Ephemerides (November 2002)
November 29, 2002
Now Roman is to Roman
More hateful than the foe,
And the tribunes beard the high,
And the Fathers grind the low.
While we wax hot in faction,
In battle we wax cold,
Wherefore men fight not as they fought
In the brave days of old.
– Lord Macaulay, Horatius
Tom Daschle’s declaration that Rush Limbaugh and other radio talk show hosts are stirring up death threats against him and his family was so bizarre that it took a while to realize that he meant it seriously. The demagogic Mr. L. has labeled Senator D. an “obstructionist”, and there exist, we were tremblingly informed, legions of dittoheads who think that obstructionism is a hanging offense.
After they stopped rolling their eyes and laughing, right-wing commentators mostly attributed this outburst to the Minority Leader-in-waiting’s desire to “energize his base” by stirring up liberal paranoia about the only significant segment of the media that is dominated by conservatives. (Vide
, e. g.
, Jonah Goldberg, “Rush & Daschle”
But perhaps we ought not to take it for granted that the Senator is insincere. He presumably has received real threats. Most public figures do and dismiss them as inconsequential ranting. Suppose, however, that Senator Daschle takes them at face value, as expressions of the genuine intentions of a large segment of the American public.
The idea of a highly organized, malevolent Right that is prepared to employ force against its domestic enemies bubbles up around the Internet and in left-wing publications. The paradigms are the “militia movement”, skinhead gangs and the Ku Klux Klan. The Freikorps would show up too, if the writers knew enough history to have heard of them. Many a leftist-on-the-Web apparently goes to bed each night in fear of a coup d’etat - or in the certainty that one was carried out two years ago, when the Supreme Court “installed” George W. Bush as President, and is steadily becoming irreversible.
I doubt that many readers of this Web site need to be convinced that there is no Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy outside of Hillary Clinton’s imagination, that virtually all conservatives actively dislike soi disant “militia men” and wept no tears for Timothy McVeigh, and that the Right would have stoically accepted Al Gore as President if he had actually won a majority of the votes in Florida. But a significant number of leftists, evidently including Senator Daschle, see the world differently. Their perception has serious implications for American politics and, indeed, for the future of the United States.
The quickest way for our country to lose its status as “the hyperpower” would be descent into irreconcilable factional conflict, the stasis that Thucydides chronicled in the city-states of ancient Greece.
In the Greek polities, stasis embroiled proponents of sharply different forms of governance: oligarchs vs. democrats vs. admirers of tyranny. The contemporary United States has no ideological divisions of similar magnitude (omitting minuscule splinters on the Left and Right) and therefore ought to be secure from Thucydidean stasis. Unhappily, there is another, more apt and disturbing, precedent.
In the late Roman Republic, the political elite’s opinions about how the state should be governed and what it should do were not widely divergent. If one looks at the optimates and populares as analogs to modern political factions (anachronistically, but the comparison is useful for this limited purpose), there is not much except personalities to separate them. The precise extent of the auctoritas Senatus, the limitations on the powers of the various magistrates and legislative bodies, and the procedures for electing officials were not the sort of constitutional issues that normally arouse passion, and differences in policy were relatively minor. The “parties” essentially debated the best way to restore the vigor of freehold peasant farming and how to divide the spoils of empire. The disagreements between, say, Cicero and Clodius on policy were probably less severe than today’s disputes over tax reductions and the war on terror.
If ideological conflict is the sine qua non of stasis, the Roman Republic should never have suffered a civil war. Nor, for that matter, should the mid-19th Century United States, where, as we often like to forget, the very few Northerners who wanted to eradicate slavery from Southern soil were stigmatized as extremists. A Southern lady, writing in her diary, could offer no reason for secession except, “We just hated the Yankees so much.”
Hatred is also the best explanation of the internecine strife that destroyed Roman liberty. Though the factions had few substantive differences, each was certain that the other was composed of tyrants and oppressors whose secret intent was either to concentrate all power in a narrow oligarchy (the populares’ view of the optimates) or overturn the rule of law and loot private property (vice versa).
In the United States, individual politicians have frequently been objects of hatred - FDR, Nixon and Clinton are conspicuous examples - but, except during the years leading up to the Civil War, the vast majority of politicians and ordinary citizens took it for granted that no large segment of society was pursuing evil ends through extra-constitutional means. Those who fantasized about communist or plutocratic conspiracies lived beyond the pale of respectable discourse.
Is that happy state of affairs now changing? It is an ominous sign when the highest ranking elected official in the Democratic Party asserts that influential conservatives are not merely mistaken about taxes and homeland security but seek to intimidate, or even murder, liberal spokesmen. Also ominous is the descent of the Democratic Party’s most recent Presidential candidate into vulgar conspiracy theorizing. As quoted in the liberal New York Observer
, former Vice President Gore believes this:
The media is kind of weird these days on politics, and there are some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking, part and parcel of the Republican Party. Fox News Network, The Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh—there’s a bunch of them, and some of them are financed by wealthy ultra-conservative billionaires who make political deals with Republican administrations and the rest of the media …. Most of the media [has] been slow to recognize the pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranks—that is, day after day, injecting the daily Republican talking points into the definition of what’s objective as stated by the news media as a whole.
Something will start at the Republican National Committee, inside the building, and it will explode the next day on the right-wing talk-show network and on Fox News and in the newspapers that play this game, The Washington Times and the others. And then they’ll create a little echo chamber, and pretty soon they’ll start baiting the mainstream media for allegedly ignoring the story they’ve pushed into the zeitgeist. And then pretty soon the mainstream media goes out and disingenuously takes a so-called objective sampling, and lo and behold, these R.N.C. talking points are woven into the fabric of the zeitgeist.
Then there are the apparently flourishing Web sites where self-described liberal Democrats spew bilge not too much different from what Nazis used to write about Jews. Right Wing News
regularly gathers posts from Democratic Underground and other such sites, where speculation is rife about how Senator Paul Wellstone was murdered on White House orders, exit polls were suppressed on November 5th to cover up the theft of the election and the FBI is scanning liberal chat rooms in order to compile lists of future concentration camp internees. Here is a not-untypical Democratic Underground post
Did the Republicans have anything to gain from murdering Wellstone (other than a Senate seat that they had a 50-50 chance to gain anyway)? Was there anything for the radical right wing to gain from stealing the election in Y2K? Was there anything for radical right wing to gain from killing Mel Carnahan? Was there anything for the right wing to gain from attempting to assasinate as many as 12 Democratic Senators with Anthrax? and Why is it right wing lunatic bomber Eric Rudolph is still at large? Why does the GOP plan to repeal abortion clinic violence legislation? and Do you think its possible the right wing had anything to gain from killing John Kennedy? Do you think its possible the right wing had anything to gain from killing Bobby Kennedy? Do you think its possible the right wing had anything to gain from killing Martin Luther King? So then ask yourself, was there anything to gain from killing Paul Wellstone? You apparently don't seem to get it that the right wing declared WAR on liberals long ago. In war, people get killed? This is a pretty tough thing to think about being true, isn't it? Things like this don't happen in America do they? We're not like "those people" are we? It bothers you when you think that Wellstone was murdered just might be true, doesn't it? Duhhhh... wake up and smell the coffee.
I should like to believe that Senator Daschle is insincere, that Mr. Gore is embittered and isolated, that Democrats.com
is the production of a handful of loony leftists and that Democratic Underground is a hangout for a small band of demented losers, but those comforting beliefs are increasingly difficult to hold with confidence. The idea that conservative Republicans are actively engaged in a widespread conspiracy against the Constitution is becoming, if it isn’t already, respectable within the Democratic Party. A majority of Democrats don’t believe it, but a great many do, and the most of the rest don’t dismiss it as unbalanced raving.
So far as I can discern, the corresponding phenomenon has yet to infect the Right to any marked extent. It is distinctly not respectable in conservative circles to mutter that Democrats are crypto-communists plotting to overthrow the government. Heated right-wing rhetoric is mostly directed as the follies of liberal policies and the failings of particular liberal office holders and savants. The growth of left-wing factionalism does, however, invite a reaction. If Tom Daschle and Al Gore and a legion of their fellow Democrats really think that a right-wing coup d’etat is a genuine threat, that voices of dissent are being suppressed and are in danger of being outlawed, and that a victorious Right will subject the country to a Christian version of Talibanism, what may they not do to head off such disasters? Rightists who ponder that question can evolve conspiracy theories of their own.
The Left has, if it wants to deploy them, a few political weapons that do not quite fit into the constitutional armory and others that are legitimate but easily misused. On the one side are electoral fraud and subventions from foreign governments; on the other, the Senate filibuster and similar methods of obstructing government action.
At the moment, that arsenal lies unused, except on a small scale in isolated incidents. Vote fraud is more common than it ought to be, but it does not dominate outcomes as it once did in countries like Mexico, and Chinese communist political contributions seem to have been a Clinton phenomenon that waned when he left office. The grounds for worry is that Daschle-type Democrats may begin acting extra-constitutionally in what they believe to be self-defense or that Republicans may come to suspect them of doing so and form their own image of “liberal as coupista”. In either event, mutual distrust and fear will make it easy for some dispute, one that would lead to nothing worse than heated editorials in normal times, to paralyze the government, at best, or set off a conflagration, at worst.
Let me emphasize that I do not lament a lack of civility, much overrated as a political virtue, in our public life. Let liberals argue that cutting taxes injures the poor or that George W. Bush is intellectually deficient or that the White House seeks war with Iraq in order to distract attention from economic depression. Those positions are false, but they are not poisonous. Those who give them credence are not led to believe that the nation is on the verge of succumbing to a criminal conspiracy that has already started murdering liberals and will soon be throwing the rest into concentration camps.
In its essential features, the American polity bears strong resemblances to the Roman Republic. Both mix monarchial, aristocratic and popular elements, frustrate ideological zeal with checks and balances, rely ultimately on “the consent of the governed” (much more directly in America than in Rome, of course), and have lifted their countries to a position of dominance over all potential rivals. In our “high and palmy state”, we would do well to pay attention to other parallels. The Constitution of the United States is no elixir of immortality, and no political order, however well designed, is proof against national self-mutilation and suicide.
November 20, 2002
Perhaps I haven't been reading the right blogs, but there appears to be a striking lack of healthy skepticism about the latest "Osama bin Laden" audiotape. According to "informed sources", the CIA has verified that it is genuine, and that's that. Yet there are some oddities here that make it rational, I think, to harbor doubts.
The tape, the first communication from the would-be caliph that refers to events that occurred later than November 2001, is all of four minutes long. The original is in the possession of the pro-terrorist al-Jazeera Network and is, I presume, unavailable for examination by U.S. intelligence agencies. Verification that the voice on the tape is the authentic bin Laden depends upon the analysis of speech patterns in second-hand recordings. How reliable is that analysis?
Without pretending to expertise in this area and speaking under correction, I note that voices are not like DNA or fingerprints or retinal patterns. Those are unvarying physical characteristics. Given two DNA sequences, fingerprint impressions or retinal scans, all competent analysts will agree, with only the tiniest margin of doubt, on whether they are identical. The qualities of the human voice are more like the regularities in handwriting or literary style. Anybody can make easy distinctions, such as telling Ronald Reagan's voice from Bill Clinton's, but finer judgements cannot rely on clear, objective factors. Like handwriting or style, the same individual's voice varies, depending upon his mood, the state of his health and a multitude of other factors. To say that two exemplars are identical, one has to abstract quirks and patterns from a mass of not totally consistent data and make judgements about the degree to which their characteristics match. No one pretends that the experts on voice analysis have refined their art vastly beyond the graphanalysts and stylometricians, among whom disagreements are commonplace.
Moreover, the typical problems posed to voice analysts do not involve sophisticated attempts by one speaker to masquerade as another. The standard case is along the lines of an harassing telephone caller who is trying to hide the features of his voice while speaking live. There can't be a lot of faked recordings on which analysts can hone their skills. A further complication is that the voice on the tape is speaking Arabic, a language in which the analysts are probably not well (if at all) versed and that employs the vocal apparatus quite a bit differently from Indo-European tongues.
With the rapid development of techniques for digitizing and reproducing sound, the analysts' skills are seriously challenged. It is easy to create voices on a computer. Life-like voices are harder, life-like voices that accurately imitate a real speaker harder still. Nonetheless, many hours of records of Osama bin Laden's voice are available to the enterprising forger. To use those building blocks and existing software tools to produce 240 seconds of declamation that imitate the peculiarities of the real bin Laden accurately enough to convince an analyst would be difficult but not manifestly impossible. The forger, let us bear in mind, has the same data as the analyst and more time. The tape may have been almost a year in the making (the reference to the Bali bombing could have been crafted while the atrocity was still being planned); the analysis was being bruited about within less than a week.
The analysts may, too, be inclined to credulity. Dismissing a genuine Osama tape would, when the error was revealed, be highly embarrassing. Accepting a phony one carries few professional risks. If bin Laden was killed in a cave in Tora Bora, his corpse will almost certainly never be recovered, so an affirmative verdict on the tape is virtually unfalsifiable. Besides, we are much more forgiving of those who warn of non-existent threats than those who overlook real ones.
Undoubtedly the analysts' opinions are a factor in favor of believing the tape to be real, but they cannot be dispositive. Weighing on the other side are two considerations.
First, bin Laden has been uncharacteristically quiet for an extraordinarily long time. Unless he thinks that rumors of his demise somehow aid his cause, he has had every incentive to speak up if he could. One can imagine illnesses or physical injuries that would have silenced him until now, but those imaginings fall into the lower reaches of probability. Ockham's razor suggests that he is dead.
Second, several bin Laden videotapes have appeared during the past year, all of them almost certainly antedating last November. (They mention nothing that occurred since then.) What motive did al-Qaeda have for releasing these obsolete pronouncements? The most straightforward explanation is that it hoped to convince the credulous that its leader was still alive but lacked any better evidence. Again, one can formulate other theories but not ones that Ockham would have approved.
For these reasons, while I will not be astounded if the Osama shows up in Baghdad tomorrow waving to the crowds, my bets ride on an unmarked grave in the mountains of Afghanistan.
* * * *
Last week, a Wall Street Journal editorial
called attention to a series of anomalies in the South Dakota Senate returns that smell strongly of fraud. Specifically -
Mr. Thune was leading all during Election Night, until late Wednesday morning when results flowed in from Shannon County; suddenly he trailed by about 500 votes. Last minute landslide precincts are suspicious on their face, a legendary practice in places like Chicago.
But Michael New, a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard-MIT Data Center, has inspected the South Dakota Secretary of State's Web site to discover other striking facts: While Democrat Tim Johnson ran statewide about 12 percentage points behind what Mr. Daschle got in his 1998 Senate victory, in Shannon County Mr. Johnson ran about 12 percentage points ahead. He got 92% of the vote compared with Mr. Daschle's 80%. Nowhere else in the state did Mr. Johnson improve his vote share relative to Mr. Daschle.
Senate voter turnout was up 27% statewide for this year's close contest compared with 1998, but in Shannon County turnout increased by 89%. Again, no other county in the state showed comparable turnout increases. Shannon County is largely Indian country, home to the Oglala Sioux nation, and is heavily Democratic. But Mr. Thune managed to receive only nine more votes there than did Mr. Daschle's opponent in 1998, notwithstanding the much larger turnout.
Mr. New points out that this is just a 4% increase in GOP votes over 1998. In the other three South Dakota counties where Indians constitute more than two-thirds of the population, Mr. Thune gained between 23% and 43% more votes than the GOP candidate in 1998. The Oglala Sioux would seem to give new meaning to the phrase "bloc voting."
As Mr. New concedes, "this could all be a coincidence." But "this trifecta of late results, high turnout and unusually strong support for the Democratic nominee should, if nothing else, arouse suspicion."
By the way, we're told that Mr. Thune's lawyers have affidavits from about 50 people attesting to voting irregularities, including from four Indians saying they were each paid $10 to vote. Then there's this week's report of the pending arrest of Becky Red Earth-Villeda, also known as Maka Duta, for allegedly forging absentee-ballot applications. She'd been hired by the South Dakota Democratic Party to recruit voters and denies the charges. But how many smoke signals does it take to wonder if there's also fire?
Today Senator Tom Daschle, South Dakota's premier Democrat, responded with a letter to the editor. As it is available only to those who read the Journal's print edition or subscribe on-line, I'll quote it in full:
Your attack on the Oglala Sioux voters in South Dakota offers a sterling example of what minorities in this country can expect from hard- right editorial politics ("The Oglala Sioux's Senator," Review & Outlook, Nov. 14).
Consider one close race, Florida's presidential election in 2000. The margin was 500-plus votes (out of 5.8 million votes cast), and breakdowns in the electoral machinery depressed minority voting (among other problems). A problem for you? Not at all: Your ardently supported candidate won.
Consider another close race, South Dakota's Senate election in 2002. Again we have a 500-plus margin (out of only 330,000 votes cast). A problem for you? Very much so, because on this occasion your candidate lost. Yet now minority voting, disregarded in Florida, is announced to be the culprit. You believe Oglala Sioux voting in Shannon County was "fishy." That's about it: no evidence, no basis whatsoever for the claim, and an omission of the fact that South Dakota's Republican attorney general and Republican secretary of state found no grounds for any such suggestion of fraud. What your readers are offered instead is an outright slur on our Indian voting community, complete with snide stereotypical references to "smoke signals." Missing only was some mention of "firewater."
So what can minorities expect from the editorial right in this country? To be ignored when the right's candidates win, and blamed when those candidates lose? You may wish to claim that you detect the "Chicago" way in South Dakota politics this year, but there is nothing much like the American way in its treatment of minority voters.
Sen. Tom Daschle (D., S.D.)
Observe that the soon-to-be-ex-Majority Leader offers no innocent explanation of the suspicious circumstances detailed by Dr. New. He just asserts that there is "no basis whatever for the claim" and that the absence of a string of arrests within two weeks after Election Day is tantamount to a conclusion that there is "no grounds for any such suggestion of fraud". In place of reasoned analysis, he puts forward the delusional argument that attacking vote stealing on Indian reservations is an "attack on the Oglala Sioux voters in South Dakota". Isn't it really an attack on those who may have deprived those voters - and other South Dakotans - of their right not to have their ballots negated by fraud?
Senator Daschle's letter is best read as an exercise in well poisoning. The obvious effect of equating the desire for clean elections with racism is to give respectable cover to those who practice, promote or overlook shady practices and to smear advocates of election reform. Why, one wonders, would the leader of the Democratic Party want to do that?
November 19, 2002
A couple of further observations on post-election political strategizing:
Though he may reinvent himself again any day now, Al Gore has for the moment thrown in his lot with those Democrats who want to offer the American public a pure strain of left-wing ideology (Karen Tumulty, "The Making of a Comeback"
). As I've discussed infra
, that is a rational, if risky, strategy. What is not rational is the former Vice President's rhetoric, which is not so much inflammatory as bizarre. He professes to believe that the economy under President Bush is in the worst shape since the time of Herbert Hoover, that the Administration's "foreign policy [is] based on an openly proclaimed intention to dominate the world" and that its environmental policies are not merely mistaken but "immoral". He also seems determined to remain bitter about the outcome of the 2000 election; the gracious loser pose adopted in his concession speech was evidently just another persona to be discarded at will. If a right-winger took mirror image stances, he would be dismissed as delusional - by the Right as well as the Left.
Conservatives feel an impulse to cheer when Democrats start down so plainly marked a road to self-destruction, but we ought to restrain our delight. The Democratic Party will not disappear, no matter how far it drifts from the political center. The two parties are so thoroughly embedded in our institutions that only a catastrophe could uproot either of them. Circumstances powerful enough to destroy one would probably eliminate both.
What can happen, though, is that the Democratic Party can become a megaphone for racism, conspiracy theories, scandalmongering, anti-American propagandizing and other unhealthy tendencies. In that kind of atmosphere, Republicans would dominate the elections, but they would also start to perceive victory by the other party as an unacceptable risk and would be tempted to safeguard against it by less-than-constitutional means. One of the roots of the Watergate scandal was President Nixon's revulsion at the ideology of the McGovern Democrats and his conviction that any means to forestall it were right and proper.
A left turn by the Democrats does not have to pose any such danger, of course. A party under the sway of the Wellstone-Pelosi Left would wander in the wilderness but not into the fever swamps. It is becoming hard to say the same about one whose leading figures are Terry McAuliffe and Al Gore.
While November 5th inspired triumphalism in some right-wing circles, there have been plenty of more cautious voices. One of them is John O'Sullivan of National Review
, who ("Beware Overconfidence"
) has gathered data showing that Republican victories owed a lot to the pattern of turnout. The GOP's supporters came to the polls, but there wasn't a big surge into is camp of demographic groups that had not previously been friendly. To consolidate a reliable Republican majority requires making greater inroads among Democrat-leaning ethnics, notably Hispanics.
Mr. O'Sullivan offers some rational ideas on how conservatives can attract a larger share of Hispanic and other minority voters. Then, alas, he throws them all away by insisting upon his idée fixe: less immigration. He misses three key points:
Dogmatic opposition to immigration (from certain countries, that is - Mr. O'Sullivan is himself from the United Kingdom) undercuts outreach not just to Hispanics but to other communities that perceive themselves as immigrants. Pete Wilson's anti-immigration initiatives in California cost his party a large share of the Asian-American vote as well as confirming Hispanics' Democrat leanings.
Most newly arrived immigrants are not very interested in American politics. They vote in low numbers and tend to be influenced by established members of the same ethnic group. Hence, to the extent that Republicans are successful in expanding their strength among Hispanics who are firmly settled in this country, they have little reason to fear Democratic bloc voting by more recent arrivals.
Regardless of all other considerations, there is little support in Congress or among the general public for drastic cutbacks in immigration. By loudly advocating restrictionist policies, Republicans can lose votes among Hispanics and other minorities but can't realistically hope for the gain that would (supposedly) arise from seeing those policies enacted.
November 16, 2002
of Chicago directed my attention to these trenchant observations by the Secretary of Defense on the relationship between terrorism and poverty:
Q: In order to defend prosperity in some parts of the world is there not a need to attack poverty in addition to all the other steps that you''ve taken?
Rumsfeld: Certainly there's a need to do that and I guess the question is how does one do that?
I was involved in the so-called war on poverty here in the United States and I've traveled the globe and seen just terrible poverty. I had a friend once and he was asked to chair a commission, an international committee, and the title of it was What Causes Poverty. He declined. He said I will do it but on one condition. The condition is that we change the title and I'll chair a committee on What Causes Prosperity. The reason he said that was, the title What Causes Poverty leaves the impression that the natural state of the world is for people to be prosperous and that for whatever reason there are prosperous people running around making people poor when you say what causes poverty. He looked at the world the other way. He said the natural state of people is to be relatively poor and that there are certain ways and things that can be done that can cause prosperity. They can create an environment that's hospitable to people gaining education and people gaining investments and people finding ways to contribute in a constructive way.
There are big portions of our globe that are so far behind the rest of the world that it is a dangerous thing. It is an unfortunate thing for those people. It's a heartbreaking thing.
The task for the developed world is to see that we do not just salve our consciences by finding ways like Lady Bountiful, we can give some country this or some country that which then is gone and disappears. But to the contrary, that we find ways to encourage countries to take the kinds of steps that create an environment that's hospitable to enterprise and to education so that the nation itself can do those things that will begin to ameliorate the kinds of terrible poverty that we see around the globe.
Certainly the United States has a responsibility as do the people from every nation in this room have the responsibility to contribute to that.
November 13, 2002
Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, elections are too important to be left to the political consultants. Looking at the past several rounds of democracy, it is obvious that the people who run campaigns, a lot no more diverse and imaginative than pre-WWI military men, share a handful of strategic concepts:
Contest only a small number of "competitive" races, leaving the outcome of the rest to gerrymandering or incumbency.
Spend as much money as possible on the competitive races.
Emphasize "energizing" voters who are certain to back one's candidate.
Win over uncommitted voters by stressing either narrow issues on which they have strong feelings (e. g.
, abortion, gun control, the high cost of medicine) or the personal failings of the opposing candidate.
Underlying these concepts are several premises about voter behavior and the goals of campaigning. First, it is taken for granted that, in the course of a campaign, voters change their minds about persons but never about issues. A candidate attacked for, say, inadequate support of Medicare prescription drug benefits will explain that he is really for them in a better form but will never argue that adding a new entitlement to Medicare will lead to price controls, rationing and reduced pharmaceutical innovation. His polls tell him that a majority of voters favor the new benefit, so he abandons any thought of dissuasion.
Second, the consultant's, and therefore the candidate's, time horizon ends on election day. Laying a foundation for future campaigns is an alien notion, which is one reason why there is no point in contesting an "uncompetitive" district.
Third, hardly anyone considers the possibility that the law of diminishing returns may apply to money and other campaign resources. It follows that, as the closest races are identified, efforts are increasingly concentrated on them, to the exclusion of all others.
Fourth, with rare exceptions, each race is seen as unique and unconnected with any other. What happens in one state is assumed not to affect contests elsewhere, as if each took place on a separate continent.
Perhaps those assumptions and the strategies that flow from them really are the height of cleverness, yet, as a "political civilian", I can't help noticing some discordant facts. For example -
This year a large number of Democratic candidates picked up Social Security privatization as a scare issue. Some Republicans reacted in standard fashion by renouncing the idea of letting workers invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in individual accounts, but others defended it and presented arguments in its favor. Most of them (e. g.
, John Sununu and Elizabeth Dole) won.
In this year's race for governor of Georgia, incumbent Roy Barnes spent $20 million, his Republican challenger $3 million. Yet the Republican won by a substantial margin.
The most spectacular victory by either party in recent memory was the GOP's capture of the House of Representatives in 1994, when the party ran on a quasi-national platform and mounted serious efforts in dozens of districts instead of the usual handful. This year was a faint echo of that success, as President Bush succeeded to some extent in "nationalizing" what started out as a series of disparate battles.
So it is possible to win without following the doctrines of the consultants, and winning in obedience to them sometimes seems not much better than defeat. By their methods, only minute gains are possible. Many observers noted before the election that the Democrats were running seriously in so few Congressional districts that only a massive tide in their favor could carry them to a House majority. Moreover, victory in an election waged in the consultants' fashion yields little post-election advantage. Where the races turn on personalities and narrow issues, often ones that Congress can do little about, the winners have no mandate to do anything in particular.
Is it time for a new campaign paradigm? President Bush's insistence that the Big Issue was national security may have adventitiously turned Republican majorities into effective legislative engines. The Democrats' abrupt surrender on the disputes that had stalled creation of the Department of Homeland Security suggests as much. In hopes of seeing better and more useful victories in future elections, I should like to suggest a new set of strategic principles:
1. Put up candidates in every race except those that are utterly hopeless and of minor consequence.
2. To the extent possible, fund every race sufficiently to make it possible for the party's candidate to be heard, even if that means shaving a few millions from the budgets in the most heated and expensive contests.
3. Center campaigns around issues of genuine importance, ignoring the transient and trivial.
4. Bearing in mind that the importance of particular issues varies from place to place, try to sound common themes.
5. Present arguments in favor of positions instead of relying on appeals to the voters' prejudgments.
There is, naturally, a risk that campaigns run on these lines will lose. The electorate may not be interested in listening to one's message, or it may prefer what the other guys have to say.
Still, losing an election or two is not an unmitigated tragedy; such occurrences are part and parcel of democratic government. Unless holding office per se is a candidate's highest goal, he should not be overly upset by an honorable defeat, especially when defeat can lay the foundations of future victory by winning a few more converts and shaking the convictions of partisans of the other side. Menachem Begin lost seven elections in a row before he convinced a majority of Israelis that he was right. The first step toward Ronald Reagan's Presidency was Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat.
The consultants, armed with focus groups, pollsters, opposition research and media blitzes, are like pre-World War I generals planning cavalry breakthroughs and scoffing at the machine gun. Let's have new thinking before we blindly follow them into a Passchendale or Verdun.
November 6, 2002
It would be egotistical of me to imagine that I can come up with insights into the just-completed election that haven’t occurred to (and already been blogged by) a multitude of folk. Still, post-election commentary is an unalienable right, so here are some points the strike me as significant:
1. The outcome was a bigger Republican victory than it looks like. Gains in the Senate were dampened by scandal (Arkansas - not
the ideal state for a GOP candidate who left his wife for a younger woman!), judicial lawlessness (New Jersey) and fraud (South Dakota, where one needn’t be paranoid to suspect that widely reported pre-election irregularities manufactured at least 527 extra Democratic votes). In a slightly better world, there would be, depending on what happens in Louisiana, 54 or 55 Republicans in the next Senate. Meanwhile, gerrymandering made it impossible for either party to pick up very many seats in the House. The GOP’s four to seven is at the top of plausible figures. (As The Wall Street Journal
pointed out, the Dems killed their chances of retaking the House by promoting the elimination of competitive districts.) Finally, the gubernatorial elections should have been much worse than the net Republican loss of two or three. That Democrats can win the statehouses in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Illinois at a time when the manufacturing economy is barely emerging from recession isn’t news. The aberration was Republican success there in the 90's. More significant, I think, are the Democratic losses in the South, where their incipient comeback looked pretty feeble.
But what does victory mean? Is this another step toward realignment or merely a flukey rallying ‘round the President’s party in the face of threats to national survival? That is too big a question for my limited prognosticating skills, but it may be significant that the Democrats failed despite reasonably skillful execution of the strategy that the expert election doctors recommended: Neutralize the war as an issue by giving the President a Congressional resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq, then hammer away at the weakness of the economy. The last statistics released before Election Day should have helped immensely: unemployment up, jobs down, third quarter growth below the consensus forecast and slowing at the end of the period. Writing the day before the voting, Dick Morris was certain that his former comrades had carried out their plan successfully. The voters, however, seem to have been interested in other matters. Any incumbent can win when the economy is soaring; the sign of the coalescence of a long-term majority is that its incumbents also win when the pocketbook issues aren’t so favorable.
On the other hand, the grand realignment in favor of the Right has been declared at least thrice in my lifetime - in 1972, 1980 and 1994 - and it hasn’t lasted yet. Will the fourth time be a charm, or will the Republican Party’s innate amateurism and reticence about governing reopen avenues for the Democrats?
2. The oligopoly of the two major American parties is so thoroughly institutionalized (a unique situation: there are many One Party States on the planet but no other Two Party States) that neither is going to die or become completely impotent, absent a cataclysm of the kind that none of us wants to live through. Therefore, the Democratic Party will remain a major political force. How major depends on whether it changes or serves as a barrier to change.
The Clinton-McAuliffe paradigm - muddle the issues, energize the Democratic base, attack relentlessly, exploit a casually run election process’s openings for fraud - failed this time out, but parties don’t necessarily change tactics in the face of defeat. After 1964, for instance, the Republican Party’s conservative wing made no attempt to moderate its positions. Instead, it undertook the apparently hopeless task of convincing another ten percent of the public, enough to attain a majority, that Barry Goldwater really had been right. And it succeeded (not without much help, of course, from events beyond its expectation or control). The Democrats have, broadly speaking, four choices as they contemplate their own future strategy:
Stick with Clinton-McAuliffe, attributing lack of success to accidental factors. If I were betting, this is where I would place my money, because Bill Clinton remains the Democrats’ single towering figure and isn’t the sort to concede error in his own thinking.
Imitate the 1960's conservatives (in the opposite direction) by moving unabashedly toward the Left, at the same time scrapping the most unsavory aspects of Clinton-McAuliffe. One might call this the “Wellstone strategy”, after the decent and wrong-headed late Senator from Minnesota. Perhaps Nancy Pelosi will try this tack if she becomes House Minority Leader. Or maybe Hillary Clinton will decide that it is a necessity if she is to preserve her New York power base from further Republican inroads.
Toss the Loony Left overboard, and try to imitate Tony Blair’s New Labour. The obvious problems are that (i) Blairism won’t work without a Blair, and the only potential Democratic Blair, former Senator Bob Kerrey, seems to have retired from politics, and (ii) Blairism also won’t work without a John Major. When Mr. Blair began his march to No. 10, the British center was up for grabs, having been neglected by an ossifying Tory Party. Today’s Republicans have occupied a large portion of the American center, and George W. Bush is no John Major. In practice, this option will be called “me-tooism”, and that will be an accurate label.
Look for sections of the electorate that neither party currently pays attention to and that, though different from, are not hopelessly incompatible with the existing membership. That was how the Republicans won the commanding heights in the South. The Democrats barely saw, much less catered to, the New South, wanting only white Southerners whose opinions were indistinguishable from Northern liberals’. A similar group may exist today in the form of socially conservative voters who don’t fully accept free enterprise economics. At present, most such people lean Republican faute de mieux
. The major exception is Hispanics, for whom the Democratic Party has a nonideological appeal. If Democrats began advocating positions that appeal to Hispanics’ heads, instead of simply terrifying their hearts with Anglo-GOP bugbears, they might regain the loyalty of Reagan Democrats and win over many less ideologically pure conservatives without losing liberal support. (Where else can the liberals go?) As an incompatible alternative, the party could pursue the “Instapundit Right”, though 9/11 and its aftermath have made that tendency more at home, at least temporarily, in the fold of Bush Republicanism.
Two of these four strategies look to the long run and two to the short. Both ideological purification and the pursuit of new species of voters run the risk of conceding the next two, three or more election cycles. They resemble Goldwater Republicanism, which looked like a losing idea until “Lake Reagan” suddenly opened up on election maps in November 1980. The other two options forsake putting together a new model army in favor of maximizing the effectiveness of the one at hand. A party that adopts one or the other will be poised, like the GOP in the 1950's, to exploit the opposition’s stumbles in order to achieve temporary success but not to win lasting triumphs.
The key point is that, because meaningful political action takes place only within and by means of the major parties, the Democrats’ strategic choice will determine, for quite a long time, the pace of ideological change in America. The Wellstone Strategy will lead either to a resurgent Left with fresh, attractive ideas (the mirror image of the Reagan Right) or to a decades-long Republican majority (the mirror image of the post-Depression Democratic Party pentekontaetia). The “Reagan Democrat Strategy” will either fail dismally and be replaced by something else or alter the ideological mix offered by the parties. The closest recent analogue is the Republican abandonment of isolationism.
On the other hand, either Clinton-McAuliffe or me-tooism will leave the other strategies no room to grow. Politics will continue to look much the same as now, until new realities shatter the existing paradigms.
3. Turning to less weighty matters, I hadn’t realized how much I loathed exit polls until we had an election without them. Old-fashioned psephology is far more fascinating and informative than instant results buttressed by dubious data on voters’ motives. Huzzah for whoever fubared the VNS exit surveys! If he loses his job in consequence of the fiasco, I’ll gladly take up a collection in his behalf.
It is constitutional to ban campaigning at the polls. Shouldn’t the Constitution be equally amenable to barring pollsters from the vicinity?
4. And maybe pre-election polls are a dying breed, too. Tony Blankley
has a good overview of how badly they did this time, and why. I anticipate reading many more such analyses.
I am, however, perplexed by the apparent contrast between polls here and in Europe. In the last German elections, the pollsters released results rounded to tenths of percentage point and were almost exactly spot-on. Experience elsewhere on the continent is similar, despite occasional deviations like the “Le Pen factor”. Is this seeming superiority of Old World pollsters an optical illusion, evidence of superior technical skills, the product of social differences or something else? I have no idea.
5. Finally, there were a few places where the Red Tide ebbed rather than flowed. One was my home state of Illinois, where defeat was long overdue. Jim Thompson committed the Illinois Republican Party to tactics over substance, and it is now hollow. If Big Jim’s inept successors continue their current course, Illinois will over the next decade be one of the two or three most reliably Democratic states in the country.
The other ebb was in Pennsylvania, where the GOP lost the governor’s race and didn’t gain the two Congressional seats that were supposed to have been locked in via gerrymandering. Remember the excuse for higher steel tariffs: that they were a winning issue in Pennsylvania? They weren’t, and their negative impact on economic recovery could have doomed Republican hopes in many more places than the Keystone State. As the saying goes, “The only thing wrong with pragmatism is that it doesn’t work.”
November 5, 2002
Dr. Rowan Williams, soon to ascend the throne of the Archbishop of Canterbury, illustrates one of the best reasons for separating Church and State. Too many clergymen think that the only way to present a Christian view of secular issues is to embrace the principle credo quia absurdam. A churchy liberal like Dr. Williams doubts that modern men can believe antique superstitions like traditional Christian positions on sexual morality, but he assumes that those same hard-headed moderns will agree with irrational drivel about politics. Faith is not good enough to be the arbiter of matters of doctrine but is infinitely superior to reason on matters of war and peace.
The Daily Telegraph
, perhaps anticipating that wider exposure will lessen Dr. Williams' influence, has given him space for a screed entitled, "Don't Call Us Appeasers for Hesitating at War with Iraq"
, the very title of which is mendacious. As both his past and his present statements make clear, Dr. Williams has no "hesitation" on this subject: He is adamantly opposed to the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein from power. It is true that he is not, strictly speaking, an "appeaser". The appeasement party before World War II argued that Hitler would cease to be an aggressor as soon as his "legitimate aspirations", believed to be quite modest, were fulfilled. Dr. Williams, by contrast, does not pretend that Saddam Hussein will join the civilized world if his regime is better treated, but he still opposes taking action against him. He is thus worse than an appeaser, for he advocates deliberate acquiescence in preventable evil.
His arguments for acquiescence boil down to three points: First, military action against Iraq might "risk the lives of hundreds of thousands in a region that could rapidly spiral down into chaos". After the Gulf War and the Afghanistan campaign, predictions like this are not intuitively credible, but the closest that Dr. Williams comes to presenting a rational argument in favor of his is this: "the exact calculation of what weaponry might be employed by a cornered Saddam Hussein is uncertain; and so is the retaliation that might then be provoked in the region from its sole nuclear power, Israel."
An exact calculation is indeed impossible, but an approximate one will do. The most pessimistic estimates of Iraq's current arsenal give it no nuclear weapons, unimpressive biological capabilities (anthrax is not the Black Death) and a small stockpile of chemical munitions that cannot be delivered effectively. The most pessimistic assessment of Israeli intentions is that, if Baghdad lobs missiles at Tel Aviv, as it did during the Gulf War, Israel will attack suspected launch sites in Western Iraq. Those worst case scenarios do not "risk the lives of hundreds of thousands".
Though Dr. Williams may find it unbelievable, President Bush and other American officials are not indifferent to the lives of civilians. They took immense pains to minimize collateral damage in Afghanistan. They are also in a better position than a clerical kibbitzer to evaluate the real risks. Dr. Williams' fears, detached from any evidence or analysis, ultimately rest on the notion that the U.S. government is run by either madmen or incompetents.
Second, "The military option sends a destabilising message in a seriously unclear international situation; it invites a cavalier attitude to some of the principles of international law in respect of the justification of armed force." The fairy tale that aggressors and tyrants stay their hands out of respect for "international law" is so absurd that no one will say it outright, yet that is the essence of Dr. Williams' statement.
In any event, the United States cannot reasonably be charged with "a cavalier attitude". We did not arbitrarily pick out Iraq as an enemy. We went to war against the Iraqi government in 1991 to reverse its conquest of Kuwait. Having won on the battlefield, we laid down conditions under which Saddam Hussein was permitted to remain in control of the country, conditions that Saddam accepted unconditionally and then violated in toto. On the most elementary level, Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries have fired on U.S. and British planes over 130 times this year. They haven't succeeded in shooting any down, but that isn't for lack of trying.
If the United States were swooping down on a country that had given it no offense, Dr. Williams would have a decent argument, but international law will not collapse if a powerful nation loses patience with a minor power that persists in overt hostility. If Saddam Hussein wants to declare himself our foe, shouldn't we pay him the compliment of treating him like one?
Finally, Dr. Williams isn't sure that the people of the Middle East - or even the people of Iraq - "are clamoring for our intervention".
The moral issue is whether we can properly say that our account of what the region needs takes precedence over what its inhabitants overall seem to say. If the answer is that it does, there is the classic moral challenge to colonialism of various kinds: we are not the best arbiters of the interests of others when we have interests of our own at stake (we are keenly aware of the matter of oil).
And how does Dr. Williams know "what [the Middle East's] inhabitants overall seem to say"? The same way that so many doves knew that the inhabitants of Afghanistan favored contined rule by the Taliban? A drawback to the despotic governments that exist throughout the Arab world is that public opinion is unfathomable. To accept coercion-ridden referenda or editorials in state-controlled newspapers as evidence of popular feeling is, to put it mildly, naive. Taking into account what the inhabitants of the Middle East want is an admirable principle but one that we have no present means to put into practice. Therefore, we have no alternative to relying on our own judgement, whether or not doing do constitutes "colonialism".
At the end of his piece, Dr. Williams offers an observation based on personal knowledge:
I have had several conversations in recent months with friends from minorities, especially Christian minorities, in the Middle East. None has expressed any tolerance for Saddam Hussein nor any visceral anti-Americanism; all have expressed, with differing degrees of fatalism, their expectation of being recipients of yet more violence from extremists in the wake of any military action.
He goes on to suggest that, by doing nothing, we will "honour those who would be most helpless in a regional conflagration in the Middle East - minorities, refugees, ultimately the ordinary citizens of many states".
That is the attitude of a Pétain: Giving in to evil is safer than resistance. The Vichy government sought to spare France the horrors of war by collaborating in what turned out to be the greater horrors of peace. Dr. Williams would condemn the intimidated Christian minorities in Arab lands to perpetual dhimmi
status and turn them into hostages for continued Western acquiescence in their oppression. (For an example of their plight, vide
David Raab, "The Beleaguered Christians of the Palestinian-Controlled Areas"
War is never a pleasant option, and one should hesitate before embarking on it. No reasonable man disputes that truism. But Dr. Williams and similar anti-war churchmen are not hesitating in the face of a difficult task; they are constructing specious rationales for avoiding a necessary one.