Archive for October, 2008

96 hours to go. . .

Friday, October 31st, 2008

There seem to be two major models for how the race will play out across the final four days. The first of those is the Standard Model: that the race continues to tighten, as it seems to have been doing (though not nearly as quickly as McCain would want). The other, of course, is the 1980 scenario: that the independents and undecideds break en masse toward one of the candidates, the way they did for Reagan over Carter. Should this occur, it will almost certainly be in Obama’s direction, since—as in 1980—the fundamentals (crap economy/inane foreign policy) are stacked against the incumbent party.

Were this an ordinary election, either scenario would work for Obama.  But—as I’ve said more than once—we’re now into eight years of a systematic attempt to undermine the vote, and we can’t take anything for granted anymore.  Already the reports of widespread fraud are pouring in—even as the media wring their hands over potential flaws in the polling, while simultaneously waxing poetic about the (almost certainly mythical) Bradley Effect.  They will need both storylines to explain a McCain upset if the current numbers hold up across the campaign’s last days; far better to delve into endless faux analyses on closet racists and dodgy polls than to touch the Third Rail of Vote Fraud.  (This was what Hitler meant when he said the bigger the lie, the more people tend to believe it.)  Flashback to 1992:  when George Stephanopoulos informed Governor Clinton that he had a solid two point lead going into Election Day, both men knew it was in the bag.  Those were simpler times; Obama will need as large a cushion as possible—meaning that everything comes down to the Senator’s awe-inspiring groundgame, the full weight of which is now being felt across the battleground states.

President Who???

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

I talked yesterday about the extent to which the electoral math continues to be stacked in the direction of the GOP. Today I want to talk about another dynamic that also advantages the GOP: the question of what constitutes legitimate presidential power. This has become perhaps the most glaring double-standard in American politics today, allowing Republican presidents to get away with shit that Democratic presidents can only dream of. When Bush attacked Iraq, we were told by right-wing ideologues that we had to support the president or be declared unpatriotic.  Of course, I can’t help but remember that back in the 1990s Rush Limbaugh and his ilk showed no such forbearance to Clinton in his Bosnian adventures, and I distinctly recollect how mercilessly they attacked him any time he went after Bin Laden.  (Though now they castigate him for allowing him to get away.)

But that’s the nature of a double-standard.  The real question is what’s driving it, and I think part of the answer lies in the fact that the GOP is far more adroit than the Democrats are at manipulating cultural symbols like the flag (and the Bible, for that matter).  Keep in mind, too, that the core of the GOP is far more comfortable with autocratic ideation than the Democrats ever will be (partially because so much of the GOP base would clearly prefer a theocracy to a republic, so it comes naturally to them).  Indeed, foreign wars are often the vehicle via which democracies slide toward dictatorships:  this is a dynamic which we see clear hints of in the GOP’s calling Obama a terrorist, etc.  (And check out the latest campaign incident in which a McCain crowd turned ugly and was ready to start kicking some peacenik ass.)

So the GOP reserves for itself a view of executive power that borders on the monarchial . . . as long as the sitting president is Republican.  But if the president isn’t—and this is the really dangerous part—then the very legitimacy of his holding office is immediately called into question.  Clinton was the first to feel the brunt of this attack, but that’s likely to be a drop in the bucket compared to what a President Obama would face (already the more vitriolic of McCain’s supporters are declaring that he “wouldn’t be my president.”).  This is one more reason why Obama has to hope he doesn’t just win, but that he wins big, lest a close victory be a Pyrrhic one.  When Republicans win the Oval Office with a 50.00000000001% majority (or even when they fail to attain a majority) they can declare a mandate, whereas a Democrat can only declare the same when he has a landslide big enough to bury the Himalayas. Confused?  You’re clearly just not patriotic enough, you #$# traitor.

Electoral math

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

There’s a reason why the GOP has won two-thirds of the presidential elections held since LBJ left office. By the late 1960s, the electoral map that defined the New Deal coalition was in tatters; once Nixon (and then Reagan) coaxed the sunbelt/southern states out of the Democratic orbit, a political realignment toward the GOP took place that endures today. Even now, for all the talk of 2008 being a potential “realigning” election, Obama has yet to fundamentally redraw the electoral map, though he has come closer to doing so than any other Democrat since Bill Clinton.

Nonetheless, by way of perspective, consider this: if the situation were reversed, and the Democrats had presided over a collapsing economy and a relentless quagmire of a war, they wouldn’t be looking at electoral totals in the three-digits.  (McCain is at about 150 right now, and will probably rack up a lot more than that).  They’d be looking at being on the wrong end of yet another blowout a la 1980, or even 1984 or 1972.  Again, that’s because of the electoral math.  The worst-case scenario for the GOP in any election is to win most of the south and midwest.  The GOP could run Bugs Bunny, and he’d still pick up those states (“he’s a friend to small-towns . . .he’s a true American”).  But (as the 1972/1984 elections show), the worst case scenario for the Democrats involves them picking up D.C., and maybe the candidate’s home state.  It’s not that Obama can’t turn this election into a blowout; it’s just that Democratic blowouts look very different than Republican ones. But if he becomes president-elect next Tuesday, he won’t be complaining.

The latest plot against Obama, and the big question

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

A week out from the election, the surfacing of yet another plot against Obama underscores the central danger that haunts this race. Colin Powell is said to have declined to run in 1996 in large part because of his wife’s fears that a black presidential candidate would be an irresistible target; Obama has the added burden of knowing that the opposition party is inflaming its supporters with rhetoric branding him a traitor/terrorist. But any would-be assassins who get inspired listening to Palin pray to God to somehow save us from the Democrats are amateurs by definition.  Doesn’t mean they couldn’t succeed—but the skinhead fuckwits who comprised this latest plot probably wouldn’t have been able to carry out a successful robbery of a 7-11, let alone getting weapons anywhere near Barack Obama.

The real question at this point is whether there’s a professional plot in the works.  This is a tough one to analyze, because it opens the gates of what pundits are pleased to call Conspiracy Theory, and as such encourages dogmatic (and unprovable) statements like No Way in Hell Could That Shit Happen in the U.S. of A.  (despite it happening everywhere else throughout recorded history).  The correct stance, of course, is one of watchful agnosticism, particularly because the men who rule this country have proven themselves to be capable of pretty much anything—and the problem they face now isn’t that Obama’s black, or that he’s socialist, or not Christian enough; it’s simply that he would disrupt a hold on power which they had every reason to believe would endure indefinitely.  Backed by a never-ending war and a spurious legal framework that guaranteed the total supremacy of executive power, those who occupied the White House could look forward to a permanent GOP majority sustained by the endless invoking of patriotism during elections even as Republican operatives worked behind the scenes to rig them.  Hold a few elections under those terms, and eventually elections become votes in name only.

But Obama threatens to torpedo all those calculations, because it’s tough to rig elections when the other candidate is several points ahead, and is racking up huge numbers in the Electoral College.  It’s certainly not impossible, though it would require that the media indulge in cognitive dissonance on a scale that would make the 2004 exit polls/actual “results” dichotomy look positively tame.  The prediction of race riots if McCain wins is potentially part of the propaganda meme here; in the event of a poll-defying McCain victory, the already-alerted police and military will do their best to convince angry citizen-mobs to do their duty and (as Anne Applebaum so idiotically said back in 2004) “accept the verdict.”  In so doing they would be helped by right-wing brownshirts convinced that it’s really the Democrats who were trying to steal the election all along.

But this kind of scenario is touch and go, and could totally fall apart if Obama gains enough in the polls to get him into realigning election/landslide territory.  A catastrophic event prior to the election is in some ways even crazier, but can’t be ruled out, because it at least has the advantage of justifying a martial law under which the election could be safely managed.  The most likely course of events at this point is probably that nothing happens:  that the disarray we’re seeing right now on the right is genuine, and total, and precludes any extra-constitutional measures beyond an attempt to steal the vote.  Meaning it will all probably come down to whether Democratic turnout overwhelms crookedness at the polls.

Nonetheless, if I were Obama, I’d be keeping a pretty close eye on my Secret Service detail these days, since standing down the bodyguards is a standard part of any serious attempt to eliminate a target.   I’d also make damn sure of my campaign aircraft.  Six years ago yesterday Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota (and arch-nemesis of the Bush White House) died in a highly suspicious crash that allowed his Senate seat to pass into the hands of the GOP in the election one week later.  Obama is the only 08 presidential candidate to have experienced an aircraft incident, and one of his rallies was the site of the only reported Secret Service/security breakdown that’s occurred thus far.  These are probably coincidences, but this is a year we really don’t need them.

In the words of Wisconsin’s finest

Monday, October 27th, 2008

“Every nation has its war party. It is not the party of democracy. It is the party of autocracy. It seeks to dominate absolutely. It is commercial, imperialistic, ruthless. It tolerates no opposition. . . .The purpose of this ridiculous campaign is to throw the country into a state of sheer terror, to change public opinion, to stifle criticism, and suppress discussion, and if every preparation for war can be made the excuse for destroying free speech and a free press and the right of the people to assemble together for peaceful discussion, then we may well despair of ever again finding ourselves for a long period in a state of peace. The destruction of rights now occurring will be pointed to then as precedents for a still further invasion of the rights of the citizen.”  –Senator Bob La Follette (R-Wisconsin), during WWI

Why I write in present tense

Saturday, October 25th, 2008

(A friend/fellow scribe wrote me yesterday asking about my rationale for using present tense in MIRRORED HEAVENS, as well as whether I had any advice on problems one might encounter in so doing. Some may be interested in my reply.)

hiya—To be honest, I was so green when I started out that I didn’t realize present tense was an unorthodox choice (I’m sure if I’d ever been part of a critique group they would have beaten it out of me, which is one more reason I’m glad I never was)….but I liked it because it was a tone that was at once both urgent and dream-like.  You might check out Peter Watts’ STARFISH, which I was pretty heavily influenced by; his underwater scenes (which constitute most of the novel) are all present tense.  That said, it took me several years to really get my style to work the way I want it (I started writing in fall of 2000, and didn’t really find the “voice” until more than four years later).

As to problems, hmm.  Coming off as pretentious/ponderous is definitely one (though maybe I have that one naturally : ).  Another is the tendency to use the word “now” all the fricking time; as you can see by looking at the first book, this is not a problem I’ve necessarily shaken.  (I often use the phrase “and now” almost as a ritual phrase, which my editor keeps trying to rein me back on—but I was deliberately trying to get the style to be more arresting/bracing than your average book). Choppy sentence structure is also something to watch out for. I certainly would disagree with [SuperFamousAuthor] that present tense is by definition problematic/flawed (it’s funny how some senior/veteran writers seem to be given to ex cathedra statements about what constitutes good/bad writing—I take this to mean that they’ve finally lost the battle with their ego, which I suppose is THE occupational hazard of writing).

There’s also the philosophical aspect of all this, which given my interest in history I found compelling.  Writing in present tense felt to me somehow fairer to both the reader and the characters; I suspect this is why:

Try writing what you have written in the past tense in the present tense and you will see what I mean….What we have to do is to give back to the past we are writing about its own present tense. We give back to the past its own possibilities, its own ambiguities, its own incapacity to see the consequences of its action. It is only then that we represent what actually happened.

hope that helps . . .



Friday, October 24th, 2008

Saw Oliver Stone’s latest last night; it’s actually surprisingly well done. I was expecting a mega-hatchet job, and it doesn’t come off that way at all. This may be the weirdest comparison you see out there, but . . . to me it almost felt like Henry V gone horribly awry: Bush overcomes his Prince Hal days to attain maturity and ultimately become a wartime leader, but unfortunately ends up fucking everything up once he does so. As a biopic it works, though the best scenes in the movie involve planning to invade Iraq, and the bit where Powell mutters “fuck you” to Cheney is particularly priceless.

Stone makes it quite clear that in his opinion the key to Bush’s character is the Bush Sr./Bush Jr. relationship; W’s rejection by his dad is what causes him to seek the presidency and, ultimately, to overstep himself in Iraq by finishing what his father “failed” to do.  Stone elects to stop the narrative prior to Bush’s re-election, which is an interesting choice given that that’s the central way in which Bush ended up “surpassing” his dad.  Yet given how many chickens came home to roost in his second term, it’s a victory that looks pretty #$# Pyrrhic in retrospect.  No need to worry about the 22nd Amendment this time around.

Power unleashed

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

Two fascinating books are sitting on my desk right now while I frantically make last-minute revisions to mine. One’s Schlesinger’s THE IMPERIAL PRESIDENCY; though he revised/updated/republished it in 2004, my copy is the original edition, released in 1973, in the throes of Watergate. The other is Charlie Savage’s TAKEOVER, released last year and detailing the extraordinary expansion of powers under Bush II, with that president asserting a radical new theory of executive authority that (among other things) gives him the right to imprison “enemy combatants”/U.S. citizens indefinitely.

What’s particularly interesting in perusing Schlesinger’s original work is that you can really see the extent to which Watergate gave us a temporary reprieve from the nightmare that’s been shoved down our throats these past eight years. Nixon was planning many of the same things that Bush/Cheney have carried out:  the attempt to use culture wars and dirty tricks to ensure a permanent Republican majority, the classification of opponents as enemies of the state (or, if you like, terrorists), the accrual of almost unlimited wartime powers . . . all of it was part of the GOP playbook in the wake of the 1968 election, and all of it got totally derailed in the wake of the 1972 one.

But this time around there was no Watergate; today’s White House is far more adroit/sophisticated than Nixon’s ever dreamt of being.  Instead of bugging themselves, they destroy their papers.  Instead of ending wars, they declare wars that can have no end.  Instead of relying on Silent Majorities, they hack the vote itself.  There is much irony in all of this.  It was predictable enough that, from a constitutional perspective, the principal beneficiary of America’s great power status in an industrialized age would be the executive branch.  But the Founding Fathers would have been appalled at just how quickly the presidency has expanded its powers these last few years.  Those men knew all too well what would happen should one of the three branches of government break out of the checks/balances which they constructed.  It’s taking place right in front of our eyes, and regardless of who wins on November 4th, it’s a process that may have already attained an irreversible momentum.

Going nuclear

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

If you think it’s been a vicious campaign so far, you ain’t seen nothing yet. As Al Giordano points out, the McCain campaign’s decision to go all-out to win Pennsylvania (where they’re now facing a double-digit deficit) only makes sense if they’re going to play the race card like it’s never been played before, bombarding western Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and the “non-communist” portions of Virginia with the only message that seems to have worked so far: fear of Obama as as a socialist n—– amidst an appeal to “real Americans.” And the Reverend Wright will almost certainly be front and center in this effort, damning the United States on every TV across the Appalachians.

Desperate?  Of course.  If it works, it would be as epic a comeback as it is ugly.  But there’s a disquieting logic to the electoral math, because most of the scenarios in which McCain wins Pennsylvania also involve McCain winning the election.  (Keep in mind that Obama’s leads in Ohio and Florida are precarious at best.)  Besides, a disputed election (or one contaminated by vote fraud) will draw a lot of angry people to the street; take a look at this video of McCain-Palin acolytes screaming and jeering at early (mostly Democratic) voters in North Carolina, and tell me they’re not willing to do whatever it takes to keep their country safe from those who would take it from them.  Anyone who thinks the right is whipping its supporters into a hate-frenzy just to get their votes is missing something pretty fundamental.

Race and the race

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

Obama-as-monkey; Powell as racist because he’s endorsed a fellow black man; (white) small towns as the only “real” America; the economy collapsing because Fannie Mae lent too much money to minority householders; Obama dolls found hanging in effigy; and all the while all too many McCain supporters keep on denying that their campaign’s feeding on racism (while some, to their credit, speak out against it).

But you have to turn the clock back a long way to put it all in perspective.  People say the Civil War was a tragedy, but the real tragedy was the failure of Reconstruction.  The Union should have kept its boot on the South until it cracked, and the KKK should have been throttled with its own umbilical cord.  Consider:  in the early 1870s, a majority of the Mississippi and South Carolina state legislatures were black, and the former state was sending black Senators to Congress.  For a tantalizing moment, a new political/social order seemed to be in reach.  A hundred and thirty years later, we’re still living with the consequences of our failure to attain it.