Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Initial Thoughts

First and foremost I am disappointed. I also have to say that my predictions were in many instances incorrect - and that is probably an understatement. I am also saddened that in America, any election would have to be tainted with doubts and suspicions because our legislatures did not require electronic voting machines to produce a paper trail - especially when those same machines have such a history of erratic results. I know that exit polls are not always very reliable, but both rounds that were taken yesterday showed Kerry with solid leads in many of the states that have subsequently gone to Bush, and those same states were using voting machines without paper trails and with a dubious record of security and accuracy.

Assuming that the results are legitimate, and that there was not fraud or error in key states like Florida and Ohio, I would point out that in reality it was a very difficult task to unseat an incumbent president in a time of war, especially one who presided over the events of 9/11. The attack of 9/11 and the war in Iraq are sources of anxiety, fear and insecurity for most Americans. Fear is the most powerful motivator, and it triggers a whole mode of thought that departs from rationality and empirical analysis, and instead lets emotion hold sway. This allows a president with a record of incompetence to remain in office, despite the evidence. If you don't think that the GOP was banking on this, just go back and look at the Republican convention. It was a fear fest, and much of the rhetoric on the stump and in the television ads (wolf pack?) was designed to play up the fear factor. And it wasn't just fear of terrorist attacks. Fear of homosexual marriage also played an important role in determining the voting habits of the electorate. These messages dominated any other policy proposals or reference to the record of the last four years.

If there is a bright side to this story, it is that this should give Democrats the impetus to redefine their Party, the discourse, the language, and the frames within which the debate in this country is held. The Republicans had that moment in 1964 with the resounding defeat of Barry Goldwater. Since that time they have dedicated time, energy, brainpower and an enormous amount of money to the cultivation of think tanks and media outlets that produce and dissemanate conservative ideology,
conservative language, conservative narratives, and a set of frames that have helped them to sway Americans to their side of the aisle. It is time for the Democrats to play catch up. This is our Goldwater moment. Let's hope we follow through with equal and superior determination and success.

In closing, I will leave you with a piece I wrote back in August of this year. Some of you may have read this already, and if so, I apologize for the repetition. Otherwise, this might provide some solace:

Can I confess something that might sound startling to anyone who has read even a portion of my writing: I'm a little ambivalent about my desire to see Kerry win come November. No, I haven't lost it completely, nor am I buying into the ludicrous notion that Bush can better execute the war on terror, nor does the fact that John Kerry might have only skirted the Cambodian border and not actually crossed over changed my mind on his worth as a candidate. I'm just wondering if there is really something worth winning come November, or if the mess created by George Bush's four years would be best left to him, forever enshrined as his legacy and his alone. I admit, these thoughts drift in during my weaker moments when spiteful urges hold sway over my more altruistic nature, but there is a method behind my flirtation with madness. The origins of my own personal dilemma can be found in the larger picture.

First of all, Iraq is unraveling at an alarming rate, and the prospects for this endeavor going forward are hurting if not mortally wounded. This is the area where my political instincts are most conflicted. I am not convinced that Kerry, or anyone else for that matter, can salvage the vision of a democratic, peaceful and stable Iraq. One side of my schism would like to see Bush in power should Iraq continue along its current trajectory. Let Bush turn on the spit while Iraq descends into a lawless state as casualties mount and conflicts erupt, rather than allow the right-wing punditry the opportunity to blame the inevitable collapse on Kerry and the "sensitive" leftist approach. This is how they will capitalize on their own wildly misguided foreign policy blunders. Blame the results on the administration that comes in after the fact. Just consider the situation on the ground.

The probability that Iraq is going to emerge, intact, as a democratic state seems remote. The more likely scenario is increased violence that will cause the postponement of elections, which in turn will fuel more unrest. Allawi will try to play the role of strongman and consolidate power, but as his recent handling of the Najaf siege indicates, resistance to his style of leadership is widespread, determined and growing. American troops will need to remain in Iraq for years to come, sustaining a steady drumbeat of casualties, in order to provide cover for either Allawi, some form of totalitarian Saddam-like regime or whatever other government takes the reins. In what is yet another Iraq-generated Catch-22 and paradox, the elections themselves portend the greatest risks to the whole operation.

Sistani and the moderate non-Sadr Shiite leadership are more amenable to riding out the occupation because for the majority Shiites, the elections hold the key to political ascendancy and dominance. By virtue of their percentage of the electorate, they are positioned to control the country through the democratic process for the foreseeable future, a privilege they have been denied for decades of Sunni-led Baathist rule. The prize is so alluring that Sistani has swallowed his disdain for the American leadership and abstained from openly challenging the U.S. presence, instead biding his time for election day.

The problem is, if Sistani gets what he wants, the Kurds won't, and neither will the Sunnis. In the transitional law, the precursor to the eventual constitution, that Sistani begrudgingly signed off on in an effort to keep the process moving along, the Kurds are granted veto power over the final constitution (the exact wording allows for veto of any measure by a two-thirds majority of three of Iraq's provinces, with the Kurds enjoying a comfortable majority in three such States). Immediately after the transitional law was passed, however, Sistani and other Shiite leaders criticized this provision and signaled that they would not support its inclusion in the process for drafting the final version to be conducted at a later date.

The Kurds, having prospered under the protection of the no-fly zone enforced by U.S. and British air power, are already a functioning para-state, complete with a robust economy, relatively well developed political institutions and a sizable militia (armed, trained and supported by Israel in an effort to counterbalance the Iranians' influence over the Shiites in the South). The Kurds will resist the powerful urge to secede and form their own nation only if they get assurances that this long suffering minority will not be victimized again by the government in Baghdad. Without this veto power that the Shiites seem unwilling to grant, they will, as they have professed on numerous occasions, secede which in turn could very well lead to a broader regional conflict drawing in Syria, Iran and Turkey on the one side and Kurdistan and possibly Israel on the other.

Then of course there is the damage done to our efforts to stave off the rise in popularity, appeal and support of the radical, Islamist, anti-American, terrorist mentality. The war in Iraq has set back this process immeasurably, with support for America at unprecedented lows globally, and in the Muslim world almost non-existent. We have successfully undermined and alienated the moderate voices in the Muslim world while providing Osama and his ilk with gift after gift, making the increased likelihood of terrorist attacks against American interests a very palpable reality. Further, the money drain in Iraq has left our
homeland defenses underfunded, ignored and alarmingly vulnerable at a time when their fortification is more important than ever.

Are you sure you want John Kerry to be the President of record if and when these types of catastrophes ensue? Ultimately, the angel on my shoulder persuades me that Kerry's team will be more inclined and able to diffuse the tension if and when it arises. He will make homeland security the priority that it should be. Kerry's administration will not arrogantly shun nuance, diplomacy and multilateralism which will enable them to achieve more and engender more support. But to some degree they will suffer their predecessor's mistakes and the historical amnesia of the punditry. Bush's failings will become Kerry's headaches.

Then there's the economy. Despite the pollyannic prognosis of the White House's economic team, there are fundamental structural flaws to this economy, flaws that I'm not sure a Kerry administration would be able to address unless the Democrats seize the Senate and make sizable inroads in the House. The near term economic forecast is not promising, and will likely be punctuated by prolonged stagnation and frequent setbacks. I don't want the conservative punditry to pin the economic malaise on John Kerry, when it is the extremist supply-side cult of the Bush team that has so greatly exacerbated the situation. Consider the litany of problems.

Tax policy has shifted the burden to the states and localities and ultimately the increasingly squeezed middle class which has led to a surge in bankruptcies, personal debt and hardship while slowing down consumer spending, which makes up two-thirds of the GDP. The deficits are so out of control that interest rates have begun inching upward despite the economic stagnation. With Iraq hemorrhaging money, expensive programs like the prescription drug benefit in place, and a Republican dominated House and Senate unwilling to realign tax priorities, those deficits will remain entrenched and thus interest rates will continue to climb. This will burst the real estate bubble and plunge even more Americans into unmanageable debt as floating rate mortgages become unsustainable.

Oil prices are at unprecedented levels, but unfortunately the trend upward in prices is inevitable and probably irreversible in the near future. China, India and other developing economies are developing an appetite for oil that is rivaling our own, yet production, refinement and supply remain relatively static, with little hope of significant enhancements in any of these categories. The cost of oil will continue to drag on the economy, yet vigorous research and development of alternative fuels will be made difficult by a recalcitrant Congress and a strapped budget.

In the area of job creation, the lack of nationalized health care is preventing employers from hiring, and is making foreign outsourced hires that much more attractive. Corporate profits might be up, but employers are reluctant to add to their domestic payrolls when there are educated and qualified workers who can digitally commute for a fraction of the cost (especially when health insurance is factored in). There is no end in sight for the migration of jobs overseas.

With the deficit as large as it is, the Republicans in charge of Congress and with the tax base shrunk and shifted, there is little likelihood now for the successful passage of such a grandiose endeavor as national health insurance even if Kerry is elected. Furthermore, fiscal policy in general will be hamstrung for years, if not decades, to come as the federal government is forced to make efforts to pay down the debt. My schizoid self wants Bush to be associated with the disastrous results of his own economic policies. My better half wants Kerry to do all he can to reverse the trend and ease the burden on working Americans.

With those mammoth albatrosses gift wrapped and waiting for Kerry and Edwards I now turn my attention to an intriguing power struggle within the GOP, with this election likely tilting the balance in favor of one side over the other. In a recent article, reporters at the
New York Times detailed the tension in the Republican Party between the conservative wing and the moderate, Rockefeller Republicans.

The internal struggle has been punctuated by pitched primary battles between moderates and conservatives, even for long time incumbents like moderate Senator Arlen Specter (PA) who narrowly eked out a victory in his primary contest with ultra-conservative Patrick Toomey. One of Toomey's chief backers was the conservative group the Club For Growth, which has led the fight to defeat candidates they define as RINOs or "Republicans In Name Only."

Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, acknowledges that his organization's goal is to make moderate Republicans an endangered species. "The problem with the moderates in Congress is they basically water down the Republican message and what you get is something that infuriates the Republican base," Mr. Moore said.
Christie Whitman, the moderate former New Jersey governor and former head of the EPA under Bush (who departed on somewhat acrimonious terms over several public and embarrassing environmental policy divergences, especially when the President reneged on a campaign pledge to reduce CO2 emissions that was highly touted by Whitman in the press) is writing a book titled It's My Party Too, a reference to the increasing marginalization of moderate voices in the GOP. Whitman assesses the impact of the election on the Party dynamic thusly:

Frankly, if the president wins walking away with this, maybe the country is in a different place than where the moderate Republicans are...If he loses, it is an absolute validation of the fact that you cannot be a national party if you are excluding people.
As Whitman predicts if Bush wins, the conservative leadership, validated and emboldened by their victory, will steer the Party even farther to the right. Don't be fooled by the centrist facade on display in the prime time slots during the convention, Tom Delay and the conservative wing want total loyalty and uniformity of ideology. But in that move to the right, the GOP exposes large swaths of political real estate to the Democrats.

Leaders of the Main Street group [a moderate version of the Club For Growth] say that conservatives who enjoy one-party Republican rule in the nation's capital should not forget they would not be in that position were it not for moderates in the narrowly divided House and even narrower Senate. And when Republicans serving middle-of-the-road constituencies step down, their seats can be ripe for Democratic picking.
The future viability of the Republican Party rests with the moderate voices, the ones with mass appeal in swing states and among the middle of the road Americans. So any alienation of moderates and independents could severely damage the GOP's ability to produce candidates and platforms with long term national appeal. The hubris of the victorious conservatives could lead to their political over-reaching. So in a bizarre sense, if Bush wins, the GOP may lose.

I realize that there are too many other issues of importance such as the gutting of the
regulatory state, the appointment of Supreme Court and other federal judges, and the overall direction of the nation to actually claim that the defeat of Kerry and Edwards would be in any sense a positive thing. I also have no doubt that the nation, and the world, will be a safer more unified place under their leadership. It is just that a part of me wants to see Bush burn in the fires he set, and I am sickened by my anticipation of the blame for the enormous problems created by Bush being placed at the footsteps of Kerry and Edwards. Although I eagerly await November, I am bothered by a nagging feeling that even victory will be bittersweet.

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