4.27.2008 | McCain speaks out for the poor

Taxes: Who's getting shafted?
And in the same breath he speaks out for the "100 million Americans" — less than one-third — who would be affected by a capital gains tax increase under Barack Obama's economic proposal. So as the Republican nominee McCain is carrying the mantle of supply-side conservatism (or, as Bush put it in 2000, calling the elites "his base"). That's understood.

But what caught my breath was seeing McCain refer to Obama's stance on the gas tax as being "defined by special interests." (For the record, McCain proposed a summer gas tax holiday, while Obama is against.) Now, it seems to me lower gas taxes might mean more gasoline sales for oil companies, which would mean more profits for them. What special interest could possibly stand to gain from lower gas sales figures?

Obviously Sen. Obama does not understand that this would be a nice thing for Americans, and the special interests should not be dictating this policy.

Sen. John McCain on a temporary suspension of the federal gas tax, currently fixed at 18.4 cents a gallon

The only "special interest" I could find pushing for a higher gas tax was in Minnesota — home of last summer's I-35W bridge collapse — where the state's association of counties wanted more revenue. But with crumbling infrastructure around the country, tight state budgets and mounting national debt, if government itself has become a special interest in McCain's dictionary, we're in for a more topsy-turvy campaign season than I expected.

And if this is what the national debate looks like, God forbid what might happen if anyone were to suggest increasing the tax.

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4.15.2008 | McCain's economics lesson

Aptly enough, John McCain chose today, April 15th (tax day), to unveil his economic stimulus package (original speech here) after having been the subject of attack by his two Democratic rivals. Like him, I've never understood economics very well, so my interest is not so much in the substance of his proposals as his style – the way he chose to present them.

Seeking perhaps to reassure us that he understands economics, Sen. McCain had the exceptional insight to point out that "Economic policy is not just some academic exercise, and we in Washington are not just passive spectators. We have a responsibility to act. And if I am elected president, I intend to act quickly and decisively."

Wonderful! So apparently the economy is something the president should do something about. I'm reassured. Do go on.

"In all of this, it will not be enough to simply dust off the economic policies of four, eight, or twenty-eight years ago. We have our own work to do. We have our own challenges to meet."

Now this is interesting, because in one sentence McCain — or his speechwriters — has at once dismissed the approaches of his predecessor (also a Republican), his predecessor's predecessor (President Clinton, the one whose experience the current Senator Clinton is running on), and — here's the kicker — Barack Obama's.

How is Obama's policy one of twenty-eight years ago? Very simply, Obama has been on the campaign trail criticizing the economic policies of Republicans and Democrats over "the last 25, 30 years" — the same policies that he says have made people bitter, and the same policies McCain and Hillary accuse him of being "elitist" and "out of touch" for criticizing.

It's a tantalizing hint as to how McCain will combat Obama's message of "change" as the fall approaches. All he has to do, it seems, is remind voters of who was in office before Reagan. I'm predicting here and now he will try to compare Obama to Jimmy Carter. It will be up to Obama to show how he will be able to do better.

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4.12.2008 | A bitter pill to swallow

The latest kerfuffle from the campaign trail involves Obama's use of the word "bitter." Not as in the kind of discourse we've seen between the candidates, and no, not to describe Hillary's attitude toward Obama's lead in pledged delegates racked up in "undemocratic" caucuses (and, to be fair, the attitude Obama's supporters will probably have if superdelegates reverse the results of those caucuses).

No, the bitterness in question here is that of working-class Americans who have seen their wages decline and their jobs shipped overseas over the last couple of decades. Because if that happened to me, I know I would be shouting to the hills for joy. Enough irony, though; here's the substance of what Obama said (the offending word highlighted for our benefit):

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them ... And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion ... as a way to explain their frustrations."

And Clinton's response:

I saw in the media that its being reported that my opponent said the people of Pennsylvania who faced hard times are ‘bitter.’ Well, that’s not my experience as I travel around Pennsylvania I meet people who are resilient, who are optimistic who are positive who are rolling up their sleeves.

So for once, Hillary takes on the role of the wide-eyed optimist, Obama the pragmatic realist (or, if you would believe his opponents, "elitist").

But the difference is that while Obama inspires optimism about the future and our ability to solve problems, it seems Hillary wants people to feel good about themselves even as economic opportunities disappear around them. We'll see which approach wins at the ballot box in the weeks and months ahead.

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4.08.2008 | Surge. Pause. Repeat.

I was going to write a blog about General Petraeus' testimony before Congress today, but Arianna Huffington did it for me:

Surge, Pause... Surge, Pause... We can't pull out! It's all starting to sound a bit sexual, isn't it? But the American people are the ones getting screwed.

Not that this is news, as The New York Post could have told you back in February. Apparently, some people just don't understand war isn't won on a schedule.


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4.06.2008 | Civility on the campaign trail

Back in January, President Bill Clinton said that if his wife and Senator John McCain "wound up being the nominees of their party, it would be the most civilized election in American history, and they're afraid they'd put the voters to sleep because they like and respect each other."

"She and John McCain are very close. They always laugh that if they wound up being the nominees of their party, it would be the most civilized election in American history, and they're afraid they'd put the voters to sleep because they like and respect each other."

— President Bill Clinton, January 2008

The most civilized election in American history. Hillary certainly seems to believe that the primary season has been civil thus far, so we can only imagine what flowers are waiting to bloom between whenever the nomination contest is settled and November should she become the nominee.

But you have to wonder about this civility thing. After Hillary tried to revive the scandal surrounding Barack Obama's ties to Reverend Wright, Obama responded by saying that it was "fair game" to do so.

John McCain, on the other hand, recently said Barack Obama would be "absolutely qualified" to be president, while when given the chance to compare herself to McCain, Hillary left Obama out in the cold.

Two points I want to make here: One, it is a good thing that this election season so far is even allowing us to contemplate who is being the most civil (instead of who is reaching lowest in the bag of political tricks). Two, I'm not sure all the candidates are equally displaying the potential for civility that exists. I'd love to be proven wrong.

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4.04.2008 | The cheese stands alone

"The cheese stands alone. The cheese stands alone!" So says loveable loser Carter Doleman in the 2003 flick Scorched, a movie in which a group of small-town bank employees working dead-end jobs individually decide to take action to improve their lives by robbing their employer. Carter, the only one whose idea of success is to land a job at the bank, yells this realization in a moment of self-empowerment before deciding to get dressed up for his interview.

And so we have President Bush staring blankly into the camera, alone, in the midst of world leaders at Thursday's group photo at the NATO summit in Bucharest. The photo waa seized upon by the German publication Der Spiegel to suggest that he looked like "a defiant child with his head against the wall." Certainly it has echoes of Bush's adventure with a locked door in China in 2005, but perhaps he was just more eager than his counterparts to get the thing over with.

All this serves as pretext, then, for a new New York Times/CBS poll, which has asked since the early 1990s whether Americans believe America is "on the right track." For the first time since the poll was taken, 81 percent of us have said "no," including a majority of Republicans. With all the headlines that have greeted us about the falling Dollar, rising oil prices, job losses, etc. this might sound like a reasonable thing.

But not to a talk show host I found on the radio dial this morning, who mocked The New York Times for declaring that "the sky is falling" and said that "wrong track" is "pretty strange language for a poll" (perhaps it was so strange to him he didn't realize "wrong track" doesn't mean "end of the world" — it's the start of a process). He then took his first caller, who happily declared that he wasn't worse off than he was four years ago, and that people should just "go to a restaurant" (assuming people can afford one these days).

Pessimism such as that displayed by The New York Times, the host argued, "becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," and he declared himself proudly to be one of the one in five Americans who believe everything is going just fine and dandy, thank you very much. The caller told us Ronald Reagan showed us optimism is key to addressing our problems. While it helps to face them with a sense of optimism that we can solve them, it certainly doesn't help to pretend everything is going just fine to the point that it prevents us from identifying problems to be solved.

Caller and host agreed on a bumper sticker slogan — "Annoy a liberal — work hard, raise a family and be happy." I prefer to remember the lesson of Voltaire's Candide, in which the eternal optimist Professor Pangloss refused to make any judgments about his own hanging — or in Sondheim's dramatization, praised the design of the rope even as it was being drawn around his neck.


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4.03.2008 | Has NATO lost its way?

Uneasy alliance? After today's meeting, NATO's path from West to East seems less certain. To those less in the know, NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (you might be forgiven for not knowing it exists). The image above is based on the organization's flag, a white four-point compass on a blue field.

It's a question that's stayed in my mind — and indeed many others — since the end of the Cold War. With the threat of Soviet domination gone, why do we need a transatlantic military alliance? To many, the answer is obvious, and they are not necessarily wrong in thinking so: the new global, non-state threat of radical Islamic terrorism has replaced the old totalitarian Soviet bloc.

But as today's meeting of the 60-year-old alliance revealed, there is a larger question at stake in the future of NATO. Though its members are generally supportive of combating terrorism (France has committed new troops to Afghanistan, par exemple), they are less certain about expanding the membership of NATO eastward. In his attempt to bring the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine into the fold, President Bush ran into resistance from France and Germany, who wanted to avoid antagonizing Russia.

“Georgia's and Ukraine's membership in the alliance is a huge strategic mistake which would have most serious consequences for pan-European security.”

Alexander Grushko, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister

While Albania and Croatia were extended formal invitations — the former of which should be eyebrow-raising as Serbia chafes over the recent independence declaration by majority-Albanian Kosovo — Georgia and Ukraine were put on hold for now, (though they have been promised closer relations of some kind). The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was rejected outright after objections from Greece, who chafed at posters recently on display in Macedonia's capital depicting Greeks as Nazis.

Combined with U.S. plans to install a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe (which NATO backed at the meeting), Russia's skittishness about an American military alliance reaching into its sphere of influence should be understood. It may even be just a point of pride, as former Warsaw Pact members (NATO's old Soviet equivalent) fall away from the old Soviet influence and embrace the West (Bush has been particularly keen to reward Eastern European allies for their participation in Iraq). Perhaps not coincidentally, today's meeting was held in the capital of Romania, a former Warsaw Pact member.

“The Cold War is over and Russia is not our enemy.”

— U.S. President George W. Bush

But as NATO invites each new member into the fold, it invites new possibilities for military intervention in the future — each member of the alliance is pledged to defend the other in the event of an attack. I can't help but recall how the world wars showed us how entangled alliances can be troublesome — something that couldn't have been far from France's and Germany's national memories as they raised their objections.

While it is admirable to seek to bridge the gap that was carved between Europe's East and West during the Cold War, Macedonia, Georgia and Albania each have their own simmering disputes and political baggage to carry with them. As NATO seeks to expand, it should tread carefully, and watch out for the Russian bear in the woods.

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4.02.2008 | A turn of phrase

Perhaps a sign of the times in which we live, a phrase made popular four years ago seems to be making a comeback. Or "turning a corner," if you will.

Made popular in modern times by President Bush's attempts to describe progress in Iraq, especially on the campaign trail in 2004 (and afterward), the phrase made a surprise appearance more recently when Senator Clinton used it to describe her campaign's fortunes after her (arguably) pyrrhic victories in Texas and Ohio. But since then, I've seen the phrase pop up in a quote from a midwesterner in this BBC article about the world's opinion of America, which told me something must be up.

Maybe it's just me, but I remember more definite turns of phrases, like "light at the end of the tunnel," or "turning things around" (as long as we're going to turn something). But since it's been used to describe American progress in Iraq, however incremental it might be, it can't help but carry a connotation that there's a much longer and involved process afoot. And there are no shortage of problems in America today that might need such an approach for solving them.

And then there are the Yoko Ono lyrics to the song of the same name:

I turned a corner,
It didn't seem that was wrong,
I was just having a laugh.
But suddenly my friends are gone
And I didn't know that life would be so long.

I guess more than a question of how many corners we'll have to turn, it's what's around the corner (or what isn't) when we get there that counts.

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