Obama’s German Flyers: Yglesias Jumps the Gun on RNC’s Ruffini

July 23, 2008

In an illustration of the dangers of habitually indignant speed blogging, Atlantic Monthly blogger Matthew Yglesias totally misreads a post by Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini, complaining about Obama’s big upcoming rally in Germany:

Patrick Ruffini slams the Obama campaign for using a foreign language in its promotional material for an event in Germany. Apparently it’s now unpatriotic to so much as concede that they speak foreign languages in foreign countries. Or maybe American politicians should only be allowed to speak in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the UK.

Get it? Ultra-partisan Ruffini is so knee-jerkily nuts that he actually thinks that using a foreign language in a foreign country is unamerican!

Unfortunately, Yglesias’ take is, literally, too funny to be true.

Ruffini’s actual objection is the use of classic campaign tactics and money to build a crowd for the speech in a foreign land. The fact that the flyers are in German is not a problem for him because he thinks that Americans should never stoop to the use of anything but the King’s English. It’s a problem for him because it demonstrates how Obama’s campaign is willing to spend money lobbying foreigners to rally for American-media consumption:

So, this isn’t just some sober, high-minded foreign policy speech, part of a foreign trip occurring under the auspices of his official Senate office. It is a campaign rally occurring on foreign soil. They are using the same tactics to turn out Germans to an event as they would to any rally right here in America.

The sea of Germans drummed up by the Obama campaign will be used as props to tell us Americans how to vote, and the campaign isn’t trying to pretend otherwise. That’s breathtakingly arrogant, and par for the course for Barack Obama.

Now, I don’t think it’s breathtakingly arrogant at all: this is simply Ruffini being a good campaign man and dutifully reinforcing the standard Republican talking point about Obama having a big head.

I disagree with Ruffini’s argument, of course: demonstrating Obama’s appeal to the world is undeniably a legitimate selling point for his candidacy. It’s all a demonstration of his ability to get things done abroad to better serve American interests back home. He has as much reason to play that up as McCain does to talk about the surge (or to campaign abroad himself).

Still, Yglesias’ criticism of Ruffini is the only thing that’s “breathtakingly” anything here: breathtakingly sloppy. A little skepticism about something seemingly too partisan-ly perfect would have served him a little better.


CBS Deceptively Edits McCain Interview?

July 23, 2008

If this pans out to be true, CBS will soon be answering to angry Democrats much in the same way it had to answer to angry Republicans over “Rathergate.”

At issue is an interview between Katie Couric and Republican Presidential candidate John McCain. McCain is using the venue to tout his superior understanding and judgment on Iraq: a perfectly fair campaign claim. But McCain apparently went overboard and bizarrely credited the surge with an event that started happening two months before the US even started discussing having a surge.

In the final interview, however, this footage has been edited so that McCain answers a different question than he was asked, cutting out his mistake.

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James Dobson Shocks No One With McCain Flip-Flop

July 21, 2008

Conservative Christian crank James Dobson is apparently the last person in the universe to realize that he will, after all, be supporting the Republican nominee for President this year, contrary to his pre- and post-primary promises.

“I never thought I would hear myself saying this,” Dobson said in a radio broadcast to air Monday. “… While I am not endorsing Senator John McCain, the possibility is there that I might.”

Ah yes, we’re all waiting in suspense to see what happens next, aren’t we?

Dobson, of course, would apparently like folks to think that this predictable turn of events is all down to recent revelations about the two candidates and some serious pondering on his part:

In an advance copy provided to The Associated Press, Dobson said that while neither candidate is consistent with his views, McCain’s positions are closer by a wide margin.

“There’s nothing dishonorable in a person rethinking his or her positions, especially in a constantly changing political context,” Dobson said in a statement to the AP. “Barack Obama contradicts and threatens everything I believe about the institution of the family and what is best for the nation. His radical positions on life, marriage and national security force me to reevaluate the candidacy of our only other choice, John McCain.”

Changing political context? Back when Dobson said that he could not “in good conscience” vote for McCain, both McCain and Obama were pretty much the same guys they are today. Obama was just as much a contradiction of everything Dobson slouches for, and McCain was just as much… uh, whatever the heck he is.

In fact, the only new developments in the Obamaverse in recent days have involved Obama playing up his more centrist positions. The only recent developments in McCainia has been a mirroring stroll towards centrism, including McCain’s recent, horrifying admission that maybe gay people can raise kids, you know, if no one else wants them. In short, the only new information Dobson now has with which to change his mind is an Obama apparently slightly closer to his positions than before, and a McCain slightly farther.

So here’s a far more plausible scenario: Dobson is an opportunistic gasbag who knows, and always knew, that if McCain won, that he’d eventually be endorsing him. His hyperbole to the contrary was merely a means of trying to throw his weight around: the ultimate in playing hard to get. And given that the whole point of the ploy was first to hurt McCain’s primary ambitions and then to try and weasel as many concessions out of McCain’s camp as possible, his backing off now is doubly pathetic: Dobson seems to have entirely failed in both realms. As a last resort, he seems to have settled on the lame booby-prize goal of nudging McCain to pick a more orthodox evangelical-type as a VP.

But whether he wins or loses that final gasp effort, the result will be the same: the hapless and increasingly irrelevant Dobson stuck having to chew through his own foot to get it out of his mouth.


Prospective DNC/RNC Convention Protesters Already Extremely Annoying

July 19, 2008

Oy vey. Drudge and other media sources are starting to profile some of the groups planning on turning the upcoming party conventions into three-ring freak circuses, and I’m already sick of these people. Here’s a sampling of the bounty of bombastic banner-waving boneheads who think that strutting around in the street with posters is an effective way to accomplish anything but some decent exercise:

“We are completely peaceful,” said Rob Weiland, a 37-year-old courier from Denver and member of the group We Are Change Colorado. “We follow the ideals of Ghandi.”

Spectacular. Except that Gandhi was opposing the sometimes brutal colonialist exploitation of an entire country. “We Are Change,” on the other hand, are a bunch of 9/11 conspiracy nuts with a website so full of rambling YouTube nonsense that it crashes my browser (warning: website may crash browser).

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Sympathy for Phil Gramm: Another Silly Gaffetroversy

July 11, 2008

I’ve been complaining a lot lately about over-emotionalized, irrational politics, and there’s no better recent example than the fuss over comments by Phil Gramm, former Senator and economic advisor to John McCain. McCain has recently been trying to shore up his credibility with blue collar workers: demonstrating that he “feels their pain” when it comes to economy. It’s a delicate dance: he’s pretty much supported the economic policy status quo for the past 8 years, and the many people hurting from rising unemployment, mortgage failures, and so on are not patient listeners.

But let’s acknowledge right off the bat that the effort itself, or rather the need for it, is sort of ridiculous.
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Jesse Jackson’s Gaffe Helped Obama? I Don’t Get It…

July 10, 2008

Can anyone seriously explain to me why Jesse Jackson’s accidentally overheard remarks about Obama will help Obama in the polls, as nearly every media outlet seems to be claiming as if it were an obvious outcome?

Here’s two different supposed political experts on the matter:

“It reinforces Obama’s effort to present himself as an advocate of responsible personal behavior, a position that Republican candidates like to secure as uniquely their own,” Rozell said.

“Obama should give Jackson and O’Reilly an award for helping his campaign with white voters,” Schultz said.

I don’t get it. How is this supposed to work?

Imagine yourself the stereotypical “white voter” these guys seem to be imagining. What does this incident suggest to you other than that African American voters and leaders are politically divided, beneath the surface? Is that supposed to make you feel good, or something? Why is the fact that someone talked about cutting off Obama’s nuts, and Obama, obviously, doesn’t like the idea very much, supposed to change anyone’s opinion about anything or anyone?

Heck, it doesn’t even change my opinion about Jesse Jackson: the fact that people use crude, hyperbolic and aggressive language when talking in private about factional politics should surprise and outrage absolutely nobody. Except, of course, me being outraged that everyone from Obama’s campaign to FoxNews is pretending it’s a big deal.

Finally I would think that the very fact that the media is insisting that this gives Obama a chance to “look better” in front of voters should itself dampen, or even negate, that very effect. “Sistah Soljah” moments work only insofar as they seem immediate and authentic, and after the first, real Soljah moment, none really do anymore. Especially if the media telegraphs the whole thing in advance.

In my opinion, the only person who’s benefited from this incident is, amazingly and improbably, Al Sharpton, who had a uncharacteristically reasonable comment:

But the Rev. Al Sharpton admonished Jackson and cautioned against dividing black voters.

Obama “is running for president of all Americans, not just African-Americans,” he said. We “must be careful not to segregate Senator Obama and impose some litmus test that is unfair and unproductive.”


Lazy Obama Editorial: Luke Boggs Phones It In

July 10, 2008

Conservative writer Luke Boggs was apparently so busy with other things this week that he decided to create his latest opinion column via cookie cutter. The result? The paint-by-numbers predictable “Obama’s frequent regrets may make us sorry.”

It’s a standard recipe in the world of political hit-pieces:

  1. take the latest random minor controversy about an enemy candidate.
  2. Claim that it’s part of a larger pattern demonstrating deep insight into a key character flaw.
  3. Use that flimsy premise as a free-associating excuse to repeat, for the 8000th time, every other gaffe or controversy you can think of from the past several years, just in case readers have forgotten all the other columns that have been written bemoaning each of them in loving detail.

If it almost seems to write itself, that’s probably Boggs and his ilk on both sides of the partisan divide have already written it and things like it a million times over.

In this case, the free association that ties everything together is “regret.” Boggs wants us to believe that there is something significant and unusual about Obama regretting things. It’s a crude fiction: pretending that Obama is more likely than any average person, or any average politician, to regret decisions (all leading to dramatic concluding fantasies of promised presidential pratfalls). It’s an especially silly premise in the current political/media environment, where the cycle of gaffe to controversy to apology/regret plays out with a new story for each candidate nearly every week.

But in trying to prove his point that Obama is almost pathologically regretful, it doesn’t take long before Boggs turns to what might be the new standard in utterly vapid, meaningless columnist drivel: the Google search hit comparison.

So what jumped out at me was how quickly Obama regretted his decision. And that, in turn, made me wonder how often the senator has regretted other choices. Answer: pretty often. (Googling “Obama” and “regrets” yields more than a million hits.)

In addition to demonstrating ignorance of how search engines work and the confounding factors, Boggs is so lazy that he didn’t even control his “study.” “Obama regrets” indeed nets 1,150,000 hits. But “McCain regrets” gets 902,000 hits, almost as many. Mitt Romney only has 79,200 regrets, making it truly a tragedy for America that he lost the Republican nomination. “Bush regrets” nets 2,370,000 (handily beating Obama, despite Boggs’ claim that Bush has a laudable lack of regret).

Boggs should get extra points for making Obama’s children the random jumping off point for his rant, while at the same time purporting to lecture nameless “humorless activists” for criticizing Obama’s decision to allow them an interview. How dare anyone accuse someone of exploiting children for political gain when he’s doing it!

As I’ve argued before, most people are wasting their time when they pretend that they can actually judge what the psychological or personal character of any given public figure is “really” like. Media snippets, scandals and sound bytes are not exactly deep wells of objective or comprehensive insight. The commentariat simply finds some simple, emotionalized caricature for each figure and then constantly reinforces it with selection bias and forced interpretation. But it’s rare that the initial slate of traits they pick has much merit, or really sets the candidate so far apart from any other.

And that’s just the regular journalists. Pretending that an outright partisan like Boggs can perform objective psychological analysis on someone’s character right in the midst of an election is even more ridiculous.

The sensible standard is simply to figure out whether a candidate’s political stances, party, and/or what he’s likely to do in office, all fit what you want out of the next 4 years. Treat attempts to pigeonhole politicians on anything but their political history and proposals with extreme skepticism, if not blanket disdain. Of course, if everyone approached politics that way, people like Luke Boggs, who trade in sub-rational “psychological analysis” instead of real policy debates, wouldn’t have a place in the funnypapers. Or, at the very least, they wouldn’t be able to meet their deadlines, now forced to put some real, time-consuming thought into policy analysis.

Update: According to Google, Boggs himself has only 26,300 regrets. But at least for the moment, this very post tops the results list.


Defending Obama’s “Faith-Based” Funding Changes: Special Rules for the Religious?

July 7, 2008

I’m by and large indifferent to Obama’s promised expansion of “faith-based” funding, which like most government programs that target certain groups, is likely to boil down to patronage, just as it did in the Bush administration. Maybe he’ll do better, enforce some actual standards of quality and non-partisanship. In fact, given the outright disdainful incompetent way many of these programs have been run, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could do as badly. But politics has a certain gravity, not unlike economic markets, that quickly washes away one’s original intentions when it comes time to make policy. I can’t really celebrate or decry Obama on this stuff.

There are, however, some broader important church/state principles here, and a lot of people making arguments that I just don’t think hold water.

Most prominently, there’s the religious folks who are horrified that Obama is suggesting that they might have to play by the same rules as everyone else who receives government grants. The NYTimes calls it the “six little words” that threaten to throw a wrench into his overture to religious groups

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Obama Against “Mental” Exceptions to Late-Term Abortion Bans

July 4, 2008

Obama’s stance on abortion is pretty much in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, but with one critical difference when it comes to late-term abortions (i.e. abortions post fetal viability). And, luckily, for him, it’s precisely the exception I would make. Obama doesn’t think that “mental distress” should qualify as an exception to bans on late term abortions. This position puts him at odds with pro-abortion rights groups and members of his own party.

Still, I think it’s the right one. Anti-abortion groups have a legitimate fear that sufficiently vague “mental” health exceptions could undermine the point of the ban entirely: any person can develop “tremendous emotional toll” even from a normal pregnancy. But that really doesn’t fall under the same situation as health exceptions in general, and in practice, this exception can basically serve as an end-run around the ban. Groups like NARAL, of course, paint things differently:

The official position of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group that endorsed Obama in May, states: “A health exception must also account for the mental health problems that may occur in pregnancy. Severe fetal anomalies, for example, can exact a tremendous emotional toll on a pregnant woman and her family.”

This is yet another situation in which I wish people on both sides of the abortion divide would just express what they actually mean: what specific conditions is NARAL talking about? Conditions like anencephaly, where the brain essentially has not formed properly, and the baby has no higher brain function and no chance of survival beyond a few weeks? (I’m in favor of allowing abortion in such cases) Or does it mean Down’s Syndrome, a missing arm, or a partially malformed gut? All of the latter could be called “severe anomalies,” but such babies are essentially normal in terms of their capacity to feel and suffer. (I’m against abortion in such cases) The details matter.

In any case, while he’s sure to take fire from liberals on this, Obama has about as much chance of getting any honest credit for his stance as the New York Mets do of winning the Superbowl. Anti-abortion groups are, of course, having none of it:

David N. O’Steen, the executive director of National Right to Life, said Obama’s remarks to the magazine “are either quite disingenuous or they reflect that Obama does not know what he is talking about.”

“You cannot believe that abortion should not be allowed for mental health reasons and support Roe v Wade,” O’Steen said.

O’Steen is technically right here: a companion case to Roe was Doe v. Bolton, which defined “health” exceptions very broadly, including considerations of “emotional, psychological, familial” factors. But O’Steen is still essentially dissembling: the definition, while broad, is also vague enough that someone like Obama could reasonably believe that those other factors could almost never, on their own, justify an exception.

O’Steen, of course, has no reason to be charitable and honest in how he portrays Obama. Even if Obama really is closer to his own stance on this issue (which he already has a decent reason to doubt), Obama’s party taking power in the White House is far far more important to his chosen issue (outlawing abortion) than giving him credit for a minor agreement and risking rank-n-file anti-abortion voters potentially seeing Obama more favorably.


Obama Seal Gone: Nation’s Sanity Still in Question

June 24, 2008

The Obama campaign has rather wisely dropped the use of their latest logo, after much mockery.

Me, I’m left saddened and embarrassed for the media commentators who couldn’t resist piling on this story, and the many many people who took this non-issue seriously.

Political commentator Larry Sabato gets it right on the first try:

“The press corps adopts a subtext for each candidate,” Sabato told The Examiner. “Daddy Bush was ‘a nice guy but out of touch.’ Bill Clinton was ‘smart but randy.’ Bob Dole was ‘heroic but too old.’ Gore was ‘brilliant but a fibber and a bore.’ Dubya was ‘pleasant but dumb.’”

He added: “Obama’s subtext is rapidly becoming ‘charismatic but arrogant.’”

None of these characterizations of any of these politicians was built on honest, accurate, or comprehensive appraisal of any of these men. Few of the claimed traits (except maybe for Clinton being “randy” and Dole being “old”) actually seem more characteristic of the men in question than they are for the others. Instead, they’re built out of an accretion of heavily interpreted, and often factually challenged, fluff pieces. Of which this seal case was the perfect, almost paradigmatic, example.

This is one more reason I’m far more cynical about voters (more in the aggregate than any individual) than I am about politicians, or even the media. It’s ultimately voter behavior that drives how politicians act, react, and how they present themselves. It’s voter demand that favors schoolyard psychoanalyzing for their election coverage instead of actual policy debates.

Voters get legitimately frustrated and cynical about our political system. But the political system has just as much cause to be frustrated with voters right back.


Almost Final Word on Obama Seal Nonsense

June 22, 2008

I honestly haven’t had a lot of interest in doing much election commentary here at the Bad Idea Blog, but there’s always just so much stupid flying around that it’s often hard to help myself.

Bland... but outrageous apparentlyTake this latest manufactroversy: the Obama campaign has been sporting a new logo, which sports elements of the standard U.S. Seal designs.

Can you guess what happens next? Of course: people immediately declare that it’s a bastardization of the Presidential Seal. And that particular Seal, something no one gave any thought to two days ago, has suddenly become one of the most sacred and inviolable images in the national consciousness. Holy Arrogance Batman! cries one anti-Obama website.

Even if it was actually a version of the Presidential Seal, I’d still be at a loss as to exactly how it would be arrogant: campaigns remix all sorts of patriotic iconography for their materials all the time. But, in fact, it’s not even that.

SighFolks, if you want to style yourself the proud defenders of the honor of U.S. icons from the petty purposes of politicians, perhaps you should learn more about them first. The symbolic elements on Obama’s logo are not, in fact, unique to the Presidential Seal. They are, in fact, known as the Great Seal of the United States, and it’s found all over the place. It’s on various Congressional Seals as well, as well as various government agencies. It’s stamped on most official U.S. documents. (And no, desperate defenders, a non-forged non-reproduction of similar elements is not a violation of federal law, as some have claimed)

And it gets even more ridiculous. The Drudgereport has headlined the logo as “Obama Changes U.S. Presidential Seal…” Can you get any more ridiculous than that (yes, you can, for instance: John A. Davison)? Well, sorry to deflate the hew and cry, but the Presidential Seal has not been “changed.” It’s still exactly the same as it was as far as I can tell.

This is just yet another example of political pareidolia: people hyped up on campaign crack who inevitably fit every single news tidbit into the same caricature of already chosen candidate of their ire.

You see, the logo isn’t, can’t possibly be just some of the standard sorts of US iconography used and remixed a million different ways on lots of campaign materials. It couldn’t even just be a seal similar to the Great Seal. No no: it’s THE Presidential seal, and bastardized by Obama’s fabled ego.

From the way these people go on about it, it’s as if they imagined Obama personally stole an official seal a trip to the White House, cut it up with scissors, scrawled all over it, and spray-painted it blue.

Folks, that’s not even remotely how campaigns work. Here’s pretty much the spectrum of where these sorts of things usually come from:

1) Whatever random Democratic design firm Obama’s campaign employs is tasked with coming up with a new logo. They, a bunch of random folks in a boardroom with a whiteboard, sit around brainstorming, pump out a few clunkers, and campaign people eventually reject most of them, liking bits of others. At the end of the process, they end up with the one everyone hates the least. And we’re off.

2) The campaign goes more grassroots: it needs a new logo, and fast, and HQ scrambles. Some random teenager “hey, I’m pretty good with photoshop!” and whips this up. The campaign, or even the candidate pats them on the head, and says “uh, thanks kid!” And we’re off.

But of course, none of that sort of inoffensive everyday nonsense fits easily into the “arrogance” narrative.

I can’t wait until this election is over, and the collective IQ of the country shoots back up to normal.


Obama Goes There: Pulls Race Rank on Republicans

June 20, 2008

Bad move, I think.

“We know what kind of campaign they’re going to run,” said the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. “They’re going to try to make you afraid. They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. ‘He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?’”

Even if Obama is dead positive that Republicans are going to push hard on racial prejudice, getting out there ahead of them is just dumb. It might help rally Democrats who’ll believe nothing but the worst of their political opposites, but the unavoidable implication Obama is making here is that Republicans and Independents are dangerously susceptible to racist cues.

Believe that’s true if you want. But you still can’t avoid the implication that it’s simply insulting to anyone who fancies themselves undecided and thus the implied fertile target of subtle bigotry. And that’s just not likely to win anyone over. As I noted before in response to an Obama support who sees racism everywhere, it’s basically a lose lose move.

In similar comments at a Chicago fundraiser last Thursday, Obama told supporters that Republicans would try to portray both him and his wife Michelle as “scary.”

“They’re going to try to make me into a scary guy,” he said last week. “They’re even trying to make Michelle into a scary person. Right?” And so that drumbeat – ‘we’re not sure if he’s patriotic or not; we’re not sure if he is too black.’

“I don’t know, before I wasn’t black enough,” said Obama. “‘Now he might be too black. We don’t know whether he’s going to socialize – well, who knows what.'”

It’s especially unfortunate, because otherwise Obama has things dead right here about what everyone from Fox to 527s will be busy doing over the next few months. Well, and of course what everyone from MoveOn to Michael Moore will be busy trying to do to McCain. They’ll just be telling different sorts of stories.