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

31 October 2007

Last Night’s Democratic Debate

During the summer doldrums, I criticized the presidential debates as superficial and meaningless. Last night proved me wrong.

Yesterday’s Democratic debate was the best in either party so far. It had moments of substantive clarity, and it showed clear differences among the leading candidates. It may have busted the Democratic race wide open. MSNBC’s post-debate reportage was disgustingly puerile, but the debate itself was well run.

There were three headlines. First, Joe Biden proved knowledgeable and sensible on foreign policy. He made a simple and powerful point. Unlike Iran, which has yet to demonstrate the ability to produce any fissile material, Pakistan has multiple—perhaps many—operational nuclear weapons. Right now, we believe, those weapons are mounted on missiles capable of reaching both Israel and India. It therefore makes little sense to attack Iran and risk an Islamist uprising in Pakistan, which would put a powerful and existing arsenal of nuclear missiles in extremists’ hands.

Biden won the contest to demonstrate the bankruptcy of George W. Bush’s saber-rattling Iran policy hands down. He showed how actually knowing something about the outside world, plus the ability to put that knowledge in perspective, is vital in handling foreign and military affairs.

Uncharacteristically, Biden did all this without exceeding his time limits. He may not win the nomination, but if a Democrat wins he is likely to become Vice President or Secretary of State. He’ll be a good one.

The second headline was that Hillary Clinton stumbled badly. Throughout the debate, her rivals chided her for bad decisions, unclear positions, and political malleability—on Iraq, on Iran, and on social security. At first, she acquitted herself as usual. She doggedly maintained her divine right as leading candidate to waffle and evade any question, no matter how important to the audience or to our collective future.

Most of her waffles, however, were previous and offscreen. Then, with only minutes to go, she did her little dance before our very eyes. She waffled and evaded on camera, in real time.

The issue was hardly world-shaking. Tim Russert asked for her reaction to New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to allow illegal immigrants to get drivers’ licenses. The question had some nuance, for Spitzer had proposed three levels of licenses. He would reserve one level for general identification (including airport security) and a second for most drivers. A third, low-level license (apparently with few questions asked) would encourage undocumented drivers to be identified and qualified to drive, through testing on laws and the roads.

Hillary got that nuance. She explained it well. She is nothing if not a good debater. But she visibly tried to have it both ways. She said twice that Spitzer’s proposal “makes sense.” But when pressed by Russert to say she supports it, she waffled. She wouldn’t say yes or no. She just complained of being driven into a “gotcha!”

That exchange was Hillary in an nutshell. She wants to be president, but she doesn’t want to make decisions. She can’t decide what to do without her advisers, her polls and her focus groups. Not even on a minor issue in a presidential debate. Can you imagine that sort of person leading the Cabinet in a crisis?

There are no “gotchas” in the Oval Office. There are only tough decisions to be made, in real time, under great stress. No wonder the Republicans are dying to run against her! She’s the only chance they have of shedding the millstone of George W. Bush.

Hillary’s waffling and evasions are not, as some believe, matters of honesty or credibility. They are matters of leadership and decisiveness. Hillary’s mental processes were transparent for all to see. You could practically hear her thinking, “if I say yes, I support it, I’ll be slimed in the general election as soft on illegal immigration.” So she waffled, even though her previous remarks made it clear that she thought Spitzer’s proposal a good one.

Of course Hillary was right about the politics. No sooner had the debate ended than Chris Matthews started sliming.

But it takes two to slime—a slimer, and a slimee. Barack Obama had a much simpler and more courageous response: he said he supported Spitzer’s proposal because it would encourage illegals to come forward and make New York’s roads safer.

Obama stuck with substance and stated his position clearly, with good reasons. He showed, in a small way, what a president should be. He won’t allow himself to be a slimee because he won’t waffle, and he won’t back down. Demagogues don’t intimidate him.

Call Obama naïve, but wouldn’t it be great to have a president like that again? Those of us over fifty can remember the type. We want one back.

The final headline of the debate was John Edwards. He came out swinging against Hillary and never stopped. It was he who first called attention to Hillary’s waffle over the Sptizer proposal, opening the door for Barack’s much more gentle rebuke.

Perhaps unwittingly, Edwards served as stalking horse for Obama. Two things hold Obama back from attacking Hillary. First, he has promised a different kind of campaign; he can’t allow himself to slide into negativity. Second, as a consummate gentleman, he can’t be seen as roughing up a lady—especially not the first serious female candidate for president.

Many women appear inclined to vote for Hillary just to smash the last glass ceiling. Obama can’t risk alienating them with rude behavior. He knows this because he’s not only the smartest candidate running. He’s also the most empathic.

But someone has to show that a candidate who makes every decision on politics, not substance—and who fears demagoguery more than death—might not make the best possible president. Edwards did that, and Obama was the clear winner.

I like to think that Edwards, who was passionate about saving our democracy, knew exactly what he was doing. He was willing to sacrifice his own candidacy for the greater good.

Not surprisingly, the MSNBC cell-phone poll after the debate showed Obama leading 29% to Clinton’s 21%. It’s a highly unscientific method of polling, but it’s suggestive of what intelligent, informed people think. If Obama can translate that success to a wider audience, we may see a shift in the polls soon.

One final aspect of last night’s debate deserves comment: Chris Matthews and his nitwit journalism. For Matthews, the two headlines of the evening were Dennis Kucinich’s admission that he had seen a UFO and Hillary Clinton’s support for giving illegal immigrants drivers’ licenses. In that order.

Matthews wasn’t interested in what Hillary’s waffling said about her capacity to serve as commander in chief. All he wanted to do was stir up a premature fight with Republican demagogues. Apparently he believes that whether illegal immigrants get drivers’ licenses in New York is more important than all those Pakistani nukes, mounted on operational missiles, that Joe Biden spoke about.

It is time that network news executives took their fair share of responsibility for our nation’s precipitous decline. MSNBC purports to have a serious news organization. Yet Chris Matthews is to journalism as Benedict Arnold is to patriotism. If MSNBC’s executives want to do their part to save our democracy, they should fire Matthews, the sooner the better. He should work for the National Enquirer, where he belongs.

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29 October 2007

Obama and Evangelicals

Lots of things about Barack Obama are unusual. With the possible exception of Bill Clinton, he’s the brightest politician on the national stage in two generations. In raw intellect, he towers over both parties’ presidential fields. His academic credentials are the best since Woodrow Wilson’s. He understands economics better than the entire Republican field and much better than most Democrats.

But Obama’s qualities go far beyond intelligence and reason. His humanity is transcendent, too. Listen to him—really listen. Read him. If you do, you will find something unique about him, at least among politicians. Obama is a truly spiritual man.

I’m not talking about his being a Christian. Every presidential candidate claims to be a Christian of some sort. They all wear their religion on their lapels like some intangible campaign badge. They put it on when they want to attract religious voters. Then they take if off, just as quickly, when the campaigning is done.

Obama is different. He’s spiritual not in his political persona but in his heart.

That’s why he hasn’t slammed Hillary Clinton as a second-rate intellect, a failed leader, and a flawed candidate. It’s not his style. It’s not in his nature to attack and condemn. He prefers to find good and humanity in everyone, and he can bring it out. That may not be the best approach to campaigning in an era of rabid negativity, but it will bring us a world of change when he wins.

I say “when” because I think Obama has a secret constituency: evangelical voters. They don’t all know it yet, but he is the only candidate in either party whom they can happily support and who can win. When they learn who he is, they will turn to him—maybe not the leaders and pontificators, but the rank and file. That’s why, I think, Obama is doing better now in Iowa than in New Hampshire, whose voters are more secular.

Our evangelicals now know that George W. Bush and Karl Rove betrayed them. Worse yet, they know that Rove and Bush betrayed Jesus’ teaching.

Where Jesus preached peace, Bush and Rove brought war. Where Jesus taught uncritical love for sinners, Bush and Rove encouraged hate and exclusion—for homosexuals, for those who support abortion rights, even for the poor. Where Jesus kicked money-changers out of the temple and praised the spiritual value of poverty, Bush and Rove urged us to keep our own money and spurn those in need. So we abandoned the poor and uninsured—even our own lower middle class—to the tender mercies of an uncaring global marketplace. Where Jesus taught humility and community, Bush and Rove personify arrogance and unilateralism in both domestic politics and foreign affairs. Take any caring innovation in Jesus’ words, as reported in the New Testament, and you will find that Bush and Rove did just the opposite.

The trouble is, evangelicals read the Bible. They are beginning to realize that the neocons conned them. They are turning away from right-wing politics of hate, selfishness, self-righteousness and division. They are turning again toward Jesus’ path of love, understanding, humility, and generosity.

Not a week goes by without a new report of this phenomenon. Having rediscovered that Genesis anoints us as stewards of our Earth, evangelicals are jumping on the environmental bandwagon in order to become good stewards. The best of them are learning how to retard global warming in order to preserve our planet as God made it. Having discovered anew that laissez faire capitalism has victims, they are starting to care again about the poor and abandoned, just as Jesus did.

Many are leaving the right-wing megachurches and starting their own schismatic movements. The young are often in the vanguard. Youth are quick to see hypocrisy in their elders. They are first to kill and be killed in unjust wars. They now understand that Jesus and jingoism do not mix. They are leaving the Republican party and becoming independents, and their votes are up for grabs.

So whom can evangelicals trust? Every candidate will pander to them to some extent, just because their votes reportedly were decisive in the last two presidential elections. How can they be sure that whoever is elected won’t betray them—and Jesus—again as Bush and Cheney have done? When these disappointed religious voters go to the polls, whom should they pick?

Hillary Clinton is lost to them. For them, through no fault of her own, she personifies personal moral decay and the family’s decline. In any event, she has no moral core and little moral courage. She twists and turns in every political wind, as her little two-step at the last Democratic debate showed so well. So if evangelicals want moral constancy, the leading Democrat is not likely to get many of their votes.

What about the leading Republicans? Mitt Romney is Hillary’s male counterpart: he’ll say anything, and he’ll claim he believes anything, to get elected. He’s already disclaimed his previous pro-choice stance on abortion and his work for universal health care in Massachusetts. Even if these turnabouts were sincere, and not matters of political expediency, he could always change his mind again once elected.

As for Giuliani, his stance on guns, gays and abortion is far from evangelicals’. What’s more, his lie about 9/11, although subtle, was one of the most morally outrageous acts in recent American political history. He claimed that New York firefighters’ own courage killed them during the 9/11 attacks, implying that they disobeyed orders to evacuate the doomed North Tower. In fact, they never received those orders because Giuliani’s mayoralty never got them radios that worked, despite eights year of imploring. If Giuliani is a spiritual and moral leader, I’m Napoleon.

So whom among the leading candidates could evangelicals trust? There is only one who says he is a Christian, actually acts like one, and has a plausible claim to moral constancy and courage. That candidate is Obama.

Obama bears his Christianity in his heart, not on his sleeve. He has a rock-solid family, with no history of straying or divorce. More important, his moral constancy and courage reveal a man of spiritual depth. He gave his famous speech against invading Iraq not after we appeared to be losing the war, but when Bush’s popularity was a 65% and even the media were joining the drumbeat to war. He was a lone voice of sanity and humanity in the wilderness. When Obama spoke of the need for conservation and greater fuel efficiency to save our country and our planet, he stood before the captains of the car industry at the Detroit Economic Club, who most needed to hear that message.

As for humanity, Obama has disclaimed first use of nuclear weapons even against Al Qaeda. That stand is contrary to the longstanding U.S. policy of leaving all military options on the table. It fundamentally contradicts the Bush Administration’s pre-emption doctrine, which implicitly endorses the first use of nuclear weapons when necessary to avoid anticipated attacks. Obama has the moral courage to take that stand when terrorists’ use of nuclear weapons is our greatest national nightmare.

That stand may be the most important “pro life” position of any political figure today. In this age of terror and proliferation, the risk of nuclear weapons actually being used is greater than at any time since 1962. It is growing daily. If Obama’s position can provide an example for others and avoid future use of nuclear weapons, it may save more human lives than all the protests against abortion and the death penalty in human history.

I myself am more cynical. I am on record opposing unilateral disclaimers of any nuclear first strike. But I think Obama’s position is supportable practically, and I admire his moral constancy and his moral courage. Jesus would not launch nuclear weapons either.

So I hope that evangelicals and other religious voters will give Obama a second look. He is the only candidate in whom they can find both a kindred spirit and a winner. Only he shares their best principles. Among leading candidates, only he has shunned the contradictions and inconstancy that make them gag.

Obama does not just pretend to believe in Jesus; he lives Jesus’ words. He does so even in the white heat of a political campaign. Once religious voters get to know him, they will be charmed. So don’t be surprised at fast-breaking trends, which may never show up in the polls until he’s won.

As for those of you who (like me) value reason over faith, don’t be troubled by seeing Obama at churches, prayer meetings, and revivals. Don’t think that he is pandering or forsaking his intellect or his principles. He is just showing who he is and bringing Jesus’ children home.

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28 October 2007

Common Sense and Iran

About a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt offered a simple, common-sense prescription for dealing with rogue regimes. “Speak softly,” he said, “but carry a big stick.”

Have George W. Bush and Dick Cheney followed that prescription? Not hardly. They’re threatening and growling like two-bit tyrants. When it comes to credible deterrence, they’ve reduced the world’s only superpower to the status of a paper tiger.

Far from speaking softly, Bush loves to “ratchet up the rhetoric.” His public posturing gives us little to distinguish him from the belligerent and irresponsible Ahmadinejad, except that Bush claims to be on our side.

As the world’s only superpower, we have the strength to act calmly and deliberately. We are supposed to stand for democracy, reason and the rule of law. We therefore ought to speak in muted tones. That obligation is especially important now that we have started an unnecessary war that we cannot seem to end.

Bush’s threatening and alarmist rhetoric is wildly inappropriate because we are far from the end of our diplomatic rope. Iran has yet to develop any fissile material suitable for weaponry, let alone enough for a weapon. Even if it does, Iran then has to develop suitable triggers for nuclear devices and test them.

There are many ways to detect nuclear explosions, including x-ray and gamma-ray bursts, leaks of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere (from underground tests), and unusual seismic activity. We have so many bases and friends close to Iran that—if we are doing only half of the scientific monitoring that we should be doing—we will know instantly of any successful test by Iran, no matter how small or (like North Korea’s) marginally successful it might be. And we will know exactly where the test occurs. We still are a long way from any urgent need for a military option.

Bush’s inability to restrain his “Texas swagger” and speak softly, as Teddy advised, is just another example of his supreme incompetence. Besides making Iran even more intransigent, his approach foments fear and hostility in our own country, which are the enemies of rational policy. If Bush can’t open his mouth without sounding like an alarmist or a bully, he should just keep it shut.

The second part of Teddy’s prescription was his advice to “carry a big stick.” That advice has two aspects. First, you have to have the stick. Second, you have to show it publicly, so as to dissuade unpredictable adversaries like Iran from dangerous action. So far, Bush and Cheney have failed miserably on both counts.

Far from developing a credible military strategy, Bush has gotten us bogged down in an interminable land war right in Iran’s neighborhood. There Iran has harried us incessantly, supplying our enemies with modern weapons and sophisticated IEDs.

That is not all. By overextending our limited ground forces, Bush has made us look weak before the entire world. He has done the exact opposite of providing credible deterrence. He has made Teddy’s big stick appear small and fragile.

If you want to know how to handle dangerous regimes flirting with nuclear brinkmanship, study Israel. Israel has to be smart because it is small and vulnerable. It doesn’t have the luxury of being the sole remaining superpower. Nor does it have thousands of miles to shield it from any likely arena of conflict. A single nuclear device in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem could ruin Israel forever.

Yet Israel has shown the way. It destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. Recently it appears to have destroyed a shipment of nuclear-weapons-related material from North Korea to Syria. Neither action preceded a ground invasion or provoked a war.

As Israel’s leadership teaches, the only rational military response to nuclear brinksmanship by rogue nations is good intelligence and surgical air strikes. Air power is the only big stick that makes sense in this context.

But what kind of air power? It is now almost half a century since the Soviets shot down Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane over their territory. Those of us alive then still remember the diplomatic pain of that incident and the national embarrassment of seeing an American hero made the pawn of a hostile regime.

Those painful memories should teach us something. Pilots are vulnerable to capture and worse. Attempts to rescue them create even greater risks of diplomatic and military disaster.

Half a century later, we seem to have learned little. Yet there is a better way. We now have ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles. These weapons have no onboard pilots to shoot down, capture, display and mistreat.

We should therefore make them the centerpieces of our deterrent force for the twenty-first century. We should convert a large fraction of our ballistic missile force to conventional (non-nuclear) warheads, leaving only the minimum number of nuclear weapons needed for credible deterrence. We should be arming whole squadrons of planes and all our navy’s ships with conventional (non-nuclear) cruise missiles. We should embark on a crash program, similar to the Manhattan Project, to create a formidable force of remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicles capable of taking out a nuclear facility or missile plant with surgical precision, low cost, and low risk of human casualties.

A big stick is no deterrent unless you show it. So simply building these deterrent forces is not enough. We also have to test and display them. Our development and testing should be transparent, frequent and public. We must let rogue regimes like Iran know just what they are up against. The technology itself must remain secret, but its existence and capability should be well advertised.

I see no evidence that we are doing any of this. Already we have used remotely controlled aircraft for “combat” missions in Iraq, flown by pilots sitting comfortably in air-conditioned offices in the American West. We should be pushing this technology far and fast; it would cost a small fraction of what we have wasted on our disastrous misadventure on the ground in Iraq. If we were doing so, the public would know, and the world should know, for purposes of deterrence.

Teddy was a member of Bush’s own party, just a lot smarter than Bush. What we need now is to return to Teddy’s simple formula. We can do so by pursuing the three D’s: diplomacy, democracy and deterrence.

We should begin by speaking softly and putting our shoulder to the wheel of diplomacy. We should build a regional coalition to counter Iran’s hegemonic impulses and to deter it from nuclearizing the Middle East. We should develop our human intelligence inside Iran and provide covert support for its democratic forces.

And as a last resort, we should develop remotely controlled non-nuclear air power as a deterrent to Iran’s dangerous behavior. We can use that force to destroy dangerous weaponry and weapons factories if all else fails. That would be a far better way to protect Europe (and ourselves) from the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran than developing a “Star Wars” missile shield that is unlikely to work reliably when needed and is threatening to re-ignite the Cold War with Russia.

Having done none of these things (at least not effectively), Bush and Cheney get a grade of “F” in handling the Iran “crisis.” That’s one of the many reasons why we badly need a regime change here at home. We need leaders who can think at least one step ahead of our adversaries, not ones who react spasmodically in fear and panic.

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22 October 2007

Why I’ll Buy a Volt

[Electric-car fanciers: Leaf or Volt? I’m now undecided. Here’s why.]

[For a discussion of how electric cars can help resolve our energy crisis and improve national security, click here.]

I am nearing retirement, and I’m a native-born American. But I’ve never owned a new American car.

During my student days, I bought used American cars because they were cheap and easy to fix. As soon as I had the money to buy a new car, I started buying Japanese. I never looked back.

Why didn’t I “buy American”? Because Japanese cars were better. They were not just a little better. Like Mary Poppins, they were demonstrably and substantially better in every way.

As readers of this blog can infer, I have very high standards. I care about excellence, and I care about details. The Japanese cars had better fit and finish. They had better performance, maneuverability and fuel economy. They had more modern styling. They even had shorter steering radii and better visibility from the cockpit. They were more comfortable to sit in, and their repair record was incomparably better. Enormous differences in engineering and quality lasted over decades and were consistent from year to year. American cars were clunkers in comparison.

In the early eighties, a colleague chastised me for failing to support American workers by buying American cars. I didn’t understand why I should. I work hard to earn my money. I’m not a person whose car is a statement of personality and status, eager to be seduced by crude size, weight and power. I wanted something that was engineered well, built well, designed to last and felt good to drive. Isn’t free and informed consumer choice what capitalism is all about?

I also have a weakness for innovation. Throughout my entire adult life American cars have been the antithesis of innovation. Our car companies resisted afterburners to reduce pollution. They ignored the trend toward smaller, lighter, more maneuverable cars. They missed the recent trend toward hybrids by most of a decade. The last significant American advance in engines that I can remember was Chrysler’s “hemi” cylinder head, which I believe dates back to the 1960s.

In contrast, Japanese car companies did what Yankee ingenuity was supposed to do. They took risks and actually brought new products to market. Mazda introduced the Wankel engine in the early seventies, and Toyota introduced the hybrid early in the twenty-first century. No American car company in my lifetime had introduced any innovation as radical. The nation that invented everything from the transistor to the laser and gene splicing, and that put men on the Moon, has a dud for an auto industry.

GM once developed prototypes for an electric car called the EV-1. But GM famously put the design on the shelf, bought up existing models, and sent them to the shredder. So much for innovation, American style.

So imagine my surprise recently when I read about GM’s new plans. It promises to build and sell a car with a small gasoline engine and big batteries that can commute to and from work on electricity alone. You could charge this car from the power grid through an ordinary electric outlet in your garage. GM plans to call it, appropriately, the Chevy “Volt.”

As I’ve hinted on this blog, I’ve wanted to buy a Prius hybrid for several years, in part to reward Toyota’s pathbreaking innovation. But for various reasons, including energy independence and fear of fuel shortages, I was hoping to get a commercial model that I could charge up from the grid.

Now GM promises that the Volt will go 40 miles on a charge (enough for most of us to get to work and back), travel at normal highway speeds, and plug in to normal electrical outlets. Abandoning the “not invented here” syndrome that has left the American auto industry in the technological dust, GM is waiting for two independent companies to develop the necessary batteries. It promises to bring the Volt to market by 2010, with working prototypes next year or in 2009.

Depending on how you power it, driving a Volt will strike a blow for energy independence and national security. If you run it mostly off the local power grid, you’ll most likely be driving on North American coal, which provides a little more than 50% of our nation’s electric power. Virtually none of our electric power comes from oil, so you won’t be using Mideast oil.

Only if you run the car mostly on gasoline will you be using the 60% that comes from Mideast oil, or increasing the demand for Mideast oil by increasing demand for oil generally (after all, oil is fungible). If your area offers a convenient source of E85, a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, you can run the Volt on that, decreasing your use of oil by 85% while still running off the grid.

You won’t help cut global warming if you run the Volt on gasoline or on electric power derived from burning coal. You’ll do a bit better if your local power comes from natural gas, which is more “carbon neutral” than coal. But you can be completely carbon neutral if your local power comes from nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, geothermal or other renewable sources of electricity. If you use E85 to fuel the beast, your carbon neutrality will be 85%.

From the consumer’s perspective, one of the best things about the Volt is flexibility in powering it. With the Middle East in perpetual instability and war brewing between Turkey and Kurdistan, depending on oil for transportation is no more sensible for the consumer than it is for our nation as a whole. The Volt will offer a solution for that vulnerability; even the Prius doesn’t yet.

So I’m pleased to see at least one American car company return to Yankee ingenuity and innovation, which also helps address energy indepedence and global warming. So pleased am I that I will make GM a public pledge. If it can produce the Volt on time, by 2010, if the price is under $35,000, and if the car gets reasonable reviews from consumer and auto magazines, I will buy one.

It doesn’t have to get rave reviews; all it has to do is avoid being characterized as a clunker. If GM can achieve that modest goal, I will proudly drive a Volt as an emblem of restored American innovation in cars, after half a century of industrial stagnation.

Quick Comparison Chart

Following is a quick comparison of salient promised specifications for a Chevy Volt with typical specifications for a currently available comparable small car:

Small Car
Chevy Volt
Energy Cost per Mile12 cents
x gal/25 mi)
1.26 cents
(0.2 Kwh/mi
x 6.3 cents/Kwh)
Range on Gasoline300 miles
(12 gals x 25 mi/gal)
600-700 miles
Range off GasolineNone40 miles
Nominal Top Speed120 mph120 mph
(0-60 mph)
9.5 sec8 - 8.5 sec
Charging TimeN/A6 - 6.5 hours
Engine NoiseMedium to NoisyQuiet
Garage PollutionStinkyNone
Energy SourceMideast OilNorth Am. Coal
or Greener Source

The Volt will still have a typical American car’s lousy steering radius, 37 to 38 feet, but I guess I can live with that.

Update (7/15/2008):

The Seattle Times and New York Times have reported two important recent developments. First, as of June 4, GM’s board approved production of the Chevy Volt for 2010. Second, on June 30, GM’s Bob Lutz, its vice chairman and chief of product development, said the first generation Volt would sell for $40,000 and would lose money at that price. He also said that the Volt’s 40-mile range per battery charge would satisfy the commuting needs of 78 percent of U.S. commuters.

The new $40,000 price tag is 33% above GM’s initial estimate of $30,000. Undoubtedly it reflects increased cost for the batteries. With GM’s century-long experience in car production, it cannot have been so imprecise in predicting the cost of the mechanical and electrical systems that it will make and assemble. The price increase must reflect a revised estimate for the cost of the batteries, which GM itself will not make and which are still under development.

While the new price is disappointing, the new estimate and GM’s board approval suggest that sufficiently reliable batteries can be made; they will just be more expensive than originally expected. Presumably mass production and the production learning curve will bring the prices down with time.

Based on the new purchase price, the New York Times compared the price of the Chevy Volt to that of two Priuses. But the initial purchase price is not the relevant comparison. Operating cost is.

If you drive 40 miles per day, 365 days per year, you will drive a little less than 15,000 miles per year. At 20 MPG and $ 4 per gallon, that’s $3,000 yearly for gas. A Prius that gets 40 MPG will reduce that cost to half, or $1, 500. But a Volt will reduce the $3,000 price by a factor of ten or more. Therefore, assuming you don’t have to replace the batteries earlier, if you buy a Volt rather than a Prius you will recover the $20,000 price difference in about fifteen years. (Actually, the difference is less than $20,000 because a fully loaded Prius can cost up to $24,000).

That’s not particularly good, as few people keep their cars that long. But if the price of gas goes up to $ 8 per gallon, as many expect, you’ll recover the price difference in a mere 7.5 years. In the interim you won’t have to visit a gas station; you’ll just charge the car at home. You won’t be vulnerable to further gas price hikes. And you’ll have the knowledge that you are reducing air pollution and global warming by the percentage of your electricity that comes from sources other than fossil fuel.

That’s probably enough to get many people to buy a Volt, just as many have bought Priuses. But massive popular conversion to plug-in hybrids will depend on price reductions brought by mass production and perhaps new technology. They may well follow, as now GM is not alone. Toyota also has committed to producing a plug-in hybrid by 2010. If nothing else, GM will provide a nice price umbrella for Toyota’s competitive car.

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18 October 2007

Dishonesty and Stupidity

Some life experiences are so enlightening that they stay in our minds until we die. Like legends or fables, they teach us something important about the human condition, which we could not have learned in any other way.

I had an experience like that some years ago. My job required me to attend a series of routine meetings with roughly the same group of people. In two consecutive meetings, a single person adopted what seemed to me diametrically opposed positions and voted accordingly. I pointed out the switch, somewhat undiplomatically, implying dishonesty.

The switcher was more “political” and had better “people skills” than I. A private meeting was requested. In it, the person spent minutes explaining why what appeared to be a change of position was not. On its substance, the explanation was far-fetched—almost ludicrous. Yet the person was sincere, even earnest.

I concluded that I had been wrong. The problem was not dishonesty. It was stupidity. This person simply couldn’t (1) remember what had been said in the earlier meeting or (2) understand why the two positions were contradictory. The problem was a failure of memory, a failure of logic, or an inability to comprehend how others hear one’s words. Having mistaken stupidity for dishonesty, I apologized for the implied accusation and kept my opinion of the person’s mental acuity to myself.

That incident has stayed with me as if it occurred yesterday. In a single moment, it taught me an indelible lesson. From the outside, stupidity can be indistinguishable from dishonesty.

At times my reaction to George W. Bush approaches revulsion. But try as I might, I cannot conceive of him as a fundamentally dishonest person—a person whose modus operandi is to lie deliberately and knowingly to achieve a hidden goal.

If Bush is a Machiavelli, he is also the world’s most consummate actor. Everything about him seems so simple and open, from his problems with the English language to his fearful grimace on learning of the 9/11 attacks while reading to schoolchildren in Florida. But unlike Bill Clinton, who could stare straight into the camera and credibly disown his relationship with Monica Lewinski, Bush is no actor. Good acting requires both emotional and analytical intelligence.

As Bush repeats his little mantras endlessly, he seems perfectly sincere. A man of intelligence would recognize their inappropriateness to the situation and their more-than-occasional internal contradictions. A man of intelligence would get bored or frustrated repeating the same simplistic slogans day after day—would scream from the sheer monotony of it all. But Bush does not. He is like a simple child caught up in the pleasing cadence of a repetitive nursery rhyme.

This fact, I think, explains our nation’s disagreement on his character. Some of us—maybe one-third—see his apparent sincerity, his simple earnestness, and little else. They don’t recognize the internal contradictions in his logic. They are too ill informed to understand how far from reality his simplistic pronouncements and policies stray. So they think Bush is right and follow him willingly. The rest of us, who read the newspapers at least occasionally, see the discrepancies and internal contradictions and accuse Bush of dishonesty.

But there is a third possibility. Bush may be too stupid to see the flaws in his own thinking or how much his views diverge from reality. He may be a sincere and honest simpleton.

Consider our first false premise for invading Iraq, for example: WMD. It takes some insight and introspection to understand that your own strongly held convictions might be wrong. It takes self-awareness to understand how a deep desire to “correct” the “error” of allowing Saddam to stay in power, after he tried to kill your own father, might distort your judgment. But Bush has simply and proudly disclaimed introspection and self-insight, not once but many times. Should we not believe him?

As for understanding how absolute certainty and intransigence at the very top of a large bureaucracy might distort the perceptions of those below, that’s a pretty sophisticated concept. The entire intelligence community is set up to see reality clearly, isn’t it? How could the monomania of one fool at the top (or two, if you count Cheney) twist the views of all those smart professionals down in the bowels of the bureaucracy?

Nearly all of Congress and our media couldn’t see how. There are some awfully smart people in those institutions, but they failed to see the point until it was too late. Could we expect George W. Bush to see it when he has disclaimed introspection, and when all those smart people, whose job it is to ferret out untruths and contradictions, couldn’t?

Dubya demonstated his non-existent mental acuity again as recently as two days ago. Responding to a reporter’s simple request to state his definition of torture, he replied, “Whatever the law says.”

You would think that a president who had fought repeated battles over torture in the Cabinet, the Congress, and the media over a period of several years might have some conception of what he had been advocating. Not Bush. Not only had he no ready mental conception of torture that he might cite to reconcile his bromide “we don’t torture” with reports of events in the field. He apparently didn’t even care. It’s enough for a man like him that his buddies and the people on whom he relies for advice think that what our military and CIA are doing in our name is OK. Beyond that, his dim intellect cannot go.

If you want a good analogy to Dubya’s character, think of the Austrian emperor in the movie Amadeus, the one who said that Mozart’s music had “too many notes.” That’s what we are dealing with: a man charged with governing a sophisticated society who has nowhere near the mental equipment even to understand the consequences of what is going on, let alone to govern effectively.

During the 2000 election, there was regular comment on Bush’s limited intelligence. Once he assumed the mantle of president it all stopped cold. The naked emperor put on imaginary clothing, which we all pretended to see. We all feared to speak the truth, lest the truth reflect poorly on our own electoral choices and our own intelligence.

Political correctness is rampant in our society. Now it has reached its logical conclusion. Our commander in chief is mentally crippled, but no one can say so. So we all soldier on—some of us to death in combat—politely averting our eyes from the most salient feature of this presidency: George W. Bush’s stupidity.

We have fifteen more months to be ruled by a simpleton. Our only hope of salvation is to seek a brighter leader next time. In the meantime, we should all think hard about what went wrong, that we had to suffer one-man rule by such a man, at a critical point in our history, for eight long years.

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12 October 2007

Smarter People, Better Results

Through all the catastrophes of George W. Bush’s dark reign, a few rays of light are beginning to shine. North Korea is in the process of being bought off and pressured out of its brief foray into nuclear brinksmanship. Key elements among Iraq’s Sunnis have made an alliance with our forces and against chaos. According to yesterday’s New York Times, the same thing may be happening among the Shiites. Our own casualties in Iraq are down, and so is the violence there generally, although both are still far too high.

There are even rays of hope in Iran. The moderate and pragmatic Rafsanjani has outmaneuvered Ahmadinejad to become Speaker of the Assembly of Experts, a sort of Islamic-style Soviet Central Committee that will pick the next Supreme Leader once Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dies. That development got very little press, but it is a big, big deal and a sign of possible future improvement in our relationship with Iran.

At the same time, Ahmadinejad himself tried to open a dialogue with us. He didn’t have to do the talk-show circuit on his trip to speak at the United Nations, but he did. However awkward his effort seemed, and however embarrassing and counterproductive our response, his attempt to “reason” with us marked a small pause in the cycle of mutual insults and threats that have characterized our relationship with Iran since the Shah’s fall over thirty years ago.

It’s a small thing maybe. But I can’t imagine either Hitler or Stalin, in their times, doing what Ahmadinejad did last week. Talk is always preferable to war, as long as it’s not surrender. And no one is talking about surrender to Iran; the scary talk is about another unnecessary war.

Are all these rays of light a coincidence? Did we just get lucky after seven years of bad karma? Did someone break a mirror and the spell is now dissipating?

However popular superstition and its cousin ideology may be today, I don’t think so. The changes for the better are the result of high-level personnel changes in our government. That Idiot Rumsfeld is gone. So is Karl Rove, destroyer of our Republic. And the secret internal influence of Dick Cheney has reached its lowest ebb in seven years.

These three very different men all have one thing in common. What is going on inside their own heads matters far more to them than anything happening in the world outside. They are solipsistic, self-centered, and driven by ideology. The results of their so-called “leadership” lie in shambles around us, from Iraq to New Orleans.

Rumsfeld was so sure of the superiority of our troops, their equipment and our cause that he ignored the advice of experts and failed to plan for obvious contingencies. Rove’s ambition for a permanent Republican majority was so great that he failed to ponder whether you can build effective politics—let alone effective government—on fundamentalist religion and virulent opposition to homosexuality and abortion. And Cheney, in his dotage, personifies every pre-adolescent male’s fantasy of dominating the world. Despite his apparent loss of mental faculties and contact with reality, he exercised enormous influence over the president and our policy.

But Rumsfeld and Rove are gone, and Cheney is in remission. Who has taken their places?

One answer is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Much suppressed and much reviled, she has always been one of the few members of the George W. Bush Administration endowed with some native intelligence, actual knowledge, and common sense. She has been virtually the only top figure who thinks about world affairs on a time horizon longer than two years.

Rice’s hallmark is perseverance. That trait can make her ridiculous. It certainly did in the Senate 9/11 hearings, when she tried to “spin” her neglect of terrorism and bin Laden during her early tenure as national security chief. But as applied to her core expertise—international relations—her perseverance has been a steady force for good. With the three solipsists out of the way, her star is rising, and intelligent diplomacy along with it.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is an even more important force for change. He runs our military, which is at the center of our current troubles. More to the point, he is the antithesis of Rumsfeld. Whereas Rumsfeld was brash, bombastic and arrogant, Gates is humble and low key. Whereas Rumsfeld listened to no one, Gates accepts input from everyone. Whereas Rumsfeld loved the spotlight, Gates works quietly behind the scenes. Whereas Rumsfeld hid his essential stupidity behind a pathologically aggressive façade, Gates hides his apparently enormous intelligence behind a modest and soft-spoken exterior.

About the only thing the two men have in common is success at bureaucratic infighting. But even in that, they differ: Gates achieves his success though “people skills” and analytical intelligence; Rumsfeld achieved his through manipulation, delay and intimidation.

The final reason why Gates is so central is that he makes common cause with Rice. For six years, Rice had been a lone voice crying in the wilderness. An academic who made her career studying international relations, she was the only Cabinet-level official who actually knew anything in depth about the outside world. For six years, she had the unenviable task, standing alone, of explaining to ignorant, bullheaded neocons why their solipsistic view of the world was inaccurate and dangerous. Now, in Gates, she has reinforcements.

Rice and Gates are kindred spirits. Both like to work better behind the scenes than in the spotlight. Both know something, are open to new ideas, and are outer directed. Neither is governed by ideology.

So for the first time in seven years, competence is creeping, willy nilly, into the administration of George W. Bush. Whereas once intelligent life seemed alien to our government, knowledgeable, capable people are now popping up all over. Christopher Hill, one of the brightest and most capable diplomats we have, is in charge of the North Korean beat, where he is making considerable headway. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are working on Iraq. And we have General Michael Hayden at the CIA. He’s not only a good master spook; he seems to understand and even care about civil liberties as well.

This administration had a handicap from its very beginning. George W. Bush is one of the stupidest men ever to sit in the Oval Office.

We all knew or should have known that from the start. What we couldn’t have known from the outset was just how bad his judgment of people would be. He took Vladimir Putin’s crucifix as a sign or love for freedom and democracy. He took Rumsfeld’s bombast and bluster as signs of intelligence and competence. Ditto for Cheney’s taciturnness and proper English when he speaks.

We are all suffering daily for those misjudgments. But now we have two competent people who know actually know something near the top of our executive.

We could do much worse than Gates and Rice, whose ascendancy is responsible for the few rays of light we now see. If only Bush has enough care for his legacy to step back, call off Rove’s remaining dogs and let these good folks do their jobs, we just might muddle through the next fifteen months unscathed.

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06 October 2007

Bye, Bye Boomers

As a person who looks at truth unblinking, I have to admit I’m a Boomer. In my youth, I celebrated the sexual freedom of the short post-pill, pre-AIDS era.

At the time, I was sure we were on to something big. But now, four decades later, I’m no longer certain we Boomers found the secret of life.

Our families are recovering from an epidemic of divorce, single parenthood and irresponsibility that has nearly destroyed our inner-city communities. Our celebration of a free-wheeling, “if it feels good, do it” culture has split our country right down the middle. A man who could have been one of our greatest presidents lost three years of his eight—and missed a chance to get bin Laden—because part of him (I won’t say which part) was stuck back in the sixties. I still don’t share social conservatives’ rigidity and intolerance, but I can’t say they’re all nutcakes, either.

As I look back at the accomplishments of my Boomer generation, I’m not particularly proud. We sure did well for ourselves. Besides having the most fun of any generation, we broke open the mold of the grey flannel suit and made it possible for all of us—female, black, white, brown, yellow and gay—to enjoy good careers.

But we spent like drunken sailors, building up the biggest deficits in our national history. Our greatest spending spree is just beginning—for our retirement and medical care in our dotage. You can say that our whole generation has been one long party, punctuated by two losing wars, for which we’re handing the next generation the bill.

As for leaving the world a better place than we found it, our record is mixed. We did help make our country the rainbow that it has become and has to be. We made a good start at cleaning up industrial waste and pollution. We revered our parents—as well we should—for saving the world from fascism and totalitarianism and having the patience and fortitude to win the Cold War. We helped give them the honor and the healing they deserve.

But on foreign affairs we stumbled badly. We fought the only two losing wars in our nation’s history: Vietnam and Iraq. With the bad example of Neville Chamberlain etched in our brains, we were far too quick on the trigger. We forgot to look in the mirror and notice that, since the Great War our parents won, we have been the 800 pound gorilla, spending more on “defense” than the rest of the world combined.

If the truth be told, our Boomer generation’s most prominent birthmark has been selfish excess. On the left, we were all about personal self-gratification and self-indulgence, to the point of weakening families. On the right, we were all about personal greed, to the point of weakening society.

The apogee of greed came during the 2004 campaign. The Republicans’ entire domestic program was letting us keep more of “our money.” They convinced us that government had to “go on a diet” for that purpose. We didn’t take much convincing.

So now we have a megachurch in Texas dedicated to the ludicrous proposition—contrary to every fiber of the New Testament—that Jesus wants us to be rich. So now we are leaving the next generation not only with the enormous burden of paying for our comfortable retirement, but with the bill for a war that had no justification or plan.

Most of us Boomers still don’t get it. Our infrastructure is falling apart for lack of attention and money. We allowed a major and historic city to be inundated for lack of investment in a few levees and pumps. Our broken health-care system is hobbling our commercial competitiveness, letting our competitors overtake us. And our political cohesion is disintegrating in mutual recrimination. Yet we still don’t understand that “every man for himself” is not the best way to build a healthy society, let alone a just one. Plato and Socrates could have told us that, and they didn’t have the Internet.

Our two presidents from the Boomer ranks (or nearly so) are metaphors for excess. Bill Clinton’s presidency ended in the sexual excesses of the sixties. His reputation as a leader paid dearly, as did we all for his mental absence. Bush’s excesses are still in process; they reflect all the zeal, self-righteousness and certainty of our generation. In a deeply ironic way, Bush’s and his neocons’ ideological certitude—on everything from the intrinsic evils of all government to America’s inherent right to tell other nations how to live—mirrors the vapid absolutism and intolerance that were so disturbing in the Communists.

Like so many people as they age, we’ve lost our flexibility, humility and sense of humor, on both the left and the right. So now it’s time to let the kids take over.

Our record as parents is not all bad. We’ve left the kids with some good values: hard work, tolerance, equal opportunity, and respect for innovation. We’ve left them in a flat world and with a marvelous medium of communication: the Internet. We’ve also left them in an enviable position of military predominance.

But our legacy includes enormous problems. Besides our failures of judgment in foreign policy and a gigantic bill to pay, we’ve left our kids with brand new problems that cropped up on our watch. They will have to deal with global warming or suffer the consequences if they don’t. They will have to find the right way to defeat terrorism, with a proper balance between aid and armament, security and civil liberties. And they will bear the enormous burden of making the world fully flat, so that human rights, environmental protection, social justice and freedom are as ubiquitous as the Internet.

We Boomers can’t do much more to help them because we’re limited by who we are. We are people of extremes, perpetually groping for a solid middle. Hillary Clinton is a victim of the sexual freedom that we enjoyed in our youth. She is a walking reminder of our generation’s bent for excessive action and reaction. George W. Bush and his neocons embody the reaction: rigid and hypocritical personal moralizing, authoritarian government, militarism and “Daddy knows best” politics. The current Bush Administration is our internal parent coming back to punish our permissive youth.

We Boomers are thus schizophrenic, personifying excess in both action and reaction. That fact explains a lot about our sorry field of presidential candidates. Giuliani’s and Romney’s ridiculous vacillations are just frenzied and pathetic attempts to find their nonexistent moral centers, or at least to simulate ones pleasing to their fellow Boomers. Hillary Clinton enjoys the sympathy of those who understand her victimhood, but she suffers the revulsion of those who think she symbolizes the excesses that caused it.

These Boomer candidates are fundamentally unappealing. They personify the unfinished business that we are too old, too tired and too morally exhausted to complete. So it’s time for us Boomers to stand aside and let the kids take over.

Of all the candidates, only Barack Obama represents a new generation. He was born in 1961, came of age after Vietnam, and reached adulthood in the eighties. His thoughtful, even-handed, understanding approach to issues is exactly what you would expect from a child of Boomers reacting against excess. He’s a man who cares about people, not ideology. He seeks moderation and common sense in all things. His own rock-solid family serves as a living counterexample to the Boomers’ excesses. Yet at the same time, his biracial background and inbred tolerance remind us of one of our greatest accomplishments—helping everyone see beyond race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation to individuals’ intrinsic worth.

So as we Boomers consider whom to vote for in the primaries, we might give a thought to the next generation. Do they need another one of us, with all of our excesses, reactions, and unresolved conflict? Will they benefit from another “ism,” whether liberalism, conservatism, neoconservatism, or progressivism? Or should they find their own way, without the labels for ideas that we taught them are so harmful as applied to individuals?

Good parents know when to let go. For us, the Boomers, that time is now.

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01 October 2007

Hillary Clinton: Follower or Leader?

Al Qaeda
Health Care
Unity and Division

Hillary Clinton could win the Democratic nomination and lose the general election. If she did, she would waste the Democrats’ best chance in a generation to become the majority party again. Frank Rich, the New York Times columnist, just wrote a piece on that point.

Rich’s piece was insightful, but it was all about politics. It said little about the substance of issues likely to face us in the next eight years.

On every issue that has mattered during her political career, Hillary Clinton has been a follower, not a leader. When she has tried to lead, her judgment has been terrible. Let’s take the key issues one by one.

Iraq. The single most important vote that Hillary Clinton took in the Senate was to go to war in Iraq. She didn’t even read the crucial intelligence report before her vote. Why? She knew how she had to vote on politics, not substance. If she didn’t vote in favor, George W. Bush would “Swift Boat” her, and she wouldn’t be the leading Democratic candidate for president today. Her vote was not only selfish, but in extremely poor judgment.

As Iraq fell into chaos, Clinton took over four years to make up her mind to oppose the war. She temporized and triangulated while Iraq burst into flames. If she was prescient about events on the ground—the sectarian strife and the difficulty of the project—I’m not aware of it. She kept quiet until the opposition of Jack Murtha and her husband showed her the way.

In contrast, Obama spoke against war in Iraq as soon as its likelihood became public. Here’s what he said on October 26, 2002:
    “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.”
Isn’t that exactly what has happened? Obama spoke these words five years ago, and over five months before we invaded. Every syllable is right. If he had been president, the whole thing would be a bad dream.

Who had the better judgment on Iraq?

Al Qaeda. While coasting to the Democratic nomination, Clinton ignored Al Qaeda’s resurgence in its protected stronghold in Pakistan. When a National Intelligence Estimate pointed to Al Qaeda’s resurgence, she kept mum. Then, when Obama raised the issue with his own comprehensive plan to go after Al Qaeda, Clinton accused him of inexperience. Serious presidential candidates, she implied, don’t talk about such things in public and frighten the children.

As I’ve outlined in a separate post, since the Vietnam War Al Qaeda has done us more direct harm than the Soviet Union (and later Russia), “Red” China, North Korea, Iran, and Castro’s Cuba combined. It is our single worst enemy. And Clinton wants to keep it a subject for wonks and Washington insiders.

During the Cold War, we lived for decades under the threat of nuclear annihilation. How to deal with that threat was a matter of constant and vigorous public debate. Should we seek disarmament? Should we build up our own forces, already capable of destroying the biosphere many times over? Should we seek dialogue or confrontation?

Nobody said then that we shouldn’t talk about these things in public, since they were matters of life and death. Now Clinton wants to sweep this generation’s similar threat under the rug of Washington secrecy. Obama wants to make it an urgent matter of public debate. Who has the better judgment?

Health Care. Clinton now styles herself the “health care” candidate. Over thirteen years ago, she had her chance. At the peak of her husband’s enormous popularity, she came up with her own health care proposal. And she blew it, big time.

In retrospect, her errors of judgment are crystal clear. She ignored the millions of small businesses whom her proposal would have hurt. In proposing an employer mandate for health care, she threatened small business with added costs and no means to pay them. She also ignored all the people who liked their current health-care plans and didn’t want to lose them. In other words, she ignored two enormous and powerful political constituencies. She failed Politics 101.

Not only that. She did it at a time when her husband, having founded a “third way” movement of Democratic politics, was walloping the Republicans. How did he do it? By paying attention to small business and taking one of their core constituencies away. Hillary’s neglect of small business in her health care plan ignored the very lessons her husband was teaching.

Now Hillary is more cautious. She waited until all the other serious candidates had announced their health-care plans and cherry-picked their best features. This is leadership? It’s more like student plagiarism.

Unity and Division. Both Clinton and Obama promise less divisive regimes that George W. Bush. It would be hard not to. But who is the leader in restoring our unity?

Clinton unites by triangulation. She creates few waves because she carefully scrutinizes the polls and tests the political winds before ever opening her mouth. So she seems like a calming influence.

But triangulation is not healing. Nor is it leadership.

Way back in 2004, when we still thought that Iraq would be easy and Bush the “terrorism” president, Obama spoke about the need for unity and healing. He recognized how Bush was tearing the country apart with his 50.1 percent approach to politics. So Obama gave a stirring, inspirational speech about it. Experienced politicians still envy that speech as one of the most striking entries into national politics in our history.

Over three years later, Clinton has yet to recognize and articulate how important restoring unity is to our country and our future. We are deeply divided on Iraq, on Al Qaeda, on the budget, on our military, and on the proper roles of religion, government and the Supreme Court in our public life. Bush has fanned the flames of discord at every turn. Obama recognized the danger years ago and wrote a book about it. Where is Hillary?

* * *

On every issue that has mattered, Clinton has been missing in action, late, or wrong. Obama has been ahead of the pack, prescient and right. Who is better qualified to be president?

Clinton looks good on the surface. She’s attractive and white. Obama is funny-looking and coffee-colored. Clinton is glib and self-confident. Obama is serious and thoughtful. Clinton seems to have a quick answer for every question; she’s studied her talking points well. Obama knows you can’t govern a country of 300 million people with thirty-second sound bites.

The trouble is, we’re looking for a president, not a talk-show host. Attractiveness, whiteness and glibness won’t save our ass in the Cabinet, where bright, aggressive, cocksure people all have their own pet solutions, and everyone looks to the head of the table for leadership, wisdom and judgment.

So wake up and smell the coffee, Democrats! Don’t waste this chance to save your party and your country. You owe it to yourself and your kids. We can do better than a woman who has spent her entire career copying others, temporizing, and “spinning” her mistakes.

P.S. The Bill Factor

Apparently lots of people like the “twofer” argument: if you buy Hillary, you get Bill, too. I love Bill, but not in the White House again.

There are reasons why the presidency has a limited term. Among other things, it distinguishes our Republic from a monarchy. Bill shares Hillary’s penchant for political triangulation; he does it even more brilliantly than she. Foreign and military policy was never his forte, his near miss at fostering peace between Israel and Palestine notwithstanding. The time for that sort of triangulation has passed; we need a new kind of leadership.

But there’s a much more important reason not to want Bill redux. It is seldom mentioned, but it needs to be: Bill’s triple bypass. A significant fraction of people who undergo procedures like that suffer loss of brain function.

In Bill’s case, he had so much intelligence to begin with that you might never notice. But what about Dick Cheney? Recently Jon Stewart aired clips of a much younger Dick Cheney explaining cogently, during Gulf I, why invading Baghdad was a bad idea. Cheney was just as conservative then, but he still had all his faculties. The difference between Cheney then and Cheney now is frightening.

Cheney’s multiple heart attacks and corrective procedures may have decreased his mental functioning. He is no longer the whip smart, savvy, “with it” adviser that he was during the first Bush Administration. He has become a rigid, senile figure, repeating himself, immune to new ideas, and increasingly out of touch with reality. He is the kind of old man that a family shunts upstairs into a rocking chair, hoping he will stay there and not cause too much trouble. Unfortunately, he still helps run our country.

The chance that Bill, with his medical history, might suffer a similar fate during an eight-year, pressure-filled Hillary presidency is far from negligible. If that happened, it would be a Clinton family tragedy. We oughtn’t set things up to make it a national tragedy, too.

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