McCain’s debate dilemma

It was no secret that the McCain-Palin campaign was in trouble two weeks ago. With the elections looming, they were stagnant in the polls. The Palin boomlet was gone and she was increasingly seen as a liability, firing up the base but alienating pretty much everyone else. McCain’s stunt of ‘suspending’ his campaign to solve the financial crisis was widely viewed as at best erratic and at worst a pathetic attempt to gain attention.

As was predicted by many observers, the campaign tried to turn things around by going nasty, attempting to paint Obama as the ‘Dangerous Other’, the person who is ‘not like us’. There were allegations by McCain and Palin that we don’t really know who he is, that Obama has mysterious past that is unexamined, and that he has perhaps secrets that he wants to conceal.

These kinds of vague suspicion dropping are meant to create a canvas onto which people can project their own fears and phantasms. And the crowds at the McCain-Palin rallies and the third-tier pundit fringe in the media dutifully obliged. Obama is secretly a Muslim, Obama is an Arab, Obama is a terrorist (for some of the more deranged and ignorant, all three are equivalent), Obama is a radical, and so on. Of course, the fact that Obama is black was undoubtedly enough fire up the racist elements. .

Palin’s comment that Obama ‘does not see America like you and me’ and has been ‘palling around with terrorists’ was a particular low point, inciting some people to yell out ‘traitor’.

It is true that anybody in a crowd can shout out unpleasant things. It is the climate that the speaker sets up and how he or she responds that is significant. It is an unfortunate fact of life that it really does not take much talent to be a rabble-rouser. People have pent up latent hostilities and insecurities that they normally keep a lid on for fear of societal disapproval. But when a public figure seems to signal approval of such sentiments by silence and even encourages it in crowds, the top comes off and the hate spews out.

This is what we have seen in the last week or so. The response by the crowds at the rallies to this kind of incitement has been downright ugly, shouting epithets, and for many days McCain and Palin did not rebuke them.

But taking this low road does not seem to have worked. The polls have shown increasing levels of public disapproval of both of them, their support has dropped precipitously, and even their supporters in the establishment have voiced concern at the ugliness. Establishment conservatives are finding the campaign increasingly distasteful and counterproductive and are beginning to say so, further enraging the third-tier pundit brigade.

But even on this issue McCain is erratic. After a supporter at a rally last Monday asked McCain when he was ‘going to take the gloves off’ (i.e., be even more direct about these types of allegations) McCain responded to the delight of the crowd ‘How about tomorrow?” It seemed like was signaling that he was going to be on the attack at last Tuesday’s debate and no doubt many of his supporters tuned in hoping to see fireworks. Instead they saw a seemingly befuddled McCain whose main attack on Obama was that he supported an earmark request for a new projection system to replace the forty-year old one at the popular Adler planetarium.

This opened the door for the Obama campaign to gently taunt him and raise issues of cowardice. In an interview with ABC’s Charles Gibson, Obama expressed surprise that McCain had not said the things he says in rallies to his face. Biden also chimed in that in his neighborhood if you had something bad to say about someone, you said it to his face.

When Gibson later told McCain about Obama’s comments, McCain was clearly on the defensive and said that no one could accuse him of being a coward.

More recently, McCain has rebuked some of the people at some rallies who have raised these issues while at other times has repeated those insinuations, the switch sometimes occurring within the space of fifteen minutes. Then yesterday, McCain has again promised to be aggressive at tonight’s debate.

It seems like either he is not sure what to do or is trying to keep Obama off balance, not sure what to expect.

So which McCain is going to turn up at tonight’s debate? I am told that the format will be like the first, a more free-wheeling format that allows for more digressions and debate and allows the candidates to bring up issues not related to the questions.

His extremist supporters are expecting him to really sock it to Obama and if he doesn’t they are going to be disgruntled, to put it mildly. But history indicates that revealing a nasty side with personal attacks in these debates is a losing proposition.

On the other, the fact that the Obama camp is taunting him with insinuations of cowardice must rankle McCain who likes to portray himself as a hero. The fact that McCain has a volatile temper and flies into uncontrollable rages is well known, although not publicly seen on the campaign so far. The possibility that McCain might be goaded into losing control must be causing some concern to his campaign managers. There must also be the fear that the Obama camp is trying to get him to take the bait and personally attack because they have a response ready.

So while there is a global financial crisis, two wars underway, major problems with health care to be addressed, and large numbers of people losing their homes, what we have is a psychodrama, worthy of a TV show, as to who will win the debate mind game.

We can pretty much expect that the Obama we will see tonight is the same one we have seen all along: cool and cerebral. He is not going to fire anyone up but he is not going to make a fool of himself either.

But which McCain will show up? The sometimes confused grandpa figure, constantly talking about earmarks and how he is a maverick? Or the sneering, disdainful, and arrogant figure, the person who earned the nickname McNasty?

Stay tuned.

POST SCRIPT: Obama = Lisa?

And now a Simpsons metaphor for the candidates.

Solving the mortgage mess

Now that we have the subprime mortgage mess, solving it is inevitably going to create a sense of injustice in some quarters. During the second Obama-McCain debate, I was startled by McCain’s sudden revelation of a new plan to address the mortgage crisis:

“As president of the United States…I would order the secretary of the treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate at the new value of those homes — at the diminished value of those homes and let people be able to make those — be able to make those payments and stay in their homes.

“Is it expensive? Yes. But we all know, my friends, until we stabilize home values in America, we’re never going to start turning around and creating jobs and fixing our economy.”

He emphasized that this was his very own plan, not Obama’s or Bush’s. But it turns out that Obama had said something seemingly similar in a speech given on September 23, saying:

“For example, we should consider giving the government the authority to purchase mortgages directly instead of simply purchasing mortgage-backed securities. In the past, such an approach has allowed taxpayers to profit as the housing market recovered.”

But while the broad details of the McCain and Obama plans appear similar, apparently the details McCain’s plan, released later, are different enough from his own that the of Obama camp is now criticizing the McCain plan as mainly benefiting the financial institutions that caused this mess.

What McCain seems to be suggesting is this. Suppose someone has a $200,000 mortgage on a home that is now worth only $100,000. McCain’s plan would purchase the mortgage from the banks at the full value ($200,000), and then renegotiate the mortgage with homeowner for $100,000. This enables the banks to be fully bailed out of the consequences of their reckless lending, and also bails out the homeowners. It is the taxpayers who foot the bill for the remaining $100,000.

Critics have argued that there is no reason that the banks should be bailed out this way by buying the mortgages at face value. Instead they should pay them the ‘real’ value of the mortgages. But determining the ownership and real value of individual mortgages is not going to be easy since they have been bundled and sliced and diced on their way to being transformed into easily marketable securities.

Clearly the banks want to get as high a price as they can. But they have no real leverage in this situation except for what they have by virtue of their influence with the government partly purchased through their lobbyists’ contributions to politicians.

The government should use its leverage to say that they will not bail out the banks but will instead take them over (partially or wholly) by purchasing their stock and thus gaining control. Then they will be able to benefit when home values eventually rise and the banks become more stable and their stock values go up. The government can then sell its stock and get out of the retail banking business. But in the interim, they will have effectively nationalized these institutions, the way they have already nationalized Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and AIG.

This is the model being practiced by the European countries led by England and is based on the Swedish solution to their 1992 crisis.

Sweden did not just bail out its financial institutions by having the government take over the bad debts. It extracted pounds of flesh from bank shareholders before writing checks. Banks had to write down losses and issue warrants to the government.

That strategy held banks responsible and turned the government into an owner. When distressed assets were sold, the profits flowed to taxpayers, and the government was able to recoup more money later by selling its shares in the companies as well.

It now seems that the US government is adopting this very solution. Of course, this move smacks of socialism and adopting it will be a tacit concession that capitalism has at least partly failed. It will thus be anathema to those ideologues who do not see problems as requiring pragmatic solutions based on whatever realistic options are available but as requiring actions based on an ideological template. The true free-market believers will say that the government should do absolutely nothing and let the chips fall where they may, irrespective of however many banks go under.

But the people who run the US are neither socialists nor free-market capitalists. What the current crisis reveals only too plainly is that they are ‘state capitalists’, who think that the government should serve the interests of the big corporations and financial institutions.

But facing a real chance of public revolt over a blatant giveaway to the very financial institutions and people who created this mess, the government seems to be reconciling itself to the fact that it must adopt some variant of the Swedish/English model, and Paulson’s revised plan seems to reflect that.

However, the way the US government has been itself lurching from one plan to another does not inspire much confidence. As Josh Marshall points out: “[T]he fact that [Paulson] rammed through his bailout bill as absolutely essential to saving the economy, only to decide a few days later that we need something dramatically different, does not inspire me with great confidence in his grasp of the nature of the crisis.”

POST SCRIPT: Tone deafness by the McCain camp

McCain has been getting hammered by Obama for advocating policies that seem to ignore the middle class and cater to the rich. Presumably feeling the need to respond to this charge, the McCain campaign has produced a new tax proposal they say is aimed at the middle class.

What is it? They are proposing a capital gains tax cut!

What are they thinking? It is mostly the rich who worry about capital gains taxes or even know what it is. They are the ones who are constantly asking for cuts in the capital gains tax and even its elimination.

Second, with the current stock market and housing market downturns, people are facing huge capital losses, not gains, so they are unlikely to be paying any such taxes soon.

While this may be just another effort to use the crisis to ram through a policy that will eventually favor the rich when the economy recovers, it is another sign that the McCain has no sensitivity to what concerns ordinary people.

Retirement savings losses

Like most people who have retirement accounts, the beginning of October saw the arrival of my quarterly statements and they did not make for pleasant reading. Mine showed a drop of 12% since the beginning of the year.

I have heard many people express dismay over similar losses. It is, of course, not pleasant to see ones savings drop so sharply. But at the same time, we have to realize that what we may be seeing is a drop from an artificially high and inflated value. Over the past few years, those same retirement accounts have grown at a rapid clip due to the galloping stock market prices.

While reading the quarterly statements back in the good old days (i.e., last year) were fun, I never thought of that as ‘real’ money or wealth, the way I view the money in my bank account. It is like the value of my home. It may go up or down but as long as I am not selling it or trying to borrow against it, it has no effect on my life except psychologically.

Talking of the good old days, wasn’t it was just this summer that $150 billion was given away as $600 to each taxpayer and that this ‘stimulus package’ was supposed to solve all our financial problems by the simple expedient of having people go shopping? Ah, those were the good times.

As I have mentioned before, if we think of the virtual economy of the stock market as being a measure of the real economy, then the Dow Jones Index should only be about 5,500, still below its current value. So, except for people who are forced to convert their stock assets into actual cash, there has been no tangible loss.

What is extraordinary is the effort by some to blame the whole subprime mess on what they claim is the effort by the government to provide loans to poor and minority communities to encourage them to buy homes. They say that this is what encouraged risky lending practices. This is flat-out false.

There were of course many people who did buy homes and made other major purchases based on a false sense of wealth and it is they who are now really feeling the pain. There are those people who bought homes they could not really afford before the real estate market went sour, for which they now owe more money than the house is worth and hence have now defaulted. It is uncertainty both about the scope and extent of this default problem and the worth of the securitized investments made out of bundled mortgages that seems to fueling the loss of confidence in banks and the stock market.

To be sure, many individuals were greedy and took advantage of the chance to buy expensive homes at inflated values based on artificially low introductory rates. Many of them also spent way more than they should have on credit, maxing out their cards. Have we forgotten that people have long been strongly urged to shop, and that it was almost their patriotic duty to do so in order to keep the economy going? Credit card offers were plentiful and so easy to obtain that we were regaled with stories of even cats and dogs obtaining them. Now it seems that credit card debt was also ‘securitized’ like home mortgages were and those debts are also in danger of default, and suddenly people are being lectured to sternly for their thriftless ways.

People seemed to have had an unrealistic sense of what they could and could not afford. Such people are by no means blameless. But what they are guilty of is greed. They cannot be blamed for the mess because they are not the ones who were in control of the situation.
It should also not be forgotten that not all home mortgage or credit card defaults are due to greed. Some people default because of factors outside their control, like loss of their job or a major illness. In fact, the largest factor in personal bankruptcies is due to the cost of medical care.

It is the banks that we expect to be the grown ups in this situation, who should understand what risks are reasonable. They are the professionals. They are not obliged to give loans to whoever asks for them. It is they who are supposed to check on the value of the homes that are being bought and the ability of the purchaser to pay back the loans before they lend money.

But the banks did not practice the kind of due diligence that was called for. So while they, like the homeowners, are also guilty of greed, they definitely bear the major responsibility for the mess.

POST SCRIPT: Crazy prayers

The idiocy of some religious believers never ceases to amaze me. Take this invocation given by Rev. Arnold Conrad, past pastor of the Grace Evangelical Free Church at a McCain rally in Davenport, Iowa.

“I would also pray, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god — whether it’s Hindu, Buddha, Allah — that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons,” Conrad said.

“And Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they’re going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name with all that happens between now and Election Day,” he said.

Apart from the pastor’s ignorance (he mixes up the names of gods with the names of the religions) he is warning his Christian god that this election is being seen as a grudge match between him and his competitor gods and that if he doesn’t act to make McCain win, he wont be able to show his face in the neighborhood again. Unbelievable.

Unbalanced coverage-2: More examples

(I wrote the first post in this two-part series some time ago. I got distracted by the bailout and political coverage.)

There are a few journalists in the US who push the boundaries of the propaganda envelope to the extent that they can to try to get at the facts. What they report is not pretty, which is why the government tries very hard to suppress such efforts.

Seymour Hersh in a speech in 2006 describes how civilian deaths in Iraq get mysteriously transformed into enemy combatants.

[Hersh] described one video in which American soldiers massacre a group of people playing soccer. 

“Three U.S. armed vehicles, eight soldiers in each, are driving through a village, passing candy out to kids,” he began. “Suddenly the first vehicle explodes, and there are soldiers screaming. Sixteen soldiers come out of the other vehicles, and they do what they’re told to do, which is look for running people.” 

“Never mind that the bomb was detonated by remote control,” Hersh continued. “[The soldiers] open up fire; [the] cameras show it was a soccer game.” 

“About ten minutes later, [the soldiers] begin dragging bodies together, and they drop weapons there. It was reported as 20 or 30 insurgents killed that day,” he said. 

If Americans knew the full extent of U.S. criminal conduct, they would receive returning Iraqi veterans as they did Vietnam veterans, Hersh said. 

“In Vietnam, our soldiers came back and they were reviled as baby killers, in shame and humiliation,” he said. “It isn’t happening now, but I will tell you – there has never been an [American] army as violent and murderous as our army has been in Iraq.”

As far as I can tell, this horrific incident did not get much coverage in the major media.

Meanwhile in the other conflict, Russia has recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a move condemned by the US and western Europe. This has caused predictable outrage from the administration and the media about Russia seeking to forcibly change national boundaries, but don’t hold your breath expecting any reporter to ask Bush (or Obama or McCain) how this differs from US recognition of Kosovo as an independent state, which took place in February of this year, following the earlier breakup of Yugoslavia and the forcible separation of Kosovo from Serbia by NATO.

One can multiply such examples over and over. NPR on August 26, 2008 reported that the people of South Ossetia, who want to secede from Georgia and join up with Russia, justified their case by reporting all kinds of atrocities by Georgian troops, such as ripping open the bellies of pregnant Ossetian women, that justified the Russian response. The reporter rightly said that there had been no evidence produced that such things had actually occurred.

But that reporter’s skepticism in this case made me recall the similar lurid allegations made about Iraqi troops after they invaded Kuwait in 1990, saying that they were taking incubators away from hospitals and taking them back to Iraq, leaving babies to die.

A young woman named Nayirah appeared in front of a congressional committee. She told the committee, “I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where 15 babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the babies on the cold floor to die.

These reports were uncritically accepted as true by reporters and used to inflame public opinion against Iraq. Human rights groups like Amnesty International reported that 312 babies had died as a result of this atrocity.

Reporters did not seek independent confirmation of this sensational report. They did not even seek to find out who this mysterious young woman was who gave such dramatic testimony. It was only much later that it was revealed that this entire incubator story had been concocted by the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton which was working for the Kuwaiti government and was friendly with then president George H. W. Bush, and that the “eyewitness” Nayirah was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US and had not seen any of the things she claimed she had.

Similar unsubstantiated stories appeared at the UN a few weeks later, where a team of “witnesses,” coached by Hill & Knowlton, gave “testimony” (although no oath was ever taken) about atrocities in Iraq. It was later learned that the seven witnesses used false names and even identities in one case. In an unprecedented move, the US was allowed to present a video created by Hill & Knowlton to the entire security council.

(For some other examples of the media uncritically passing on government lies, see here.)

This is why I always suspend judgment and never believe the lurid stories that come out during times of crisis, especially if they reflect badly on ‘them’. The media simply cannot be trusted to provide balanced coverage and until I hear of real evidence my presumption is that they are uncritically passing on government propaganda.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Puddles, where are you?

The Daily Show manages to make the boring debate absolutely hilarious.

Reflections on the debates

Here’s an old joke:

There was this old man who had a favorite hunting story that he liked to tell over and over. Even though his friends and family had heard it many times, he was always looking for a suitable opportunity in any gathering to repeat it.

At one function, there was no break in the conversation that gave him the chance, so he took his walking stick and, when no one was looking, struck the ground hard with it, making a loud report.

In the startled silence that followed, he said “What’s that? A gun shot? Well, talking about guns . . .”

Ok, so it’s not a great joke. Not even a good one. I am terrible at telling jokes and don’t even remember them shortly after hearing them.

The point is that that old joke suddenly popped into my head during the Obama-McCain debate, when McCain took whatever opportunity he got to go on about earmarks. It seems like it is his favorite topic, something that he works into every speech and interview, delighting in the details.

He went on about the three million dollar earmark that Obama, as part of the Illinois delegation, had requested for an ‘overhead projector’, implying that this for something you find in any classroom and was a boondoggle. It was actually for a projector for the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, to project the night sky onto the dome. It is the oldest planetarium in the US and whose current projector is forty years old. Those projectors are expensive.

But that was not my point. Sure, earmarks are not good budget practice. But they are not the worst things in the world. In fact, in the grand scheme of things within the US budget, they are rather small potatoes. If you get rid of every earmark, you would still have huge financial problems. McCain’s seems overly obsessed with them even as we are talking of trillion dollar bailouts and while he wants to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts to wealthy people.

At some point, you begin to wonder whether McCain’s focus on earmarks is a way to avoid talking about real budgetary issues. It seems to have become a gimmick, a way to score cheap points.

The debate itself was a rather boring, I thought. The candidates pretty much rehashed the same things they have been saying for a long time. I didn’t think there was a clear winner but the snap polls all indicate that Obama won quite handily. (See here, here, and here.)

The format was awful. So far, only the first debate was a real debate. At times, both candidates seemed to want to break free of the rigid constraints and get more free-wheeling but the smug and self-important moderator Tom Brokaw (easily one of the most annoying people on network news, even worse than Gwen Ifill who moderated the vice presidential debate) kept reining them in, reminding them about the rules that had been agreed upon. His selection of questions was mediocre.

But if the candidates themselves wanted to change the rules in mid-debate, why shouldn’t they be allowed to? (There was a great episode in The West Wing when at the beginning of a presidential debate, just after the moderator had read all the detailed rules about time limits and no cross-talk and the like, the candidates decided to chuck them and simply talk back and forth. Too bad that only happens in fiction.)

One item that irritated me was McCain’s repeated claim that he knows how to get Bin Laden:

He has said this before, and at other times has also said that he knows how to end the war in Iraq. But if he does know how to do all these things, why has he not told President Bush? Surely, if he “puts country first” then he should have told Bush his secret plans a long time ago to get the country out of the current mess, rather than using it as a lure to get people to vote for him. What if he loses? Is he going to take his secret plans and sulk, refusing to share it with anybody, like a spoiled child? Why doesn’t someone question him on the ethics of keeping it secret? It reminded me of Nixon’s ‘secret’ plan to end the Vietnam war.

Meanwhile, last week, NBC news anchor Brian Williams and David Letterman had a surprisingly thoughtful analysis of the campaign so far and the vice-presidential debate (except for some nonsense midway about how great Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert are):

Part 1:

Part 2:

Letterman made a good observation about Sarah Palin taking everyone by surprise with her opening “Can I call you Joe” remark to Biden as they were being introduced. I too thought it a little odd but put it down to a mere affectation. Letterman thinks that she did this in order to set up her planned line “Say it ain’t so, Joe” later in the debate. Since it has become clear that during the debate she was reading much of her responses from cue cards, that kind of set up for a ‘zinger’ would not surprise me.

POST SCRIPT: Train metaphor for candidates

One thing that struck me during the debate was that McCain looked and walked and talked like an old man. His allusions were dated. Some older people have an old-world style is graceful and charming and even reassuring. But McCain just comes across as out of touch and cranky.


(Thanks to a commenter at DailyKos.)

If you liked the train metaphor, then take a look at this one.

Obama and the Bradley effect

Will attempts by the McCain camp to paint Obama as some kind of sinister and dangerous figure work?

Analysts seem to feel that such smear campaigns can be effective at times. Recall the absurd situation in 2004 where John Kerry’s actual service in Vietnam was ridiculed and called into question by the supporters of Bush and Cheney, both of whom were draft dodgers. Recall also the anti-gay marriage sentiment that seemingly played an important role in that same election.

So far, the normal hot-button issues of sexual orientation and abortion and guns have not played prominent roles in the campaign. This leaves race as the emotional issue that can be exploited. And rest assured it will be, along with all kinds of attempts to impugn the character of Obama using guilt by association.

In trying to run a smear campaign, the McCain campaign is hampered by its own baggage. For every attempt to paint Obama as an elitist, we have the McCains’ dozen (?) homes, thirteen cars, and private plane, and the fact that the outfit that Cindy McCain wore at the Republican convention allegedly cost around $300,000.
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Brace yourself

Breaking news: Barack Obama is black.

It is quite remarkable how little salience that fact has had in the race so far considering that if he wins, the election of the first non-white president of the United States is an event of major historic significance. While his ethnicity is a complex one, he cannot escape (and has in fact wisely embraced) the shorthand description of being black. For his campaign to have insisted on accuracy would have been to draw attention to trivial questions of race and ethnicity that are at best distractions and at worst would make race too important an issue.

When Obama speaks in a debate or gives speeches or is interviewed, the fact that he is black is not the most prominent impression he makes, at least for me. It is just an incidental item that registers in the background, like that he is tall or slim. Obama is on his way to becoming the Tiger Woods of politics. Just as the latter is no longer ‘the black golfer’, Barack Obama has almost, but not quite, reached the stage of not being ‘the black presidential candidate’. That is quite an achievement.

But the next month will see if he has made the complete transition to Tigerness. We are now entering the last stages of the presidential campaign, something I have been long dreading. With the McCain candidacy declining steadily in the polls and on a direct path to losing despite the Hail Marys thrown by them (selecting Sarah Palin and ‘suspending’ his campaign because of the financial crisis), you can expect them to now do desperate things.

By this I mean going well beyond the standard negative campaigning tactics of distorting your opponent’s record, taking their statements out of context, impugning motives, and focusing on style in order to give misleading impressions. Those things have always been part of politics.

No, I expect them to go nuclear, throwing everything at Obama to make him into the stereotype of the dangerous black man, to seek to change his image from that of a Tiger Woods to more of a Dennis Rodman, to transform him in the eyes of white people from someone whom you would welcome into your home to the kind of person you cross the street to avoid.

The McCain camp has already telegraphed their disgusting strategy and Sarah Palin has started the process:

Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Saturday accused Democrat Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists” because of his association with a former 1960s radical, stepping up the campaign’s effort to portray Obama as unacceptable to American voters.
. . .
Falling behind Obama in polls, the Republican campaign plans to make attacks on Obama’s character a centerpiece of candidate John McCain’s message in the final weeks of the presidential race.
. . .
Palin’s remark about Obama “palling around with terrorists” comes as e-mails circulate on the Internet with suggestions that the Democratic candidate is secretly a radical, foreign-born Muslim with designs against the U.S. — even though Obama is a native of Hawaii, a Christian and has no connections to Muslim extremists.

McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis (himself now under a cloud because of revelations of his lobbying links to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) spelled out how such character assassinations are done.

The premise of any smear campaign rests on a central truth of politics: Most of us will vote for a candidate we like and respect, even if we don’t agree with him on every issue. But if you can cripple a voter’s basic trust in a candidate, you can probably turn his vote. The idea is to find some piece of personal information that is tawdry enough to raise doubts, repelling a candidate’s natural supporters.
. . .
It’s not necessary, however, for a smear to be true to be effective. The most effective smears are based on a kernel of truth and applied in a way that exploits a candidate’s political weakness.

(Thanks to BarbinMD for the link.)

Ironically, when Davis wrote the above, he was accusing those in favor of George W. Bush of using those very same dirty tactics against McCain in the 2000 Republican primary campaign when Bush was losing to McCain. Bush went on to win. Since McCain has now hired many of those very same Bush operatives to run his 2008 campaign, we should not be surprised to see a reprise of those tactics, now used by McCain against Obama.

One important factor in a successful smear campaign is the ability to create an ‘echo chamber’ for these slurs, to get it widely circulated in the media. The current financial crisis has been getting banner headlines and has been used to scare people into voting for this huge bailout. Given that financial issues are using up so much media airtime, it may be harder to get traction for this strategy. I suspect that people are more likely to be swayed by extraneous things when there are no major issues gripping their attention.

So will the McCain-Palin attempt at raising so-called character issues at such a time work? Or will it be seen as fiddling while Rome burns?

Frankly, I am not a good judge of whether raising extraneous issues will succeed. I don’t have a good feel for the pulse of the people. I really should get out more.

While I am very cynical of the way the government serves mainly the interests of the rich and powerful and influential, I am usually more hopeful about the good nature and good sense of people in general over the long term. Each election time I think that people will not be swayed by trivialities and will vote on the basis of what truly will affect their lives. And while most are like that, unfortunately there do seem to be some people who can be swayed by such appeals to their fears and intolerance.

Whether those numbers will be enough to sway the outcome of this election is something I cannot gauge.

Tomorrow: More on racial politics

POST SCRIPT: And now, live, the vice presidential debate!

Saturday Night Live had its by now obligatory Sarah Palin parody with Tina Fey, with the bonus of Queen Latifah playing moderator Gwen Ifill.


Government of the Dow, by the Dow, for the Dow

The recent financial crisis and the frantic (and finally successful) attempt by the government and Wall Street to strong-arm the public to provide immediate relief to the very institutions that caused the crisis is striking evidence, if anyone needed it, of exactly for whose benefit the government is run: Wall Street. You can ignore all the blather about how this bailout was needed to prevent ordinary people from financial ruin. That may or may not be true. What is indubitable is that if Wall Street interests were not at stake, nothing would have been done.

As was clearly evident in the past week, while the government can drag its feet for decades, say it is too expensive, and take no action to solve urgent problems like health care, when it comes to giving away nearly a trillion dollars to the financial industry, it can act with lightning speed. And you can be sure that when this money runs out (as it surely will as Wall Street institutions get their greedy hands on it) and next financial ‘crisis’ appears, we will be asked to cough up even more, and told that otherwise the sacrifices we have already made will be ‘wasted’. This is the same argument given for continuing the war in Iraq.
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Crisis? What crisis? Which crisis? Whose crisis?

In the midst of all this panic about a financial meltdown, it is hard to get a sense of how to actually measure if there is a crisis or not. Clearly there are various measures that can be used: the number of houses foreclosed, the number of personal bankruptcies, the number of banks going under, the amount of credit available, the state of the stock market, and so on. While they are all connected in some way, which ones should we be paying most attention to?

Deciding which measures are being used to say there is a crisis is important because that will drive the efforts to resolve it. Clearly what is concerning the political leadership is the state of the financial market, and the current bailout efforts seemed to be aimed at reassuring the banking, insurance, and other financial sectors and propping up the stock market. People are being scared and told that if the stock market declines their retirement savings will go down the tubes.
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Sarah Palin, a river of babble-on*

Tonight the nation finally gets to see Sarah Palin live and unplugged, presumably speaking unscripted.

The last three weeks have been mixed for her. On the one hand, she has drawn large and adoring crowds to rallies and meetings, being a bigger attraction than John McCain or Joe Biden. But despite this, her campaign has gone to extraordinary lengths to shield her from reporters. The two interviews she gave to Charles Gibson of ABC News and Katie Couric of CBS News were excruciatingly painful to watch, as you can judge for yourself from these excerpts from the latter.
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