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    Funding the Troops

    During the presidential debate there was an argument over whether Obama supported cutting funding for the troops in Iraq.  I think the moment deserves a comment.

    Check out starting around 1:30 into this video:


    I’m not sure I have my finger on the pulse of the emotional import of the accusations of refusing to fund troops.  The accusation as it is generally understood may imply some sort of anti-military animus or lack of patriotism.  Some people who use this argument may mean to suggest that Obama wanted the troops to fight with insufficient pay or weapons.   But of course that’s a misunderstanding of the funding tactic.

    What cutting funds would have done is force Bush to withdraw the troops.  Without funds, the troops cannot fight.  McCain raised the point of Obama’s opposition to funds as part of a contention that Obama had not supported Bush’s determination to continue fighting in Iraq.  Obama then argued that McCain was being misleading – he only voted against funding the war in Iraq because President Bush had refused to set a timetable for withdrawal.  He tries to brush off the funding issue as just leverage for an alternative Democratic strategy.

    Obama’s defense is simple obfuscation.  Establishing a strict timetable is not simply a different “strategy” – it is tantamount to setting a date for surrender.  It commits the US to giving up at a certain date.  In other words, by voting against funds because of the timetable issue, Obama was trying to force US troops to leave now if they weren’t guaranteed to leave later.  McCain’s critique, that Obama was opposing, not supporting, continued efforts in Iraq, was valid.  Obama’s counter – that McCain was being misleading – was itself the misleading argument.

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    Watching the Debate

    McCain keeps complaining about millions of dollars, and Obama keeps coming back with billions.  I think this is a signature problem of McCain’s.  He doesn’t appear to have any overriding proposals for revamping government; instead he betrays a small-minded obsession with minor spending scandals.

    Sure, I much prefer McCain’s plan to save us hundreds of millions of dollars to Obama’s plan to increase taxes by billions, but it makes for mismatched rhetoric.


    Check out, for example, the quibbling that begins around three minutes into this video:


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    The Last Hurrah

    To any mildly objective observer, it has by now become clear that the Clintons have embraced the defeat of their political party’s presidential candidate for the good of their personal ambitions.  Hillary and Bill Clinton have refused to strongly criticize the McCain campaign, they have declined to extensively campaign for Obama, and they have lionized the Republican Party candidates.

    To recap:

    – Hillary Clinton cheered on the Palin VP selection as a “historic nomination”, implicitly endorsing the “vote for a woman” argument.

    – Hillary publicly announced that she would be do only limited campaigning for Obama, holding up commitments to campaign in senatorial races as a conflict.  That she is willing to campaign for Democrats but only a limited amount for Barack underlines how unwilling she is to throw her political capital behind her one-time foe.

    – Bill Clinton, on Letterman, played up John McCain’s heroic war record and suggested that this would be an important consideration for voters in the ballot booth.  Not a very subtle hint to the supposed horde of bitter Hillary voters, next guest Chris Rock noted.

    – Bill Clinton defended John McCain’s slightly erratic and pointless decision to stop his campaign because of the finance crisis.  Clinton said that his decision to postpone the debate was “in good faith”, lending credence to McCain’s political stunt by referring to another one of McCain’s crazy stunt proposals.

    The Clintons are seriously embittered by their defeat in the primary.  Perhaps their refusal to help Barack is strategic, perhaps it is sullen irresponsibility.  But it seems to be in vain – if public opinion and the media’s tenor do not change drastically, an Obama victory looks inevitable.  Unless the Hillary Clinton plans to run on the Republican ticket in 2012, all her groundwork is for nought. 

    But, on the other hand, what does she stand to lose?  Unlike Lieberman, she hasn’t betrayed her party on any issue tangible enough to justify her actual expulsion from the Democratic party.  And if she did choose to eventually run as a Republican, I might even vote for her if she dropped healthcare from her platform and revised her tax policy!

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    Partisan Slanders

    Democrat accusations of religion-bating have persisted through the campaign.  It’s a well-established among progressives that Republicans exploit racial or religious bigotry by spreading false rumors about liberal candidates’ affiliation with various disfavored groups – Muslims, blacks, jews, homosexuals, etc.

    Obama himself is so worried that he set up a “Fight the Smears” section on his website.  Recently, he complained about Republican intransigence in a television interview:

    Mr. Obama, who is a Christian and often proudly speaks about how his faith has influenced his public service, said he finds it “deeply offensive” that there are efforts “coming out of the Republican camp to suggest that perhaps I’m not who I say I am when it comes to my faith.”

    The exchange came after Mr. Obama said that Republicans are attempting to scare voters by suggesting he is not Christian, which McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said was “cynical.”

    Asked about it on ABC, Mr. Obama said, “These guys love to throw a rock and hide their hand.”

    What has always bothered me about the race/religion/etc-baiting complaint, is that I have never actually met anyone who was race-baited.  Perhaps that’s only testament to the enlightened company I keep…

    What I do see is the constant traffic in liberal horror-stories on leftist blogs, email lists, and among my Democratic friends.  They agree that identity baiting is a constant, organized tactic, a substantial portion of Republicans either are racist or employ racism, and that, specifically, Barack Obama’s candidacy has been hurt by widespread bigotry.

    Since high school, and throughout college, most of my friends have identified casually as liberal, socially liberal and fiscally conservative, or libertarian.  When I pressed them to identify the root of their political affiliation, they usually pointed to revulsion at conservative homophobia, religious zealotry, nativist paranoia, and ethnic bigotry.  Only a few embraced redistributive principles; most defined themselves by what they opposed.

    To them, conservatism was the evil in society.  Conservatives had been the racist bigots of To Kill a Mockingbird and Beloved, the theocrats of Inherit the Wind and The Crucible, and the fascists of Number the Stars.  In history they had been the Inquisition in Spain, the Catholic Church that persecuted Galileo, the plantation owners in early Latin Americas, the British in the revolutionary war, and, again, the fascists.  It didn’t matter if the pigs of Animal Farm and the Roosevelt who had ordered the Japanese Internment were technically leftists.  Even if left governments could be bad, the badness in society was always conservative.

    So if reports of isolated conservative intransigence do not bother me much, it is not because I believe the reports are false, nor because I think that conservative slanders are acceptable.  I do not.  They do not push me to the left because they seem to me to fuel a much more powerful slander: the leftist rhetoric that conservatives are by default bigots and fanatics, that an identification with the right is a mark of stubborn ignorance and an endorsement of arbitrary hatred.

    As idiotic as rumors about Obama’s Muslim heritage may be, his counter-accusation that McCain would deliberately and explicitly appeal to racism was just as unfounded and immeasurably more potent.  Where Republicans turn against fellow partisans who hint at racist sentiments, Democrats can comfortably attribute the unholiest of taboos – racism – to their opponents without evidence or fear of consequences.

    Ultimately, it’s all a distraction.  Rumors about Barack’s religion and Republican bigotry are irrelevant to the real policy questions.  They have no bearing on the merits of the welfare state, the importance of universal healthcare, or the proper vigor of our foreign policy stance.  If it all comes down in the left’s favor anyway, if half of the progressive ranks define themselves against an ugliness that is nine-tenths fantasy, then I’ll count the score as settled.  I’ll go ahead and vote for the policies I favor, rather than the bogeyman of the culture I oppose.

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    Clinton’s Silence Not Unnoticed

    Somebody over at the Washington Post also notices how strangely quiet Clinton has been:

    Clinton has been surprisingly quiet in the days since Palin was nominated. She issued a bland statement the day McCain announced his surprise pick: “We should all be proud of Governor Sarah Palin’s historic nomination, and I congratulate her and Senator McCain. While their policies would take America in the wrong direction, Governor Palin will add an important new voice to the debate.” Last Thursday, Clinton put out just her second statement about Palin, saying she wanted to “slightly amend” one of her best zingers in Denver: “No way, no how, no McCain-Palin.” And while Clinton is scheduled to stump in central Florida Monday on Sen. Barack Obama’s behalf, the trip is not, according to people in both Democrats’ camps, designed as a direct response to the debut of the second female vice presidential nominee in U.S. history.

    It doesn’t exactly add up to a resounding attack, especially during the heat of the campaign. Former Clinton advisers offer various explanations: She would only energize the Republican base if she criticized Palin; she doesn’t want to diminish her own stature by attacking McCain’s rookie understudy rather than McCain himself; she is not on the ticket, so why should she intervene? Still, the result is a strange silence from the woman who, until just two weeks ago, had arguably the most powerful female voice in American politics.

    I expect her upcoming campaign tour will be similarly mellow.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she softens any attacks she makes with lines like “no matter who wins, this will be a historic election.”  Her focus will likely be on how, “McCain’s policies are wrong for America” rather than how “Palin’s policies are wrong for women”. Clinton in 2012?

    Even that plan is tenuous.  Obama is a hugely important figure on the political scene these days.  He wasn’t a halfhearted pick from a slate of old faces like Kerry.  His rise was a momentous and inspiring event to his supporters.  People are unlikely to forget him the way they quickly forgot much-unloved Kerry.  Clinton faces an uphill battle if she hopes to capture the 2012 Democratic nomination.  In 2008, at least, I wish her the best.

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    Priorities in Line

    Clinton is too busy to devote much time campaigning for Barack Obama, apparently… because she’ll be campaigning for Democrats she actually wants to win an election:

    Advisers to Clinton, who has been on vacation this week, said that she stands ready to help the Obama-Biden ticket, but they urged not to overestimate the effect she could have, noting that she had other commitments this fall, like campaigning and raising money for Senate candidates.

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    Presidential Recusal

    Before John McCain spoke at the Republican National Convention, the first part of Obama’s O’Reilly interview appeared on Fox News last night.


    O’Reilly’s question about Obama’s Iran policy provoked the most interesting moment, I thought (starting at around 2:31 in the video).  Pressed whether he would take military action against Iran if it persisted in its nuclear ambitions, Obama responded (I’m transcribing):

    Look, it is not appropriate for somebody who is one of two people who could be the President of the United States to start tipping their hand in terms of what their plans might be with respect to Iran. [He goes on to say he would not take any option off the table.]

    This reminded me of the line that John Roberts used repeatedly in his Senate confirmation hearings:

    “I feel the need to stay away from a discussion of particular cases.”

    I never really understood the explanations that were used to defend this line.  Apparently there is a judicial ethics standard that discourages commenting on a case in a way that might prejudice a judge towards a pre-determined decision.  This principle might be defensible in the realm of lower-court judges:  perhaps someone might comment casually on some decision and then, presented with new compelling arguments, refuse to reconsider their opinion out of embarrassment.

    But extended to Supreme Court hearings, this virtue becomes a vice.  Senators desire nothing so much as to know in advance what a judge’s opinion will be once a future case comes along.  Without any window into how a judge would decide a case, they cannot make any meaningful decision on that candidate’s suitability.  The greater principle of making a meaningful assessment of judicial candidates is sacrificed for the lesser one of preventing minor biases.

    Perhaps there is some greater argument that I misunderstand – but this is how I see it today.

    Obama’s answer has at least an echo of the judicial sentiment to it.  He isn’t saying the exact same thing – instead, he doesn’t want to “tip his hand”.  I see two interpretations to that.

    The first is that he can’t admit that he would not go to war with Iran, because that would undermine his ability to negotiate.  An America threatening war is more likely to reach an agreement than one which promises not to take action.  But if you are unable to identify a single situation in which you would be willing to go to war, you effectively communicate your intention not to take action.  If a party is unwilling to bear the smaller cost of threatening war, how likely are they to incur the much greater cost of actually taking action?

    The other interpretation is the judicial one.  Obama is saying that spelling out his Iran strategy would prejudice his decision making ability given a future concrete case.  If he gives a response now, he will be unable to objectively analyze events if Iran actually does develop nuclear weapons, because he feels obligated to honor a campaign promise.  Like Roberts, he subverts the principles of informed democratic decision-making to the principles of objectivity.  This should be unacceptable to us as citizens.  We, too, need to be able to make decisions about concrete cases.  Unlike Roberts or Obama, we only get one shot at objectively assessing our candidates.

    And as it stands, candidates probably intend for their “ethical” objections to interfere with the democratic principles.  Roberts almost certainly had developed settled opinions regarding abortion, religious freedom, gun rights, affirmative action, and any number of Constitutional controversies that were unlikely to bend to new evidence.  Confessing to these would have compromised his confirmation.  Just so, Obama knows he has no intention of going to war with Iran, but he is unwilling to admit this to voters.