Friday, 12 September 2008

Jargon obsession

One of the more annoying experiences of my high school career was my AP American History course—and not just because I scored a 5 (the maximum score) on the AP exam and was the senior class award winner in social studies, yet somehow only earned a B in the course. The annoying-before-I-saw-my-grade aspect was that often it seemed like we were learning the textbook authors’ pet names for certain events in American history, or overly cute quotations, in lieu of whatever substantive event was being described. (AP history being 15 years in my past, I can’t remember any specific examples alas.)

Which gets me to the mini-brou-ha-ha about Sarah Palin’s interview with Charlie Gibson. Without wasting my time watching it, I’ll gladly concede the point that she is almost certainly as clueless about domestic and international politics as approximately 98.9% of the American public—which, if we were auditioning her for a slot on “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” would probably be less alarming than her current public audition to serve on the National Security Council.

That said, I can’t get too worked up about Palin’s apparent failure to recognize the term “Bush doctrine.” Indeed, most of the instances of the term a cursory Google search of uncovers come in questions from the media, mostly “gotcha” questions of the form “Is such-and-such an action consistent with the Bush doctrine?” By all means it is reasonable to inquire into Palin’s thoughts on how to combat al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, but a failure to recognize a cutesy inside-the-beltway label for a particular policy strikes me as rather less damning that whatever lack of substantive knowledge was displayed (again, given that I’m not going to waste any of my life watching the interview or reading the transcript).

Update: This argument is bolstered by the fact that Gibson apparently doesn’t know what the “Bush doctrine” is either. Oops.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008


Is it November 5th yet?

Wednesday, 3 September 2008


I don’t know about y’all, but to my mind the Sarah Palin pandemonium is getting a tad overheated. I’m not going to sit here and defend the pick, in part because I wasn’t going to vote for John McCain anyway and in part because you can read the pros and cons elsewhere. As far as comparing the vice-presidential choices go… well, let me just say that I think Joe Biden is more of an amoral beltway used-car-dealing sleazebag than John Kerry and John McCain combined, so Palin wins that contest pretty much by default. And no, that’s not much of a compliment.

I do, however, want to propose a minor thought exercise to my more “progressive” friends who think this is going to be like shooting fish in a barrel (I know you don’t know anything about guns, but bear with me). Nate at FiveThirtyEight points out that, on paper, Palin’s positions are outside the mainstream of public opinion, and—to the extent public opinion is meaningful on issues—that is true. Of course, both Obama and Biden’s positions are also outside of the mainstream—for example, both support the right to abortion under all circumstances, a minority position (something like 25% of the public support abortion rights under all circumstances), and both support prioritizing the environment and fighting global warming over jobs and the economy (a minority position).

The Democrats’ problem, as I see it, in demonizing her positions on cultural issues—and by extension McCain’s, most of which he shares—is not that they’re outside the mainstream of current opinion (they are), but that they aren’t outside the traditional beliefs held in Western society. America isn’t a “Christian nation”—that’s nonsense; the United States is fundamentally a product of enlightenment thought, albeit a country that has been much more tolerant of a diverse and heterodox set of Christian beliefs (including Palin’s) than many nominally Christian nations—but most Americans were raised to believe that traditional moral values are important even if we sometimes observe them in the breach and even if we don’t always believe the state should use its power of coercion to enforce them. Furthermore, out-of-the-mainstream views on the right have the dubious virtue politically of having been in the mainstream, if not outright consensus, in the past—in some cases, within living memory of most voters; non-mainstream views on the left, by contrast, have never held such a position. I’m not saying Palin is invulnerable on these positions, but it’s going to take a lot more than liberal echo-chamber snarkiness about how “insane” her positions are to convince most voters.

Meanwhile, Marc Ambinder has reached a minor epiphany:

[T]he more I think about it, the more I realize that if Palin answers her critics tomorrow night, these process stories might not matter much.

You don’t say. The Democrats have misunderestimated an opponent before in a year the “numbers” said they should win, and he was a hell of a lot dumber than Sarah Palin appears to be.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

On journalism

You’d think the first thing a journalist would do if hearing 17th-hand that the McCain campaign didn’t search the archives of Sarah Palin’s hometown newspaper would be to find out whether or not archives of that paper exist at other locations besides the one the Democratic opposition researcher allegedly used. I’m told that public and academic libraries (a search here says at least five of them) tend to keep back issues of newspapers, for example. I’d also think the entire exercise of trying to keep one’s veep pick secret might be undermined by waltzing into a newspaper office in the middle of nowhere and saying “hey, I’m a random person from out of town you’ve never heard of, can you please dig up all your articles on Sarah Palin? Thanks!”

This is a basic undergraduate-level research skill. Is anyone this year even trying?

Granted, if the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman is anything like most small-town newspapers, I doubt you can believe a word that was written in it anyway (particularly since a fair percentage of them will be misspelled or appear in sentences in more-or-less random order), and I’ll submit that there’s a fair chance the McCain campaign didn’t think the archives of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman would contain anything worth reading, but you’d think the Democrats could come up with a better line of attack. Then again if their imagination is limited to questioning the parentage of one of Palin’s children, maybe such stupidity is par for the course—and if they don’t yet have a perceived misogyny problem, they soon will.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Reviving the experience argument

John McCain’s choice of little-known Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate at first blush does somewhat undercut the McCain’s campaign’s effort to go after Barack Obama on his lack of experience. Nevertheless I think there is a way to keep attacking Obama on inexperience without it rebounding against Palin.

I think McCain’s best argument with moderate voters—who, since Palin has now shored up the GOP social conservative base, are the only voters he needs to worry about—is that he’s the best positioned candidate to deal with a Congress that is, and will be after this election, well to the left of the average American voter. Even assuming Obama is willing to govern from the middle and represents something other than “politics as usual,” his inexperience—surrounded by a vice president even more liberal than he is and Democratic congressional leaders with more experience and savvy—will lead to an orgy of congressional spending and incompetent lawmaking not seen since the first two years of the Clinton presidency, when a similarly naïve Clinton who promised to govern from the center was steamrolled by a corrupt Congress, his wife, and every liberal interest group in Washington. Without any GOP resistance in the White House, Nancy Pelosi, Ted Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton—not Barack Obama—will be setting the domestic and foreign policy agenda. And can we really afford another four—or eight—years of an inexperienced presidency hijacked by an ideologically-committed, far-more-experienced vice president primarily concerned with foreign affairs, a vice president who took—some might say plagiarized—political inspiration from one of the weakest left-wing political party leaders in modern memory?

All that said, I basically agree that the Palin pick is born from the same desperation that led Walter “49–2” Mondale to the door of Geraldine Ferraro; it didn’t work for Mondale and it probably won’t work for McCain either, but then again nothing is working for McCain now, so why not take a shot?