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.”

Advertisements

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

Read the rest of this entry »


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’s Faith Based Mistake

July 1, 2008

An Obama presidency, apparently, will mean more “faith-based” programs funded by the government. Starting life as Bill Clinton’s “Charitable Choice” and then becoming yet another a clumsy partisan bludgeon in the Bush administration under the name of his “faith-based initiatives,” the drive to drive more government money into the hands of religious groups has always had a questionable track record. Religious groups themselves have been wary of government strings attached, and a whole lot of questionable programs with dubious efficacy have ended up with oodles of handouts (and the payouts have often been suspiciously partisan).

So color me somewhat skeptical that an Obama-run version is going to be any better. I’m mostly with Barry Lynn: shut the program down entirely. Go back to simply funding non-profits to provide services, and let churches figure out how to organize as non-profit charities, including all the same regulations and responsibilities, if they want any moola. Let the rules be the same for everyone, instead of trying to give religious groups special treatment.

On the other hand, Obama does get the above issue mostly right where Bush got it wrong:

And while Bush supports allowing all religious groups to make any employment decisions based on faith, Obama proposes allowing religious institutions to hire and fire based on religion only in the non-taxpayer-funded portions of their activities — consistent with current federal, state and local laws. “That makes perfect sense,” he said.

It does. The issue is simple: when the government contracts out some service to a private organization, what they’re paying for is the service, not the promotion of someone else’s ideology. For many religious organizations, this is potentially a problem: they don’t want the taking of some government money to force them to change all of their programs and services and ideals. The solution is simply to keep a separate set of books: to separate out the charitable service from the religious part.

Catholic charities have, in fact, functioned like this for decades, mostly without any problems at all. The modern Catholic attitude here has always been the most laudable: help people first. Not as a means promote their religion, but because their religion calls us to do it. And if people are inspired by that, want to understand what would motivate such charity, well great.

Unfortunately, too many evangelical organizations basically see the promotion of their ideology itself as the primary act of charity in many of these endeavors. Sure, we’d like to get you off drugs. But it’s getting you hooked on Jesus that will really help you. And that’s where we run into problems… and get lame whining like this:

That’s because telling a small organization to keep employees hired with federal funds separate from others “is unmanageable — and besides those folks want to hire people who share their vision and mission,” Towey said.

Sorry, but that’s just pathetic. If you care more about your own vision and ideology than providing the charity or service you’re supposed to be providing, that’s fine. But in that case, you don’t have the right to expect other taxpayers’ money to pay for your proselytizing, or to get a gay taxpayer’s money for your program only to turn around and discriminate against the person who’s unwillingly paying for it.


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.