has not made us safer. On the contrary, it has created a new terrorist threat (Al Qaeda in Iraq) that did not exist before our invasion. It also distracted our attention from the most serious foreign threat against us: the struggle with Al Qaeda Central, now in Pakistan.

These facts are universally acknowledged. Even McCain admits them, at least in his less partisan moments. Dubya’s decision to invade Iraq was a gigantic blunder. In the words of Madeleine Albright, “Iraq will go down in history as the greatest disaster in American foreign policy.”

As Rich implied and I have argued over and over, that conclusion ought to inform our electoral choices. Among Clinton, McCain and Obama, only Obama was right before the fact. Only he made the correct judgment call five months before the invasion.

Not only did Obama make the right call: he also cited the right reasons for doing so. The two key sentences from his October 2, 2002, speech are worth repeating, on the off chance that someone out there has not yet read them:
    “I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”
How right can one man be?

But McCain is also right today on an important point. Past mistakes do not excuse future blunders.

War is not a poker hand, which you can fold with impunity if the luck of the draw does not improve your cards. Like it or not, our gigantic blunder in Iraq has changed the future of that country—and the entire Middle East—for all time. The nature of that change is still at hazard. No one who cares about our future, Iraq’s future, Israel, the Middle East, or world peace and progress can be indifferent to the outcome.

Another thing is also clear. Whatever happens in our elections, most or all of our combat troops will be out of Iraq in less than four years. Neither our people nor the neighbors will tolerate a longer occupation; and we desperately need those troops elsewhere, more to the northeast. Even John McCain cannot resist the tides of domestic politics, military necessity, and history. His “100 years” jibe was just an old warrior’s bluster. We can excuse him for it because he is a war hero; Dubya is not.

Everyone acknowledges that getting our troops out of Iraq safely will take at least a year. This is so even if the only goal is getting them out safely and as quickly as possible. No serious withdrawal is like to begin before Dubya and Cheney leave office. So counting from today, our “leeway” for policy lies somewhere between two years of continued occupation, at a minimum, and three or four three years at most. Every thinking person here at home, in Iraq, among the Sunni sheikhs, and in Al Qaeda understands that.

So the question is not “will we get out?” We will. Nor is it when we’ll get out. We’ll leave as it becomes safe and prudent to do so, most likely within four years.

The question is how we’ll get out and what we’ll leave behind. Will we leave a stable society that is better off than under Saddam, with prospects for social, economic and political progress? Or will we leave a manifestly failed state, open to incursion, invasion or partial annexation by neighbors and a potential breeding ground for terrorism?

Obama understands what is at stake just as well as McCain. Unnoticed in the Texas debate was his admission that events on the ground in Iraq have improved recently. “I think it is indisputable,” he said, “that we’ve seen violence reduced in Iraq.” His realism and honesty as a candidate are reasons why he attracts so many independents, Republicans, and non-ideological voters.

Obama has said repeatedly that we must be “as careful getting out as we were careless getting in.” Part of care in getting out is not leaving chaos behind, if only because the dogs of war might nip our troops’ heels as they depart.

The crux of the matter, then, is who would have a better chance of leaving behind a stable society and a modicum of success in Iraq, in exchange for our half decade of painful sacrifice there? Three factors point strongly to Obama.

First and foremost, Obama understands viscerally that all politics is local. He has built his own campaign here at home on a grass-roots movement, and he has done a magnificent job. In a way that neither Clinton nor McCain can hope to match, he knows that the postponed provincial elections in Iraq are the political key to a stable society. Whether by diplomacy, pressure or the threat of military force, he as president will make sure those elections happen, and as soon as possible.

Second, Obama has personal experience with hate. He knows in his bones that the enmity among Shiites, Kurds and Sunni is not going to disappear overnight. He therefore understands that some sort of partitioning is essential for Iraq to become a stable society. He will not cling to the pipe dream of a unified, fully reconciled Iraq, as Dubya and McCain do. He will not continue to believe that Sunni sheiks will risk their lives fighting under Shiite commanders who may have led death squads against them. Here, too, Obama is a realist.

Finally, Obama is the most cautious, careful and prudent of the three candidates in general. On every issue of national importance, he has been more prudent than Hillary. She takes fliers on price controls that even the Soviet Union abandoned, while Obama sticks to solutions known to work. And Obama has never indulged himself in foolish bluster like Dubya’s “bring ‘em on!” or McCain’s “100 years” gaffe. Wouldn’t it be nice to put a prudent and careful statesman with some self restraint—and a realist—in the White House for a change?

Frank Rich is right. The Iraqi president’s veto, which postponed the provincial elections that the Iraqi Parliament had scheduled for October, was a distinct setback. But the answer to that setback is not to fold our hand. No realist or careful leader takes a political setback as an excuse to compound a gigantic blunder with further blunders.

Obama understands all this, deep in his bones. McCain still thinks that, if our brave troops and rebellious taxpayers only sacrifice more, we can turn Iraq into Switzerland. Hillary seems to understand nothing about Iraq except its effect on her chances to become president. If you want to trade blunders for intelligent policy in Iraq, you have only one rational choice.

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01 March 2008

Compare Character


Of all the misinformation about the Democratic campaign, none is so dangerous as the notion that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are indistinguishable.

Of course their differences on policy are slight. They are both Democrats. Their common contrast with John McCain is bound to overwhelm any divergence between them.

But they are worlds apart in character. They have different personalities, differing personal preferences, divergent core values, and disparate approaches to politics and governance.

Hillary’s approach tends toward the imperial and secretive. Her 1993 health care proposal failed in part because of mandates on small business. It also failed because she developed her plan in secret, freezing out even sympathetic members of her own party. Now she wants to do a similar thing again: impose mandates on individuals. Her approach to health care is “we have ways of making you healthy.”

In contrast, Obama’s approach to health care is modest, non-imperial, open and participatory. His cautious plan relies primarily on subsidies for people who can’t afford care. Unlike Hillary’s mandates—which call conservatives and libertarians out to fight—Obama’s proposal will engender no more opposition than the usual resistance to “liberal” spending. As for openness, Obama wants to put health-care discussions on C-Span, so that we, the people, can follow them, participate, and buy into whatever plan emerges.

Similar differences appear in foreign policy, in particular on Pakistan. Hillary ridiculed Obama’s open plea to go after bin Laden there as “naïve.” She made clear that she wants foreign problems kept secret and resolved by experts behind closed doors. Isn’t that how we got into Iraq?

In contrast, Obama’s approach to Pakistan was as open and participatory as it could be. Of course specific military tactics, manner and means must be secret. But his terrorism speech, delivered nearly half a year ago, made three vital points. First, it redirected the nation’s attention from irrelevancies like Iraq back to our single most dangerous foreign threat. Second, it provided a comprehensive plan to fight Al Qaeda on every front: military, economic, political, and ideological. Third, it reminded us that the fight with Islamic terrorism is at its core an ideological battle, which has to be waged in the open.

As for Obama’s “naïve” plan to strike Al Qaeda Central militarily, it turned out to be no more than official U.S. policy. We learned that a month ago, when a U.S. missile killed a high-ranking Al Qaeda commandant.

Nowhere do Clinton and Obama diverge in character more starkly than in addressing an age-old question: do ends justify means?

Throughout her campaign, Hillary’s actions have answered that question repeatedly. Her answer has always been “yes.” Even conventional wisdom recognizes that she and Bill will do anything to win.

For half a century, Democrats’ credo has been racial harmony and ethnic peace—articles of deep faith and (on occasion) electoral success. Yet nothing is so sacred as to withstand the needs of the moment in the Clinton campaign. Not only have Hillary and Bill tried to divide white from black and Latino from black. Four days ago, in Cleveland, she tried to turn Jews against Obama. Her hair splitting was so clumsy that it backfired, but she tried anyway, leaving Jews like me disgusted and revulsed.

As Barack Obama repeatedly reminds us, he is not perfect. But I cannot recall a single time in this campaign (or in his political career) when he has sought to score political points by dividing people on lines of race, religion, ethnicity, or gender. He is the product of a racially mixed marriage and an upbringing in Hawaii, arguably our most racially inclusive state. He was raised by a single, white mother, who made him rise at 4:00 a.m. to study. For him, unity and harmony are not just campaign slogans; they are literally part of his DNA.

Our nation’s motto is “e pluribus unum—from many, one.” Protestants are already a minority of our people. Soon pure Caucasians will be as well. If our experiment in pluralism is to succeed, unifying us across racial, ethnic, and religious lines must be job one. To jeopardize that unity to win an election reflects not just poor character, but a fundamental failure to understand who we are as a people, where we have been, and where we must go.

Treachery to our nation’s core values lies in conventional wisdom. If the candidates are truly indistinguishable, then it’s OK to vote your identity. In particular, it’s OK to vote for Hillary because you want a woman in the White House. Thus does conventional wisdom endorse gender politics.

But conventional wisdom is, in Mark Twain’s famous words, “greatly exaggerated.”

As columnist Maureen Dowd has pointed out, stereotypical gender roles don’t apply to Obama and Clinton. It is Hillary who has the “male” character. She is imperial, commanding, hubristic, secretive, reluctant to acknowledge responsibility for mistakes, and willing to use any means to achieve an end. Obama has the virtues that stereotypes assign to females: openness, dialogue, cooperation, harmony, caution, prudence and empathy.

It would be irony indeed if women put a woman in the White House only to suffer a leader with two X chromosomes but many of the most undesirable character traits stereotypically ascribed to males.

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