Tuesday, September 30, 2008

BUB Three

I’ve changed my mind about the Paulson bailout plan - and the Democrats’ permutation and the Republicans’ alternative - a half-dozen times in the last eleven days. Here’s where I stand now.

If we’re going to give money to people who made stupid decisions, I’d still rather give it directly to the homeowners with the bad mortgages than to the big firms with the bad mortgage-based assets. The only change I’d make to my original Bottom-Up Bailout proposal is that only primary residences will be eligible for the plan. If you put yourself in debt up to your neck to buy a vacation home or to flip houses hoping for a quick buck, you’re on your own.

Barring that, there are two alternatives to the Paulson Plan floating around that sound interesting to me. One is Mort Zuckerman’s
suggestion that the government invest in perpetual preferred shares in the companies that need bailing out. As I understand it, perpetual preferred shares have no voting rights but are first in line for dividends and take precedence over common shares in case of bankruptcy. What I don’t know about this plan is which companies the government would invest in: any companies that wanted in; only companies that are really troubled; or only companies that the government decided were sound enough to get back on their feet with a little help. If the investment was restricted to only certain companies there’s a lot of room for political maneuvering and preferential treatment. It’s worth noting, however, that that’s at least as big a problem with the Paulson Plan since no one seems to be willing to specify which assets will be bought from which companies at what prices.

Another interesting idea is what Peter Robinson at The Corner refers to as “Plan B”:

the use of the FDIC to backstop commercial banks, on which (as quite distinct from investment banks) our system of payments and credits actually depends. The broad outlines of such a plan—increasing the deposit insurance level while giving the FDIC additional discretion to help wobbly banks—are in very little dispute.

As with the Zuckerman Plan and the Paulson Plan, the “discretion” part of “additional discretion to help wobbly banks” means someone has to choose which institutions live, which die, and which get dismembered and sold off.

One final thing to keep in mind when considering the Paulson Plan. We’re now hearing more and more about how the $700 Billion is an investment or even a “loan” because once the government buys the mortgage-based assets, it will hold them until the real estate market stabilizes then sell them and recoup some or all of the original investment - perhaps even make a profit. As Mort Zuckerman pointed out on the McLaughlin group this past weekend, we don’t know when or where the real estate market will stabilize; no one knows what value - if any - these assets have now or will have in the future; and he expects the real estate market to drop by another 15 to 20 percent. (I cannot find a link to this.) Similarly, Jeffrey Miron says:

Further, the current credit freeze is likely due to Wall Street's hope of a bailout; bankers will not sell their lousy assets for 20 cents on the dollar if the government might pay 30, 50, or 80 cents.

The costs of the bailout, moreover, are almost certainly being understated. The administration's claim is that many mortgage assets are merely illiquid, not truly worthless, implying taxpayers will recoup much of their $700 billion.

If these assets are worth something, however, private parties should want to buy them, and they would do so if the owners would accept fair market value. Far more likely is that current owners have brushed under the rug how little their assets are worth.

This less than rosy view of how much of our $700 Billion we’d get back doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t follow the Paulson Plan. It just means that if we do we should accept we may never see our money again. Think of it like money you invest in your ne’er-do-well brother-in-law’s combination video rental store and laundromat: it’s possible his success will finance your retirement but you shouldn’t stop socking money away in your 401(k).



Updated October 24, 2008, with links to my subsequent BUB posts

Since I keep adding BUB posts, I updated this on December 13, 2008, to put all BUB posts in their own category. That way they can easily be found without my having to keep updating all the existing ones each time I add a new one.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Who's warming up?

If we go ahead with the Paulson plan, the United States Secretary of the Treasury will become one of the most powerful people on the face of the earth. Given this, I’d like to know who Barack Obama and John McCain intend to put on the mound.

True prophets

Nora Roberts’ Three Sisters Island trilogy is about a speck of land off the Massachusetts coast. The island is under a curse that, if not averted, will cause it to simply sink beneath the sea. In the second book, Heaven and Earth, an expert in the paranormal has come to the island. He is discussing the curse with a woman who lives on the island. She asks:

Do you believe, in that detail-filing brain of yours, that this island is doomed to fall into the sea? How can you buy some centuries-old curse? Islands don’t just sink like swamped boats?

He replies:

...let me just say there’s always room for less-than-literal interpretations. A force five hurricane, an earthquake...

There’s been some discussion of the apocalyptic prophecies of Larry Kroon who is the current pastor at the Wasilla Bible Church, Sarah Palin’s current home church, and of Ed Kalnins who is the current pastor at the Wasilla Assembly of God church, Sarah Palin’s former home church. Max Blumenthal, in a post I discussed earlier says of Pastor Kroon:

While Kroon has cautioned his parishioners against the mass marketed End Times prophecies of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye, he has nonetheless invoked doomsday scenarios that mirror those on the pages of Lindsey and LaHaye’s bestselling tracts.

“It’s so very possible that God, instead of responding by granting spiritual renewal and sustained prosperity,” Kroon said in a sermon on July 13, 2008, “could just as easily…it’s conceivable that He could just as easily, for example, raise up a revived, prosperous and powerful Communist Russia with a web of alliances across the Middle East. And our gas pumps would go dry. The dollar would collapse. And the markets would crash. The kayak could go upside down. And it could happen in a matter of weeks. That could happen. It could happen by this fall.”

Certainly Pastor Kroon has gotten some details wrong but somehow the idea that Russia would revive seems less preposterous after the invasion of South Ossetia and the collapse of the Ukrainian government. And the idea that the dollar could collapse and the markets could crash doesn’t seem far-fetched at all as we celebrate the autumnal equinox.

Similarly, an article in the Huffington Post says of Pastor Kalnins:

In his sermons, Pastor Kalnins has also expressed beliefs that, while not directly political, lie outside of mainstream Christian thought.

He preaches repeatedly about the "end times" or "last days," an apocalyptic prophesy held by a small but vocal group of Christian leaders. During his appearance with Palin in June, he declared, "I believe Alaska is one of the refuge states in the last days, and hundreds of thousands of people are going to come to the state to seek refuge and the church has to be ready to minister to them."

Outside of mainstream Christian thought perhaps but directly in line with mainstream global warming thought. Somehow I doubt anyone at the Huffington Post would dismiss these comments from James Lovelock, the environmentalist who originated the Gaia theory (emphasis mine):

Climate change is more serious than we can possibly imagine, but neither the Earth nor the human race is doomed, said Lovelock. The good news is that the Earth itself is in no danger, with world climate likely to stabilize some 5 degrees C warmer than current temperatures - such stable 'hot' states have existed in the past, including some 55 million years ago when the world's own feedback mechanisms took 200,000 years to recover. During that phase no great extinction occurred, but life moved to cooler climes to survive.

Climate-induced migrations could, for example, see Europe's population concentrated in cooler regions such as the British Isles, Scandinavia and western France - and this could happen within the next century.

I have no use for apocalyptic prophecies no matter where they originate. But if prophecies prove accurate then the prophet should get credit. And if you honor your own prophets, how can you dishonor prophets of another God when they predict the same future?


I started thinking about one of the articles I cited under “Sources and additional reading” in my BUB post. The article was a TigerHawk post called “Did Enron beget AIG?” In my earlier post, I said this about that:

Thoughts on mark-to-market regulations; links to a Wall Street Journal article that claims that the fact the market wasn’t moving meant the value of mortgage-based assets was marked down more than was justified by the drop in value of the real estate at the bottom of the heap. Interesting but it is still the case that if no one wanted to buy a mortgage-based asset then that asset’s value was zero regardless of the value of the underlying real estate.

I went back and reread the TigerHawk post and the WSJ article it linked to and the comments on the TigerHawk post (Charlottesvillain is particularly helpful). Then I reread neo-neocon on “Naked shorts and other wonders of the financial world” and the articles she links to.

I still stand by my original statement that “if no one wanted to buy a mortgage-based asset then that asset’s value was zero regardless of the value of the underlying real estate.” To use a simple (and probably simplistic) analogy, imagine I am going to make cupcakes for a bake sale. I purchase $10 worth of ingredients and produce 48 cupcakes. That makes the underlying value of each cupcake about 21 cents assuming my labor is not considered. I price the cupcakes at 50 cents each. A couple sell quickly but when the buyers try them they discover the cupcakes taste terrible. Word spreads and no one will buy my cupcakes. Finally someone offers me 5 cents a cupcake - his dogs love sweets and he figures they won’t be too picky. I can argue until I’m blue in the face that the underlying value of my cupcakes is 21 cents each but the fact remains that their market value is 5 cents. Period.

What is clearer from my reading is that the market price of mortgage-based assets is not tightly tied to the value of the real estate on which they’re based. Home prices declined 20% while the market price of some mortgage-based securities apparently declined nearly 100%. Given this my idea to save the financial system by having the government buy up mortgages themselves rather than the distressed mortgage-based assets may not make a bit of difference to the market price - or liquidity - of those assets. It simply won’t matter that the underpinnings of those assets is now secure - the assets themselves will still be undesirable.

Rather than being a reason to do away with requiring mark to market pricing isn’t this actually a reason to do away with products that are so far removed from reality? The WSJ describes them thus:

Among its many products, AIG offered insurance on derivatives built on other derivatives built on mortgages. It priced those according to computer models that no one person could have generated, not even the quantitative magicians who programmed them.

If no one can understand how these products are priced perhaps we should consider not creating them and not selling them. Or if we believe its important to continue to do so then we need a way to segregate exposure to incomprehensible and unpriceable exotics from more mainstream investment and banking - especially if we are going to insist that mark to market valuation is not applicable to such airy-fairy investments.



Updated October 24, 2008, with links to my subsequent BUB posts

Since I keep adding BUB posts, I updated this on December 13, 2008, to put all BUB posts in their own category. That way they can easily be found without my having to keep updating all the existing ones each time I add a new one.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


So the Bush administration is proposing a $700 billion dollar bailout for financial institutions that have been “clogged up” by the fall in value of real estate and, therefore, of mortgage-based assets. Obviously the truly capitalist thing to do is nothing: let the market work its will, shake out the bad investments and those who bought them, and just hang on until everything settles down. It seems to have been decided somewhere by someone that that’s not an option: the results would be catastrophic.

Okay, but then why give money to big financial institutions? I’m a total economic dunce but if the bedrock problem with the financial system is mortgages it seems to me the best way to address the problem is to address mortgages. In other words, how about a Bottom-Up Bailout (BUB)?

Let’s start with my understanding of how this mess happened:

1) Ordinary People took out mortgages to buy homes. (I’m including home equity loans when I talk about mortgages.)

2) Those mortgages got “securitized” and sold just as if they were stocks. That is, Local Bank made 100 mortgages. It glommed those 100 mortgages together and sold an interest in that agglomeration to Bigger Bank just as if it was selling stocks. Bigger Bank glommed together many of these 100-mortgage agglomerations and sold that larger agglomeration to Still Bigger Bank and so on up the food chain to even bigger banks and investment banks and brokerages and hedge funds. That means that AIG, for example, ended up with an interest in home mortgages in Outer Podunk.

3) Things got even messier because of derivatives. It turns out that nobody actually understands them. This means no institution dealing in derivatives could really calculate how exposed it was to a particular counterparty or market or asset holder or even country. In other words, no institution dealing in derivatives really knew how much of its assets were somehow tied to AIG; knew how much of its assets were somehow tied to, say, homeowner mortgages in places where property values were dropping like a rock; knew how much of its assets were somehow tied to a particular Bigger Bank; or knew how much of its assets were somehow tied to the United States. Not knowing how exposed it was to a particular entity or situation means an institution didn’t know enough to stop buying more assets from the entity or situation.

4) There also may or may not have been some problem with short-selling, particularly with “naked shorts”. I’m not even going to pretend to understand that.

5) Remember that the home mortgages taken out by Ordinary People are still the basis for all the assets we’re talking about: the agglomerations of mortgages sold as if they were stocks; the incomprehensible derivatives; and whatever the heck the naked short-sellers were dealing in. One big thing has gone wrong with these mortgages: house prices have dropped. This means the collateral for the mortgage (the house) is worth less than what people owe on that collateral. So if people cannot repay the mortgages they took out then the Local Bank that gave them the mortgages can’t get back their money by seizing and selling the house.

For example, let’s say the 100 mortgages that Local Bank glommed together were for a million dollars each. This means that Local Bank sold an agglomeration worth one-hundred million to Bigger Bank. And it was worth one-hundred million in two senses: the amount loaned for those 100 houses was one-hundred million and if the homeowners all defaulted on their mortgages, Local Bank could take their homes and sell those homes for one-hundred million.

Now, however, let’s say house prices have gone down by 75%. That agglomeration is still worth one-hundred million in the sense that the amount loaned for those 100 houses was one-hundred million. However, if the homeowners all default on their mortgages, Local Bank could only get twenty-five million if it took their homes and sold them. So the underlying asset - the real thing - is no longer worth one-hundred million. As long as people keep paying their mortgages, this is not a problem.

6) Unfortunately, people are beginning to not pay their mortgages. There are multiple reasons for this:

a) Some people got mortgages they couldn’t afford. We can have a big fight over why this happened. Some people say it happened because the government forced lenders to give mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them in order to overcome perceived discrimination toward minorities and poor areas. Some people say lenders took the government’s expressed desire to see less discriminatory lending and used that as an excuse to talk and trick people into mortgages they couldn’t afford and to load up those mortgages with bad fees and wicked interest.

b) Some people got mortgages they could afford but then they lost their jobs and now they can’t afford them.

c) Some people got mortgages they could afford but then the value of their house dropped and now they’re stuck paying a million dollar mortgage on a house they couldn’t sell for more than a quarter of a million dollars. Some of these people are hanging in there, paying their mortgages; these people do not contribute to the current problem. However, some of these people are reneging on their mortgages and abandoning their houses which leaves the bank that holds their mortgages out the three-quarters of a million dollars. Also, some of these people would continue paying their mortgages if they could but they have to move for work or family reasons and they can’t continue to pay a million dollar mortgage when they only get a quarter million to sell the house and they have to buy a new house in their new home.

7) As financial institutions became aware that the original value of mortgage-based assets was disappearing - the value of the homes and the willingness of the homeowners to pay their mortgage were both vanishing - they became less willing to buy those assets. In market terms that translates to offering lower and lower prices for those assets. So a mortgage-based asset that Lehman bought at $100 couldn’t be sold at $100. Instead someone may have offered only $90 for it. It looks like - I’m very hazy on this - Lehman may have said no to $90 and held onto the asset as the price offered for it dropped and dropped and dropped. It’s also possible that the price drop happened quickly: last week Lehman bought the asset for $100, this week it’s only worth $25. Whatever the mechanism(s), financial institutions have found themselves holding a lot of mortgage-based assets for which they paid a lot more than anyone is now willing to offer them. And here’s where things get interesting.

Treasury Secretary Paulson keeps referring to these mortgage-based assets as “illiquid”. That implies they cannot be sold. However, Naked Capitalist insists that these assets can be sold but the institutions that hold them are unwilling to accept the low prices being offered by bottom-feeders. In other words, if Lehman bought a mortgage-based asset for $100 it is absolutely unwilling to let it go for $75 much less for $50. If this is true, it’s not that the assets are illiquid, it’s that the institutions that hold them are not willing to take the hit they would incur by selling them. In other words, these institutions are refusing to accept a market correction.

So long as institutions continue to hold mortgage-based assets they suffer financially. Once everyone realized the mortgage-based assets weren’t worth much, financial institutions couldn’t use them as collateral to get the short-term credit they rely on to keep their business going; that was like asking your local bank to give you a home-equity line on your house after it burned down. Furthermore, these institutions owned so many of these mortgage-based assets that they didn’t have enough inventory in other assets to get the credit they needed - bad assets had crowded out good. Finally, as a financial institution revalued these mortgage-based assets to anything like their market price the total worth of the institution was dropping. A company that was worth ten billion dollars when mortgage-based assets were worth $100 would be worth less and less as the value of the assets dropped. As that drop was reflected on the institution’s balance sheet the value of the stock would drop. That meant the stock was worth less as collateral to raise operating money and the institution suffered more.

Now the government is going to bail out the entire financial system by buying up mortgage-based assets. Some financial institutions (it’s not clear which ones) will be able to sell the bad assets to the government, use the money to buy good assets, and go back to merrily doing business again. It’s as if the homeowner posited above found someone who would buy his burned downed house. He can go out and buy a new house and leave the buyer with the ruined hulk

The idea is that the government will hold onto the bad assets and gradually sell them. The big questions are:

1) How much will the government pay for these assets?

2) How much will the government be able to sell them for?

It looks like Treasury is claiming it will buy the assets at fair market price. The problem is that if no one is willing to buy these assets - that is, they are truly illiquid - there is no fair market price. If someone is willing to buy these assets, why can’t the institutions that hold them sell to those buyers rather than sticking the taxpayers with the bill? I’m very much afraid that the analysis at Naked Capitalist which insists that there are bottom-feeders currently willing to buy; that the asset holders refuse to sell for what the bottom-feeders are offering; and that the government will offer whatever the sellers demand in order to get their hands on those assets looks like what will happen. As for how much the government will be able to sell them for, I can’t think of any reason the government will be able to sell them for more than the current holders would be able to. So the government will pay the price the asset holders demand then sell the assets to the bottom-feeders. The taxpayer will pay the difference while the asset holder and bottom-feeder both make out like bandits.

So here’s my question. If the Ordinary People with mortgages they can’t or won’t pay are the root of this problem, why not solve the problem by addressing their difficulties? Instead of buying the mortgage based assets, let’s have the government buy the mortgages or, rather, part of the mortgages. That’s a Bottom-Up Bailout (BUB).

My goal is to have every mortgage holder end up in a stable mortgage position. That means:

1) The mortgage on the house is for no more than 80% of the house’s current market value.

2) The amount paid on the mortgage each month is no more than some reasonable percent of the family income. I would set a top-end on that percent - perhaps 25% - but I think the percent has to vary by income level. Someone who is making very little money may simply not be able to afford to allocate 25% of the family income to housing.

Everyone who has a mortgage can apply to the new program. If the homeowners are in a stable mortgage position they don’t qualify. If not, the government will pay off their mortgage to whatever degree is necessary to get them into that position. Let’s take an example.

John Smith bought a $250,000 home a year ago. He makes $50,000 a year. He took out a $230,000 mortgage, putting only 8% down. He has made principal payments totaling $10,000 so he now owes $220,000. His home is now worth only $150,000. So:

1) The mortgage on the house is $220,000 but the house is worth only $150,000. The 80% of current market value rule means his mortgage should be no more than $120,000. The government will pay off $100,000 of his mortgage leaving him with a $120,000 mortgage.

2) If his monthly mortgage payment on the new $120,000 mortgage is more than a reasonable percent of his income, the government will pay off more of his mortgage to get his monthly payment down to the desired level.

Yes, some people who were stupid and some people who were greedy will get away with murder under BUB. However, there is some pain for homeowners:

1) If a homeowner would qualify for this deal and does not apply for it or does not take it and subsequently defaults on his mortgage, he cannot ever qualify for another mortgage.

2) If a homeowner takes this deal then when he sells his house he has to start paying the government back for the help. Specifically, the homeowner pays the government the amount the government paid off for him or half the profit on the house, whichever is less. This rule applies to sales of any subsequent houses until the homeowner has paid off the government’s help. The government does not charge interest.

3) If a homeowner takes this deal and defaults on his mortgage, current law prevails except that the government is considered a co-owner with the homeowner for the purposes of receiving proceeds from the sale of the house over and above what the mortgage holder receives. In other words, if the homeowner still owes $100,000 and defaults, the loaning bank seizes the house. If it is sold for $150,000, the homeowner and the government split the $50,000 that the bank doesn’t get.

There’s also some pain for the lending institutions. When the government pays off part of a homeowner’s mortgage, it doesn’t pay 100%. In the example above, I say the government will pay off $100,000 of John Smith’s mortgage. In fact, the government will pay Smith’s lender, say, $75,000. The lender forgives and eats the rest. That spreads the pain to the local lender and from there throughout the financial system without inflicting so much damage the system collapses.

And, of course, the government reforms lending practices in general. Minimum down payments and limits on how much can be borrowed based on income are back in favor. If the government wants to help poorer people own homes they can do the lending to those people themselves with the understanding that the loss rate will be high.

Furthermore, some type of restriction needs to be in effect to compensate for housing bubbles. Perhaps the minimum down payment should vary based on how fast housing prices are going up. In other words, banks should loan less than 80% in areas where housing prices are rising fast.

Last but not least the financial institutions' practices must be reformed. If no one understands derivatives maybe no one should be trading them. If trading in exotically packaged assets puts the whole financial system at risk maybe it’s time to re-segregate parts of the financial system, a new Glass-Steagall law. I don’t know enough about the subject to propose reasonable legislation but if the taxpayers are going to help clean up this mess then their representative - the government - needs to make sure the mess doesn’t happen again.

If the government is unable or unwilling to reform financial institution practices, then the government must make it explicitly crystal clear that those institutions are high-risk and without government backup. Anyone who does business with them does so at his own risk.


Sources and additional reading:

Naked Capitalism (via Greg Mankiw)

Newt Gingrich at The Corner on NRO

Andrew Stuttaford at The Corner on NRO - Contains links to a Washington Post article and a Brookings Institute write-up on the bailout

neo-neocon on Naked shorts and other wonders of the financial world

Did Enron beget AIG? - Thoughts on mark-to-market regulations; links to a Wall Street Journal article that claims that the fact the market wasn’t moving meant the value of mortgage-based assets was marked down more than was justified by the drop in value of the real estate at the bottom of the heap. Interesting but it is still the case that if no one wanted to buy a mortgage-based asset then that asset’s value was zero regardless of the value of the underlying real estate.

Is Paulson wrong? - This is a link to a brief essay by Luigi Zingales. I cannot read the pdf he links to. You can read what purports to be the full text here.

Analysis: Washington's Trillion Dollar Wall Street Bailout - James Pethokoukis at U.S. News thinks the bailout is the way to go

Bipartisan Support for Wall St. Rescue Plan Emerges

For some very left and very interesting writing, check out
Anglachel’s Journal.

If I were John McCain's trusted adviser ... - An August 17,2008, article by George F. Will in which contains a proposal that sounds awfully good to me:

No officer of any corporation receiving a federal subsidy, broadly defined, can be paid more than the highest federal civil servant ($124,010 for a GS-15).


Updated October 24, 2008, with links to my subsequent BUB posts

Since I keep adding BUB posts, I updated this on December 13, 2008, to put all BUB posts in their own category. That way they can easily be found without my having to keep updating all the existing ones each time I add a new one.

Holy war

When Charles Gibson interviewed Sarah Palin, one exchange got a lot of attention:

GIBSON: You said recently, in your old church, "Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God." Are we fighting a holy war?

PALIN: You know, I don't know if that was my exact quote.

GIBSON: Exact words.

PALIN: But the reference there is a repeat of Abraham Lincoln's words when he said -- first, he suggested never presume to know what God's will is, and I would never presume to know God's will or to speak God's words.

But what Abraham Lincoln had said, and that's a repeat in my comments, was let us not pray that God is on our side in a war or any other time, but let us pray that we are on God's side.

The words Gibson spoke were not, of course, Palin’s “exact words” and there has been a great deal of comment about Gibson’s misquote. Unfortunately, the idea that Palin referred to the United States' presence in Iraq as God’s will seems to be ineradicable. Nonetheless, here’s my attempt to get on the record exactly what Palin said.

I want to start with a brief tour of Palin’s church history since references to “Palin’s church” and “Palin’s pastor” can be confusing. Palin was baptized Roman Cathoic. When she was four years old (around 1968), her family joined the Wasilla Assembly of God church. Assemblies of God churches are Protestant, Trinatarian, Evangelical, and Pentecostal.

Around 2002, Palin began attending the Wasilla Bible Church as her home church in Wasilla. An article in the New York Times quotes a member of the Wasilla Bible Church who believes the Palins moved from the Wasilla Assembly of God church because the Bible Church is less extreme - it is not Pentecostal - and because the Palins preferred to maintain a lower profile when in church. Palin also attends the Juneau Christian Center when in Juneau.

The Wasilla Assembly of God church was founded by Paul Riley. Mr. Riley was pastor for most of the time the Palins attended the church. In 1999, Ed Kalnins became pastor, apparently because Mr. Riley, who would have been about 70 at the time, retired.

Larry Kroon has been the pastor of the Wasilla Bible Church since 1978, one year after the church was founded.

The Juneau Christian Center has not figured prominently in any stories about Sarah Palin. The Center’s
statement on Palin refers to her as a visitor who “has occasionally attended Juneau Christian Center.”

The statement that Gibson mangled was made in a talk Palin gave at the Wasilla Assembly of God church, her former home church, on June 8, 2008. The occasion was the graduation of a Master’s Commission class. Master’s Commission is a one-year program devoted to discipleship and learning ministry. You can view the video of Palin’s June 8 talk in this Huffington Post article.

Palin talks about God’s will in connection with a natural gas pipeline she wanted to build and in relation to the United States’ military mission in Iraq. Palin’s comment about the pipeline begins around 3:55 into the video. She is striking a deal with the Master’s Commission graduates, essentially splitting up God's work and Caesar's:

I can do my part in doing things like working really, really hard to get a natural gas pipeline - about a $30 billion project that's going to create a lot of jobs for Alaskans and will have a lot of energy flowing through here. And pray about that also. I think God's will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gas line built, so pray for that.

I read Palin's comments to mean not that the pipeline is God's will but that in order for the pipeline to be built it must be God's will that people and companies be unified so she is asking her audience to pray that such unification is God's will.

Palin’s comment about Iraq begins around 5:35 into the video. She says:

Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right. Also, for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] out on a task that is from God. That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan.

I simply don’t see any way to read this the way Gibson did, that “[o]ur national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God", much less to wonder if Palin thinks we are “fighting a holy war”. She is clearly asking the congregation to pray that our leaders are sending troops on a Godly task. This is entirely in keeping with Lincoln’s sentiments:

To a minister who said he hoped the Lord was on our side, [Lincoln] replied that it gave him no concern whether the Lord was on our side or not "For," he added, "I know the Lord is always on the side of right;" and with deep feeling added, "But God is my witness that it is my constant anxiety and prayer that both myself and this nation should be on the Lord's side."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Obama's "Honor"

Barack Obama recently put out an ad called “Honor” which says John McCain is running a dishonorable campaign. The ad does not provide any specific instances of dishonorable activity by the McCain campaign which has left commenters who do not support Obama puzzled as to what the ad means. (Commenters who do support him are sure they know.) Since the ad provides seven quotes to back up its claim of dishonor, I decided to track down those quotes and determine from them what Obama is objecting to.

For each backup quote from the ad, I report what the ad says via voiceover and screen, give the source I found for the quote, place the quote in context, and give any additional information I think will be helpful. I keep a running total of what objectionable McCain claims the quotes refer to.

1) The screen says, “one of the sleaziest ads ... ever seen”; Time, Klein, 09/10/08

Apology Not Accepted says:

Now he is responsible for one of the sleaziest ads I've ever seen in presidential politics, so sleazy that I won't abet its spread by linking to it, but here's the McClatchy fact check.

The McClatchy fact check he links to is Out of bounds! McCain misstates Obama sex-ed record. This is a reference to the McCain ad called “Education” which can be viewed here. This ad claims Obama wants to teach kindergartners about sex.

Objectionable McCain claims:
Obama wants to teach sex-ed to kindergartners (1 reference)

2) The screen says, “truly vile”; Washington Post, Dionne, 09/10/08

Does the Truth Matter Anymore? says:

And now comes a truly vile McCain ad accusing Obama of supporting legislation to offer "'comprehensive sex education' to kindergartners."

Dionne links to the same McClatchy fact check that Klein did about the McCain ad called “Education”.

Although not the source of the “truly vile” comment, the first paragraph of Dionne’s column also refers to two other McCain claims as false:

John McCain and his campaign keep throwing out false charges and making false claims without any qualms. They keep talking about Sarah Palin’s opposition to the Bridge to Nowhere without any embarrassment over the fact that she once supported it. They keep saying that Barack Obama will raise taxes, suggesting he’d raise them on everybody ...

Objectionable McCain claims:
Obama wants to teach sex-ed to kindergartners (2 references)
Palin didn’t really stop the Bridge to Nowhere (1 reference)
Obama will raise taxes on everybody (1 reference)

3) The screen says, “dishonest smears”; The New Republic, Orr, 09/10/08

Animal Farm says:

... an effort by former Massachusetts Governor--and McCain surrogate--Jane Swift to claim Barack Obama was calling Sarah Palin a pig when, discussing McCain's "change" message, he used the common phrase, "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig." [snip]

Still, the bogus charge is further evidence--along with McCain's disgraceful new ad--that he intends to run a campaign that's not fit for rats. Can we expect more dishonest smears like this one? Does a bear shit in the woods?

This is a reference to the McCain ad called “Lipstick” and the controversy that prompted it. The ad has been taken down for copyright reasons but you can read the script for it here. This dustup has several permutations. This article speaks specifically about Obama calling Palin a pig. A more general version is that the Obama comment was a sexist swipe at Palin.

This article also links to another TNR article which references the McCain “Education” ad so I’ve counted that one also.

Objectionable McCain claims:
Obama wants to teach sex-ed to kindergartners (3 references)
Palin didn’t really stop the Bridge to Nowhere (1 reference)
Obama will raise taxes on everyone (1 reference)
Obama was taking a swipe at Palin when he talked about putting lipstick on a pig (1 reference)

4) Voiceover says: “that he repeats even after it’s been”; screen says, “exposed as a lie”; CBS, Benen, 09/08/08

Political Animal: The difference between a lie and a mistake says:

To support its claim about Palin having "stopped" the Bridge to Nowhere, the [McCain] ad cites an article from December in the Anchorage Daily News. When one actually looks at the article, one sees that the Daily News piece doesn't support the claim.

In our reality, Palin supported the bridge project, and campaigned on a pledge to build it. The bridge was scrapped, not by Palin, but when an embarrassed Congress stopped the project. Even then, Palin took the money and spent it on other Alaskan transportation projects. Unless the McCain campaign is prepared to change the meaning of the word "stopped," the ad's claim is obviously not true.

But stepping back, it's not just the ad. McCain and Palin have repeated the same claim, over and over again, in a variety of settings, after it was exposed as a lie.

The reference to the December Anchorage Daily News article leads - via an intermediary - to "Palin flies high as reformer", a 2007 article that chronicles Palin’s accomplishments. It does not credit her with stopping the Bridge to Nowhere but does detail other reforms Palin instituted.

Incidentally, I’ve now explained a discrepancy Althouse points out:

7. "Dishonest smears that he repeats, even after it's been exposed as a lie." "Smears" is plural. What's the antecedent for "it's"? I thought Obama's campaign was largely built on his brilliant speaking ability. You've got to write the adscript in solid English -- especially when you're talking about deception and tearing quotes out of context. Otherwise, you are the one we will be suspicious of.

The voiceover is linking two different stories into one sentence. The “dishonest smears” is a prediction of multiple future trangressions by McCain; the “exposed as a lie” is a judgment about a particular McCain claim about Palin and the Bridge to Nowhere.

Objectionable McCain claims:
Obama wants to teach sex-ed to kindergartners (3 references)
Palin didn’t really stop the Bridge to Nowhere (2 reference)
Obama will raise taxes on everyone (1 reference)
Obama was taking a swipe at Palin when he talked about putting lipstick on a pig (1 reference)

5) The screen says, “the truth be damned”; Chicago Tribune, James, 09/10/08

McCain plays dirty on Obama & sex-ed says:

This is an old-fashioned, unreconstructed politics whose goal, first and foremost, is to get the candidate elected, the truth be damned.

This paragraph follows an extensive quote from the McClatchy fact check that Dionne and Klein referenced about the McCain ad called “Education”.

Objectionable McCain claims:
Obama wants to teach sex-ed to kindergartners (4 references)
Palin didn’t really stop the Bridge to Nowhere (2 reference)
Obama will raise taxes on everyone (1 reference)
Obama was taking a swipe at Palin when he talked about putting lipstick on a pig (1 reference)

6) The screen says, A “disgraceful dishonorable campaign”; Washington Post, 08/28/08

I cannot find this reference. The only “disgraceful, dishonorable campaign” reference I found in the Washington Post is a Dionne column, Tiptoeing Through the Mud , dated September 12, 2008. Right quote, wrong date, not counted.

Objectionable McCain claims:
Obama wants to teach sex-ed to kindergartners (4 references)
Palin didn’t really stop the Bridge to Nowhere (2 reference)
Obama will raise taxes (1 reference)
Obama was taking a swipe at Palin when he talked about putting lipstick on a pig (1 reference)

7) The voice over says, “After voting with Bush 90% of the time, proposing the same disastrous economic polices, it seems deception is all he has left.”; the screen says, “deception”; Washington Post, 08/31/08

One word is not much of a clue but given the reference to economic policies, I believe I've found the article to which the ad is referring: Continuing Deception: Mr. McCain’s ads on taxes are just plain false. The word “deception” appears only in the title but the thrust of the argument can be found in this paragraph:

Instead, the McCain campaign insists on completely misrepresenting Mr. Obama's plan. The ad opens with the Obama-as-celebrity theme -- "Celebrities don't have to worry about family budgets, but we sure do," says the female announcer. "We're paying more for food and gas, making it harder to save for college, retirement." Then she sticks it to him: "Obama's solution? Higher taxes, called 'a recipe for economic disaster.' He's ready to raise your taxes but not ready to lead."

The article cites the Tax Policy Center but provides a link only to their front page not to the articles that provide the numbers the articles cites. The ad the article is talking about is “Higher” and can be viewed here.

Objectionable McCain claims:
Obama wants to teach sex-ed to kindergartners (4 references)
Palin didn’t really stop the Bridge to Nowhere (2 references)
Obama will raise taxes (2 references)
Obama was taking a swipe at Palin when he talked about putting lipstick on a pig (1 reference)

So there are the McCain claims that presumably lie behind Obama's "Honor" ad. I certainly don’t believe that any of these four statements represent the highest form of democratic dialogue. At the same time, I don’t understand why they are being singled out as more sleazy, vile, dishonest, disgraceful, deceitful, and dishonorable than statements made in earlier elections, in the party primaries this year, or by the Obama campaign itself. Each of the four statements can be backed up by an argument - you may agree or disagree with the argument but it can be made in each case. Even more important with regard to the claim that these statements are particularly reprehensible, Obama does not come to this discussion with clean hands.

Here’s my take on each statement.

Obama wants to teach sex-ed to kindergartners: As I said in an earlier post, I don’t like the ad and I wish McCain hadn’t run it. Nonetheless, Byron York makes a case that the McCain ad is accurate based on the wording of the bill itself. Furthermore George Will is unconvinced the McCain ad is untrue or misleading. Will goes on to say:

It is very common across the centuries for parents, not schools, parents to tell their children to be aware of strangers. What's new here and reflects a conservative-liberal difference is the idea, a, it has to be tarted up as sex education to be wary of strangers, and b, parents can't but the schools must in the kindergarten. Now that's a cultural divide and let's vote.

Even if you, unlike York and Will, believe this ad is utterly misleading, how is it any worse than Obama’s oft-repeated charge (via Villainous Company) that McCain wants a hundred-year war?

Palin didn’t really stop the Bridge to Nowhere: I haven’t looked at this closely enough myself to have a firm opinion. To read someone who passionately believes Palin is lying about stopping the bridge, see The Daily Howler. (I link to only one article but he continues to discuss this issue almost every day.) For an alternate interpretation, you can read A Tale of Two Bridges. I haven’t compared the timelines of the two accounts.

Even if you firmly believe Palin deserves absolutely no credit for stopping the Bridge to Nowhere, this is an interesting issue for Obama-Biden to raise. Both men voted for the Bridge to Nowhere which is probably justifiable since I assume it was just one part of a larger appropriations package. Less savory is the fact that both men voted against the Coburn amendment that would have transferred some Bridge to Nowhere money to Katrina relief instead.

Obama will raise taxes on everyone: Again, I haven’t looked at this closely enough to have an opinion. If you want to see how the McCain campaign believes it is justified in making this claim, you can check out their Press Releases page (just do a find on “higher” within the page and you’ll hit a handful of items about Obama’s taxes). I took a quick look at this item and based on a very cursory examination it looks to me like McCain is basing his claims of Obama raising taxes on Obama’s past voting record while those who dispute McCain’s claims are considering Obama’s proposed policy changes. Probably a gross over-simplification but you can judge for yourself.

Even if you believe McCain’s statements about Obama’s tax policy are totally without foundation, consider this. Speaking about the current financial problems, McCain said Monday:

You know that there’s been tremendous turmoil in our financial markets and Wall Street.. And it is, people are frightened by these events. Our economy, I think still, the fundamentals of our economy are strong but these are very, very difficult times. And I promise you we will never put America in this position again. We will clean up Wall Street, we will reform government...

Tuesday, the Obama campaign released an ad called “Fundamentals”. The ad quotes only the “fundamentals of our economy are strong” part of McCain’s remarks and then asks, “How can John McCain fix our economy ... if he doesn’t understand it’s broken?”

I fail to see how this new Obama ad is less misleading than even baseless McCain ads about Obama’s tax policy would be.

Obama was taking a swipe at Palin when he talked about putting lipstick on a pig: It is probably the case that the people who paid any attention to this at all split 50/50 on whether Obama was alluding to Palin’s lipstick comment at the Republican National Convention. It is simply not possible to decide whether this claim is true because we can’t read Obama’s mind.

Even if Obama is totally innocent of thinking about Palin when he made this remark, I am absolutely furious that Obama would consider it “dishonorable” for someone to interpret his remark as an insult. Obama was quite eager to ensure that Hillary Clinton’s remark about RFK and June was interpreted as calling for his assassination. If he encouraged such a hideous interpretation in a far, far more serious matter, he has no room to complain about any misinterpretation of his much less consequentional remark.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour

[One note before I begin. If I had not seen the post I’m about to analyze referenced at Palin Rumors (this is Number 21) with an intermediate stop at Andrew Sullivan, I would have figured it was just more fringe lunacy and ignored it. Palin Rumors, however, has been widely referenced in the last couple of weeks and Andrew Sullivan - for reasons which totally escape me - is still considered in some circles to provide a veneer of respectability. Hence my decision to take this post seriously.]

On September 5, 2008, Max Blumenthal put up a post called “Palin’s Pastor: God ‘Is Gonna Strike Out His Hand Against...America”. In this post Blumenthal gave a highly condensed version of a July 20, 2008, sermon preached by Larry Koon, pastor of the Wasilla Bible Church. Wasilla Bible Church is where Governor Sarah Palin worships when she is in Wasilla.

Blumenthal extracted a few phrases from the sermon and strung them together with his own paraphrases. If you begin reading his post at the words “the book of Zephanaiah [sic]” and end with “It’s all” and include Blumenthal’s paraphrases, his version of the sermon is 132 words long. If you begin and end at the same points in Blumenthal’s post but include only the words he actually quotes from the sermon itself, his version of the sermon is 86 words long.

Pastor Kroon’s sermon is 4,895 words long.

Blumenthal’s first quote from Pastor Kroon’s sermon is:

“that great day of the Lord when God will finally bring closure to human history… a day of wrath.”

There are 1374 words in the sermon before that quote. Pastor Kroon is explaining Zephaniah’s prophetic vision and credit him with credits him with popularizing the phrase “day of the Lord”:

to refer to the closure of all things, when God would finally bring everything that we know to an end; that timeframe when God would finally bring everything up, bind it together, and deal with it. And the world that we now know will cease to exist. That’s the day of the Lord.

Now, we’re not talking necessarily about a 24-hour time period. We’re talking about the whole timeframe of the end, when God begins to bring closure to the world as we know it. It’s not...it’s not a sunny picture. In fact, later in Zephaniah, when we get down to the very end of chapter 1 if you wanna glance there, chapter 1 verses 14-16, there’s a drumbeat almost of descriptive terms in which Zephaniah, looking at the future and seeing that great day of the Lord when God will finally bring closure to human history, he says this--it is a day of wrath.

Blumenthal’s second quote is:

“all things and all people” are going to bear the brunt of God’s “intense anger.”

In Pastor Kroon's sermon there are 1565 words between “all things and all people” and “intense anger”.

Blumenthal’s third quote is:

“There’s anger with God,” he proclaimed. “He takes sin personal.”

This actually comes near the end of the sermon: there are only 226 words left to go. The full paragraph in which this quote occurs is:

“Yes. There’s anger with God. He takes sin personal. But there is something that answers to that anger, and that’s His love. And it’s a love that, we’re told, not only does He love the world—“He loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son.” He put His Son there and said, ‘You take the anger for them.’ And with that promise is “Whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” No ‘perhaps’ there. It’s simply sayin’ “I’m gonna seek the Lord, starting with Jesus, responding with faith.’ That’s what you do, given the reality of the day of the Lord.

Blumenthal’s fourth quote is:

“And if Zephaniah were here today,” Kroon bellowed, “he’d be saying, ‘Listen, [God] is gonna deal with all the inhabitants of the earth. He is gonna strike out His hand against, yes, Wasilla; and Alaska; and the United States of America. There’s no exceptions here — there’s none. It’s all.’”

This quote appears in the sermon before Blumenthal's third quote and in the midst of Blumenthal's second quote. The full paragraph in which this quote occurs is:

He has to be emphatic at this point; he has to get specific at this point, because the people of Jerusalem had the prevailing attitude—and it’s stated in Zephaniah—that ‘God won’t do anything to us, good or bad.’ And what Zephaniah says—‘Listen, He is going to remove everyone from the earth. He is gonna deal with all the inhabitants; so, as a result, understand He is going to deal with you, Jerusalem and Judah. There’s no exceptions here.’ And if Zephaniah were here today he’d be saying, ‘Listen, He is gonna deal with all the inhabitants of the earth. He is gonna strike out His hand against, yes, Wasilla; and Alaska; and the United States of America. There’s no exceptions here—there’s none. It’s all.’

Pastor Koon is not saying that God is angry with Wasilla or Alaska or the United States in particular. This is an analogy: Zephaniah telling the people of Jerusalem, “Listen up because God means you, Jerusalem and Judah” is analogous to a modern-day prophet telling the congregation in Wasilla, “Listen up because God means you, Wasilla and Alaska and the United States.”

I’m hardly a regular - or even irregular - churchgoer but I can read a straighforward text. My summary of this sermon (only 95 words long yet within hailing distance of accurate) is:

- God has promised he will end (or destroy or purify) the entire world; this is standard Revelations fare although here it is coming from an Old Testament book.
- What the congregation (and people in general) must do to avoid that fate is turn to Jesus; this is standard Christian doctrine.
- Turning to Jesus doesn’t mean following rules by rote or keeping a balance sheet of vice and virtue. Rather it means establishing a personal relationship with God just as you establish a personal relationship with people you care for. Pastor Koon says:

I picked this verse [chapter 3, verse 2].because it gets to the very essence of the nature of sin. Sin is deeply and profoundly personal. It’s not simply ‘I didn’t keep this rule, and I didn’t keep that rule. I blew it on the seventh command. I’ll make it up on the eighth.’ Sin is saying, ‘I’m not going to listen to the voice of God.’ And there’s nothin’ more personal than sayin’ ‘I don’t want to hear You.’ Sin is saying ‘I want to do it my way;’ and there’s nothin’ more personal than saying ‘I don’t trust Your way.’ Sin is saying ‘I don’t have any confidence in You, God, to handle my situation, my circumstance, given what I’m dealing with. You are not competent enough and You do not know the situation well enough.’ And there is nothing more personal than saying that to God. And that’s what you say every time you sin. And there’s nothing more personal than saying ‘I really don’t have time for You.’

Blumenthal closes his post by noting that Palin’s presence on the day Pastor Kroon gave this sermon has not been confirmed. I assume he is implicitly likening this sermon of Pastor Kroon to the sermons by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright that caused Barack Obama so much trouble. Certainly Sullivan makes that comparison explicitly.

I am not unsympathetic to the idea that the Reverend Wright’s meaning may have been distorted by the use of excerpts from his sermons. I wish someone had provided easy access to the full text of the sermons from which the more inflammatory statements were drawn. Although it’s been lost in the mists of time, one of my early ideas for a blog post was to take Mr. Wright’s remarks and see if I could find analogies to them in more mainstream and temperate sources. I also wanted to do this with Father Michael Pfleger’s swan song about reparations and Hillary Clinton’s tears - I thought that would be easy to match up and I may yet try to do so.

However, my sympathy is for the Reverend Wright and Father Pfleger. Obama’s decision to claim he had not heard Mr. Wright’s sermons, to dismiss Mr. Wright’s rhetoric as a relic of a painful but bygone era, and later to denounce his pastor were his to make as he saw fit.

I would be very surprised if Palin feels any need to distance herself from Pastor Kroon’s sermon and I sincerely doubt she will be throwing her Wasilla Bible Church pastor under a bus any time soon.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Talking about earmarks

Yesterday on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Claire McCaskill and Carly Fiorina went a couple of rounds on earmarks. You can read their argument for yourself but basically it came down to McCaskill saying Palin claims to oppose earmarks but asked for gazillions of dollars in them and Fiorina saying Obama asked for even more and at least Palin as governor acknowledged they were corrupting and wanted to ask for fewer of them. McCaskill finished up with:

She took the money for the bridge to nowhere. She took -- she hired lobbyists to get earmarks.

This is a woman who has been lobbying for earmarks, has received earmarks. As a mayor, as a governor.

This is a good example of what I’m talking about. You know, honor is talked about a lot in this campaign. Honor comes with honesty. And you’ve got to be honest about the facts.

Sarah Palin has been an earmark queen in Alaska. That’s the facts.

Setting aside the specific issue of earmarks for a moment, I’d advise Obama supporters to step very cautiously around the issues of honor and honesty. Challenging someone’s honor or honesty is still a fighting offense to a lot of people and the Obama campaign better have more to back up those charges than cries of outrage over the type of spin, hyperbole, and political license that all campaigns - including most definitely the Obama campaign - practice all the time.

More on topic, I wonder if an “earmark queen” is anything like a “welfare queen”?

Back to the fray. Fiorina’s last word on earmarks was (emphasis mine):

Sarah Palin has made significant reforms and significant progress in the amount of earmark money that Alaska takes. She stood up as governor and said, “we must reform this corrupting process.”

It is true that as mayor, she worked within the system that she was a part of, but it is also true that she stepped forward against her own party and said enough is enough.

I think Fiorina is on the right track with regard to how Palin’s people should be talking about earmarks. The way to address the discrepancy between wanting to reform the earmark process and taking earmarks is to be up front about the whole thing. Admit that of course Palin asked for earmarks. Everybody asks for earmarks. Look at all the earmarks Obama asked for. If Palin hadn’t asked for earmarks for Wasilla and for Alaska she would have been putting her city and her state at a disadvantage with regard to other government that were asking for and getting Federal money. That’s why she understands how important it is to reform the whole system: as long as earmarks exist local officials have to make use of them to stay competitive and to stay in office. A corrupt system inevitably corrupts everything and everyone it touches and that’s why she wants to change the system itself.

Full court press

After watching Claire McCaskill and Carly Fiorina on This Week with George Stephanopoulos and Bob Woodward on Meet This Press this morning, I’ve put my finger on something that has been bothering me about the Charles Gibson interview with Sarah Palin.

In general, when a newsman interviews someone, he asks a question and lets the interviewee answer. If the interviewee answers too generally or answers a question other than the one asked, the newsman may push the interviewee a little but generally does not press the issue aggressively. For example, look at this exchange:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Even Senator Biden said this week that Hillary might have been a better pick. Did Senator Obama give the McCain campaign an opening by not picking Hillary Clinton?

MCCASKILL: Well, I think that Joe Biden is going to be a terrific vice president. Joe Biden is fully capable of stepping into the presidency at a moment’s notice.

I also think it’s important, George, once again, this issue is about being honest and forthcoming with the American people. John McCain has not told the truth about Sarah Palin . He has run an ad that is terribly distorted and full of lies about -- you’re talking about making women mad. When women figure out that John McCain has run an ad saying that when Barack Obama wanted to give education to kindergartners about how to avoid sexual predators, that in fact, they ran an ad that said that he wanted to give them sex education? I mean, this is the kind of game that’s being played on those...

STEPHANOPOULOS: So no regrets about Hillary Clinton.

MCCASKILL: And by the way, speaking about honest, Sarah Palin this summer called Hillary Clinton a whiner. And now it’s oh, you know, they are being disrespectful to Hillary. I didn’t hear her say that when she was asked that before she was the vice presidential pick. And when John McCain was asked a question at a forum -- you remember this -- someone said, “how do we stop the b,” referring to Hillary Clinton, and John McCain laughed. So all -- and they had buttons at their convention (inaudible)...


After more than 1000 words, we still don’t know if McCaskill thinks Obama gave the McCain campaign an opening by not picking Clinton. Stephanopoulos got a first non-answer, tried one gentle push on the issue, got another non-answer, and let the matter go. (Although the transcript doesn’t reflect it, my husband heard Stephanopoulos say something like, “So I guess you don’t have an opinion” after McCaskill’s second non-answer.)

As a second example, look at this exchange:

MR. BROKAW: Let me ask you about what was going on in 2006 in that August meeting, especially the commander on the ground in Iraq was General Casey. He was for a troop drawdown at that time. So was his commander, General Abizaid, who was running CENTCOM out of Florida. And Don Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, thought it was time to start pulling people out of there. What would've happened in Iraq, in your judgment, if they'd had their way and the president had not gone forward with the surge?

MR. WOODWARD: You, you know, that's history, but again, I, I sat in the Oval Office four months ago and asked the president about this meeting and said, "You're saying to them, `You may send more troops.'" And he said, "Yeah. I think they got the message." And then I said, "Did you say to them, Rumsfeld, Don, General Casey, what's going on here? Your idea is too optimistic." And the president got kind of churlish and said, "Well, I don't remember my interchanges with these people." This story here is where the rubber meets the road between the commander and chief, who's the boss, and the secretary of defense and the commanding general. And there is this distance, odd detachment, time and time again, the failure to confront, the failure to deal with the reality.

Woodward’s answer is amusing but has even less to do with the question than McCaskill’s did (at least she mentioned Biden) although, to his credit, he used less than 800 words to not answer.

Now take a look at this exchange from the Gibson/Palin interview:

GIBSON: Let me talk a little bit about environmental policy, because this interfaces with energy policy and you have some significant differences with John McCain. Do you still believe that global warming is not man-made?

PALIN: I believe that man's activities certainly can be contributing to the issue of global warming, climate change. Here in Alaska, the only arctic state in our union, of course, we see the effects of climate change more so than any other area with ice pack melting. Regardless, though, of the reason for climate change, whether it's entirely, wholly caused by man's activities or is part of the cyclical nature of our planet -- the warming and the cooling trends -- regardless of that, John McCain and I agree that we gotta do something about it and we have to make sure that we're doing all we can to cut down on pollution.

GIBSON: But it's a critical point as to whether or not this is man-made. He says it is. You have said in the past it's not.

PALIN: The debate on that even, really has evolved into, OK, here's where we are now: scientists do show us that there are changes in climate. Things are getting warmer. Now what do we do about it. And John McCain and I are gonna be working on what we do about it.

GIBSON: Yes, but isn't it critical as to whether or not it's man-made, because what you do about it depends on whether its man-made.

PALIN: That is why I'm attributing some of man's activities to potentially causing some of the changes in the climate right now.

GIBSON: But I, color me a cynic, but I hear a little bit of change in your policy there. When you say, yes, now you're beginning to say it is man-made. It sounds to me like you're adapting your position to Sen. McCain's.

PALIN: I think you are a cynic because show me where I have ever said that there's absolute proof that nothing that man has ever conducted or engaged in has had any affect, or no affect, on climate change.

Clearly, Palin answered Gibson’s first question about this far more directly than McCaskill or Woodward answered the questions in my first two examples. Nonetheless, as neoneocon points out, Gibson pressed for a (different? more complete? more specific?) answer three more times. Similarly Gibson pressed Palin repeatedly about whether she was experienced enough and pressed her repeatedly and incorrectly about the “task from God” issue. If the interviews had been episodes of Law and Order, Jack McCoy would had to leap up every 60 seconds to cry, “Objection, Your Honor. Question has been asked and answered.”

Obviously I’ve presented a very small sample of non-Palin interviewees and it is certainly possible to come up with instances where a newsman has aggressively pressed a well-known interviewee. Overall, though, I believe it is generally true that newsmen let interviewees answer questions as they see fit, press them lightly if at all, and then let the viewers decide if the answer is adequate. I also believe that Gibson generally pressed Palin much more aggressively than is the norm.

I don’t, however, think there’s necessarily anything wrong with this, at least in Palin’s first interview or even first few interviews, although probably not for the reason most supporters of the full court press would offer up. The usual argument for pressing Palin more aggressively would probably go something like this: Palin does not have an established reputation among the media or among the voters; therefore it’s appropriate to press for more information from her than from interviewees with a more extensive national record. That argument is fine as far as it goes but I think it’s weak unless you can show footage of Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, for example, being pressed as hard as Palin in their early interviews.

A more believable explanation is that Palin is undergoing a hazing ritual. As far as the national media is concerned, Palin is a newbie: she hasn’t been in Congress; she hasn’t made a speech at a previous Republican National Convention; she isn’t from a well-known political family. To make matters worse, while the mainstream media didn’t even have her on their radar, much of the right-leaning blogosphere had been familiar with her for several months. In other words, Palin is looking to join the most elite fraternity on the planet and not only is she some little upstart nobody from nowhere, she’s the Sweetheart of Notta Iota Arugula, a bunch of crazy losers who may know keggers and toga parties but don’t have a clue about real news. The mainstream media tried being really rude to her but she was too stupid to take the hint and drop out of rush and they can’t just ignore her - she’s been proposed for membership by one of the most venerable and powerful among them. So she’s being initiated and if that initiation is a little more, shall we say, rigorous than usual, well, desperate times call for desperate measures.

A fraternity hazing ritual often demands the retrieval of specified objects. Failure to retrieve the objects may mean rejection by the fraternity but the objects themselves are not important; rather, it’s compliance with and bearing up under the initiation process itself that is the real test.

Similarly, in Gibson’s interview of Palin the substance of her answers would be important only if she failed to present any remotely reasonable response whatsoever. What’s really being tested is Palin’s willingness to submit to this ritual and her ability to take this kind of unusual media pressure and not lose her cool. A couple more go-rounds like this and I think she’ll have demonstrated that willingness and ability to everyone’s satisfaction while also staking out at least minimum positions (good or bad, weak or strong, informed or not) on a wide range of issues. At that point, I trust the media will begin giving her the kind of relatively detached, let the viewers judge for themselves interviews they give other politicians.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Afloat on a full sea

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224

I very much dislike three of the newer McCain ads: “Disrespectful”, “Education”, and “Lipstick”. The first two can be accessed from the McCain video gallery on YouTube. “Lipstick” has been taken down because CBS is claiming copyright infringement. It is no longer on YouTube and I cannot find it on the McCain campaign site, but I did find the script for it:

Script For "Lipstick" (WEB :35)

CHYRON: Sarah Palin On: Sarah Palin

GOVERNOR PALIN: Do you know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull: lipstick.

CHYRON: Barack Obama On: Sarah Palin

BARACK OBAMA: Well, you know, you can, you know you can...put...uh...lipstick on a pig...it's still a pig.

CHYRON: Katie Couric On: The Election

CBS' KATIE COURIC: One of the great lessons of that campaign is the continued and accepted role of sexism in American life.

CHYRON: Ready To Lead? No

Ready To Smear? Yes

I dislike “Lipstick” and “Disrespectful” because the McCain campaign should not be playing the sexism card. (Actually no one should be playing the sexism card, the racism card, or any other ism card.) To the extent that Palin’s appeal rests on the idea that she’s tough enough to stand on her own, anything that makes her look like she’s complaining about her treatment undercuts that appeal. What the campaign should be saying about Palin is not that she’s being beat up but that it doesn’t faze her. There’s a hint of that when “Disrespectful” talks about how Palin is proving them wrong every day but I still don’t like it. You don’t show that attacks don’t bother you by talking about them. As far as I can tell, Palin’s herself has not “whined” about the attacks on her. The campaign should take their cue from her.

The McCain campaign did an excellent job of pushing back on the truly egregious garbage that was thrown at Palin in the 7-10 days after McCain picked her. They shouldn’t squander the cultural capital they gained then by taking offense at statements that could be taken as sexist but could just as easily be taken as simply hard-ball politics.

Equally dangerous, aggrieved identity politics is the Democrats’ home turf. Remember, they’re the ones who managed to see racism in McCain’s ads about Hilton and Moses. They’re professionals in this field; Republicans are amateurs. McCain should not be giving any house room to the idea that being offended by tough attacks is an acceptable political strategy.

I hate the “Education” ad for a different reason. The first part of it, where the voice-over explains that Obama hasn’t done anything significant about educational issues is fine. But the whole riff about how his only accomplishment was a bill that teaches kindergartners about sex before they learn to read goes too far. Whether you agree with Fact Check that both the ad’s facts and its implications are erroneous or with Jim Geraghty that the ad is factually correct, it is - to use a technical term - icky. Even worse, it’s unconvincing. I don’t think any sane person who watches the ad will - however much they despise Obama - actually believe he supports teaching kindergartners about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. This means McCain is giving away moral stature by launching an arguably duplicitous ad that makes people mildly nauseous and he’s not getting any return from it because no one will buy the message.

I assume “Education” is designed to push back on the repeated claims that Sarah Palin supports abstinence-only sex education. I agree it’s important to push back on that inaccuracy but this ad was a bad way to do it. A less unpleasant way to get the point across would be to let the voice-over read some of the more off-the-wall claims and then run the CSPAN segment where Palin talks about her actual position in the 2006 Alaskan Republican Gubernatorial debate. That makes it clear that she’s not abstinence-only now and that she has not adjusted her thinking to make herself look more palatable because she’s running for Vice-President.

The bottom line on all these ads is that the tide is running in McCain’s favor. His campaign needs to realize they’ve ridden the “don’t slime Sarah” horse about as far as it can go. And they need to be very conscious of the fact that political hyperbole is fine but pushing it too far will backfire. (Talk about mixed metaphors...)

To cleanse the palate, there are two recent McCain ads I do like, both also available via the McCain video gallery on YouTube. One is “Fact Check”. This is the right way to push back on the Obama campaign trying to trash Palin: represent them as predators and point out how that approach by Obama contradicts his message of hope. As a bonus, Palin’s support for culling wolves by any means necessary implies who the victor will be in a matchup between Obama’s mercenaries and Palin.

Finally, I find “Stem Cell” (a radio ad) fascinating because it refers to McCain’s “Congressional allies”. This may be just because the ad is a joint venture of the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee. Or it may be that Congressional Republicans are starting to hope they might not be beaten like a rented mule in November after all.

The peasants are revolting

[With apologies to a very old Wizard of Id cartoon in which a minion runs into the palace shouting, “The peasants are revolting” and the King replies, “Oh, they’re not that bad.”]

On May 1, 2007, Oprah Winfrey endorsed Barack Obama for President. On September 8, 2007, she held a fundraiser for him at her home in Santa Barbara. In December of 2007, Winfrey appeared with Obama at a number of campaign rallies.

In January of 2008, ABC News posted a story headed:

Women Angry Over Oprah-Obama Campaign
Some Say Oprah is a "Traitor" for Endorsing Obama and not Clinton

The story itself quoted commenters on Winfrey’s site's message boards. According to ABC the reaction there seemed to be split about 50/50 with some of the commenters feeling betrayed and others supporting Winfrey’s decision - or at least her right to make that decision as she saw fit.

In April of 2008, a story on Politico claimed that Winfrey’s favorable ratings had dropped since her endorsement of Obama - and her unfavorable ratings had increased.

Now Winfrey has stated that she will not invite Sarah Palin to be a guest on her show until the election is over. After Drudge reported there was dissension among Winfrey’s staff about whether to have Palin on the show, Winfrey posted the following statement as an open thread on her website’s community board:

“The item in today’s Drudge Report is categorically untrue. There has been absolutely no discussion about having Sarah Palin on my show. At the beginning of this presidential campaign when I decided that I was going to take my first public stance in support of a candidate, I made the decision not to use my show as a platform for any of the candidates. I agree that Sarah Palin would be a fantastic interview, and I would love to have her on after the campaign is over.” – Oprah Winfrey, September 5, 2008

There are currently 6,773 comments in response to this statement. Based on my totally haphazard review of a handful of them, the breakdown looks close to that reported by ABC in January, maybe a 60/40 split between commenters who are either disappointed in or outraged about Winfrey’s decision and those who have no problem with it. Most of the disappointment and outrage seems to arise from the feeling that Winfrey has made her career and her fortune from women and therefore her refusal to have Palin as a guest is a slap in the face to women. Additionally, a few commenters accuse her of favoring her race over her gender. (I find this extremely sad - it is reminiscent of the idea that favoring blacks must mean disfavoring women and vice versa, a zero-sum view which dates back at least to the Civil War.) So it appears Winfrey has a gender problem and may have a race problem. Will she be able to recover?

I think she will. The election will be over on November 4 and Winfrey will then have more working room. She can invite Sarah Palin to her show; she can invite Todd Palin; she can invite Bristol Palin. Even more important, Winfrey can tell her audience her story about why she endorsed Obama and probably get them to understand. After all, this is what Winfrey does: she helps her audience empathize with people in difficult circumstances. She can point out quite truthfully that although Obama did appear on her show twice, those appearances were in January of 2005 and October of 2006, well before Obama announced his candidacy in February of 2007. She can talk to them about her roots in Chicago and her loyalty to her friends, the Obamas, and how much it hurt her when many of her viewers - the women she loves and who she thought loved her - abandoned her. She can lean heavily on how heartbreaking it was for her to not invite Sarah Palin given the similarities between their backgrounds: like Palin, Oprah won a beauty pageant; like Palin, Oprah studied communications in college. But, she can explain, she had vowed not to have candidates on her show and she had to keep that vow however much she might have wanted to have the whole wonderful Palin clan as guests. I think it will work.

To be clear, I don’t mean any of this cynically. I’ve probably watched a total of about 30 minutes of Oprah in my life but from the snippets I’ve seen and the stories I’ve read about her, her special gift seems to be that she can connect with her audience to an amazing extent. They believe she understands them, rejoices in their successes, empathizes with their failures, doesn’t judge them, and respects them and their lives. All she will be asking from them is that they return the favor.

So I believe Winfrey can overcome the gender problem and the race problem. However, her situation may get stickier if she ends up with a class problem.

According to an undated article:

The Oprah show is clearly the core of her business ... It's a mass-market megahit that appeals to the middle-aged, middlebrow audience that advertisers such as Procter & Gamble, Sears, and Wal-Mart are eager to reach.

I know what I’m reading on the Internet but I’m a Web junkie. What I don’t know is how much of what’s floating around out here is making it into the households of Winfrey’s audience. How many of her viewers are hearing people who support Obama refer to Sarah Palin - however they dress it up - as trash? Palin's hair, her glasses, her accent, her excessive childbearing, her birthing practices, her pregnant teenage daughter, her guns, her children’s names, her religion, her youngest daughter’s hair-grooming technique, her beauty contest scholarship, her college major, her multiple colleges, her small town, even her damning lack of European travel have all been subjected to the analysis of the progressive elite and found lacking. It’s painfully clear that far too many of the people who support Obama think women like Sarah Palin are hicks, rubes, hillbillies. In a word, revolting.

Yet if Winfrey’s viewers are “middlebrow” women who who shop at Sears and Wal-Mart and buy Procter & Gamble products to clean their own houses and do their own laundry, then a fair number of those viewers are an awful lot like Sarah Palin - or at least they believe they are. They probably like her hair and her glasses, think her children’s names are cute and Piper’s kitten-licking is adorable. They may wish they had the looks and the talent to earn a college scholarship in a beauty pageant and they admire Palin for getting her degree however many colleges it took. They know women who got pregnant before they got married (don’t we all) and they know teenage girls who got pregnant although the girls may not have chosen to continue the pregnancy. They think living in a small town with a large family sounds wonderful. They don’t believe going to Europe is an essential rite of passage and even if they don’t go to church themselves they think well of those who do. In other words, a good chunk of Winfrey’s audience may well watch her show while wearing the “I am Sarah Palin. Her story is my story.” T-shirt.

And if those viewers ever begin to wonder if Winfrey secretly thinks of them the way all those other Obama supporters think of Palin, then the Queen of Daytime Television could find herself with an uprising that all the heart-to-hearts in the world can’t quell.

Counting my chickens

As of today, John McCain is winning the popular vote, up 2.3 points.

At the same time, Barack Obama is winning the Electoral College, 259 to 247.

I know it’s early, I know these are just polls and leaners, I know much can - and almost certainly will - change between now and November 4. Nonetheless, given this post of mine from more than two months ago, I am putting up the sub-title I originally envisionsed (heh, heh) when I started this blog. It - like my blog name - is from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Firebrand, a retelling of the story of Kassandra of Troy.

Now I need to go take a couple of Motrin. I think I hurt my arm patting myself on the back.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Begala Canard

Last night on Charlie Rose*, Paul Begala claimed that John McCain had not vetted Sarah Palin properly because he "met her once two years ago and had one fifteen minute phone conversation with her. I wouldn't even have dinner with someone based on that."

Begala is - to put it as politely as possible - wrong. As the Washington Post reported McCain first met Palin at the National Governors Conference in February of 2008 (sometimes referred to as “this year”). They met privately, then spoke for about fifteen minutes at a social event. Palin’s name was on the list of possible Vice-Presidential candidates from that point on.

Similarly David Brooks of the New York Times talks about “[w]hen McCain met Sarah Palin last February”. (Brooks’ entire article, “What the Palin Pick Says”, is well worth reading. It provides a far more interesting explanation of McCain’s pick of Palin than most other accounts.)

If Begala had offered his snappy but inaccurate observation as part of a campaign speech or statement or if Obama or Biden had made it, it would still be untrue but I’d cut them some slack for taking political license. As part of what was supposed to be an “informed” “discussion about the 2008 Presidential Election”, it’s out of line. In that situation a little spin is to be expected but - as Senator Obama himself would say - “You can’t just make stuff up.”


* As I write this, the video is not yet up. I saw the show and the text of Begala’s statement can be found in the comment made by Scott A. Snyder on Thursday, September 11, at 11:24pm.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Once removed

For the first two week of September 2001, I was vacationing on a small island off the East Coast of the United States. We had neither radio nor television in our rental and we certainly never read the newspaper. We spent our days at the beach and unless we went out to dinner we wouldn’t exchange more than brief greetings and a casual comment about the beauty of the ocean with anyone else. If I hadn’t called my sister-in-law on the morning of September 11 to discuss what to get my brother - her husband - for his birthday I might not have heard about the World Trade Center for days.

But I did call and she told me the Towers had come down and there were rumors of an attack on Washington. I walked into the living room in shock and told my husband. We called the people we knew who worked in Manhattan and made sure they were okay. When the restaurants opened we went to lunch at a bar that had all the televisions tuned to news channels rather than to sports channels and talked about what to do. We considered going home early but decided to stay where we were. We went back to spending our days at the beach. We talked about what had happened and remarked on how even the little air traffic we normally heard had disappeared. On the way home we stopped at the pullout on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and looked at all the ship traffic. We saw a submarine heading out to sea.

The result of all this is that the events of September 11 have always been far less sharp for me than for most Americans. I wasn’t surprised by the news from an impersonal voice on the television or car radio. I didn’t hear about it at work surrounded by near strangers. I don’t have endless loops of the Towers coming down burned into my memory. The contrast between my experience of September 11 and the experience of my neighbors in Northeastern New Jersey is even greater, a yawning chasm.

A few years ago I visited Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey. It’s a largely outdoor sculpture garden and a wonderful place. They had bronzed and displayed a poem called “For the Children of the World Trade Center Victims” by BJ Ward. I read it. I cried.

The poem is available online as a pdf here.