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Posts For: January 8, 2008

More from Paul

This latest from the recently-uncovered files of Ron Paul (hat tip: Daniel Koffler at PJM):

“The intensity with which Israel lobbies in the U.S. Congress is surpassed only by its media campaigns to drown all criticism of Israel. Prominent U.S. Editors and media owners don’t even pretend to objectivity on the issue. They all follow the advice of Norman Podhoretz, editor of the influential neo-conservative magazine Commentary….” [Our emphasis –ed.]

Source: The Ron Paul Political Report, date uncertain

I work here and I didn’t know the extent of our sinister power.

This latest from the recently-uncovered files of Ron Paul (hat tip: Daniel Koffler at PJM):

“The intensity with which Israel lobbies in the U.S. Congress is surpassed only by its media campaigns to drown all criticism of Israel. Prominent U.S. Editors and media owners don’t even pretend to objectivity on the issue. They all follow the advice of Norman Podhoretz, editor of the influential neo-conservative magazine Commentary….” [Our emphasis –ed.]

Source: The Ron Paul Political Report, date uncertain

I work here and I didn’t know the extent of our sinister power.

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The Turnout Revolution

As in Iowa on Thursday, the big story out of New Hampshire is a colossal turnout among those wanting to vote Democratic — double the number in 2004 in Iowa and who knows how many more than usual in New Hampshire, where the Secretary of State’s office had to print up new ballots and drive them to various polling places across the state. Aside from the obvious fact here, which is that Barack Obama is likely to bury Hillary Clinton in an avalanche when the tallies are completed tonight, it is time to accept the altered nature of the political landscape in the United States. Sluggish voter participation in major U.S. elections is a thing of the past. Increasingly, Americans are interested in and enthusiastic about going to the voting booth. That is due in part to new technologies that have been devised to identify non-voters, which has allowed well-designed political campaigns to use person-to-person persuasion to get the slugs to leave their homes on Election Day. These new technologies entirely benefited the Republicans, who spent tens of millions of dollars putting them in place between 2000 and 2004. Once Democrats saw how effective they were, Democrats spent the same boodle on their own systems and ended the Republican advantage. Add to that the sense of empowerment provided to so many by the Internet and the net result is a transformation few would have believed possible. It’s, in a way, a parallel to the crime drop of the 1990s — no one ever imagined civic culture in the United States would actually improve, that the trend lines were grounds only for pessimism. But just as the New York City in which I live now is better in very nearly every respect from the city I grew up in in the 1960s and 1970s because its civic life was restored, so it is with the civic life in the United States, at least as measured by voting.

As in Iowa on Thursday, the big story out of New Hampshire is a colossal turnout among those wanting to vote Democratic — double the number in 2004 in Iowa and who knows how many more than usual in New Hampshire, where the Secretary of State’s office had to print up new ballots and drive them to various polling places across the state. Aside from the obvious fact here, which is that Barack Obama is likely to bury Hillary Clinton in an avalanche when the tallies are completed tonight, it is time to accept the altered nature of the political landscape in the United States. Sluggish voter participation in major U.S. elections is a thing of the past. Increasingly, Americans are interested in and enthusiastic about going to the voting booth. That is due in part to new technologies that have been devised to identify non-voters, which has allowed well-designed political campaigns to use person-to-person persuasion to get the slugs to leave their homes on Election Day. These new technologies entirely benefited the Republicans, who spent tens of millions of dollars putting them in place between 2000 and 2004. Once Democrats saw how effective they were, Democrats spent the same boodle on their own systems and ended the Republican advantage. Add to that the sense of empowerment provided to so many by the Internet and the net result is a transformation few would have believed possible. It’s, in a way, a parallel to the crime drop of the 1990s — no one ever imagined civic culture in the United States would actually improve, that the trend lines were grounds only for pessimism. But just as the New York City in which I live now is better in very nearly every respect from the city I grew up in in the 1960s and 1970s because its civic life was restored, so it is with the civic life in the United States, at least as measured by voting.

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Still More Clinton Collapse

As things get desperate, the Clinton campaign is taking on Brittany Spears-like media undulations. Fox News reports that former Bill Clinton advisors James Carville and Paul Begala have been added to Hillary’s team.

Carville and Begala will serve as top strategists on politics and communication and likely overshadow the current role of Mark Penn, Hillary’s senior strategist, and Patty Solis Doyle, Hillary’s current campaign manager.

Yet, when contacted, Carville had this to say:

Fox was, is and will continue to be an asinine and ignorant network. I have not spoken to anyone in the Clinton campaign about this. I have not done domestic political consulting since President Clinton was elected. I’m not getting back into domestic political consulting. If I do go back, it would be safe to say that I’m the biggest liar in America.

Hail Marys, rumors, and denials. The machine that turned image management into religion and redefined spin has lost control. If Carville and Begala do come back it should be noted that Hillary can’t very well continue to call herself an agent of change by bringing in the old guard to steady the ship.

As things get desperate, the Clinton campaign is taking on Brittany Spears-like media undulations. Fox News reports that former Bill Clinton advisors James Carville and Paul Begala have been added to Hillary’s team.

Carville and Begala will serve as top strategists on politics and communication and likely overshadow the current role of Mark Penn, Hillary’s senior strategist, and Patty Solis Doyle, Hillary’s current campaign manager.

Yet, when contacted, Carville had this to say:

Fox was, is and will continue to be an asinine and ignorant network. I have not spoken to anyone in the Clinton campaign about this. I have not done domestic political consulting since President Clinton was elected. I’m not getting back into domestic political consulting. If I do go back, it would be safe to say that I’m the biggest liar in America.

Hail Marys, rumors, and denials. The machine that turned image management into religion and redefined spin has lost control. If Carville and Begala do come back it should be noted that Hillary can’t very well continue to call herself an agent of change by bringing in the old guard to steady the ship.

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Ron Paul’s Past

James Kirchick–contentions blogger and assistant editor at The New Republic –has a lengthy exposé of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul up at TNR. It delves into Paul’s history as a publisher of newsletters–anti-black, anti-gay, anti-Israel newsletters, to be precise. The picture it paints of Paul is not a pretty one: he comes off either as a hate-filled demagogue or as an “absentee overseer” (in Kirchick’s phrase) who allowed his staff and associates to publish their work under his name. One especially hilarious disavowal by Paul campaign spokesman Jesse Benton:

After I read Benton some of the more offensive passages, he said, “A lot of [the newsletters] he did not see. Most of the incendiary stuff, no.”

And there’s one passage that’s weirdly prescient. It calls to mind much of today’s fringe ranting and conspiracy-theorizing:

The rhetoric when it came to Jews was little better. The newsletters display an obsession with Israel; no other country is mentioned more often in the editions I saw, or with more vitriol. A 1987 issue of Paul’s Investment Letter called Israel “an aggressive, national socialist state,” and a 1990 newsletter discussed the “tens of thousands of well-placed friends of Israel in all countries who are willing to wok [sic] for the Mossad in their area of expertise.” Of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a newsletter said, “Whether it was a setup by the Israeli Mossad, as a Jewish friend of mine suspects, or was truly a retaliation by the Islamic fundamentalists, matters little.”

Plus ça change, I guess.

James Kirchick–contentions blogger and assistant editor at The New Republic –has a lengthy exposé of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul up at TNR. It delves into Paul’s history as a publisher of newsletters–anti-black, anti-gay, anti-Israel newsletters, to be precise. The picture it paints of Paul is not a pretty one: he comes off either as a hate-filled demagogue or as an “absentee overseer” (in Kirchick’s phrase) who allowed his staff and associates to publish their work under his name. One especially hilarious disavowal by Paul campaign spokesman Jesse Benton:

After I read Benton some of the more offensive passages, he said, “A lot of [the newsletters] he did not see. Most of the incendiary stuff, no.”

And there’s one passage that’s weirdly prescient. It calls to mind much of today’s fringe ranting and conspiracy-theorizing:

The rhetoric when it came to Jews was little better. The newsletters display an obsession with Israel; no other country is mentioned more often in the editions I saw, or with more vitriol. A 1987 issue of Paul’s Investment Letter called Israel “an aggressive, national socialist state,” and a 1990 newsletter discussed the “tens of thousands of well-placed friends of Israel in all countries who are willing to wok [sic] for the Mossad in their area of expertise.” Of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a newsletter said, “Whether it was a setup by the Israeli Mossad, as a Jewish friend of mine suspects, or was truly a retaliation by the Islamic fundamentalists, matters little.”

Plus ça change, I guess.

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Worst Idea for Anything. Ever.

From the New York Times today: “Anne Frank Musical to Open in Madrid.”

From the New York Times today: “Anne Frank Musical to Open in Madrid.”

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Down the Memory Hole in New Hampshire

“Have you ever seen crowds like this in New Hampshire? Ever?” Joe Scarborough of MSNBC asked a representative of the Obama campaign, who, unsuprisingly, answered that Gee, no, he never ever had seen crowds like these, ever. Strange. I seem to remember in 2000 that there were crowds like these in New Hampshire for John McCain, who walked on water in exactly the same fashion Obama is walking on water these days. He had young people all excited, independents loved him, he offered a message of reform (the 2000 version of “change”), blah blah blah. McCain won 49 percent of the vote to George W. Bush’s 30 percent. It will be interesting to see if Obama’s expected victory matches McCain’s 19-point triumph, which clearly did not guarantee McCain the nomination he did not ultimately win. (I do think, for the record, that a huge Obama victory here is far more devastating to Clinton’s ambitions than the McCain victory was to George W. Bush’s, for Bush had at least won Iowa.) Oh, and in 1992 we heard a lot of the same blather about Pat Buchanan’s challenge to the sitting President Bush, when he got a stunning 38 percent of the vote against an incumbent in the White House. And yet, every single time, the media fall for the spin. And why not? They invent it anew for themselves every four or eight years.

“Have you ever seen crowds like this in New Hampshire? Ever?” Joe Scarborough of MSNBC asked a representative of the Obama campaign, who, unsuprisingly, answered that Gee, no, he never ever had seen crowds like these, ever. Strange. I seem to remember in 2000 that there were crowds like these in New Hampshire for John McCain, who walked on water in exactly the same fashion Obama is walking on water these days. He had young people all excited, independents loved him, he offered a message of reform (the 2000 version of “change”), blah blah blah. McCain won 49 percent of the vote to George W. Bush’s 30 percent. It will be interesting to see if Obama’s expected victory matches McCain’s 19-point triumph, which clearly did not guarantee McCain the nomination he did not ultimately win. (I do think, for the record, that a huge Obama victory here is far more devastating to Clinton’s ambitions than the McCain victory was to George W. Bush’s, for Bush had at least won Iowa.) Oh, and in 1992 we heard a lot of the same blather about Pat Buchanan’s challenge to the sitting President Bush, when he got a stunning 38 percent of the vote against an incumbent in the White House. And yet, every single time, the media fall for the spin. And why not? They invent it anew for themselves every four or eight years.

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Desperate Advice from Dennis Ross

Dennis Ross has a piece today on The New Republic‘s website in the form of a memo to President Bush recommending that “baby steps” be taken by Israelis and Palestinians in order to build on the “momentum” created by Annapolis. Because Ross remains convinced of the solubility of the conflict through diplomatic finagling, he is forced to portray America’s mission as one, more or less, of psychological counseling:

Both the Israeli and Palestinian publics have to be willing to take a second look at peacemaking. Today, their doubts overwhelm their hopes. A majority of Israelis and Palestinians say they believe in a two-state solution, and in almost equal numbers, they say they don’t believe it will ever be achieved — not, by the way, because of their own unwillingness, but because of what they perceive as the inability or ill will of their neighbor.

And so the cure for this mutual distrust is a set of incremental confidence-building measures pushed ever onward by American engagement in the peace process. His evenhandedness is slightly deceptive, though, as it glosses over important differences between Israeli and Palestinian public opinion.

For one, the Israelis who put little faith in a two-state solution are not people who will attempt to sabotage the advancement of a two-state solution through a campaign of shootings, bombings, and abductions. (Instances of Israeli terrorism are incredibly rare–off the top of my head I can think of only one recent example, that of Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 attack in Hebron.) There is certainly a healthy level of skepticism about the peace process among Israelis. But it is largely the same as any other western people’s skepticism of an endeavor they find implausible or foolish, such as European mistrust of the EU or American leeriness of socialized medicine: there are no suicide bombings in the offing if the skeptics don’t get their way.

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Dennis Ross has a piece today on The New Republic‘s website in the form of a memo to President Bush recommending that “baby steps” be taken by Israelis and Palestinians in order to build on the “momentum” created by Annapolis. Because Ross remains convinced of the solubility of the conflict through diplomatic finagling, he is forced to portray America’s mission as one, more or less, of psychological counseling:

Both the Israeli and Palestinian publics have to be willing to take a second look at peacemaking. Today, their doubts overwhelm their hopes. A majority of Israelis and Palestinians say they believe in a two-state solution, and in almost equal numbers, they say they don’t believe it will ever be achieved — not, by the way, because of their own unwillingness, but because of what they perceive as the inability or ill will of their neighbor.

And so the cure for this mutual distrust is a set of incremental confidence-building measures pushed ever onward by American engagement in the peace process. His evenhandedness is slightly deceptive, though, as it glosses over important differences between Israeli and Palestinian public opinion.

For one, the Israelis who put little faith in a two-state solution are not people who will attempt to sabotage the advancement of a two-state solution through a campaign of shootings, bombings, and abductions. (Instances of Israeli terrorism are incredibly rare–off the top of my head I can think of only one recent example, that of Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 attack in Hebron.) There is certainly a healthy level of skepticism about the peace process among Israelis. But it is largely the same as any other western people’s skepticism of an endeavor they find implausible or foolish, such as European mistrust of the EU or American leeriness of socialized medicine: there are no suicide bombings in the offing if the skeptics don’t get their way.

Palestinian public opinion, in contrast, is vastly more complicated–and dispiriting. It’s true that support among Palestinians for a two-state solution is often a majority position, but super-majorities (sometimes over 75 percent) have always maintained the “right of return” for descendants of Palestinians who fled in 1948, a condition which would accomplish the demographic destruction of Israel–making a two-state solution in practice a one-state solution.

More importantly, what Ross doesn’t tell his readers is that support among Palestinians for terrorism against Israel also remains a majority position. I invite anyone who doubts this to spend a little time on the websites of the Jerusalem Media & Communication Centre, the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (important caveat), the Arab World for Research and Development, the International Republican Institute, and Birzeit University — none of which, it’s worth noting, are Israeli or American polling organizations.

The picture that emerges from these opinion polls is indicative of why diplomacy has accomplished virtually nothing in the history of this conflict. To take just a few examples: in 2006, 56 percent of Palestinians said they supported “armed attacks against Israeli civilians inside Israel.” The same poll found 69 percent support for the most recent suicide bombing. Another poll found that 77 percent of Palestinians supported the abduction of Gilad Shalit from Israel, and 66.8 percent said they favored continued abductions of IDF soldiers.

The truth about Palestinian public opinion is that it is syncretic: majorities simultaneously support a peace process with, and continued terrorism against, the state of Israel. Ross is right, though, that baby steps must be taken. But those steps involve the internal reformation of Palestinian culture, which continues, despite the fervent wishes of would-be American peacemakers, to nurture a deeply-ingrained admiration for terrorism.

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More Clinton Collapse

ABC News has video of a run-down, rambling Bill Clinton unloading on Barack Obama. When asked about Hillary strategist Mark Penn’s premature claim that Obama got no “bounce” coming out of Iowa, the former President came close to a meltdown.

“Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairytale I’ve ever seen,” he said. Which explains exactly why he and Hillary are so unable to cope with the Obama phenomenon: they had thought they had foisted the biggest fairytale upon the American public. As it turns out, the Clintons are being out-Clintoned. Bill went on:

The idea that one of these campaigns is positive and the other is negative when I know the reverse is true and I have seen it and I have been blistered by it for months is a little tough to take. Just because of the sanitizing coverage that’s in the media doesn’t mean the facts aren’t out there.

Sanitizing coverage? This from the man whose perceived right to perjury launched an entire political force—moveon.org. At some point, the Clintons’ lurid exit from the world stage will cease to be delicious, but not quite yet.

Slate, by the way, has some valuable counterpoints to these Clinton claims.

ABC News has video of a run-down, rambling Bill Clinton unloading on Barack Obama. When asked about Hillary strategist Mark Penn’s premature claim that Obama got no “bounce” coming out of Iowa, the former President came close to a meltdown.

“Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairytale I’ve ever seen,” he said. Which explains exactly why he and Hillary are so unable to cope with the Obama phenomenon: they had thought they had foisted the biggest fairytale upon the American public. As it turns out, the Clintons are being out-Clintoned. Bill went on:

The idea that one of these campaigns is positive and the other is negative when I know the reverse is true and I have seen it and I have been blistered by it for months is a little tough to take. Just because of the sanitizing coverage that’s in the media doesn’t mean the facts aren’t out there.

Sanitizing coverage? This from the man whose perceived right to perjury launched an entire political force—moveon.org. At some point, the Clintons’ lurid exit from the world stage will cease to be delicious, but not quite yet.

Slate, by the way, has some valuable counterpoints to these Clinton claims.

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Iranian Face-Off

On Sunday, five armed Iranian speedboats threatened three U.S. Navy warships in the Strait of Hormuz. Before turning back, the Revolutionary Guard boats dropped white boxes in the path of one of the U.S. ships, and broadcast the bridge-to-bridge message, “I am coming at you, and you will explode in a few minutes.” So, why aren’t today’s newspapers plastered with stories about five sunken terrorist boats in international waters?

In 2006, Revolutionary Guard commander Yahya Rahim Safavi said on Iranian television:

The Americans have many weaknesses. We have planned our strategy precisely on the basis of their strengths and weaknesses. When their commanders encounter a problem, they burst into tears. We did not see such spectacles in the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman treated the terrorist provocation as if he were a municipal magistrate passing out a fine for a seatbelt infraction. In no uncertain terms he let the Iranians know that they had acted in a “reckless and dangerous” manner.

Last March when eight Royal Navy sailors and seven Marines from the HMS Cornwall giggled and praised their Revolutionary Guard captors, many Americans imagined that this low point for the great Royal Navy would look rather different with American sailors. Incidents such as Sunday’s give little reason for hope. We don’t know if the encounter was an aborted attack or not. But it points, yet again, to the fact that Tehran is not the rational player talk-advocates (like Mike Huckabee) suggest. Iran’s goal is escalation.

On Sunday, five armed Iranian speedboats threatened three U.S. Navy warships in the Strait of Hormuz. Before turning back, the Revolutionary Guard boats dropped white boxes in the path of one of the U.S. ships, and broadcast the bridge-to-bridge message, “I am coming at you, and you will explode in a few minutes.” So, why aren’t today’s newspapers plastered with stories about five sunken terrorist boats in international waters?

In 2006, Revolutionary Guard commander Yahya Rahim Safavi said on Iranian television:

The Americans have many weaknesses. We have planned our strategy precisely on the basis of their strengths and weaknesses. When their commanders encounter a problem, they burst into tears. We did not see such spectacles in the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman treated the terrorist provocation as if he were a municipal magistrate passing out a fine for a seatbelt infraction. In no uncertain terms he let the Iranians know that they had acted in a “reckless and dangerous” manner.

Last March when eight Royal Navy sailors and seven Marines from the HMS Cornwall giggled and praised their Revolutionary Guard captors, many Americans imagined that this low point for the great Royal Navy would look rather different with American sailors. Incidents such as Sunday’s give little reason for hope. We don’t know if the encounter was an aborted attack or not. But it points, yet again, to the fact that Tehran is not the rational player talk-advocates (like Mike Huckabee) suggest. Iran’s goal is escalation.

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North Korea’s Good Excuse

January 1 was the date, under an agreement negotiated last February, by which North Korea was supposed to come clean about its nuclear-weapons program. But the deadline came and went without a response — until January 5, when Pyongyang declared that “as far as the nuclear declaration on which wrong opinion is being built up by some quarters is concerned, [North Korea] has done what it should do.” In others, North Korea was insisting that it already done what it had not done.

After an initial and exceptionally tepid reaction from the State Department calling the broken promise “unfortunate,” the U.S. is now ratcheting down the pressure. “They’re engaging the international media, in their own way,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “It is an important point that in none of this have any of the parties been backing away at all from their commitment to the process.”

Christopher Hill, the U.S. envoy to the six-party talks, and now traveling in the region, has chimed in, explaining that “the problem is the [North] is not often automatically inclined to transparency and so it’s a little difficult for them.”

Connecting the Dots has three questions:

Why is the United States offering excuses for North Korean behavior?

What lesson is Iran, another aspiring nuclear power, likely to draw from this episode?

What is the right word for characterizing American behavior?

January 1 was the date, under an agreement negotiated last February, by which North Korea was supposed to come clean about its nuclear-weapons program. But the deadline came and went without a response — until January 5, when Pyongyang declared that “as far as the nuclear declaration on which wrong opinion is being built up by some quarters is concerned, [North Korea] has done what it should do.” In others, North Korea was insisting that it already done what it had not done.

After an initial and exceptionally tepid reaction from the State Department calling the broken promise “unfortunate,” the U.S. is now ratcheting down the pressure. “They’re engaging the international media, in their own way,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “It is an important point that in none of this have any of the parties been backing away at all from their commitment to the process.”

Christopher Hill, the U.S. envoy to the six-party talks, and now traveling in the region, has chimed in, explaining that “the problem is the [North] is not often automatically inclined to transparency and so it’s a little difficult for them.”

Connecting the Dots has three questions:

Why is the United States offering excuses for North Korean behavior?

What lesson is Iran, another aspiring nuclear power, likely to draw from this episode?

What is the right word for characterizing American behavior?

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American Idol

The Barack Obama phenomenon puzzles me. I recognize that he is a handsome, articulate politician who seems, for the moment at least, to have the capacity to square circles. In recent months I’ve asked my students and former students, who are exceptionally thoughtful young people, whom they were supporting for president. Roughly three-quarters of them, including some who described themselves as independents or Republicans, support Obama, almost all with enthusiasm.

When I asked why they liked him, their responses, even from those who were articulate, were almost all vague. Race played some role in their views, but it didn’t seem to be primary. Mostly they told me about their disdain for both President Bush and the Democratic Congress, and the need for “change,” with little elaboration as to what that change would be.

What’s odd is that I get the same leap of faith with no clear basis of support from older and in some cases politically savvy and highly intelligent people. With these older folk, not all of whom are liberal, neither Obama’s lack of achievements, nor his woolly foreign policy statements, nor dubious episodes in his career such as his infatuation with a Black Nationalist minister and involvements with shady Chicago characters has any effect. I’ve had a half-dozen variants of the following conversation:

Usually Thoughtful Friend: “Obama has big ideas.”

Fred: “What are these ideas?”

Friend: “He’s a very bright guy who went to Columbia and Harvard.”

Fred: “Again, what are these ideas?”

Friend: “Diplomacy and civility are important.”

Fred: “Who would argue with that?”

Friend: “I can’t explain it, he’s just got something.”

If I continue to press, what I’m told, in a tone of voice suggesting that there’s an unspoken consensus on the subject, is that “this election is about character and personality.” If they’re Bush critics, I ask, “But isn’t that what W ran on in 2000? “Yes,” comes back the answer, “but this is different.”

So what’s this all about? Some of it is that Obama represents an opportunity to ditch Hillary now that Dems think they’ve found a better horse. But for those I’ve talked to who are older partisan Democrats who’ve reconciled themselves to the loss of white middle class male voters, Obama’s appeal in part is that he incarnates the Democratic Party. He is both a highly educated member of the upper middle class and a half-minority. As one of my acquaintances put it, referring to the way Obama blends an educated articulation of policy positions with the uplifting cadences of the African-American preacher: “Who better to represent us?” Some continue: “Who better to heal our racial wounds?” When I press them on this point, explaining that I live in the most racially diverse neighborhood in the U.S. and that I’m not looking for a priestly President who can absolve me of my sins, I’m told that such absolution is a good thing—whether I want it or not.

Among the younger people I’ve talked to, he draws adulation from both starry-eyed young liberals and those who see him as beyond partisan politics. That’s an impressive feat, a tribute to his ability to project an image of rectitude unsullied by the ordinary trench warfare of politics. But there is a two part question that seems to stop all of the Obama admirers, young or old, that I’ve talked to in their tracks. Can he, I ask, govern? Could he be a commander in chief? The most common reactions, I get is “that’s beside the point,” or “I’m not sure,” or “I haven’t thought about that,” or “you’ve got a point, but . . . .” The election to date—with Huckabee as Obama’s GOP counterpart—is turning into an episode of American Idol where the performance is the thing, albeit with a religious twist.

The Barack Obama phenomenon puzzles me. I recognize that he is a handsome, articulate politician who seems, for the moment at least, to have the capacity to square circles. In recent months I’ve asked my students and former students, who are exceptionally thoughtful young people, whom they were supporting for president. Roughly three-quarters of them, including some who described themselves as independents or Republicans, support Obama, almost all with enthusiasm.

When I asked why they liked him, their responses, even from those who were articulate, were almost all vague. Race played some role in their views, but it didn’t seem to be primary. Mostly they told me about their disdain for both President Bush and the Democratic Congress, and the need for “change,” with little elaboration as to what that change would be.

What’s odd is that I get the same leap of faith with no clear basis of support from older and in some cases politically savvy and highly intelligent people. With these older folk, not all of whom are liberal, neither Obama’s lack of achievements, nor his woolly foreign policy statements, nor dubious episodes in his career such as his infatuation with a Black Nationalist minister and involvements with shady Chicago characters has any effect. I’ve had a half-dozen variants of the following conversation:

Usually Thoughtful Friend: “Obama has big ideas.”

Fred: “What are these ideas?”

Friend: “He’s a very bright guy who went to Columbia and Harvard.”

Fred: “Again, what are these ideas?”

Friend: “Diplomacy and civility are important.”

Fred: “Who would argue with that?”

Friend: “I can’t explain it, he’s just got something.”

If I continue to press, what I’m told, in a tone of voice suggesting that there’s an unspoken consensus on the subject, is that “this election is about character and personality.” If they’re Bush critics, I ask, “But isn’t that what W ran on in 2000? “Yes,” comes back the answer, “but this is different.”

So what’s this all about? Some of it is that Obama represents an opportunity to ditch Hillary now that Dems think they’ve found a better horse. But for those I’ve talked to who are older partisan Democrats who’ve reconciled themselves to the loss of white middle class male voters, Obama’s appeal in part is that he incarnates the Democratic Party. He is both a highly educated member of the upper middle class and a half-minority. As one of my acquaintances put it, referring to the way Obama blends an educated articulation of policy positions with the uplifting cadences of the African-American preacher: “Who better to represent us?” Some continue: “Who better to heal our racial wounds?” When I press them on this point, explaining that I live in the most racially diverse neighborhood in the U.S. and that I’m not looking for a priestly President who can absolve me of my sins, I’m told that such absolution is a good thing—whether I want it or not.

Among the younger people I’ve talked to, he draws adulation from both starry-eyed young liberals and those who see him as beyond partisan politics. That’s an impressive feat, a tribute to his ability to project an image of rectitude unsullied by the ordinary trench warfare of politics. But there is a two part question that seems to stop all of the Obama admirers, young or old, that I’ve talked to in their tracks. Can he, I ask, govern? Could he be a commander in chief? The most common reactions, I get is “that’s beside the point,” or “I’m not sure,” or “I haven’t thought about that,” or “you’ve got a point, but . . . .” The election to date—with Huckabee as Obama’s GOP counterpart—is turning into an episode of American Idol where the performance is the thing, albeit with a religious twist.

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