May 1, 2008 | Rolling Stone
Camera bulbs were flashing. An important announcement was about to be made.
To hear the former World Bank chief economist and senior vice president detail the economic circumstances associated with the conflict, now in its fifth year and costing U.S. taxpayers $12 billion each month, is to enter a realm that rivals the bleak, madcap world conjured by Joseph Heller's classic satire Catch-22. For Stiglitz, a 2001 Nobel Prize winner, the tragedy of war is compounded by significant — and deliberate, he contends — flaws in how the Bush Administration has accounted for the war's expenses.
Citing the broader economic implications that extend beyond official budgetary figures that he said obscure the war's reality, Stiglitz believes the U.S. government is "vastly undervaluing" the war's impact on the economy, including its negative influence through lost opportunities that might otherwise shore up domestic infrastructure and education or enhance technological innovation. Stiglitz calculated that one-sixth of the
By using a cash accounting system that minimizes up-front costs while obscuring or ignoring massive long-term expenditures, such as those associated with equipment repair and replacement or healthcare outlays for soldiers injured or killed in the war, the U.S. government has convinced some Americans that the Iraq conflict carries a far more modest price tag than Stiglitz and Bilmes say is accurate. In fact, Stiglitz, a professor at
"Disability costs are a big chunk of change," he told the audience in the
While the Bush Administration's cash accounting practice gives the appearance of fewer expenses, Stiglitz said it also drives short-term decisions that can have deadly consequences. He cited the examples of soldiers who were issued no body armor early in the war, or those whose vehicles were inadequately armored against improvised explosive devices. Equally troubling, he said, were instances of soldiers who, after being maimed and hospitalized, discovered that they were docked by the military for the remainder of their contracted service pay. (Congress is likely to change this policy soon, Stiglitz said.)
Deliberate accounting choices also play a part in the
In addition, the economics surrounding how the war is being fought — with significant privatization through contractors like Blackwater and Halliburton — creates "perverse incentives," according to Stiglitz. With salaries up to five times higher for private security forces, the
Stiglitz also pointed to what he considered broader economic mistakes made during the last eight years of the Bush Administration, which have contributed to the U.S. deficit ballooning from $6 trillion to $9 trillion, with about a third of that increase "directly due to the Iraq War," according to Stiglitz. What's more, that economic circumstance has resulted in some 40 percent of war costs actually being funded by foreign countries, through investments in instruments such as Treasury bonds, a situation Stiglitz said leaves the
Stiglitz, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers from 1995-1997, also criticized the Bush Administration for cutting taxes during wartime, thereby passing the costs on to future generations.
For the first time in
There are two broad views of what we mean by tax reform. One school decries the complexity -- a byzantine tax code, impenetrable forms, public and private tax bureaucrats, and self-defeating or inefficient incentives that add up to sheer economic waste. The other school objects to who pays, reminding us that the rich have used their political influence to kill the system's progressivity, leaving ordinary taxpayers with too much of the bill. Both schools can agree that the system ought to be streamlined and that the complexity is often the consequence of special-interest provisions that harm economic efficiency as well as efficient tax collection.
In practice, however, the tax- simplification theme is often a political stalking horse for an even less equitable (though perhaps simpler) tax system. Proposals such as the Forbes flat tax, or the postcard-size tax return, or Gov. Mike Huckabee's proposal to abolish the IRS in favor of (what would be astronomical and regressive) national sales taxes invariably tout how simple they would be, but their deeper purpose is to reduce the share of taxes that the rich pay.
Michael Graetz's book, 100 Million Unnecessary Returns, is an intellectually serious and moderately conservative version of this first genre. At the heart of his plan is a 10 percent to 14 percent value-added tax (VAT) that would underwrite a general exemption of $50,000 for an individual and $100,000 for a couple or family. As a consequence, the 100 million households of his title would no longer file income-tax returns. His book is mostly about the purported benefits of the plan to simplification and to competitiveness, not the worsening regressivity.
By contrast, David Cay Johnston's Free Lunch is a shining example of the second school. In an era of over-caffeinated armchair pundits, Johnston is the rare old-fashioned reporter -- he covers taxes for The New York Times -- with a capacity for both investigative legwork and indignation on behalf of regular people. His previous book, Perfectly Legal, explores the Internal Revenue Service's losing war with ever more convoluted tax schemes, virtually all for the benefit of the wealthy. These schemes have shifted taxes onto moderate-income people while conveniently adding to the popular backlash against the IRS. Johnston shows why low-income people using the earned income tax credit are far more likely to be audited than rich people using baroque tax shelters. With audit resources restricted by a conservative Congress, the IRS can fathom the former but not the latter.
In Free Lunch, Johnston offers an appalling sampler of the other strategies used by the affluent to win tax breaks and other hidden subsidies at the expense of both the Treasury and the broad public interest. In one chapter, he explains how the tax code rewards America's large corporations for moving production abroad. As if it were not enough that the Chinese government offers huge subsidies and repressed workers,
A company with operations in the United States and another country can borrow money at home, deducting the interest and thus lowering American taxes. At the same time, it can earn interest on the untaxed cash it keeps overseas. So when an American company closes a factory here and moves it to China, provided it meets some technical rules, it can deduct the interest charges on its United States tax return while building up profits overseas that may never be taxed.
The tax treatment of U.S. foreign corporate profits is complex -- but who cares? Though the complexity serves incidentally as a full-employment act for a costly private bureaucracy of tax attorneys and accountants, the real function is reducing corporate taxes (and also subsidizing outsourcing). That's why corporations lobby for tax simplification about as often as cops get parking tickets. In a nice grace note, Johnston recalls the system's lineage. The treatment of foreign taxes was originally worked out by Herbert Hoover's Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, to reduce the big oil companies' American taxes while offering the Saudis stable royalties. As Johnston comments, "Adam Smith would not have approved."
In his well-researched and narrated stories covering more than a dozen facets of the subsidy-for-the-rich game, Johnston makes clear that the "complexity" of our tax system is not the result of tax bureaucrats, or wonky legislators, or big-spending liberals. Rather, it reflects elaborate schemes invented by wealthy people seeking to evade taxes or find other ways to underwrite private riches at public taxpayer expense. Johnston reminds us that complexity per se is a second-order problem. The primary problem is who pays and who benefits.
Graetz, a Yale law professor and former assistant secretary of the Treasury, downplays this key issue in 100 Million Unnecessary Returns. I admired his previous book, Death by a Thousand Cuts, co-authored with his Yale colleague Ian Shapiro. From this earlier volume, a superb case study of how the right had successfully demonized progressive taxation, I had mistakenly pegged Graetz as a process reformer and moderate liberal. I was curious to learn what kind of liberal case he might make for a VAT.
But 100 Million Unnecessary Returns, though ingenious, relies heavily on familiar conservative premises and rhetorical ploys. He begins by expressing alarm at the projected deficit. If the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire in 2010, he writes, "federal revenues will exceed 20 percent of GDP, a level reached only once since World War II." But maybe we need federal revenues to exceed 20 percent of gross domestic product. Restoring a progressive income tax system to finance an adequate level of public outlay after decades of public neglect is an option not on Graetz's radar.
Worse, though the current deficit is clearly the result of deliberate policy choices by George W. Bush to reduce taxes on the rich and finance his war through borrowing, Graetz blames the deficit on generic irresponsibility of unnamed "politicians." Because future generations do not vote, Graetz contends, "deficit finance is catnip to politicians." But oddly, neither Bill Clinton nor the Democratic congressional majorities of the mid-1990s were susceptible to that catnip when they took political risks to balance the budget. The most elementary intellectual honesty by a Yale law professor would lay the blame for the deficit where it belongs.
Having begun with a misleading jeremiad against deficits, Graetz then offers a thoughtful discussion of the excessive use of tax deductions as instruments of public policy. But unlike Johnston (or parts of his own previous book with Ian Shapiro), Graetz once again does not cite the paramount source of the estimated $700 billion in revenues lost to tax expenditures -- the outsized political influence of financial elites.
Graetz also proposes to cut the already reduced corporate income tax rate even further, to the range of 15 percent to 20 percent, purportedly as a boost to competitiveness. As justification, he cites other advanced economies' lower corporate rates -- the unfortunate result of tax competition and the influence of Graetz's counterparts overseas. He also offers standard conservative alarms on Social Security and Medicare, which he says will have to be "trimmed," and he likes individual savings accounts as a substitute for part of Social Security.
Graetz makes four arguments for his value-added tax scheme. First, the federal tax code is too complex; second, government inefficiently pursues many social and economic objectives via tax subsidies instead of directly; third, our failure to have a VAT leaves U.S. industry at a competitive disadvantage; and finally, a VAT would increase savings rates. This is all true as far as it goes. He is also usefully and somewhat scornfully critical of the two competing conservative proposals, a national sales tax and a flat tax. However, his own preferred remedy, which he terms a "Competitive TAX," leaves much to be desired.
Graetz thinks he sees the elements of a grand bargain in a VAT. He quotes a marvelous line from Larry Summers that a VAT will be enacted as soon as Democrats recognize its potential as a money machine and Republicans realize it is regressive. Indeed, one can defend the regressivity of Europe's value-added taxes because the services they pay for are highly redistributive. By analogy, it might make great sense to have, say, a 10 percent to 14 percent value-added tax if it paid for national health insurance. Graetz's value-added tax, however, would neither add net revenues nor finance additional public services. It would replace a more progressive income tax with a far less progressive tax on consumption.
To make his VAT less regressive, Graetz would offer credits for people making under $30,000 a year (and require them to file a new tax form to receive the credits!). But the working middle class earning $30,000 to $100,000 would likely be socked with higher net taxes. And despite his erudition, Graetz doesn't bother to compute just how much more regressive the resulting system would be.
Would his proposal simplify the tax system, the premise for his entire scheme? Most tax complexity is the problem -- and the opportunity -- of those in the upper brackets. They are the taxpayers who make extensive use of shelters -- and under Graetz's plan they would still file income tax returns. For the rest of us, filing a tax return is just not that big a deal. The vast majority of people with earnings under $100,000 use the standard deduction. Even for those moderate- income people who itemize, it's a matter of keeping decent financial records and perhaps paying a few hundred dollars to a tax-preparer. As Graetz admits, getting rid of the tax expenditures that cause the worst complexity (and regressivity) is a political problem. If Congress can muster the political will to render the income tax simpler and fairer with the addition of a VAT, it can do so without one.
The next president will need to make the tax system simpler and fairer for three big reasons: to restore fiscal balance, to raise adequate funds for public needs, and to restore trust in the tax system itself. The best way to achieve those goals is not to add a VAT but to restore progressive rates and repeal tax preferences that cause most of the system's complexity, regressivity, and failure to collect adequate revenues.
Last week Barack Obama, destiny's tot, suggested blue-collar Americans are feeling bitter about their financial condition, which has been on a bit of a decline during the last five, ten, fifteen, twenty years or so. Rival politicians immediately pounced and they've been whaling on him ever since.
How dare Obama suggest people are bitter? Americans are not bitter! Americans are happy, proud, peppy, content and optimistic!
Maybe. But if millions of them are not bitter and/or angry at this point, there is probably something wrong with them.
In his new book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times writes, "Since 1979, hourly earnings for 80 percent of American workers (those in private-sector, non-supervisory jobs) have risen by just 1 percent, after inflation. For male workers, the average hourly wage actually slid by 5 percent since 1979.... the nation's economic pie is growing, but corporations by and large have not given their workers a bigger piece." A 1 percent raise in almost thirty years? Still not bitter?
And who is getting ever larger chunks of pie? The Wall Street Journal has isolated some of the most energetic pie pigs: "the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans earned 21.2 percent of all income in 2005, according to new data from the Internal Revenue Service. That is up sharply from 19 percent in 2004, and surpasses the previous high of 20.8 percent set in 2000, at the peak of the previous bull market in stocks. The bottom 50 percent earned 12.8 percent of all income, down from 13.4 percent in 2004 and a bit less than their 13 percent share in 2000." You can be sure that a substantial portion of the bottom half of the population is living in small towns similar to the ones in which Obama sniffed out a degree of bitterness.
Even the 1 percent increase in hourly wages over the past generation or so is illusory. During the same period, unavoidable expenses--such as medical insurance, child care and transportation--have expanded explosively. Whatever progress that's been made in living a little better has been achieved by working a lot harder and a lot longer.
"In a survey by the Families and Work Institute," Greenhouse writes, "two-thirds of employed parents responded that they didn't have enough time with their kids and just under two-thirds said they didn't have enough time with their spouses. The typical American worker toils 1,804 hours a year, 135 hours more per year than the typical British worker, 240 hours more than the average French worker, and 370 hours (or nine full-time weeks) more than the average German worker. No one in the world's advanced economies works more."
Compared to workers in other countries, where the standard of living is as high or higher than it is in the United States, Americans, with fewer and shorter vacations, are worked like donkeys. Politicians repeatedly insist on telling the voters that America is the richest country in the world, which is a true enough statement but also provides little comfort to the massive population of under-appreciated workers, in small towns and big cities, who don't get their share.
Every election season, candidates pretend to tear up as they assure millions of Americans who are working for less--or not at all--with the phrase the Clintons made famous:"I feel your pain." That empty empathy will get you a bag of groceries in the basement of that church across town.
This year, the politicians are back with their speeches about how they are going to arrange for vocational classes so the voters will be able to compete in the twenty-first century. The first decade of the twenty-first century is already almost over. Time to drop that line, lest the small-town people turn bitter.
Obama is getting drubbed for saying that people, in their bitterness, are looking to God and their guns. If you had to choose who to go to for economic assistance, Hillary or God, who would you be clinging to? As for the guns, American politicians, with their frequently broken promises, are just lucky they aren't picking birdshot out of their derrières.
A Superman Approach to Foreign Policy
By Ezra Klein
April 11, 2008 | Prospect.org
Round and round the rhetoric went yesterday. Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were, if not masterful in their obfuscation, perfectly adequate. Success was never defined, and thus the conditions for withdrawal were never articulated. A healthier insurgency, we were told, required the presence of our troops to beat it back, and a weakened insurgency required the presence of our troops to press the advantage. Heads we stay in Iraq; tails we never leave.
And either way, we never talk about anything else. Aside from the odd, and very occasional, dip into arguments like whether we'll negotiate with Iran or attend the 2008 Summer Olympics, Iraq exerts near total domination over the foreign-policy discussion. Its presence in the election has actually served to obscure real disagreement over foreign-policy philosophies. Everyone who wants to bring the war to a close is declared a liberal. Those who want to see it continued are considered conservatives. That, however, is a misleadingly narrow space for discussion. There's a difference between being pro-war, anti-war, anti-this particular war, and anti-this kind of preventive war. Opposing our continued presence in a hellish quagmire, in other words, is different than actually articulating your philosophy on the use of force and the point of foreign policy.
Which is why Matthew Yglesias' new book Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats is actually that rarest of election-year tomes: A useful intervention into the debate. (Full disclosure: Yglesias is a contributor to this site and a friend of mine.) Rather than simply re-litigating the argument over the Iraq War, Yglesias situates the war, and the debate that led to the invasion, in the context of longer-running arguments about the proper direction of U.S. foreign policy. In particular, he laments the relative abandonment of the vision liberals have held dear since World War II -- that of a rules-based international order in which America sacrifices a certain amount of autonomy in order to gain a greater measure of legitimacy, and works mightily to create, preserve, and strengthen international institutions that let other countries do the same. Those who would promote liberal values, in other words, need also submit to them. This means, at times, restraining American power and even accepting that our agenda can be impeded by the intransigence of our allies and, occasionally, our adversaries. But better we endure smaller setbacks than revisit the brutal struggle for power that defined world affairs in the pre-internationalist period. Better those bureaucratic struggles than a return to what came before.
This vision underpinned the foreign-policy decisions of post-World War II presidents, but it was rarely articulated. The rhetoric of international affairs has long had a militaristic and even self-consciously heroic character. The "Greatest Generation," after all, is remembered for bravely saving the world from the menace of Hitler, not for the U.N. and Bretton Woods and the Marshall Plan, initiatives that ushered in an era of international cooperation and created structures that largely headed off further violent conflict between great powers. The moment was popularly defined by its heroism, even if its lasting legacy would be the work that went into preventing the necessity of such dramatic interventions in the future. This came out in the cultural products of the moment. Superman, created in 1938, appeared on the cover of his comic book shaking Hitler and Tojo by the scruff of their necks. Similarly, his patriotic contemporary, Captain America, was originally portrayed clocking Hitler in the jaw. Neither one received cover art that depicted diplomacy.
Yet the internationalist vision was more deeply interwoven into our cultural fabric than we often realize. Superman and Captain America were superheroes of an odd sort: tremendously powerful beings whose primary struggle was often to follow the self-imposed rules and strictures that lent their power a moral legitimacy. Neither allowed themselves to kill, and both sought to work within the law. Given their strength, either could have sought world domination, and even if they didn't, they could have been viewed with deep suspicion and even hatred by those who were convinced that they one day would seek world domination. It was only by following ostentatiously strict moral codes that they could legitimize their power and thus exist cooperatively with a world that had every right to fear them. Indeed, soon enough, both were forming communities of like-minded super beings (The Justice League for Superman, the Avengers for Captain America) and generally operating much like, well, the nation that birthed them. As Spiderman -- a later hero who, like so many heroes, bought into the idea that rules and restraint separated the good guys from the bad guys -- liked to say, "with great power comes great responsibility."
[Even the best superheroes are still extra-legal, i.e. vigilantes. If they submit to a strict moral code, it is still a moral code of their own making. Likewise, our international system is chaotic. That is, we still live in a might-makes-right world. America's moral leadership should be dedicated to making it a more rule-based and law-abiding world, with collective pressure and real consequences for those who break the rules. As Klein rightly points out, we must be the first to follow the rules which we preach at others to follow, not the last. We should lead by example, which requires, at times, restraining our own behavior -- because it is better for the world, and ourselves, in the long run. - J]
That strain of foreign-policy thinking was largely abandoned in the rubble of the Twin Towers. As Yglesias puts it, "9/11 marked the beginning of an enormous psychological change on the part of the American people." With a newfound sense of vulnerability, there was a newfound sense of fear. Restraint was a luxury, a nice ideal when we were primarily dealing with the problems of other people, but less desirable when our own lives were on the line. After 9-11, the country's foreign-policy debate contracted, and liberal internationalists, who had always been better at pursuing their agenda than selling it politically, were largely left out. Instead, the conversation was dominated by those on the right who believed in unilateral U.S military hegemony over the world, and those on the left who believed in a superficially multilateral U.S military hegemony over the world, with the option to revert back to unilateralism if other countries proved disagreeable. It was Michael O'Hanlon versus Richard Perle, and few even seemed to find that strange.
This, too, saw its expression in a new type of hero: Jack Bauer. If Superman and Captain America were the emblems of the national mood directly after World War II, Bauer expressed the national anxieties uncovered by 9-11. Rather than an invincible superhero, Bauer was but a man, one who could perish like any other, and was aware of not only his own vulnerability, but that of his family, his government, and his country. Though there were laws he was supposed to follow, the enormity of the dangers he faced and the ruthlessness of the enemies he encountered led him to break them almost constantly, and so he tortured, killed, and generally let the ends lay claim to whatever means they could think of. Indeed, he did it so often, and with such abandon, that he'll start Season 7 on trial for torture.
This, fundamentally, is the foreign-policy debate in our country. Liberals see America possessing tremendous power that must be tempered and legitimized by the rules we choose to follow and the restraint we choose to apply. Conservatives see great vulnerabilities that can only be assuaged through sufficient application of violence and will. And that's the choice: Do we want the foreign policy of Jack Bauer and John Yoo, or of Clark Kent and George Marshall? It's a question that Gen. Petraeus, sadly, has no answer for.
In the space of three short months, I've contrived to write two lengthy, gloating political obituaries for Hillary Clinton, only to see both of them blow up in my face after fantastic eleventh-hour comebacks that ended with scenes of the Hillmeister doing the dual flabby-arm raise on CNN while gusts of confetti whooshed across the room, obscuring almost everything except the shocking results blaring out from the crawl on the bottom of the screen. There was a time when this race looked like it might become the most uplifting in a generation. It's now threatening to become the most divisive and disturbing. It is a good time to ponder how that happened — and to address a few of the other Frequently Asked Questions about this depraved circus that is now poised to continue well past Pennsylvania.
Isn't Hillary Clinton better qualified than Barack Obama to be president, given that she is the more experienced candidate?
The idea that Clinton is somehow more qualified to deal with international crises because she has more "experience" is one of the strangest things I've seen the media swallow whole in a long time, dating back to the "tiny, sand-covered, yet-to-master-the-art-of-plumbing nation of Iraq is an imminent military threat to the United States" fiasco. According to my calculations —worked out over many hours, using long division out to eighteen places —Clinton is a second-term senator, while Barack Obama, conversely, is a first-term senator. By any reasonable standard, both are political neophytes.
Clinton talks a lot about having visited "over eighty countries" —but then, Chelsea was with her on a lot of those trips, and I doubt folks are rushing to hand her the red phone. In case anyone has forgotten what exactly first lady Hillary Clinton really did all those years, here is a press account of a 1997 trip that she made to Senegal with her daughter: "Her first stop in Senegal was at Goree Island, where she peered through the 'Door of No Return,' through which slaves passed on their way to the dreaded Middle Passage of the Slave Trade. When she arrived in Dakar, the first lady was greeted by Senegalese who danced and serenaded her with lyrics written especially for the occasion." Shit, I feel better about that 3 a.m. phone call already!
It is worth noting that Hillary was being packed off on these trips into the heart of Africa at precisely the time when her husband was getting his knob polished by an intern in the Oval Office. That's not a reflection on her personally —but for the Hillary camp to tout her advantage in foreign affairs based on these trips into the marital wilderness, as compared to a candidate who has actually lived overseas and has actual relatives living in villages like the ones Hillary passed over in her glass-bottomed boat, is beyond absurd.
When it comes time for delegates to vote at the convention, shouldn't they take into account that Clinton has performed better than Obama in the so-called battleground states? Doesn't she stand a better chance against John McCain in the national election?
In reality, the exact opposite is true. Everything about the results so far suggests that Obama is the more electable candidate according to the "battleground" voter the Clinton camp is claiming for their own.
The Clinton strategy for winning the presidency is so simple, even a chimpanzee could grasp it. You win the blue states, the Massachusettses and the New Jerseys, almost automatically, just by being pro-choice and saying nice things about trees and gay people. You concede the really red states, the places like Tennessee and Kentucky where you're fucked anyway, places where huge pluralities believe the devil really exists and has thick red skin and a bull's horns. That leaves you free to compete hard in the mixed-bag states by drifting to the right as far as you can without losing your in-pocket blue territories, which is really hard to do unless you start wobbling on abortion or selling out the spotted owl. It is through the prism of this new Clintonian strategy that presidential politics has basically been reduced to winning Florida and Ohio.
But saying that Hillary is better qualified to take on John McCain because of her performance in those states only makes sense if (a) you believe that the people who voted for Clinton in the primaries will not vote for Obama in the general election, and (b) you believe that no Democrat can win the traditionally red states. In fact, Hillary has mostly been winning the traditionally blue states —places like New York, California, Massachusetts and New Jersey —that are going to go blue in November anyway, no matter who is running on the Republican ticket. And even in the states Hillary has won, it has been registered Democrats, not swing voters, who have carried her to victory, while Obama has dominated her in virtually every contest among registered independents. Even in her home state of New York, Obama whipped Hillary among independents by fifteen percent. In Missouri, that margin was twenty-eight percent. In California? Thirty percent.
Obama, meanwhile, has performed extraordinarily well in traditionally red states like Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina. And sure, some of that is due to the black vote. But all of his victories have been marked by two things: larger-than-usual turnout and routs among independents, leading to the large number of blowout wins that are basically responsible for his delegate lead at the moment. On Super Tuesday, Hillary won sixty percent of the vote in only one contest, Bill's home state of Arkansas. Obama won seven states by that margin or more.
In other words, Hillary is winning the Democratic voters who are going to vote Democratic anyway. Obama is bringing in new voters, and he's winning large numbers of swing voters in red states.
What happens if Hillary ends up taking the nomination despite trailing in both the popular vote and the delegate count?
Put it this way: If this race ends up getting decided by a bunch of political insiders, in defiance of the popular vote, it's going to render all self-righteousness about the 2000 debacle meaningless. And if Hillary ends up winning it by claiming Florida delegates from an uncontested election, in the process once again disenfranchising thousands of minority voters in Miami and other urban areas (who would have voted for Obama, just as they voted for Gore in 2000), then it'll end up being a double fuck-you to the public, a signal that the Democrats are no different from the Bush Republicans.
What if the nomination gets decided by the superdelegates?
In the old days, we had a different name for superdelegates. We called them party bosses. If either Clinton or Obama wins by virtue of a superdelegate revolt against the popular will —particularly when both candidates have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the superdelegates through their leadership PACs —then we're looking at an election that huge pluralities of the country will view as illegitimate. One more experience like this and we'll end up with Swedish election observers stepping in to run the 2012 race.
Are the Clinton camp's attacks against Obama racist?
Not really. What they are is opportunistic. The Clintonian campaign philosophy is basically an inverse of the Nixonian Southern Strategy: It accepts as gospel the notion that the old coalition of white labor and blacks that kept the South Democratic for generations has been severed forever by the rise of evangelical Christianity and social conservatism. Therefore the Clintons don't try to win back those white workers in the lost Southern states through, say, a more staunch advocacy of unions; instead, they try to pry away Nixon's old "silent majority" voters by courting the same fears about safety and national security that Tricky Dick used to take the South away from Democrats in the first place.
It's no accident that Hillary ran her "3 a.m." commercial in Texas but not Ohio; this was a cunning ploy to win back those scared white voters whom the Clinton strategy insists are needed to win. And it worked: After the ad, her support among white Texans jumped from forty-four to fifty-six percent. Does it help that her opponent is a black dude with a Muslim middle name? Sure. But the fearmongering by the Clintons is more about winning blue-collar votes without alienating their big-business buddies than it is about exploiting fears of a black planet. With the Clintons, ideology is always whatever gets them through the night. They haven't been reduced to balls-out, Willie Horton racism yet. That's not to say that they won't get there —they're just not there yet.
Won't the Republicans go after Obama with even nastier stuff?
Not long ago, I was talking to former Bush speechwriter David Frum, and he told me he thinks that Obama's Achilles' heel is patriotism. Put Obama in the general election, he said, and the Republicans are going to hammer him relentlessly. They're going to bring up everything they can find that bolsters the argument that Obama isn't slobberingly, priapistically patriotic: the famed decision to stop wearing his American flag pin because it was being used as a substitute for "true patriotism"; the now-infamous photo of him holding his hands at his waist while Hillary patriotically clasped her heart during the national anthem; the comments by his wife, Michelle, about being really proud of America "for the first time in my adult life"; the associations with Sixties radicals. Along with his middle name and the unkillable rumors of Muslim leanings, it's obvious where the Republicans are going to be aiming if they have to run against this guy all summer. If and when that happens, Obama is going to find out pretty quick that there's no explanation you can possibly give to Middle America for taking off your flag lapel pin that is going to make sense to them.
So Obama is weakest on the issue of patriotism?
No -- Obama's real weakness is that nobody really knows yet what he's all about. He is running as a symbol of a new politics, a politics somehow less disgusting and full of shit than the old politics. But if it were to get out that he's not that —that all he is the same old deal dressed up in black skin and a natty suit —then he quickly morphs into a different kind of symbol, a symbol of how an essentially bankrupt political system can seamlessly repackage itself to a fed-up marketplace by making cosmetic changes, without altering its basic nature. There have been disturbing signs along that front, from the accusations that Obama aides called his anti-NAFTA stance "just politics," to his angry stumpery against a Maytag plant closing even as he pals around with Lester Crown, a Maytag board member who raised huge sums for his campaign. Right now, Obama has millions of voters thinking Santa Claus really does exist; but if he keeps getting caught turning the usual tricks with campaign donors, attention is going to shift away from his heroic image and toward the prosaic reality, which in politics is always grubby and depressing. And with that, his value as a symbol will evaporate, and Christmas turns into just another holiday with those same relatives you hated every other day of the year.
Should Obama go negative against Hillary, as the press is urging him to?
It doesn't matter what Obama does at this point. He's fucked either way. If he gets into a catfight with Hillary, the peanut gallery will slam him for being just another typical politician. If he sits there and just lets her plunge knife after knife into his abdomen, he'll have every hack at Time and Newsweek saying he doesn't have "what it takes" to compete in the "blood sport" that is politics (as if any of those news-mag yuppie turds know anything about actual "blood sports"). I'll say one thing: This endless he-said/she-said piss-fighting between the two camps, with its attendant daily purging of loose-lipped campaign staffers of the Samantha Power/Geraldine Ferraro genus, is a bad place for Barack Obama to be. Nobody in American history has ever been better than the Clintons at calculating the electoral math of resentment, paranoia, media aggression and just flat-out, back-alley nastiness. Every day, the Clintons come up with some new and brilliantly devious way to color the subliminal background of the electoral canvas, from using comparisons to Jesse Jackson to buttonhole Obama as a "black candidate," to floating rumors of an "unstoppable" Hillary-Obama ticket —despite the fact that Hillary would rather eat a KFC bucket full of her own shit than run with Obama —in order to con on-the-fence voters into thinking that a vote for Hillary might also be a vote for Obama. That's why it seemed so weirdly appropriate that Samantha "she's a monster" Power was forced to resign from the Obama campaign, while Gerry Ferraro could all but call Obama a nigger and then claim that she was the victim of discrimination. We expect the Clintons to play dirty, and don't demand that they apologize for doing so. But we'd be disappointed in Obama if he went there.
[And that's the real double standard in this campaign, folks! Then again, it's partly Obama's own fault for trying to run a 'clean' campaign. – J]
So with all this Democratic infighting, is John McCain going to be the next president?
McCain may be an asshole, but he's not an idiot. He's doing exactly the right thing right now by going overseas for a fact-finding tour in Europe and the Middle East —basically exiling himself from the public eye —while Obama and Hillary claw each other's eyes out every five minutes on MSNBC. He's smart enough to know that whichever candidate emerges from the Democratic scrum is going to have a face like an uncooked side of beef come general-election season; he doesn't need to say a word to raise both of their negatives. Hillary is doing half of McCain's dirty work for him by repeatedly assailing Obama's supposed lack of experience and questionable patriotism, while Obama is inadvertently helping McCain's cause by forcing Hillary to go all craven psycho-bitch on him to stay alive in the race. We saw this effect on display most overtly after the Cleveland debate, when the angry back-and-forth banter by both Obama and Hillary left McCain, for the first time, leading in the polls against either candidate.
Democrats had all the momentum going into this race because of seven years of uninterrupted press scrutiny of the Bush administration; by the time November rolls around, however, most voters are going to feel like the Democrats have been in charge for over a year. And McCain will be able to swoop in and ride a "throw the bums out" uprising straight to the White House —just in time to actually keep the same old bums in charge. In American politics, always look for the worst possible scenario to emerge triumphant. And right now, that's it.