accountabilitybloke (old blog)

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Did I hear that correctly????

I am just coming out of an intense period of grading papers and exams, and the first blog post — a brief one at least, since my brain has turned to gelatin — has to be about the absurdity of the media frenzy over any contact that Obama or his transition team might have had with Governor Blagojevich.

The frenzy is based on the hope (yes, the hope) that there is something scandalous in whatever contact there might have been. The tone of much of the reporting is such that one would think any contact at all between team Obama and Blago was grounds for shock and distain — indicating an indifference to the fact that politics is most effective when it is carried out through communication among interested stakeholders (I think the appropriate phrase at this point is “duh!”). This is the equivalent of the charge that Obama had fathered two black children in wedlock….

But the absurdity reached something of an extreme today after the Obama team released their internal report to the media. On Hardball (sans Chris Matthews), guest host Mike Barnacle asked Roger Simon of what questions he would raise with Obama now that the evidence indicates that there was no inappropriate conversations with Blago. If I heard him right, Simon responded that now he wanted to know why Obama had chosen NOT to speak to the governor — implying that there was something irresponsible (and perhaps even scandalous?) in the President-elect’s indifference about who would succeed him.

Hmmm…. I need to get some rest — this is getting just too nonsensical. Damned by the media if you do, and damned by the media if you didn’t…..

UPDATE: OK, I am awake now (the morning after) and am ready to acknowledge that I did not get Simon’s point quite right. What he was saying may actually amount to something as bizzare. If, in fact, Obama did not speak to Blago about the appointment, then that means (in Simon’s mind) that Obama was privy to some knowledge about Blago being under suspicion — and Simon wants to know what Obama knew and when he knew it.

The fact that Blago was under investigation was a fact so widely known, that many of us who could not even pronouce his name (I still have problems) knew it. That being the case, it seems certain that Obama and his team approach Blago with care and ten foot poles — as would any politician who was halfway awake.

That said, it could also be that Obama just didn’t care for Blago and (as is the privilege of the President-elect — a privilege he did not have as US Senator form Illinois) he decided that he just did not want to deal with the man…

December 23rd, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Some thoughts on the 2008 election campaign….

There are all sorts of opinions about last night’s debate, strong on both sides. That is an indication of one thing: neither Obama nor McCain screwed up enough to warrant being declared the loser.

Which means that the campaign itself — rather than the debates — will likely be the determining factor. And from a political science point-of-view there is an interesting contest going on between two completely distinct strategies (and I don’t mean tactics).

It is always tough to simplify such things effectively, but I would articulate the contest as “ground game” versus “air war.” Neither camp is foolish enough to do one or the other exclusively, but they seem to be stressing different ones.

The air war strategy has dominated in presidential elections at least since 1968, and was nicely introduced to us via Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President. (For those who are fans of Mad Men, the seeds of this are dramatized in some early episodes in references to the 1960 election.) Nixon essentially turned over the campaign to PR professionals (Haldeman and Erlichman being the most famous). Political scientist Darrell West has written THE BOOK on political air wars, and it is certainly the focus of most punditry as folks scrutinize each and every advert that is posted by the campaigns.

The ground game approach is the more traditional — some would say anachronistic — campaign strategy. It is the door-to-door, precinct level strategy that was the rationale and cause of forming political party organizations. It is alive and well at the local level (e.g., here and here), and in some communities is the only way to win office. It relies on the same logic as community organizing (of the Saul Alinsky type; here and here), and many would argue is irrelevant above the local level in a political age where mass media has become the major form of electioneering.

September 27th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

A perplexed cynic….

I am typically unfazed by what happens in US political campaigns — after all, I am a political scientist and I try to live up to my wife’s description of the field (“advanced cynicism and general despair”).

But at this moment (3 PM or so on Wednesday, September 24) I am baffled and perplexed. What in the world is the McCain campaign up to?

Win or lose, someone has ot to write an insider analysis of this someday — I mean a really “inside” the “insider” memoir, one that can give us some insight into their collective thinking. The Palin selection was interesting enough to warrant such a book, but the effort to postpone Friday’s debate (even though I was unlikely to watch it given other things on my plate) seems bizarre.

The only thing one can conjure up to make sense of this is as act of desperation given the latest polls. This might be the closest thing McCain folks have to an “October surprise” — and considering that they are coming to the realization that another 9/11 is unlikely to come their way over the next 40+ days, this might be their effort to create the moral equivalent. That is probably what Bush is going to try to do tonight in his address to the nation.

But if that is idea behind this cynical maneuver, they have a number of problems. First, there is the problem that JM is on record ten days ago noting that the fundamentals of the economy are strong. Second is the growing chorus of economists and politicians from both right and left who are raising questions about the plan and the pros/cons of letting the market do its thing without interference. Third is the general tone of public opinion which is not conducive to some manipulative effort to mobilize fear and anxiety. The “tone” or mood right now is more like anger and suspicion, and assuming the Obama folks don’t fall for the bait, all they have to do is point out just how manipulative this move is.

Must worrisome is that all this will backfire — and whatever justification there is for the “bailout” plan will be lost in the process….

September 24th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Indignation and politics — Obama’s tone….

Maureen Dowd‘s column this AM is an interesting dialogue in which she (with assist from Aaron Sorokin) is able to give advice via a rant by fictional “The West Wing” President Josiah Bartlet. I think they have it half right — what Obama needs to do, they imply, is to ratchet up the current, more angry tone of his campaign rhetoric. But I think they are misreading that tone….

In recent weeks Obama has shifted from inspirational orator to a classroom lecturer and, most recently, to a lecturer with the capacity to toss in some good one-liners that are certainly designed for the sound-bite hungry mass media. The “tonal” nature of these presentations is not (as Dowd/Sorokin think) anger, but rather indignation — a much more suitable approach for a person who cannot afford to be seen as angry if he is to succeed in this campaign.

The line between anger and indignation is often a very thin one. (Wikipedia, in fact, treats the two as synonymous.) McCain crossed that line to (I think) good effect for his campaign in his “I’d fire him” (in reference to SEC chair Cox) speech this past week. This is the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” approach made famous in Paddy Chayefsky‘s “Network” (listen here), and it is a real crowd pleaser when coming from McCain.

But Obama can’t really cross that line without seeming to fall off the perch he constructed that differentiated him from the widely held image of the “Raised Fist” angry black American (thanks to friend Domonic for highlighting that image…). Nor can he become too steeped in the image of the stand-up comic who can deliver a zinger and get a laugh — another image that knocks him off the elevated platform as the “leader (change) we need” that he has been able to construct over the months. Rather, he has to maintain a tone of serious indignation about what’s being said about him (something he is doing well at the moment with the well crafted one-liners) as well as what is happening in the country (“enough is enough” seems to have done the trick there).

The power of indignation and similar “reactive attitudes” is of serious consequence in our social and political lives — a view implied in 18th century Scottish Enlightenment examination of “moral sentiments” [David Hume (see here)Adam Smith (see here) and all that) and articulated most effectively by 20th century British philosopher PF Strawson (read here). It is central to our sense of being accountable — and drives the central role of accountability in politics, governance and all sorts of others social endeavors. For present purposes, it can be used to sharpen a campaign that needs to keep moving forward….

September 21st, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

“It’s the racism, stupid!”

There is a great deal of beating around the bush (pardon the unintended pun) about what is happening in the American presidential election — and only a few folks are willing to make explicit what everyone knows: this race is being driven by race.

Ed Rendell, Governor of Pennsylvania, got quite a reaction when he brought up this point back in February (see here), but even lately as an Obama supporter (he was strong Clinton backer when he made the earlier comment) he has reasserter the point in interviews.

Perhaps the clearest news media statement of the role of race in this election is made this past week by editor Jacob Weisberg (read here; listen here). Sad commentary but true — whether one sees it as generational (as Weisberg does) or something more basic to the American political culture. In this election “it’s the racism, stupid!”

August 26th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments


Flipping through TV channels with the remote the other day I came across a C-SPAN telecast of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Two quick points:

First, it was not of the grand quality we associate with the oratory of JFK. You can see signs of the rhetorical patterns he obviously developed on the campaign trail with Ted Sorenson, but it did drag on a bit. Interestingly, it seemed really very focused on attacking his opponent, Richard Nixon, as lacking the intellectual power to be president. Interesting to watch as case of putting JFK in the political context of the times.

Second, and even more interesting for me given Obama’s choice of venue for his Thursday night speech, was that Kennedy presented the speech in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. From what one could see, there was no one sitting on the field (probably not allowed in the days since college football season was about to begin) and the stands were not very full (or at least did not seem so in the few camera scans of the audience). So much for my sense that Obama was setting precedent….

August 25th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Tid Bits….

Some tidbits as I continue to make my move from PC to Mac….

-In the midst of reading two recent books on US post-9/11 debacles, Standard Operation Procedure by Gourevitch and Morris (meant to accompany the documentary by that name, but actually quite a bit different in presentation and details) and Janet Mayer’s The Dark Side. Looking to use one or both in class this fall, and so far they exceed expectations as solid works. Thus far one conclusion and prediction: at some point after we have pulled out of Iraq and after the tone of US politics changes there are likely to be — and ought to be — criminal prosecutions against some of the top officials of the Bush Administration….

-Nice job by On the Media Folks in their “Dress to Repress” segment that integrated the popular Project Runway show…..

-The Biden choice was obviously a good one for all practical purposes, although I still think Obama would have been better served by a Wesley Clark type. But Biden has the right “personality” as a campaigner — and a pretty nice touch with those he deals with. A year ago, when he was still campaigning for president in New Hampshire, he had to cancel an appearance in my undergraduate class because of a vote on Iraq war funding. His staff person dropped me an email, which was good enough; but he followed with a phone call, leaving a very nice voice mail expressing disappointment that he was not able to make the date. The approach was personal and impressive. No wonder the media loves him!

-Poll results that are the center of much of the punditry rambling of late have been used as a substitute for real news on the campaign. One interesting question is: what is the definition of “likely voters” which seems so central to most of the results. A Explainer from 2004 provides an answer.

Back to the operating system transtiion….

August 24th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

McCain’s performance as turning point?

Well, the presidential campaign entered a new stage tonight at the Saddleback Forum. Rick Warren played an effective host to the two candidates, and what we saw was the campaign we thought we would get from the outset. It is going to be a tough one for Obama…

Some observations: McCain has demonstrated why he is so effective at town meetings and formats that are not “staged” and why reporters loved riding on the “Straight Talk Express” bus in New Hampshire and getting “straight” answers. That is the McCain that came out this evening. Yes, solicitous and pandering to host and audience; yes, a tendency to subtle forms of braggadocio about his life experiences. And the true Reaganite, anti-government conservatism really comes through in the content of his answers. For all that potentially negative content, it was an impressive performance.

Obama, on the other hand, treated it as if he was back talking to Charlie Rose across the round table. Good for that context when you are selling your book, but certainly did not come off as strongly as McCain did politically. He needs to adapt his style to campaign mode!

(1) Based on this performance McCain gets traction for the coming week until the end of the Democratic Convention and pulls ahead in the polls — perhaps substantially.

(2) Obama will get bump during convention week, but they need to rethink their approach. Dealing with racism, Clintonism, etc is one thing — but dealing with a reinvigorated “straight talk”, Reagan-like McCain is another.

(3) If they’re smart, the McCain campaign realizes what just happened and shifts back to a campaign that relies less on the TV ad spots and attacks (the “Rick Davis” approach) and goes for more formats like the one Warren provided this evening.

Going to be interesting to watch from a political science point of view. I personally am not looking forward to a replay of the Reagan years or the Cold War, but after tonight the chances of that are looking stronger than before McCain’s performance.

August 16th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

MSNBC as the new Fox News….

In our household we’ve developed a taste for MSNBC as the anti-Fox News cable station, but the folks there seem to be engage in a left-leaning emulation of Fox News rather than providing an alternative model. Put bluntly, they seem wiling to do anything to keep those growing numbers up, even if it involves manipulation of the storyline to stir the juices….

Case in point is the obvious push of the MSNBC crew to label Obama as just another politician who is heading to the right and away from some imagined position on the left. Rachel Maddow [who, despite this evening’s performance, deserves a regular spot of her own (hear her interview on On The Media)], sat in for Keith Olbermann tonight and was clearly engaged in spinning the current Arianna Huffington argument that Obama is abandoning his established positions. Much of this can be seen as an effort by the MSNBC folks to offset its growing image as the anti-Bush, pro-Obama station (which it certainly deserves), while at the same time maintaining its credibility among the blogging left headed by Huffington, Kos and company. Not that there is anything wrong with that…. But perhaps they are carrying this a bit too far.

July 2nd, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

The chutzpah of audacity….

It is a point so basic to constitutional law that every textbook on American government makes note of it — and a point so inspired by “common sense” that one would question the sanity (if not intelligence) of anyone who argues to the contrary.

In any social context there are no absolute rights. Period.

Perhaps the best known expression of this “duh!” principle is Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous observation that even the “most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic….” And despite the ground-breaking nature of Justice Scalia’s opinion in the Washington DC gun case that finally established the existence of a “right to keep and bear arms” in the Second Amendment, his opinion clearly acknowledges the limited nature of that right.

But, of course, had you listened to most of the media headline blaring coverage you would miss that point. As usual it was over simplified or the qualifier was handled with speed and little or no comment.

The same is true of the sound bite coverage of Obama’s statement on the decision which now seems to have him abandoning his supposed long-standing position on the far left as another pandering move to the gun-toting right. It would have been one thing for him to come out with some little tidbit about having gone out shooting a rifle at his grandparents home in Kansas (or Hawaii, or wherever), but it is another for him to make the “constitutional-law-professor” statement he offered on the subject. When

“asked about gun rights, Obama said, “I believe the Second Amendment means something.” Weighing in on a long-running debate among scholars, Obama said he believes the Constitution confers on individuals the right to bear arms, and was not intended by the framers to simply provide for militias. The senator once taught constitutional law.

“There is an individual right to bear arms. But it’s subject to common sense regulation, just like most of our rights are subject to common sense regulations,” said Obama.

The statement, by the way, was reported on February 15, 2008 while he was on the campaign trail in Wisconsin. It was a position he reasserted on the day the Supreme Court decision came down in DC v. Heller.

But that is not the point of this post. Rather it is the news in this morning’s New York Times that a Georgia gun rights group (self described as “Georgia’s no-compromise voice for gun owners”) is going to court to get the folks at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to allow folks to carry legally concealed weapons onto the premises. It seems that the Georgia state legislature had recently lifted some restrictions on the right to carry concealed weapons in public transportation facilities, and armed (pardon the unintended pun) with that and the Heller decision the gun rights folks have asserted their claim. The airport manager’s response was a no-brainer, noting that the airport’s policies are subject to federal law which maintains legal restrictions (like those given a thumbs up by Scalia in the Heller decision).

One wonders, however, about folks like those pursuing that lawsuit. Is it that they just don’t get it — or is this another (albeit distorted) example of the “audacity of hope…”?

July 2nd, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments