Saturday, January 29, 2011

Craziest Republican of the Day: Jack Kingston

The Republican Party is indeed the anti-science party, and Steve Benen today offers yet more evidence of that:

"Real Time" host Bill Maher asked Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) a fairly straightforward question: "Do you believe in evolution?" Kingston not only said rejects the foundation of modern biology, he explained it this way: "I believe I came from God, not from a monkey." He added, "If it happened over millions and millions of years, there should be lots of fossil evidence."

Seriously, that's what he said.

Let's pause to appreciate the fact that it's the 21st century -- and Jack Kingston is a 10-term congressman who helps oversee federal funding on the Food and Drug Administration.


In the larger context, there's a renewed push underway for the United States to value and appreciate science in the 21st century -- our future depends on it. And while this push is underway, Republican leaders are more comfortable walking a bridge to the 18th century.

What an embarrassment.

It's an embarrassment, yes, but Steve is actually being too kind. They're not walking a bridge to the 18th century, a century of Enlightenment, but so, oh, say, the 14th, before even the Renaissance got underway.

Of course, when it comes to evolution, and the denial thereof, we've heard all this before (including from Christine O'Donnell last year). But that's only because such views are commonplace among conservatives and widespread within the GOP, where creationism is almost as big as voodoo economics.

And, again, what's concerning is not so much that these views exist but that they are very much a part of the Republican mainstream. It would be one thing if such willful ignorance, rooted in Christian fundamentalism, were merely to be found on the distant far-right fringe. It's another thing entirely that such crazy extremism dominates the majority party in the House.

Here's the clip:

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Be careful which enemies you make

In Charles Ferguson's outstanding documentary on the financial meltdown, Inside Job, one of his interview subjects is former N.Y. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who'd been known as the Sheriff of Wall Street for going after shady business practices long before the collapse. Toward the end of Inside Job, it makes the point that none of the financial firms ever faced investigations for their traders writing off high-priced escort services as business expenses, but the Justice Department did pursue Spitzer when it was discovered after he was governor that he used an escort service. The work that Spitzer did and the promise he held as a gifted politician that came crashing down because of his personal weakness are detailed well in another excellent documentary from the prolific filmmaker Alex Gibney, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.

Gibney also made the great 2010 documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money as well as the similarly outstanding Taxi to Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the World. He also served in producing capacities on Ferguson's excellent No End in Sight and the brilliant Who Killed the Electric Car?

While Client 9 definitely makes the case that the political downfall of Spitzer may have been an orchestrated hit by his enemies in the business community and the Republican Party, Gibney doesn't try to downplay Spitzer's faults beyond the weakness that led him to seek high-priced sexual companionship in the first place. The film paints a broader portrait of the man's achievements and his hubris, which include a superiority complex and an approach that makes him come off as a bully, even if what he was trying to do was right.

As with the best documentaries, Client 9 teaches you things that you didn't know. It seems as if so many of the recent outstanding documentaries, no matter what their subject may be, show how spoonfed the U.S. media are, regurgitating "facts" that get handed to them while seldom checking their veracity. As far as I knew (and I imagine this to be the case with most people who heard about Spitzer and the call girl), his preferred escort was "Kristen" aka Ashley DuPre, who then turned herself into another of those freak celebrities, who ended up with a job at Rupert Murdoch's New York Post as a love and sex columnist.

Client 9, through interviews with one of the owners of The Emperors Club escort service, reveals that Spitzer saw "Kristen" maybe once but mainly went out with a woman who went by the name Angelica. Gibney interviewed her, but she didn't want her face or voice revealed, so an actress plays her part and reads the transcript of her interviews. Ironically, she's now a commodities day trader.

Where Spitzer really might have earned the enemies who were determined to stop him was when as attorney general he went after the head of AIG, Hank Greenberg, for the crooked financial games that company was playing, long before that company's collapse became a major cause of the world financial collapse and cost U.S. taxpayers billions in not one, but two bailouts. Greenberg was not at the helm by then, having been removed by his own board for violating company rules, but the methods AIG employed while Greenberg ran it were still going on and led to AIG's implosion.

U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia prevented Spitzer's pursuit of Greenberg prior to that by claiming the Justice Department was building a case against Greenberg, which they never filed. However, this same Garcia intercepted wire transfers Spitzer made and started looking into escort services that led to leaks that got Spitzer's sexual habits revealed. This also came at the time the Bush Administration was firing U.S. attorneys who weren't prosecuting enough Democrats.

Needless to say, when prosecutors go after prostitution rings, they rarely go after the clients, just the owners and the prostitutes. In contrast, around the same time, the D.C. Madam case surfaced and they only pursued the madam there, even though it was revealed that two of her clients were high-profile Republicans, including Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who was just re-elected. He faced no legal inquiries.

Many believed that Spitzer had a good shot at being the country's first Jewish president. I just wonder if he'd been able to keep after Wall Street as he was doing, whether some of the mess that happened could have been prevented since no regulatory fixes have really been put in place to stop it since. Government of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations shall not perish from the United States and we the little people always will be the ones paying the price. Thank goodness we have documentary filmmakers such as Alex Gibney to do the job that journalists have long since abandoned or forgotten how to do.

(Cross-posted at Edward Copeland on Film.)

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Obama silences the critics, steals the GOP’s thunder

It's easy to analyze the less-than-harsh criticisms of the president's State of the Union address as the result of some new political awakening, a nod of acknowledgment to the consequences of vitriolic political rhetoric, and a realization – spurred by the tragic shootings in Tucson – that there is an obvious link between violent language and violence itself.

It's possible.

It's also possible that President Obama's address was so flawless that it left no room for genuine criticism; that he silenced any potential critiques by not only agreeing with Republican concerns about the debt, about spending, and about jobs, but by then countering the fears of America's economic decline by proposing practical policies against which even his staunchest opponents couldn't argue.

Obama didn't merely steal the thunder of the Republican Party Tuesday night. He marched into the ideological fortress of the demagoguing demigods and ripped the lightening bolt right out of their hands – then beat them over the head with it as every member of Congress in the House chamber stood and cheered him on.

In outlining his plan to increase innovation, accelerate education, and improve infrastructure in the ever-competitive race toward global dominance, Obama balanced his rhetoric with specific goals to achieve them.

And Republicans ate it up.

He plastered dueling expressions of fear and wonder, guarded revelry and God-fearing awe, skepticism and – if I may say so – "hope" onto the faces of every Republican member of Congress. And he did it by using their own values, their own talking points, and their own campaign goals against them.

His call for a five-year spending freeze; his appeal to colleges to allow military recruiters back on campus; his confession that the health-care law has flaws that necessitate bipartisan fine-tuning; and his devotion to eliminating wasteful spending both within and outside of the non-discretionary portion of the federal budget – these all prompted Democrats and Republicans alike to throw bouquet after bouquet of red-palmed applause toward the president's lectern as he spoke.

The exhilaration of seeing the Elocutionist in Chief in action eventually wears off, but one must wonder how deeply Obama's words cut considering that it was members of the opposition party who were wiping tears from their eyes and droplets of spittle from their heavy chins as the president spoke.

Obama piqued their patriotic interests and massaged their narcissism by using their own doomsday rhetoric to highlight the nation's current economic decline, but then the president took the fearmongering a step further by adding a prologue to the GOP's playbook that turned the apocalyptic forecasts of the right into a lead-in to his own new world order from the left, advocating intelligence and innovation in industry and advances in education.

If only out of amazement and reserved admiration, nobody could argue.

This was evident in The Wall Street Journal's editorial, "The Great Misallocators," which focused on the GM bailout. It's why the New York Post editorial board wrote a piece titled "Obama, Pacified," talking about his attempt to "shed his image as a liberal activist." It's why The Washington Times' editorial, titled "Obama's Spaced Out Speech," was dedicated to the president's failure to take into account the context of Communism in his Sputnik reference. It's why The Washington Post ran an editorial titled "A Disappointing State of the Union Address," which talked in hypotheticals about what can and cannot be accomplished over the next two years.

That was it. The conservative mainstream reacted to the address by focusing on General Motors, liberalism, and Communism, not the content of the speech itself, not the goal of generating jobs, not the push to invest in the future, not the rally call to once again retun America as a global economic superpower that reigns not merely from its size, but from its ingenuity.

A skeptic who sees political maneuvering in every gesture of every politician will say that Obama was merely playing it safe and appealing to the masses in hopes of strengthening his 2012 re-election prospects. Perhaps he was. He avoided the controversial topics of Social Security and gun regulation. He failed to flesh out the historical context to Sputnik. And he ignored the potential for America to be the leader in robotic flying cars, time travel, and inter-personal alien language translation.

But he did deliver a non-partisan speech that every American – whether liberal, conservative, or apolitical – could understand, accept, and support. The plans he outlined proved beyond criticism, as he turned the surface-level talking points about victory, success, and global dominance into logical (and necessary) reasons for investing in America's future.

The only thing that is left to be seen is how successful Obama will be in realizing these goals. Having checked off nearly every initiative he proposed during his 2010 state of the union address – health-care reform, financial reform, and repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," among others – no one should doubt the abilities of an ambitious and dogged yet practical and ever-popular president like Obama.

Rather than dwelling on the apocalyptic anxieties of the masses, Obama has proposed common-sense policies that both quell the fears and fix the problems.

The era of violent rhetoric most likely has not passed with the Tucson shootings, but after this speech, maybe Republicans will begin to back their demagoguery with real solutions.

Talking problems to death is a luxury awarded only to the minority party. With Republicans now in control of the lower branch of Congress, they no longer are regarded as windbag obstructionists. They are actual lawmakers – the presumption and expectation being that they will now make laws.

They will keep the vitriolic rhetoric, as it is their only tool of influence over the masses anymore, but I bet that if we all sent hopes and prayers and meditations and curses and petitions and criticisms of the absence of any action behind all that anti-leftist tantrums, then perhaps Republicans at least might try to achieve a balance between the two.

(Cross-posted from Muddy Politics.) 

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Friday, January 28, 2011

If I were Obama, I'd be worried about Huntsman

According to the WaPo's Chris Cillizza, former Republican Utah Gov. and current U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman "appears to be leaning toward a run for president in 2012 and a team of political operatives and fundraisers have begun informal talks and outreach to ensure he could rapidly ramp up if he decides to run."

Huntsman doesn't have the wide national name of a Palin or Romney or a Gingrich or a Barbour or even a Pawlenty, but he's just the sort of sensible, non-ideological conservative who should worry Obama. Here's what I wrote about him back in May '09:

I tend to agree with Obama campaign guru David Plouffe that Utah Governor Jon Huntsman (who makes Plouffe a "wee bit queasy") could be a formidable Republican presidential candidate in 2012. Bucking the rightward shift of his party, and avoiding its drive for ideological purification, Huntsman is actually something of an independent-minded figure, a moderate, relatively speaking (that is, by Utah standards), with potentially broad appeal beyond Dear Leader Rush and the right-wing echo chamber. (I have previously posted on his admirable support for gay civil unions and his admirable dismissal of Congressional Republicans.)

But I also wrote this:

Huntsman may make us all a little queasy, but, thankfully, Republicans are just too stupid to know what's good for them.

That's right, however formidable he may be, or could be on the national stage, he just isn't what Republicans are looking for these days, which is someone well to his right, someone rigidly ideological (like, say, DeMint). As Hot Air's Allahpundit puts it, dismissing Huntsman altogether, "he's going to try to be an even more sensible 'sensible centrist' alternative to Romney, Daniels, and the rest of the moderates in the field." Yes, to conservatives, Huntsman, like Romney and Daniels, is moderate and therefore un-Republican. And it's much worse in Huntsman's case because he actually worked for Obama. No matter that he's appealing and electable, and hardly a liberal.

If I were Obama, I'd be worried about Huntsman -- if he won the Republican nomination. But he won't. And so there's really no need to worry.


I would just note that there may be nothing, or little, to this. My May '09 post was a response to Cillizza, just as this one is, and so this could just be Cillizza pushing Huntsman or Huntsman using Cillizza to float his future ambitions. I would suspect the latter, as Huntsman certainly seems to have an impressive roster of advisors in his corner, but does he really think he has a shot? Maybe, if he positions himself as the McCain of '12, that is, as an establishment figure with a maverick streak, but '12 won't be like '08, what with the power and influence of the Tea Party within the GOP. Huntsman may not be a RINO, as Allahpundit alleges, but it's not his time to lead the party that for the most part has left him behind as it descends ever further into madness.


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Craziest Republican of the Day: Mike Lee

There's three things Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) likes in a sentence: a noun, a verb, and "unconstitutional." Indeed, Lee has recently claimed that federal child labor laws, FEMA, food stamps, the FDA, Medicaid, income assistance for the poor, and even Medicare and Social Security violate the Constitution. Yet Senate Republicans have inexplicably chosen to put Lee on the very Senate committee that has jurisdiction over constitutional questions and the judiciary...

Placing Mike Lee in charge of overseeing the Constitution is a bit like putting Dick Cheney in charge of hunting and gun safety, yet the Senate GOP was so eager to put this radical tenther on the Judiciary Committee that it waived a rule prohibiting both of a state’s senators from serving on Judiciary in order to ensure Lee's membership.

That's right, this Teabagging Republican -- one of the four members of the Senate's Tea Party Caucus -- thinks that child labor laws, along with food/drug regulation, federal emergency management, and social assistance programs for the poor, are unconstitutional.

Which means, one must presume, that he's fine with child labor (and, of course, screwing the poor).

And far from being on the fringe of the GOP, he and his views are being empowered, literally, as he takes on a significant position on constitutional matters.

As crazy as he is, the party that enables him (and celebrates him) is crazier still.


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Pence passes on presidential pursuit

Right-wing Republican Rep. Mike Pence, trickle-down conservative, theocratic authoritarian, Tea Party fave, and one of the GOP's craziest and most outspoken leaders in the House, announced last night -- to the sort of triumphal fanfare usually reserved for ticker-taped astronauts (no, not really) -- that he will not (repeat: not) be running for president in 2012 and instead may run for governor of Indiana:

Pence's decision not to seek national office in favor of a likely run for governor of Indiana is a major blow to conservative activists and tea party leaders, who saw Pence as someone who could unite the traditional GOP base -- evangelical and social conservatives -- with the tea party's fiscal hawks.

And it's left a major opening for someone in a heavily crowded GOP presidential field: At the Value Voters Summit last year, Pence won the straw poll for both president and vice president, beating better-known candidates like Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin.

Pence has a fair amount of support on the right, that is, in the mainstream of an increasingly far-right GOP, and his departure from a race that hasn't even started yet does indeed open the door for a Huckabee or a Gingrich (not likely) or a Palin (also not likely) to carry the conservative banner against Romney (trying so hard to be a conservative but not succeeding), Giuliani (a conservative on national security but with far too much moderate baggage from his New York past), and Pawlenty (presenting himself as a conservative but more midwestern pragmatist than right-wing ideologue).

But I look at it another way. I didn't think he could win, but his departure means we're that much closer to what is undeniably the dream Republican ticket for 2012:

It's just so perfect. And more Republicans wannabes who drop out, the more likely it'll be the reality we all want.

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The return of Rahm (or, so much for my schadenfreude)

Alas, that didn't last long.

Earlier this week, an Illinois Appellate Court panel booted ex-Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel off the Chicago mayoral ballot, ruling that he didn't meet residency requirements, but yesterday the Illinois Supreme Court put him back on again:

The unanimous decision brought a close to months of legal debate over whether Mr. Emanuel qualified for the ballot, specifically whether his time in Washington as President Obama's chief of staff meant that he had given up his residency status in Chicago, where he was born.

By Illinois state code, candidates for mayor are required to have resided in Chicago for at least one year before Election Day. Mr. Emanuel left the White House in October, and the election is Feb. 22, but Mr. Emanuel argued that he was still a Chicago resident because he owned a house here, paid taxes here, voted here, and left his most cherished possessions in the basement of his house here. 

Well, so much for my schadenfreude.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011


And the new White House press secretary (Obama's official mouthpiece) is...

Jay Carney, formerly of Time and more recently Veep Biden's communications director (not that anyone can ever really direct how Biden communicates).

And so? Well, whatever.

Carney's a polished mainstream media guy, smooth and telegenic, an inside-the-Beltway guy, and I'm sure he'll do a fine job spinning the latest White House messaging to a press corps that is hardly known for being tough. He's one of them, after all, and the relationship will hardly be all that adversarial. Both sides will play their parts, but they're all in on the charade.

Oh, and he's married to another insider, ABC's Claire Shipman. (It's all rather incestuous inside this exclusive club.)

Like I said. Whatever.


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Have I mentioned I don't much care for the British Monarchy?

Yes, I know the Queen's on our coins. And, yes, as both a Canadian and British citizen, I know I'm supposedly a "subject" of "Her Majesty."

And I'm not quite sure what the alternative should be in Canada. (We need a "head of state," after all, not just a prime minister. An elected "president," as in Germany?)

But, honestly, I can't stand them.

(Actually, Charles is the only one I like. Sort of.)

And the whole William-Kate wedding saga is just irritating. As if we should care. (About Diana's/Kate's ring, about Kate's engagement dress, about what Kate will be called, about any of it.)

It's bad enough in Britain. It's worse when Canadians bow before such nonsense.

Are we really so pathetic a nation that we need the British Monarchy above us?

Photo from The Globe and Mail: "Britain's Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall visit Australia House to mark Australia Day, in central London January 26, 2011."

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Oh, Sarah Palin, you vulgar moron

Former Alaska GOP Gov. Sarah Palin said Wednesday night that President Barack Obama's call for "winning the future" during his State of the Union address is best framed by the acronym it shares with a much different phrase -- "wtf."

"That was a tough speech to sit through and try to stomach," Palin said during an interview with Fox News's Greta Van Susteren.

"His theme last night was wtf, winning the future," she continued. "I thought, okay, that acronym -- spot on. There were a lot of wtf moments throughout that speech."

Palin, seemingly pleased with her joke, repeated the line later in the interview while poking Obama for referencing Sputnik in another section of his address.

"That was another wtf moment," she said.

Say what you will about President's Obama's SOTU, it was a serious speech about serious issues intended for a serious audience at a serious time in America's history.

Far be it from Palin, however, to have any sense of history, any sense of public policy, any sense of the enormous problems America faces, any sense of the gravity of the moment.

She is so mind-bogglingly un-serious, so much so that she actually makes Michele Bachmann look bright.

As if we needed a further reminder, Sarah Palin is a moron.


Update: And does she really think the Soviet Union won the space race? With that sort of ignorance, it's like she hates America or something. (Just imagine how Fox News would react if a Democrat said that.)

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

SOTU and Sputnik: Economic nationalism, political paralysis, and the decline of the American Empire

I haven't yet commented on last night's State of the Union address, nor on the Republican response, but, then, what more is there to say?

TNR's John Judis thinks it was President Obama's best speech as president. I do not agree, though I'm hard-pressed to name a better one. Not because I thought his SOTU was all that great but because he hasn't exactly given many memorable speeches as president.

Content-wise, I suppose a lot depends on what you think of Obama's economic nationalism, the core theme of last night's speech. The world is moving ahead and America is in decline. That decline is relative, as it is still on top, for the most part, but how long will it be before China and perhaps India take over?

In referencing Sputnik at the core of his speech, Obama was saying that America is now at a fork in the road, much as it was after the Soviet Union launched that first satellite into space. One road leads to further decline, one road leads to further superpowerdom:

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. The science wasn't there yet. NASA didn't even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation's Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology -- an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

I hardly count myself an economic nationalist, or a nationalist of any kind, and certainly not in American terms, but I do think that Obama is generally right about this. Private investment -- business -- is simply not enough. What is needed, as it was back in the '50s, is extensive government investment in everything from health care to education to research and development in next-generation technological innovation.

This is where conservatives get it wrong. No one is saying, let alone Obama, that business doesn't matter, or that government ought to replace business. We all acknowledge that businesses create jobs and for the most part keep the economy moving. But business, taken as a whole, simply does not have the big picture in mind. Business is about profit, about maximizing returns for shareholders. And that's fine. But sometimes you need, a society needs, government to step in and lead the way. Conservatives pretend that this is never the case, or perhaps have convinced themselves that government can never be the answer. This is historical revisionism, a failure to appreciate how American capitalism, and capitalism generally, has evolved over time.

As Slate's Fred Kaplan explains, huge government investment has been behind many of the most significant technological developments and innovations of recent decades, from space exploration (most notably JFK's pledge to go to the moon, ultimately realized less than a decade later) to the microchip to the Internet:

John Kennedy ran for president in 1960, promising a "new frontier" founded on "vigor." Early in his term, he directly responded to Sputnik in two ways: He poured money into the Minuteman ICBM program (both before and after he realized that the missile gap was a myth). And he pledged to land an American on the moon by the end of the decade.

In the spring of 1959, Texas Instruments had introduced a new technology called the microchip. But it was very expensive and generated no demand from the private sector. However, these tiny chips would be needed to power the guidance systems in the Minuteman's nose cone -- and in the coming Apollo program's space capsule.

It was the Pentagon and NASA that bought the first microchips. The demand allowed for economies of scale, driving down costs enough so that private companies started building products that relied on chips. This created further economies of scale. And so came the inventions of the pocket calculator, smaller and faster computers, and, decades later, just about everything that we use in daily life.

None of this was inevitable. It started only because of government investment. Obama made this same point in Tuesday night's address: "Our free enterprise is what drives innovation. But because it's not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support they need. That's what planted the seeds for the Internet. That's what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS."

GPS was initially an Air Force program, designed to make bombs more accurate. The Internet was an internal communication program created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Obama could have gone back further. The first commercial computer, the IBM 1401 of the late 1950s, came about only because the first customers were government agencies, the Social Security program and the Veterans Administration, which required a computer with enough capacity to store data about the millions of Americans receiving government checks.

If conservatives like today's had had their way, none of this would have happened -- or, rather, it would have, but America likely would not have been the leader of the computer age, the American economy wouldn't have boomed as it did, and Americans, along with American businesses, wouldn't have reaped the benefits of such astonishing innovation.

Obama's speech was all about winning the future, as Slate's John Dickerson notes:

He described a challenge to the American dream: The promise of prosperity is threatened by technology and global competition. His pitch was aimed at those Americans "who feel like the rules have been changed in the middle of the game." After sketching this moment of uncertainty, he quickly moved to optimism, rallying the country to its strongest traditions of perseverance and affirming that Americans have always been able to shape their own destiny. His speech was practically a 12-step program for reconnecting the American people with the dream that animated the country at its beginning. 

There is a dark side to this, of course. Back in the '50s and '60s, there was a clear enemy, the Soviet Union, and Americans (and most westerners) rallied against it. But what is there now? According to Obama -- and he's right about this -- the real challenge to America (if not so much to the rest of the West) is not al Qaeda, or Islamism broadly, but emerging economic superpowers like China and India, and perhaps even Europe. A challenge is not necessarily the same as an enemy, but the risk is that the rest of the world will be seen now as the primary threat to America's future, if not to its survival then at least to its standing atop the world. And this would mean vilifying the Chinese and the Indians, among others. Nationalism, after all, isn't just about national pride and a focus on national interests but about exclusion, about "us" and "them." The world is getting smaller and smaller, but nationalism is about building walls, about driving people apart. Is that really the way to do?

Of course, many other governments invest heavily in domestic industry, and so, to an extent, the U.S. would (and should) be no different. So, fine. Go ahead and invest. The problem is, where is the investment going to come from? Beyond Obama's high-falutin' rhetoric, where is the political will for it happen?

Obama did not call for shared sacrifice but instead for bipartisanship. There's a huge difference. It was fairly easy, relatively speaking, to call for sacrifice when faced with the Soviet threat, but now? All President Bush told Americans to do after 9/11 was to go shopping. Obama still clings to the delusions of post-partisanship that characterized his campaign -- whether he actually believes such nonsense is not clear, but what else are we to take from his insistent rhetoric? -- and so merely asks Democrats and Republicans to work together to address the country's problems. He will do his part, as always, by reaching out across the aisle, but have we, has he, learned nothing of the first two years of his presidency. Republicans want no part of working with him or his party on anything. He might be able to peel off a Republican or two here and there, but the health-care debate is ample evidence that Republicans refuse to compromise in good faith.

And so, the merits of Obama's innovation-based approach aside, progress, it would seem to me, isn't likely. Dickerson notes that the president used the phrase "win the future," or a variant, 11 times in his speech. That means that the speech sounded very much like "a self-help seminar," one loaded with typically banal "tag lines from corporate marketing." Yes, he's for more government investment, perhaps akin to what happened in the '50s and '60s, but the message was presented at such a high level that it rang hollow. And as if that weren't enough, Obama indicated that he remains committed to the tax-cut, spending-cut fiscal conservatism of the political center. As Kaplan writes:

Obama proposed, starting this year, to "freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years," a step that, he boasted, would "bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president."

It's hard to see how he or the Congress can resolve this contradiction -- Kennedy-esque vigor and investment on the one hand, Ike-like torpor and penny-pinching on the other. He said much of this extra money could be freed up by eliminating subsidies for the oil companies. First, good luck on that. And second, that alone won't free up enough.

So where's the money going to come from? Even if he gets Democrats on board -- and he certainly won't get all of them -- there's no way Republicans are going to agree to massive government investment in anything, let alone when they mistakenly think voters gave them an anti-government mandate last year and when they plan on running along Tea Party lines in 2012.

Sure, this was the "old" Obama again, the one calling for the "hard choices" to be made and for bipartisanship to prevail, and he was generally quite effective, and, sure, Americans seem to like what they heard, but where exactly do we go from here? It sounded more like Obama was laying the groundwork for his re-election bid, presenting a nationalistic (and vaguely populistic) vision that appeals to independents, then he was presenting anything resembling a realistic policy agenda for the next two years. (As TNR's Jonathan Chait remarks, the president's "emphasis on public investment reflects less a desire to increase spending on infrastructure, R&D and the like than a platform from which to oppose anticipated Republican cuts.")

That's fine, I suppose -- he needs to run on something, after all -- but it just seems to confirm that nothing is actually going to happen. Even if Americans like what they heard, they don't want their taxes raised and they have a party, the GOP, that is fundamentally anti-tax and anti-government and that will appeal to them along those lines. Americans also oppose cuts to most government programs, including Social Security, of course, even if Republicans refuse to acknowledge this, and so as the country faces political intractability, and as the willingness to accept shared sacrifice is largely non-existent, there just isn't the money for what Obama wants.

Even if this is another Sputnik moment for America, the outcome will be very different. Obama will make his case, Republicans will make theirs, and nothing will change -- except, from time to time, the politicians voters send to Washington.

The decline of the American Empire, already in full swing, continues.

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Top Ten Cloves: Things overheard during last night's SOTU

10. "We should pass a bill that mandates the SOTU be like Twitter -- 140 characters or less."

9. "I see that Kucinich brought his own sandwich tonight."

8. "Being the Bears fan that he is, I heard he might give Jay Cutler a medal or something."

7. "What's going to happen first, Joe Biden falling asleep or John Boehner crying?"

6. Someone claims Joe Wilson shouted out "Only thing missing is the Mighty Mouse theme music."

5. "Hey, get this, John Thune is going around telling people no way is he going to invest in Sputni."

4. "Well, at least Paul Ryan doesn't look like that 30 Rock page guy.)

3. "Did you see Palin called Reagan "America's Lifeguard" the other day? Is she trying to say Obama belongs at that Pennsylvania swimming club?"

2. "What's the difference between Obama and Taco Bell's meat? Nothing -- neither Taco Bell nor his speech has much beef."

1. "Instead of letting the Tea Party have her, maybe we should have Bachmann give our official response. What's the worst that could happen?"

(Cross-posted at The Garlic.)

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Chinese military modernization: Challenges and opportunities for the United States

Guest post by Michael S. Chase

Michael S. Chase is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and an Associate Research Professor at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The views expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or the U.S. Department of Defense.

(Ed. note: This is Michael's second guest post for us. His first, back in December 2009, was on President Obama's trip to China. -- MJWS)


Once dismissed as a “junkyard army,” the Chinese military is now impressing outside observers—and alarming China’s neighbors—with its growing air, naval, missile, space, and information warfare capabilities. In recent years, China has deployed increasingly potent capabilities, including modern surface ships, advanced submarines, fourth-generation fighter aircraft, and conventional cruise and ballistic missiles, including an anti-ship ballistic missile designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers. China is also enhancing its command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems and its space and cyber warfare capabilities.

The internet leak of photos and videos unveiling China’s new J-20 stealth fighter and the test flight of the aircraft during Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ recent visit to China seemed intended to underscore the growing capability of China’s military. China’s eagerness to showcase the faster than expected development of the J-20—and its determination to send a message to the United States—also ensured that concerns about the implications of a more powerful Chinese military would loom large when President Hu Jintao arrived in Washington for a state visit this week.

China’s growing military capabilities, along with incidents such as Beijing’s anti-satellite test in January 2007 and its harassment of a U.S. surveillance ship in March 2009, are raising questions about whether an increasingly powerful China represents a threat to the U.S. and its allies. Fueling China’s accelerating military modernization—and the concerns of analysts who see China as an emerging competitor—is the rapid growth of their defense budget. Beijing’s increases in defense spending have enabled the People’s Liberation Army to develop more credible options for using force against Taiwan and countering U.S. military intervention. 

Beyond Taiwan, PLA modernization is increasingly tied to China’s growing role on the world stage. As China’s economic and security interests become more global, the PLA’s roles and missions are evolving to contend with an increasingly diverse set of challenges. To fulfill these expanded missions, China’s leadership has tasked their military with enhancing its capabilities to participate in military operations other than war, such as the counter-piracy patrols that China’s navy has been conducting in the Gulf of Aden. Such activities are seen as important to protecting China’s growing global interests, but senior officers stress that their military’s core mission remains deterring and winning wars.

China continues to lag behind the United States military in many respects, but its new capabilities already present serious challenges to the security balance in the Asia-Pacific region. Beijing’s advances in cyber-warfare, anti-satellite weapons, submarines, and ballistic missiles could threaten America’s regional bases, the aircraft carriers that have become symbols of U.S. presence and power projection, and the space assets and computer networks that support them.

The U.S. should counter these developments with a strategy to deter China from using force over Taiwan or in another regional dispute. Creating new operational concepts, developing cutting-edge information and electronic warfare capabilities, and strengthening the U.S. military’s existing edge in the undersea environment would ensure the credibility of such a deterrence strategy. The U.S. should also practice operating without the full range of cyber and space assets to show China that attacks against American computer networks and satellites would not cripple the U.S. military.

At the same time, attempts to strengthen deterrence must be calibrated to avoid inadvertently fueling China’s worst fears about U.S. strategic intentions. Because of China’s concern that the United States is determined to prevent its emergence as a great power through encirclement and containment, Washington should carefully weigh taking actions that could further exacerbate Chinese fears. To help prevent misunderstanding or miscalculation, the United States should continue to pursue dialogue with China on issues such as security on the Korean peninsula, space and cyber warfare, and strategic stability in the U.S.-China relationship. The United States should also seek to strengthen military cooperation with China in areas such as anti-piracy and humanitarian assistance operations. This week’s state visit presents an opportunity for Presidents Obama and Hu to lead the United States and China toward a more cooperative relationship, but mutual strategic suspicion and a complex mix of convergent and divergent interests suggest that neither side should expect the path forward to be an easy one.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Olbermann saga

If you just can't get enough of the whole Olbermann thing -- his sudden departure from MSNBC last Friday -- be sure to check out the latest from the NYT's Bill Carter (here along with Brian Stelter). It looks like it wasn't really so sudden, at least not to those on the inside:

Many people inside the television industry are astonished that a cable network's highest-rated host, whose forceful personality and liberal advocacy had lifted MSNBC from irrelevance to competitiveness and profitability, would be ushered out the door with no fanfare, no promoted farewell show and only a perfunctory thanks for his efforts.

But underlying the decision, which one executive involved said was not a termination but a "negotiated separation," were years of behind-the-scenes tension, conflicts and near terminations. 


The fact is, Olbermann made MSNBC what it is, which is to say, relevant (and more watched than CNN), and while he may be temperamental, and difficult to deal with, so what? He was one of the very few liberals who responded to Fox News and the rise of conservative media, and the rising extremism of the Republican Party, not by cowering in fear but by fighting back with all the strength of his convictions, with all the strength of justice on his side.

Yes, maybe it was time for him to go, and maybe he was partly responsible for what happened. But we need him back on the air, somewhere, soon.

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Republicans, spinning wildly, claim credit for positive economic news

The question is, do Republicans really believe their own propaganda?

It took less than three weeks for the new Republican Congressional leadership to claim credit for an apparent economic upturn.

An aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Brian Patrick, emailed reporters [yesterday] morning:

THERE ARE THE JOBS: Republicans Prevent Massive Tax Increase, Economy Begins to Improve: U.S. companies plan to hire more workers in the coming months amid growing optimism over the economy, a quarterly survey released Monday showed, providing further evidence that the jobs market is turning around. In the fourth-quarter poll of 84 companies by the National Association for Business Economics found 42% of companies interviewed, ranging from manufacturing to finance, expect to boost jobs in the six months ahead. That's up from 29% in the first three months of 2010. Only 7% in the latest survey predict they will shed jobs in the coming six months, down from 23% at the start of last year.

The Dow Jones wire story Patrick linked makes no mention of the GOP.

Do they? Maybe, maybe not. Obviously, they're trying to score political points by taking credit for any good news they can find.

It's just so transparent how full of shit they are.

As Steve Benen remarks, "[e]ven by the standards of the most shameless hack, this is farcical. Worse, it's part of a growing pattern":

To reiterate a point from last week, this really is fascinating. The economy started growing again in 2009, with the stimulus giving the economy a boost. We saw growth continue throughout 2010 -- even after those rascally Democrats passed health care reform and Wall Street reform -- while Republicans said Dems were killing the economy.

And now we have several Republican leaders arguing that the same tax rates that were in place last year (and the year before that, and the year before that), coupled with economic policies that haven't even been voted on, deserve the credit for more optimistic projections.

So to review, Republicans in the Bush era brought the global economy to the brink of catastrophic collapse; Obama and congressional Dems helped turn things around; and now those same Republicans whose policies failed want credit for Democratic successes.

I know some folks will find this persuasive, and maybe even some of these GOP officials have deluded themselves into believing their own rhetoric. But it doesn't make the argument any less ridiculous.

That's one word for it.

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Happy SOTU Day! (or, Obama on Social Security)

I have no doubt that Obama will present a largely centrist policy agenda in his State of the Union address tonight.

But I also hope that he will use the occasion to defend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, one of the great accomplishments of his presidency so far (even if it's not as progressive as it ought to be), after the Republican House voted to repeal it last week, and that, on issues where he might actually get something done over the next two years, such as immigration reform and deficit reduction, he presents a vision that Democrats can get behind and ultimately use for electoral gain, a vision that at the very least doesn't further alienate progressives.

On the latter at least, deficit reduction, it seems we may get just that:

President Obama has decided not to endorse his deficit commission's recommendation to raise the retirement age, and otherwise reduce Social Security benefits, in Tuesday's State of the Union address, cheering liberals and drawing a stark line between the White House and key Republicans in Congress.

Over the weekend, the White House informed Democratic lawmakers and advocates for seniors that Obama will emphasize the need to reduce record deficits in the speech, but that he will not call for reducing spending on Social Security -- the single largest federal program -- as part of that effort.


Administration officials said Obama is unlikely to specifically endorse any of the deficit commission's recommendations in the speech, but cautioned that he is unlikely to rule them off the table, either. On Social Security, for example, he is likely to urge lawmakers to work together to make the program solvent, without going into details, according to congressional sources.

Ah, so there's the out. It's sort of like how Obama was for the public option before he wasn't really for it or against it and it died. Or how he was against extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy until he cut a deal to allow just that. Now he's against cuts to Social Security, or so he will say tonight, but, well, who knows? He may just allow cuts to be made so as to win points somewhere else.

Oh, and by the way. Social Security is in good shape. The system isn't about to go bankrupt, as Bush alleged in his 2005 SOTU, and, as Paul Krugman has noted time and time again, there is no crisis. That's just a myth perpetuated by the right, by conservatives who want to privatize it and Republicans who want to cut it so that they can have their tax cuts.

If you really want to balance the budget, as Obama apparently does (even at this time of ongoing economic uncertainty, when frugality is hardly what is called for), the best thing to do is to return to the sensible tax levels of the Clinton era, particularly for the wealthy, and to cut military spending. It is not to target a successful program designed to help those who desperately need help.

But of course the poor and the desperate don't have nearly the political clout the rich do, and Obama, it seems, despite whatever he says tonight, will likely appeal directly to the centrist obsession with fiscal conservatism as this issue plays out over the next couple of years, leading up to the 2012 election.

Oh, I have high hopes that he says all the right things tonight, but he's already signalled what his priorities are, and what his politics are, and there's no reason to think that he will actually advance anything even resembling a progressive vision for America, on Social Security or anything else -- at least until the campaign, when he'll need to win some of us back.

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Nose Cuttings

By Carl
It's a rather interesting dilemma, the Republican leadership faces in the Congress:
Congressional Republicans are grappling with dissent within the party's ranks over the size and scope of proposed reductions as they seek to fulfill a campaign promise to slash the federal budget.

The Republican Party's conservative wing has proposed even deeper and potentially more controversial cuts than the GOP's leaders have prescribed — or believe are politically feasible this year. Prospects for reductions in cancer research or the
FBI, for example, are causing consternation within the party and controversy in Washington.

The party's leadership already has scaled back a goal of $100 billion in spending cuts in the current budget year, a figure Republicans promised during last year's midterm election campaign. But conservative Republicans are insisting on cuts nearly twice as deep — reaching to $2.5 trillion over 10 years. Party leaders do not believe such cuts are politically or practically achievable.
On the one hand, the "movement" that got them where they are, the Teabaggers, ran and won mostly on anger at spending. Justifying their existence by calling George W Bush a liberal in conservative's clothes, they railed not only against the Obama administration (although it took the brunt of the anger) but also at Republicans who kow-towed to the huge increases in spending that past Republican administrations (both Bushes and Reagan, in other words) have lobbied for and won.
(Clinton somehow managed to avoid being tarred with this brush, mostly because he actually cut spending in his eight years. It's just a surprise to me that the spinners of the right wing novel couldn't figure out a way to lie about him. )
On the other hand, there are any number of Republicans who will be answerable to their constituents if budgets are cut too deeply. Cancer research, for example, and the FBI are both areas I can imagine citizens will sit up and notice.
Even defense, which spreads so much pork that Congresscritters get trichinosis (hat tip Phil Gramm), is not immune from the chopping block, although I wonder how much of that stance is performance art.
Here's the thing: the second you exempt Social Security and Medicare (remember the Teabaggers infamous claim "Keep the government out of my Medicare!"?) and defense from spending cuts, and once you've tinkered with interest on the debt, you've effectively left yourself with about $3 trillion in programs, many mandated by statute, to cut. Cut $2.5 trillion out of that, and you can kiss farm subsidies goodbye, along with any effective program for dealing with the homeless, highway fact, any of the most visible and popular spending programs go by the wayside.
One tactic Democrats could counter with is telling the truth: the spending we did on TARP and other bailouts has generated a profit for the US economy and the government coffers. Estimates range up to $30 billion which, on a program of $800 billion, is about a 4% profit. Considering you'd have to buy 30 year T-bills to get that kind of return on any government issued investment, that's not small potatoes. Indeed, many public sector companies would marvel at a net profit margin of 4%.
To be honest, I'm astounded that the Democrats, particularly the Obama people, have been so ham-handed in this term with presenting and marketing their policies as good for the country. They've allowed the dialogue to slip away and to be controlled by people who are, at the very least, hostile towards anything Democrats might stand for.
It's sad that the best hope this nation has is intraparty squabbling distracting the Republicans so that the Democrats can push through reasonable compromises and peel off some GOP votes.
But that's the hand they allowed themselves to be dealt.

(crossposted to Simply Left Behind)

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