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

23 June 2008

Obama’s Energy Mistake

Nobody’s perfect. I just posted an essay explaining at length why I gave my second maximum allowed contribution to the Obama campaign. I had and have no buyer’s remorse.

But the New York Times today pointed out an important respect in which Obama’s stated energy policy is deficient. That’s his support for corn-based ethanol.

Energy is a matter of engineering and economics. Politics should have little to do with it. The biggest and most powerful interest group in the country can’t, with all its political influence alone, create a single kilowatt-hour or BTU.

We’ve ignored that essential fact of life for far too long. We’ve let the oil and gas lobby paint us into a corner in which two-thirds of our transportation depend on products from the most backward nations on Earth. We’ve let the coal lobby entice us into overuse of a fuel that produces horrendous pollution and could destroy life on Earth as we know it. And now we’re allowing corn farmers to mislead us into a massive misuse of both corn and energy.

In engineering and economics, numbers matter. For thirty years, we’ve been busy flushing ourselves down the toilet of history by ignoring them.

Now we are ignoring two of the most important numbers in the history of energy policy. One is the fourteen or so times by which the cost of gasoline-powered transportation now exceeds the cost of electrical transportation. That’s the number right now, with further increases likely as the price of oil rises. Another important number is the factor of four—at least—by which cane-produced ethanol beats corn-produced ethanol in energy efficiency. Producing corn-based ethanol wastes energy, and buying it wastes money.

If you haven’t noticed lately, neither the world nor we Americans are awash in cheap energy. We can’t continue to ignore hard numbers like this if we want our society (or the Earth) to survive and prosper. Doing so is just plain dumb.

Obama and his superb staff know this. He and they are far more savvy on both engineering and economics than anyone on McCain’s campaign.

But so far politics has trumped engineering, economics, and common sense.

I can understand the temptation to pander to Iowa corn farmers. After all, it was the good people of Iowa who jump-started Senator Obama’s campaign by convincing everyone that race was not the factor everyone feared. Without Iowa, we would all be facing the prospect of a much less competent and gifted president.

But Iowa farmers are adults. More important, the high price of corn and other crops today is only partly due to our infatuation with inefficient corn-based ethanol. Bigger and longer- term trends are forcing higher food prices, with little probability of reversal. Among them are rapidly increasing worldwide prosperity, especially in China and India, which together account for more than one-third of humanity. Richer people want and can afford more food.

The United States’ corn farmers are among the most efficient and productive on Earth. They are smart enough to know that forsaking the gimmick of corn-based ethanol and opening our market to the vastly more efficient cane-based variety won’t destroy their livelihoods or their prospects for a prosperous future.

The only rational argument I have heard for pandering to them is the notion of energy independence. But cane-based ethanol—which, I repeat, is at least four times more energy-efficient than its corn-based rival—mostly comes from Brazil. Brazil would love to sell us lots if only we would reduce our exorbitant tariffs.

Brazil is not Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Venezuela or even Russia. It’s a friendly, fully democratic, free-market country. It has an admirable recent economic record, the best of any nation in Latin America. It has been far smarter than we have in weaning itself from the Saudi Oil tit. Lumping Brazil with the most backward nations on earth just won’t wash.

Brazil would not be the only beneficiary of a more rational ethanol policy. Cane-based ethanol can provide an economic path toward renewable energy, reduction of worldwide poverty, and renewal of our global leadership in the Third World. It offers huge economic and social benefits throughout the Southern Hemisphere. The analysis is too complex to repeat here, but it appears in another post.

Just last week, Senator Obama abandoned his apparent pledge to limit his campaign to federal financing. As my last post explains, I understand and support that decision. Without it, the irrational element of racism might deprive us of the leadership of the most gifted politician we have seen in forty years. That decision also revealed the steel inside Senator Obama’s idealism. You can’t promote ideals if you don’t win.

But having lost some credibility with that policy reversal, Senator Obama needs to regain some by showing that he is a realist and problem solver, not a panderer. It is unrealistic to think that support for growing corn in the United States to make ethanol, when a cheaper, more efficient variety is available from Brazil, is anything other than a step sideways in energy policy and a step backward in economic policy.

Energy policy is our most important issue, bar none. To feed our oil addiction, we import more than ten million barrels of oil per day. At $130 per barrel, that’s $1.3 billion per day that we cannot spend on things like health care, education, or our neglected infrastructure. That’s over twice as much as the average daily cost of the War in Iraq ($1.2 trillion, divided by roughly 1,915 days, or $626 million). And, unlike the War in Iraq, which we hope will end soon, our spending spree on oil has no foreseeable end point, unless we provide one through rational energy policy.

Energy policy is too important a matter to get wrong or to pander on. Senator Obama should reverse his policy on corn-based ethanol, promise to eliminate tariffs on foreign cane-based ethanol, and focus his energy policy on nuclear, wind and solar power. He can’t afford to back himself into a corner with foolish campaign promises, and he can’t afford to cede this crucial issue to John McCain.


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21 June 2008

Why I Gave Obama Another $2,300

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


P.S. A Note on Campaign Financing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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17 June 2008

Energy Policy: Good Batteries and How to Get Them

Introduction: What Good Batteries Can Do
Batteries for Transportation
Batteries for Clean Power
The National Battery Development Consortium
P.S. T. Boone Pickens Confirms Analysis

Introduction: What Good Batteries Can Do

Good batteries can change the world. They can dramatically lower the cost of driving in the near term. They can wean us from the Saudi oil tit. They can give us clean, renewable energy. They can bring us good manufacturing jobs and the good pay and pride that comes with them. They can make a huge dent in global warming while reducing air and solid-waste pollution.

In short, good batteries can remake the face of America and eventually the world. And they can do all this in twenty years or less.

That’s a heady prediction. But it’s not dreaming. Almost every bit of industrial technology to make this happen is ready now, off the shelf. We would have to produce it in larger quantities, but scaling up has never been a problem for American industry. The only missing ingredient is reliable light batteries, and they may be on the way. This essay describes why and how.

Batteries for Transportation

Like all technological-economic questions, our inquiry begins with numbers. We need only a single number: five miles per kilowatt-hour, or 5 mi/Kwh. That’s the electrical “mileage” that prototypes of GM’s Chevy Volt—a battery driven plug-in hybrid—have already achieved in testing.

If you want to know how much that number would save you in commuting to work, just do a little arithmetic. Multiply your cost of electricity per kilowatt-hour by your car’s mileage in miles per gallon. Then divide the result by the price you pay per gallon of gas, multiplied by the magic number, 5 miles per kilowatt-hour. The result is your savings ratio, i.e., the ratio of what you would pay per mile driving a Chevy Volt on electricity to what you now pay per mile for driving on gas. (To see a table with the Volt’s other specifications, click here.)

For example, my car gets about 20 miles per gallon, and I pay about 7 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity and about $ 4 per gallon of gas. So my savings ratio is (.07 x 20)/(5 x 4) = .07. Commuting to work and back (or going to the store) with the Volt would cost me about 7% of what I now pay for gas. It would be like buying gas at 28 cents per gallon again.

The only real limitation is that I couldn’t go more than 40 miles per day on electricity alone. According to GM, more than half of us have commutes of less than 40 miles, round trip. The rest of us would have to burn some gas or ethanol in the hybrid Volt to make up the difference between 40 miles and our round-trip commute.

What stands between us and this transportation nirvana? Very little. The electric motors, bearings, and high-power solid-state electronics that the Volt requires are ready off the shelf. GM and its suppliers developed them for GM’s abortive EV-1 electric car years ago and have improved them since. If you need proof of their practical feasibility, take a look at Toyota’s Priuses as they whiz by you at 40 to 50 miles per gallon. The electrical parts of the power train and the control electronics are much the same for the Prius and the Volt. No magic is needed, and no new technology. It all exists now.

All we need is better batteries. The Prius’ batteries are not strong enough to make a commute on electricity alone. So GM is working with suppliers developing stronger batteries. Working prototypes exist but need to be made more reliable.

Even the battery development involves nothing fundamentally new. The Volt’s batteries will be bigger and stronger versions of the lithium-ion batteries that power your cellphone, laptop and iPod today. If you own one of these devices, you already have batteries like those that will power the Volt, only smaller.

We don’t need any new physics or fundamental new chemistry. All we need is reliable scale-up—a problem on which GM’s suppliers are working. It’s a matter of engineering, materials science, production technology, and maybe some clever tricks of metallurgy and chemistry. But it requires no new basic research.

To bet that this can’t be done, as Honda’s chairman appears to have done [subscription required], would be foolish. GM has promised the Volt by 2010, and we are so close.

So close are we that it makes sense to catalogue the numerous blessings that good batteries will bring. I’ve discussed them in a separate post. They include: (1) dramatically lowering the cost of commuting and light transport; (2) reducing our consumption of foreign oil by about half; (3) dramatically increasing the fuel and geographic flexibility of our transportation system, while retaining the convenience of individual vehicles; (4) reducing our carbon footprint—and global warming—as our electricity infrastructure makes the transition from fossil fuels to carbon-neutral sources; and (5) curbing hydrocarbon and particulate pollution in crowded cities as cars convert from gas and ethanol to pollution-free electricity.

But the blessings of good batteries do not end there. They go on and on.

Good batteries will provide a smooth and natural transition from our current expensive, dependent, polluting state to a better world. Market forces will drive the transition, without the need for government regulation. The vast price differential between gasoline (or ethanol!) and electricity will impel rapid consumer adoption of plug-in electric hybrids like the Volt, whose cost and price will decrease with increasing mass production.

The conversion will occur quickly and naturally as our national vehicle fleet turns over. We could be mostly converted in a mere five to ten years after introduction of a successful Volt or similar plug-in hybrid.

Immediate environmental benefits will be profound. Air pollution in cities will drop as city commuters buy nonpolluting plug-in hybrids like the Volt and drive them mostly on pollution-free electricity. Solid waste will benefit also. Today’s lead-acid batteries are hazardous waste because lead is a potent systemic and nerve toxin. But lithium is not. Not only is it the lightest metal in the periodic table. (Only hydrogen and helium are lighter elements, but they are gases at room temperature.) It is also nontoxic. It is ubiquitous in the Earth’s crust, and people regularly ingest it as an anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drug. So the transition to lithium-ion batteries will not only clean up our air, but our landfills, streams and aquifers as well.

Batteries for Clean Power

The biggest blessing of good batteries has nothing directly to do with cars. They are the missing link in massive exploitation of renewable energy. Once we have them, wind and solar power will become feasible and practical on a massive scale.

Have you ever driven through the Southwest, especially the eastern half of New Mexico and the western two-thirds of Texas? There is a vast area, bigger than New York and California combined, whose most prominent features are extremely low population density, lots of sun and lots of wind. An old, crude New Mexican joke tells the story: “Why is New Mexico always windy? Because Arizona blows and Texas sucks!”

Politicians and policymakers don’t pay this area much attention because there are next to no people there. Sagebrush doesn’t vote.

But that’s precisely the point. The area has empty land, sun and wind galore. And there are few people to complain that windmills or solar-power installations would spoil their view, as Senator Kennedy famously did in opposing a wind farm near Hyannisport.

Most politicians don’t even know this potential exists. Most come from and live in highly populated areas where sun and wind are evanescent. So when the coal companies scoff at wind and solar power, politicians’ personal experience seems to confirm the scoffing. They have no idea of the power and constancy of the Southwest’s sun and wind.

To get a small idea of the potential, drive east toward Amarillo from Tucumcari, New Mexico, on Interstate 40, near the New Mexico-Texas border. If you have sharp eyes, you will see a major wind farm called Caprock in the distance, on a high bluff to the south, on your right. There are eighty windmills, each over 200 feet tall and each capable of generating a megawatt of electrical power.

The Caprock windmills are so far away you can barely see their blades turning from the highway. There is not a human habitation near them for miles in any direction. Together, they constitute an 80 megawatt power plant, capable of serving 26,000 homes, which produces no greenhouse gases or pollution whatsoever and requires no fuel. There appears to be space on the same high bluff for five times as many, maybe more.

Lobbyists for the coal industry like to point out that wind and solar power together now provide only one percent of our power needs. But when you drive through the Southwest, it is easy to imagine increasing that fraction by 50 times, 100 times, or even more. There are literally thousands of square miles of sun and wind that haven’t been touched, with no one but cattle, sagebrush and the occasional obsolete oil well to complain of view-blocking infrastructure.

What stops us from using this unexploited natural resource? Three things.

First, there’s the corrupting power of the coal lobby, which makes exploiting it seem much harder than it really is. We’ve already got reliable windmills that work marvelously; our own General Electric is a world leader in producing and maintaining them. We’ve got solar cells that convert sunlight directly into electricity. They’re not as cheap or efficient as someday they might be, but they work, and they work right now. All we need to start the conversion is political will and maybe some tax or other economic incentives.

As the coal industry constantly reminds us, today the price of coal-produced power often can meet or beat the cost of renewable power. But the coal industry’s cost estimates neglect what economists call “external costs.” These are costs that burning coal imposes on all of us, but that don’t appear in the price of coal from the mine. They include things like acid rain, particulate-induced asthma and other respiratory diseases, mercury pollution of lakes, rivers and streams, mercury poisoning of tuna and other fish in our oceans, and greenhouse gases that produce global warming and threaten to destroy life on Earth as we know it. When you add in those costs, wind and solar beat coal hands down.

A second potential problem is that much of the Southwest’s sunny, windy, mostly empty land is privately owned. The solutions to that are simple: privately negotiated leasing or eminent domain. The Caprock Wind Farm near Tucumcari, for example, is on private land. If a landowner insists on unreasonable terms, the government can condemn the land needed for solar and wind plants and the transmission lines to serve them. The cost would be reasonable: we’re talking about empty rangeland, not downtown San Francisco or Manhattan. And landowners have little reason to complain about nontoxic, nonpolluting technology too far from habitation even to affect views.

But there is one remaining technical problem. The sun doesn’t shine at night, and the wind doesn’t blow all the time. So a rational plan for solar and wind power requires some way to store power for later use.

That’s where good batteries come in. If one nontoxic, nonpolluting lithium-ion battery pack can power a car for daily commuting, another can supply the electric-power needs of the average household, which are more modest. For a reasonable capital cost—perhaps advanced by local power companies—every household could have its own battery pack, separate from any in a Volt or other plug-in hybrid. Sun and wind power from the Southwest (or sources closer to the house) could charge the batteries whenever they are low.

This method of powering households would have another advantage: when bad weather or natural disasters strike, battery-powered households could be entirely self-sufficient for the few days it would take crews to restore the power lines. No longer would homes have to suffer without power for days after storms and disasters. No longer would power companies have to pay massive claims for food spoiled in stalled refrigerators.

If this picture sounds utopian, think again. Except for the batteries, every element needed to bring it to reality exists right now, as you read this post. As the following table shows, global wind power production is undergoing an explosion, limited only by production capacity:

Global Wind Power Production by Year (Gigawatts)

1990       2

2005      59

2008     100

If our national wind and solar power together increased at the same rate as global wind power alone did from 1990 to this year, they would produce half of our total current power needs in eighteen years. If conservation efforts kept our total demand from increasing in the interim, then nuclear, hydroelectric and geothermal power could supply most of the rest of our needs, leaving only about five percent of demand to be supplied by burning coal.

That’s eighteen years to nearly complete carbon neutrality, at a rate of growth that the world has actually sustained for wind power alone over the past two decades. That growth rate is not projection or speculation, but historical fact.

If plug-in hybrids like the Volt convert most of our vehicle fleet to electrical “fuel,” demand for electricity will increase, and conservation will not likely make up the difference. But the basic point remains valid. Wind power, let alone solar power, is in its infancy. It hasn’t yet even begun to reach the steep part of the exponential growth curve. We have enormous untapped resources of wind and sun in our Southwest, our plains states, and in parts of our Midwest and South. We haven’t even begun to exploit them seriously, and the only thing keeping us from doing so is the lack of good batteries.

In ramping up, wind and solar both have substantial advantages over coal. No one wants the horrendous pollution of a coal-fired power plant, or the heavy rail transport that coal requires, in his backyard. Therefore siting coal power plants encounters enormous political resistance. The environmental impact statements and permitting processes take years or decades.

Not so for wind and solar. They are non-polluting and nontoxic. They require no massive increase in freight traffic to bring fuel in. In unpopulated rangeland, there is no one and no reason to resist their establishment.

Other practical advantages of wind and solar power are equally important. Wind and solar installations can be built to any size and can be widely distributed. Their economics of scale do not require massive generating plants like those needed for coal. So the ramp-up for wind and solar can proceed in small increments. For example, a single 1 megawatt windmill might supply the power for a small town of 300 or so homes in a windy area, making the town completely self-sufficient. And of course wind and solar have a substantial long-term cost advantage over coal when coal’s huge external costs of pollution and global warming are considered.

Except for batteries, the industrial infrastructure to make all this happen is in place already. Our own General Electric is one of five leading firms serving the wind power market, and all of them are huge, multinational manufacturers. We and the Germans (who lead the world in production) are also making solar cells. Modern high-power solid-state electronics now allow us to convert power back and forth, at low cost and high efficiency, between the direct current that batteries store and the alternating current that we use in our homes. Because they are solid state and have no moving parts, these components last for decades without servicing or failure. We have a good national power transmission grid, which, after the fiascos of a few years ago, now appears to be well controlled, flexible and reliable. All we would need to do is to ramp up production of windmills and solar cells, install them, and build some new power-transmission spurs in the Southwest and plains states, where the sun and wind are. The only essential missing component is good batteries.

The National Battery Development Consortium

With so much promise and so much at stake in their development, you would think policy makers would pay more attention to batteries. But I’ve seen, heard or read nary a peep from either presidential candidate on the subject.

What can government do? Plenty. Right now, battery development depends on a few small, private companies that are GM’s putative suppliers. These companies’ (and their investors’!) foresight and risk-taking so far deserve commensurate rewards. But it is implausible to think that they now employ all the nation’s best minds for the job.

What we need is a national crash project, similar to the Manhattan Project that developed atomic weapons from a standing start, in six years, during World War II. Our current zeitgeist would not permit a top-down, military-controlled institution like the Manhattan Project. It would have to be a cooperative venture between government and the private sector. Here’s how one might work.

The government would set up an independent quasi-public corporation, similar to the Postal Service or Amtrak. Its mission would be developing lightweight, practical, reliable storage batteries for transportation and private power storage as quickly as possible. We might call it the “National Battery Development Consortium,” or “NBDC.”

NBDC would not make or sell anything or own any technology; it would leave those functions to the private firms, universities and nonprofit research centers that were its members. It would develop and test prototypes (its own and others’), promulgate safety and performance standards, and serve as an information and licensing center for the results of research and development.

NBDC’s main function would be to fund and encourage basic and applied research relevant to its mission and to license the results of that research to industry. Initially it would receive generous funding from the U.S. Treasury, with which it would make research grants to universities, nonprofit research firms, and private industry. It would also hold conferences and create a central database of relevant technology and research results.

Like government grants in science and technology today, NBDC’s would be awarded and administered strictly on their technical merits. The National Science Foundation or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) might review grant applications and administer grants. Special restrictions would help avoid political and corrupt influence.

Grants would require recipients to license the results of their research and development to NBDC, and NBDC could in turn license them to others. Voluntary negotiation or, in an impasse, an expert panel set up by NBDC would determine the royalty rate. To encourage private investment, NBDC could grant exclusive rights for a limited period (say, five or seven years) to firms that made extraordinary breakthroughs, as determined by the expert panel, or to the first firm to develop and manufacture a commercially successful battery pack. NBDC also might retain the right to approve licenses to firms outside the Consortium, so as to optimize commercial incentives and keep the technology initially within the United States.

Existing firms in the field, like those now working with GM, would be encouraged to license their existing technology to NDBC on the same basis. Nothing would compel them to do so, but they would be fools not to. Unless they were only two inches from the finish line, other members of the Consortium might get there first, and their technology and investment might become worthless. There would thus be strong economic incentives, but no compulsion, for everyone to join the Consortium.

An arrangement like this would have four advantages. First and most important, it would identify the best minds in the country to work on the battery problem and engage them with adequate, few-strings-attached funding for their research effort. Second, it would provide strong incentives—but no compulsion—for universities, nonprofit research firms and private industry to cooperate in research and development, and it would set up a central database and information clearing house to aid their cooperation. Third, its promise of time-limited exclusive licenses for winners in the research race would maintain incentives for private investment and effort. Grant recipients would be encouraged to get patents for their technology, which would help restrict its use to the Consortium and perhaps to U.S. firms for manufacturing in the U.S. only.

Finally, successful development would generate huge royalties for NDBC. The Consortium might eventually recover taxpayers’ investment in it and even return money to the Treasury. At the least, royalties ought to make NDBC fiscally self-sufficient and self-sustaining after the first reliable battery pack is sold commercially.


The promise of good batteries is enormous. They can help us lower energy prices dramatically, curb our dependence on foreign oil, stop or retard global warming, clean up our environment, reduce smog in cities, provide consumers with the convenience of “charge at home” cars, realize the promise of wind and solar power soon, and reduce the consumer impact of power outages due to inclement weather and natural disasters.

With so much promise and so much at stake, it makes no sense to rely entirely on the efforts of the few small, private firms now engaged in the effort to make good batteries. We need a full-scale, national effort, like the Manhattan Project.

But a wartime, secret, government-controlled effort is inappropriate for out times. With an intelligently planned consortium, based on a public-private partnership, we can enlist the effort of our nation’s best minds from both the public and private sectors. We can provide economic incentives for private industry, including the firms now working in the field. And we can get the job done soon.

 P.S. T. Boone Pickens Confirms Analysis [added July 10, 2008]

It’s nice to have your analysis confirmed by a prominent businessman, and so soon after posting. According to the Chicago Tribune, T. Boone Pickens wants to raise $ 1 trillion in government and private investment in windmills over the next twenty years to cut our foreign oil addiction.

Pickens is a one-time petroleum geologist and oil wildcatter who became a public figure as a swashbuckling corporate raider. He’s also a close friend of Dubya’s. He hardly lacks experience in wind power. Mesa Petroleum, once his primary corporate vehicle, invested $ 2 billion in a Texas wind farm that runs 685 windmills and serves 300,000 homes.

The story’s author seems incredulous at the project’s cost ($ 1 trillion) but notes elsewhere that we spend $700 billion on foreign oil every year. What business person wouldn’t invest in a project that could recover its cost in less than two years? That’s a much shorter payback period than most oil projects, in part because you don’t have to prospect for wind.


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14 June 2008

He Did His Homework

The advent of television a half-century ago changed news forever. Before TV, reporters were anonymous creatures working in obscurity. They had their bylines, but few outside the news business noticed them. No one cared who they were; readers cared only what they wrote.

Radio didn’t change much. You might identify a reporter’s voice, and the quality of the voice mattered. But reporters were not celebrities; the news they provided, not they themselves, were the focus of listeners’ attention. Listeners respected Edward R. Murrow for his news, not his persona.

All that changed with television. Once you could see and hear the reporters, they began to distract attention from the news. A consummate professional like Walter Cronkite could hold the distractions in check for a while, but eventually he retired. Once he did, the trickle of celebrity became a flood.

Today what passes for news in the mainstream media is more entertainment than substance. Newspeople are celebrities and public personalities. Even print reporters, who used to labor in obscurity, appear constantly on radio and television.

Have you ever taken a close look at the composition of TV news panels today? Nearly half the guests interviewed are reporters. Or they are pundits, that is to say, former reporters or political operatives now lacking frequent contact with reality.

So half of our news is reporters talking to other reporters. No wonder the mainstream media seem like a gigantic echo chamber. You have to ask when reporters have time to gather the news, or whether green interns, with no experience or contacts, get it for them.

That’s bad enough, but it’s far from all. Right along with the notion that reporters are news came the notion of universal celebrity. The common person is a fifteen-second pundit. So we have “person-on-the-street” interviews and focus groups. They appear not just as occasional human-interest features, but as a regular, substantial components of mainstream “news.”

The nadir of this phenomenon came on the day Senator Obama announced achieving the presumptive Democratic nomination. There was, as usual, a delay in his reaching the venue for his speech, so CNN had some time to fill. News people call that “treading water.”

In the old days, Walter Cronkite treaded water magnificently. He would give you facts and quotations from history. He would compare the candidate’s voting record to that of other candidates and presidents. He would compare our country to England and others. He would provide legal, scientific, or historical background. In short, he would provide interesting and relevant facts, which took a little digging to discover.

Did CNN do the same? Hell, no. They sent a reporter to Harlem, N.Y., to interview ordinary black residents. The resulting segment was one of the laziest, stupidest and most misleading pieces of reporting I have ever encountered in any medium.

Why lazy? Well, all CNN had to do was get someone from the New York office to grab a camera person and a cab uptown and talk to a few locals. Little effort, little thought, little expense. No imagination. Hitting the library or even the Internet to find some useful factual background would take more time, much more thought, and much, much more imagination. And it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

Why stupid? Well, what would you expect black residents of Harlem, N.Y., to say? Even if they don’t support Obama, they are sure to be thrilled with the fact of his path-breaking candidacy. Harlem is well known as a liberal and reliably Democratic community. Are you likely to find there anything surprising or unusual, that is to say, newsworthy? Are people likely to say, for example, “we want more guns in our community to kill off more of our friends and neighbors”? If you want to hear what ordinary people think, go down to your neighborhood bar and have a nice, cold beer.

Why misleading? Let me count the ways. Obama is only half black. Far, far more than half the people who voted for him are white. Many are moderates, Republicans, and even conservatives. Only a minuscule portion of them live, or ever lived, in Harlem. Going to one of the most liberal and most well known (dare I say notorious?) black communities in the country and interviewing people there on the day of his primary triumph completely misrepresents the nature, breadth and depth of his support.

In her primary campaign, Hillary did a great job of confusing undecided voters about Obama and his candidacy. The CNN folks who produced that segment couldn’t have done a better job of continuing her attempt if they had worked for John McCain. If you have a cynical bent, you would conclude that the segment was not just lazy and stupid reporting, but subtle political propaganda.

What is so annoying is that decent producers and reporters could have done so much better with so little effort.

For starters, they might have read Obama’s wonderful first book. It has great stories about Obama, revealing how interesting and admirable his forbears were on both sides, black and white. His African father once confronted a racist who didn’t want to stand next to him at a bar, and got the man to admire him enough to buy him drinks. His father also once charmed his own father—Obama’s grandfather, a local leader of legendary ability and severity—by dancing with his own mother (Obama’s grandmother).

These great stories were there for the reading, and a little effort to locate Obama’s friends and relatives could have found actual people to tell them. But no, CNN went for the lazy, stupid, misleading kill: interviewing the person on the street.

Next to CNN’s producers of drivel, Tim Russert stood out like a beacon of professionalism. His secret was the dirty little secret of everyone who succeeds at a profession: he worked hard.

I didn’t know him personally, and he wasn’t one of my favorite newspeople. But I was acutely conscious of his unusual ability to skewer hypocrisy, duplicity, double-dealing and stupidity. That alone was a tremendous contribution to our credulous, herd-running, echo-chamber media.

How Russert did it was unusual, especially for reporters today. He didn’t just ply the telephone or the upscale bar. He read.

He knew that reading is by far the fastest and most effective method of human communication. You can read a page silently in less than a fifth the time it takes to read it out loud. You can also index it and, if it’s digitized, search it electronically. Try that with speech, let alone a telephone call.

Russert knew the power of reading, so he read. In spare time and on Saturdays, he combed the transcripts, the library, books, and the Internet for background for his interviews. He covered much more ground than his rivals. He was better informed and prepared.

Russert’s epitaph should be, “He did his homework.” After the loss of a candidate who didn’t, and after a drastic decline in competence in America, that is no small thing. If Russert’s death inspires more to do the same, we might yet save the mainstream media and even our Republic.


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08 June 2008

A Clean, Fair and Honest Campaign

Why We Need One
How to Get One
Candidates’ Code of Conduct

[For separate post on “Krugman the Authoritarian,” click here.]


Our two major parties have just nominated two good men. It’s worth taking a moment to review just how good.

Since Harry Truman became president, no president but Gerald Ford has had John McCain’s experience and seasoning in national politics. None but Ford, Nixon and Kennedy has had more experience in elective office (at both the statewide and national levels) than Barack Obama. Every president from Carter on has had less.

Experience is just the beginning. McCain is a war hero, not just because he flew combat missions, was shot down and wounded, and languished in a POW camp for half a decade. He is a hero because he refused to be sent home before his fellows—an extraordinary act of courage and selflessness. Last year, he repeated his demonstration of selflessness by saying he would rather lose the presidency than a war.

Barack Obama has a more distinguished academic record than any president since Woodrow Wilson. He was president of the Harvard Law Review, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious legal journal. He was a professor of law at the University of Chicago, one of the nation’s top law schools. Only Carter (a nuclear engineer) and Bill Clinton (a Rhodes Scholar) have academic records that are even in the same league. Both of Obama’s parents earned Ph.D.s, suggesting a family value of serious and sustained thoughtfulness.

Finally, there is character. Both candidates have well-deserved reputations for straight talk. Both have strong records in fighting corruption. Despite occasional lapses, both have avoided pandering far more than the average politician. Both have been the targets of demagoguery—McCain by Dubya in 2000 and Obama by Hillary in the primary campaign just ended. Therefore, one hopes, both have an aversion to smearing and a dislike of spin born of personal suffering.

Under these circumstances, we have a right to expect a clean, fair and honest campaign. This essay analyzes why we desperately need one and how we might achieve it.

Why We Need One

Process matters. Our nation has become a global pariah for keeping hundreds of people incarcerated in Guantánamo for nearly seven years without due process. We revile Dubya for having spied on us without the usual courtesy of a neutral judge deciding whether spying is justified. These acts contravene every democratic innovation in Anglo-American history, from the Magna Carta on.

As our primary process just revealed, our electoral campaigns have become a travesty of democracy. We obsessed about irrelevancies like gender, race, flag pins and candidates’ preachers’ verbal transgressions. We left vital issues of national policy unexamined. As a result, we know precious little about how our candidates would approach such things as Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Pakistan’s failure to deal with Al Qaeda Central, the challenges that Hamas and Hezbollah pose, our abject and growing energy dependence, global warming, the mortgage crisis, our economy generally, poverty in America, or the decline of our middle class.

If we are to have any hope of arresting our national decline, electoral campaigns that resemble mud wrestling have got to stop. We need to force our candidates to give honest answers to tough questions of real importance.

A clean, fair and honest campaign is not just a matter of electoral process. It can become a matter of substance—an important step in healing, reconciling, and unifying our divided and battered people. It can be an act of political reformation all by itself. A good campaign would serve these purposes in four ways.

First and foremost, it would help restore the atmosphere of dignity and mutual respect without which democracy cannot function. When members of Congress can no longer maintain their friendships merely because they differ on policy, we know we are in trouble. We need to re-establish a culture that allows people of good will to disagree without being disrespectful or disagreeable. McCain and Obama are both worthy of respect, so achieving this goal should be possible, as long as consultants don’t interfere.

Second, a clean, fair and honest presidential campaign will set an example. It will inspire politicians and government officials at all levels to go and do likewise. Maybe mutual respect will become as infectious as the brutal, mindless partisanship that has prevailed for the last decade.

Third, the example of respectful disagreement might infect even our dysfunctional media. People might begin to understand that bullying nitwits like Limbaugh, O’Reilly, and Matthews are destroying our society from the inside out, replacing the light of understanding with the heat of self-righteousness. Maybe their audiences would dwindle. Maybe they would get fired—a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Finally—and most important—a clean, fair and honest campaign would make it easier for the winner to govern. We have had the good sense (and the good fortune) to nominate two extraordinary candidates, the best of the lot. Both are capable of governing us well.

Whatever the outcome, our nation cannot afford another campaign that makes a large fraction of us hate the winner. We’ve been in that circumstance since Bill Clinton’s second term. We need to move to another, better place. Both candidates have the honesty and integrity to help us do so.

How to Get One

There are five ways in which we could achieve a clean, fair and honest campaign. All are important.

First and foremost, the candidates themselves must take and maintain control of their campaigns, with an iron fist if necessary. Most sleaze originates with consultants, spinmeisters and other underlings, not with the candidates themselves. That’s entirely understandable. Underlings cannot and do not determine their candidates’ positions on major issues. So they try to slake their partisan zeal with minutiae and sleaze. The candidates should be alert to this phenomenon and nip it in the bud.

So far, both candidates have made a good start. McCain has disowned race baiting and two religious nutcakes whose support he once sought. Obama has fired a campaigner who called Hillary a “monster,” has disowned his own maverick reverend, and has ordered his campaign not to accept money from lobbyists and PACs. So far, so good.

Second, the candidates must treat voters like adults. Obama did so when he gave his famous (and famously risky) speech on race in Philadelphia. He did so against some consultants’ advice, but he was right. McCain did so when he told Michigan workers—quite correctly— that their cushy jobs in the steel and auto plants are not coming back.

We need to see more of this honesty and forthrightness from both candidates. We need to see them resist the temptation to lie. We need to see their resistance in play even when the race is tight and a lie might help them win.

Part of treating voters like adults is forsaking “image” advertising. That sort of advertising arose in the eighties, imported from Japan. In its commercial guise, it features cars standing on pinnacles, overtaking others, or (in the sexist, bad old days) surrounded by scantily clad women holding cancer sticks. The idea was to sell a mere machine as fantasy, power or sex.

In politics, the recent apex of image advertising was Hillary’s “3 a.m.” ad. It told us nothing about her experience, qualifications or intentions, let alone her policy. Instead, it tried to install in us a vague impression that Hillary is security and safety, especially for the sleeping child shown in the ad.

That ad reminded me of a sign that I saw as a child in pre-Castro Cuba, high on a slum wall in Havana, during the reign of dictator Fulgencio Batista. The sign said “Batista es la paz,” or “Batista is peace.” Whether explicit or subliminal, Orwellian propaganda like that belongs in dictatorships, not the United States.

I hope and trust that new research will reveal these image ads to be a waste of money. Even if they have a marginal subliminal effect, they are a disgrace to democracy and an insult to the electorate. With so much at stake, today’s voters don’t want to buy a candidate or a car on image. They want to know the numbers. They want to hear about operating cost, fuel economy, fuel flexibility, capacity, acceleration, and driving range. Political ads, too, should satisfy their need for accurate specifics.

The third way we can insure a clean, fair and honest campaign is for the candidates to treat each other—and the issues—with respect. Mitt Romney’s multiple failures to do so are among many reasons why he lost, and why McCain would be a fool to pick him as a running mate.

Part of respect is avoiding caricature and demonization. McCain is not Dubya and never will be. Like Dubya, he may be a wooden and awkward public speaker. But in order to resemble Dubya he would have to have a lobotomy and expunge his record of heroic military service and his twenty-five years bucking Republican orthodoxy in Congress. He may be following some of Dubya’s policies in Iraq, but his presidency (if it comes) will be far from a third term of Dubya’s. Obama and his minions should stop saying and implying the contrary.

Similarly, McCain and his minions should stop saying and implying that Obama is inexperienced and green. Obama has more experience as an elected official (statewide and federal) than any of our last five presidents had upon assuming the presidency. He has a far more distinguished academic record. McCain should acknowledge these points, just as Obama has acknowledged his wartime heroism.

Fourth, the candidates should seek to minimize the role of money in the campaign, just as both have pledged to minimize its effect in politics and governance if elected. I favor Obama, and I know he has a decisive advantage in fundraising. I’m ready to max out my general-election contribution to him in a heartbeat, as I did in the primary. Yet I’m waiting to see whether he will accept McCain’s challenge and rely on federal funding. I hope he will, not just to save my money, but because I think his doing so will make the campaign and our country better.

As both candidates have repeatedly recognized, we need to get money out of politics. Obama’s Internet money may be “clean” because it comes from a large number of small contributions. But the cleanest money of all is federal. It doesn’t require any raising, so it doesn’t create distractions from the issues. It doesn’t tempt a candidate to demagogue for the purpose of fundraising, or to favor big contributors over little ones.

Federal funding has other advantages. By equalizing the amounts available to the two contenders, it enhances the appearance of fairness, both during the campaign and in the winner’s presidency. The loser can’t claim he lost because the “fat cats” or the “little people” favored his opponent. The winner must win on the merits.

Working against a known and limited budget also enforces discipline and requires administrative skill. The candidate and his staff must learn to direct limited funds to the most important constituencies and media markets and the most important issues. Funding limits would restrain the temptation to spend on frivolous “image” ads and sleaze.

How a candidate handles a limited war chest demonstrates fiscal skills needed to govern well in a time of scarcity. McCain learned these points the hard way last year when his campaign nearly went bankrupt. That learning made him a better candidate and likely a better president if he wins. Maybe a candidate who can’t manage his campaign doesn’t deserve to manage the nation.

With regard to funding, Obama has one legitimate fear. The primary already involved race baiting. Vicious falsehoods are circulating, on the Internet and elsewhere, about Obama’s religion, upbringing, ancestry, and intentions. He needs money to refute these smears as soon as they arise.

But doing so needn’t involve a traditional campaign war chest. Campaign-finance laws permitting, supporters of Obama could set up an independent group to combat smears, whether or not from the McCain campaign. I and others would be only too happy to contribute to such a fund. McCain could reduce the incentive and need to do so by vigorously repudiating any smears, whether attributable to his campaign, arising from Republican or independent organizations, or coming from the Internet sleazosphere. The deterrent effect of Obama’s legendary fund-raising ability would help keep him honest.

Finally, a clean, fair and honest campaign requires robust, fair and smear-free debates.

I like McCain’s proposal for unmoderated town-hall meetings. I hope Obama accepts it, with two modifications. First, if we are to get serious about details of policy, every town-hall meeting should address a single subject, which both the candidates and voters should stick to religiously. Second, an umpire of some sort should enforce the subject-matter limitation and gently chide a candidate or voter who runs on too long. The umpire also should cut off any attempt by a voter to introduce trivia (like flag pins), sleaze or smears. These functions should be publicly announced in advance.

With these modifications, unmoderated town-hall meetings would have four wonderful features. First and foremost, they would remove our dysfunctional media from the debate process. Our media performed abysmally during the primary campaign, especially the infamous Philadelphia debate. Their journalistic malpractice forfeited their right to participate actively in the general-election campaign.

The candidates need the media to transmit their messages, and the First Amendment gives the media every right to comment, however inanely. But the candidates can and should exclude the media from any active participation in debates. We need our future leaders to speak for themselves.

The second wonderful feature of unmoderated town-hall meetings is accountability. CNN introduced flag pins, Reverend Wright and Rezko into the Philadelphia debate, giving Hillary the opportunity to demagogue them all, which she did. But Hillary escaped accountability for these sleazy distractions because the moderators introduced them. With no moderator, the candidates themselves would be accountable for introducing distractions, sleaze and smears. An alert and properly instructed umpire would prevent voters from doing so.

The third wonderful feature of unmoderated town-hall meetings would be the presence of real voters, which would change the human dynamic. It would avoid the sterile exchange of abstract charges, like those hurled by McCain in his pathetic attempt to upstage Obama’s triumph last Monday, which even Fox News ridiculed. It would reduce the candidates’ temptation to act like legal advocates, posture, and exaggerate. And it would give Obama a chance to show off his transcendent empathy.

I can’t imagine anything more immediately effective in getting the candidates to talk about things that voters care about. Voters and the audience would be able to see who has their interests most at heart, who has thought through their concerns, and whose solutions make the most sense. Allowing voters to follow up their questions might also curb the candidates’ evasion and obfuscation.

The final wonderful feature of unmoderated town-hall meetings is that it would reveal the candidates’ personal strengths and weaknesses. Obama would have to give up pontificating from the podium, which he does so well. McCain would have to give up the fearsome Republican smear machine. If he knows what’s good for his candidacy, he would also have to give up the superciliousness and sneering that sometimes mar his delivery. It’s hard to sneer when your opponent and voters are present in person and watching. All in all, the proposal for town-hall meetings without the media (but with an umpire) is a great idea.


Both of our candidates are honest, honorable men of independence and integrity. Both are smart enough to know that the next presidency begins now. How they run and manage their campaigns, how they conduct themselves until November, and whether they treat each other with dignity and respect will help determine whether the winner can govern.

We should therefore expect, and both candidates should provide, a clean, fair and honest campaign. To that end, I propose that each take the following pledge:

Candidates’ Code of Conduct

1. I will treat my opponent, voters and the issues with dignity and respect.

2. I will not comment on or disparage my opponent’s race, age, religion, ethnic origin, gender, family, or ancestry. I will comment on my opponent’s health only to the extent it threatens to incapacitate him during the next four years.

3. I will not comment on or disparage my opponent’s spouse, relatives, friends, business associates, or supporters, except in cases of suspected criminal corruption or to comment on and correct factual inaccuracies in their public statements.

4. I will avoid personal attacks on my opponent. I will confine myself to comments on his public record, public statements, and their background, meaning and consequences.

5. I will have my staff check carefully all facts that I assert about myself and my opponent. I will honestly acknowledge and promptly correct any inaccuracies that arise. I will not knowingly rely on inaccurate information coming from another source.

6. I will hold my campaign and its staff strictly to these standards. I will publicly and firmly repudiate any act or statement that violates them and will discipline responsible staff.

7. I will do my best to hold all independent organizations that support my positions to these same standards. I will publicly, firmly and (if necessary) repeatedly repudiate violations of them. I will disown and repudiate any group or organization that violates them repeatedly.


For comments on the foregoing post, click here.

Krugman the Authoritarian

Columnists seldom rankle me. They have good days and bad days, as do I. Even Bill Kristol’s consistently transcendent stupidity merely amuses me.

But Paul Krugman gets under my skin. His latest column, begrudgingly acknowledging Obama’s primary victory, made me understand why. Krugman is an authoritarian masquerading as a progressive.

I should have got the hint when he vigorously endorsed Hillary’s health-care mandates. Mandates themselves are authoritarian: they force people to do things they would not otherwise do. Not only did Krugman fail to recognize their huge political downside. He also failed to acknowledge the uncertainty and precariousness of the economic data supporting them. Instead, he relied on his authority as “Princeton economist” to imply that those who didn’t agree with his economic position are simply wrong. No real scientist would base such a strong claim on such flimsy data.

His latest column made his approach even clearer. Its point is that Barack Obama is not an instrument of an ongoing national transformation but the beneficiary of a nearly completed one.

I don’t propose to address the substance of that view. Barack Obama has repeatedly recognized the debt he owes to the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and the people of all races who led and supported it. If you want to see a properly nuanced view—and a far more accurate one than Krugman’s—read Cynthia Tucker’s column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week.

What I want to address is what bothers me about Krugman: his attitude.

No doubt he agrees with Hillary’s assertion that it was Lyndon Johnson, not Martin Luther King, Jr., who made the civil rights revolution real. Of course it took Johnson’s legislative skill and legendary arm-twisting ability to pass the laws. But it took King’s vision, genius, courage and sacrifice to generate political support for them everywhere outside the South. Without King, no amount of arm-twisting would have sufficed.

Blindness to the importance of King’s contribution reflects a trait Krugman and Hillary share: authoritarianism. In their minds King doesn’t get credit because he wasn’t the man in power; he was working from the bottom. For people like Krugman and Hillary, those at the bottom don’t count.

There are several views of history. Some see it as a product of the will of individual leaders. Some see it as an unruly unfolding drama of the masses. Others, like Tolstoy, see it as a gigantic clock, a machine ruled by hidden, deterministic forces.

I see it as a leader riding a tiger. At any moment, either leader or tiger may be in control, making their direction unpredictable.

Authoritarians like Krugman and Hillary will never understand the tiger of a grass-roots movement that Barack Obama has fostered. Nor can they understand the power of the tiger King nurtured—righteous determination among blacks and justified shame among whites. It will be amusing to see how their attitudes change when Obama becomes president.

More fundamentally, Krugman seems to have missed the whole point of the civil rights movement. We whites who supported it at the time did so only partly out of sympathy with African-Americans and their interminable plight. We did it largely for ourselves and our country.

We wanted to erase our shame. We wanted to make the nation whole and sound. We wanted to curb the hideous waste of human talent. We knew that some day a leader with African genes, as great as Dr. King, would be there for all of us, if only we were ready.

Now he is, but Krugman can’t see him.

I don’t know Krugman apart from his columns, but I don’t think he is a racist. He views Obama as the insufficiently grateful and overly ambitious child of a revolution wrought by Obama’s elders. Krugman is the father who wants the child’s thanks for an expensive education but can’t rejoice in the child’s independence and autonomy. He is the teacher who can’t see when protégé has surpassed mentor. Like many authoritarian Boomers, he can’t let go.

That attitude is dangerous and wasteful. Because of it, we weren’t ready for Colin Powell—at least he and his wife didn’t think so. If we had been, a Powell presidency could have spared us the last seven years’ pain and indignity.

Now we seem ready for Barack Obama. He’s a man with the potential to be a great leader, perhaps the best in a century. He has the clearest chance of any candidate to make the dramatic changes we need to arrest our national decline. He has the courage, every day, to tiptoe past the cobra of racism, which could strike at any time. He comes to us in the nick of time. It is we, not he, who should be grateful for the national transformation, incomplete as it may be.

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06 June 2008

Best is Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hillary’s Exit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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