The old John McCain returns

A couple of posts ago, I was critical of the McCain campaign for the tone of its rallies, and worried about what it might lead to. Fairness requires me to note the following, which took place in Lakeville, Minnesota:

He acknowledges the "energy" people have been showing at rallies, and how glad he is that people are excited. But, he says, "I respect Sen. Obama and his accomplishments." People booed at the mention of his name. McCain, visibly angry, stopped them: "I want EVERYONE to be respectful, and lets make sure we are."

The very next questioner tried to push back on this request, noting that he needed to "tell the American the TRUTH about Barack Obama" -- a not very subtle way, I think, to ask John McCain to NOT tell the truth about Barack Obama. McCain told her there's a "difference between record and rhetoric, and I plan to talk about his record, respectfully… I don't mean that has to reduce your ferocity, I just mean it has to be respectful."

And then later, again, someone dangled a great big piece of low-hanging fruit in front of McCain: "I'm scared to bring up my child in a world where Barack Obama is president."

McCain replies, "Well, I don't want him to be president, either. I wouldn't be running if I did. But," and he pauses for emphasis, "you don't have to be scared to have him be President of the United States." A round of boos.

And he snaps back: "Well, obviously I think I'd be better. "


UPDATE: Indeed, he just snatched the microphone out the hands of a woman who began her question with, "I'm scared of Barack Obama… he's an Arab terrorist…"

"No, no ma'am," he interrupted. "He's a decent family man with whom I happen to have some disagreements."

Good on ya, Senator McCain. Now let's see if your running mate gets the message, too.

Listening in

CNN reports that Congress is investigating charges that the NSA, as part of a program designed to monitor terrorist suspects, engaged in illegal wiretapping of American citizens overseas, including military officers in Iraq (as always, all emphases are mine):

The congressional oversight committees said Thursday that the Americans targeted included military officers in Iraq who called friends and family in the United States.

The allegations were made by two former military intercept operators on a television news report Thursday evening.

A terrorist surveillance program instituted by the Bush administration allows the intelligence community to monitor phone calls between the United States and overseas without a court order -- as long as one party to the call is a terror suspect.

Adrienne Kinne, a former U.S. Army Reserves Arab linguist, told ABC News the NSAwas listening to the phone calls of U.S. military officers, journalists and aid workersoverseas who were talking about "personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism."

Disgusting. The calls monitored included deeply personal calls to wives and girlfriends, and apparently, when some personnel complained, they were told to shut up and keep listening:

David Murfee Faulk, a former U.S. Navy Arab linguist, said in the news report that he and his colleagues were listening to the conversations of military officers in Iraq who were talking with their spouses or girlfriends in the United States.

According to Faulk, they would often share the contents of some of the more salacious calls stored on their computers, listening to what he called "phone sex" and "pillow talk."

Both Kinne and Faulk worked at the NSA listening facility at Fort Gordon, Georgia. They told ABC that when linguists complained to supervisors about eavesdropping on personal conversations, they were ordered to continue transcribing the calls.

So this is how the Bush Administration treats the men it repeatedly refers to as "heroes." This presidency can't end fast enough to suit me. I can't wait to see the indictments that the Obama Administration will start handing down on January 21.

A chill wind

It is no exaggeration to say that today was an abysmal day for the economy. A 678-point, 7.3% drop in the Dow is nothing to sneeze at. It's too early to say whether this signifies the beginning of another Great Depression, but it is worth remembering what the last one led to, both politically and militarily. We have much to fear, and little to be optimistic about. Historians love to argue, but it would be difficult to find one who would not admit that at the very least, the Great Depression contributed to both the rise of extremist politics and the world war to which they led.

In terms of the latter, we are in a far worse position than we were in 1939-1941, when we sat isolated between the Atlantic and the Pacific, and were at peace with the world. We have been engaged in a bloody and protracted occupation of a country, Iraq, where insurgents have often moved around the cities and countryside with far greater impunity than our own soldiers. After five long and terrible years, we are at the point of hoping only for enough stability for Iraq's government to take responsibility for security long enough to permit us a graceful exit.

With a resurgent Russia no longer willing to be a bystander in the affairs of its "near abroad," a nuclear-armed Pakistan tottering on the brink of Islamic revolution, and a nominally Communist China asserting its economic might and demonstrating its technological prowess by moving into the exploration of space, we must be cognizant of the fact that with our economy in a shambles, we can no longer pretend to be the world's only superpower. We now live in an interconnected and multipolar world.

With respect to the political sphere, we are but a few weeks away from a national election, and if anything we have more to fear politically than we do militarily. Consider the following:

Item: The administration currently in power has permitted, even encouraged, the use of torture, and failed miserably to protect basic rights guaranteed to Americans by the Constitution (I have written more about this subject here.)

Item: The U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team has been redeployed within the U.S.:

They may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control or to deal with potentially horrific scenarios such as massive poisoning and chaos in response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive, or CBRNE, attack.Training for homeland scenarios has already begun at Fort Stewart and includes specialty tasks such as knowing how to use the "jaws of life" to extract a person from a mangled vehicle; extra medical training for a CBRNE incident; and working with U.S. Forestry Service experts on how to go in with chainsaws and cut and clear trees to clear a road or area…

The 1st BCT's soldiers also will learn how to use "the first ever nonlethal package that the Army has fielded," 1st BCT commander Col. Roger Cloutier said, referring to crowd and traffic control equipment and nonlethal weapons designed to subdue unruly or dangerous individuals without killing them.

The package is for use only in war-zone operations, not for any domestic purpose.

Or so they say.

Item:The current vice-presidential candidate of the party in power has implied that the presidential candidate of the opposing party is a terrorist sympathizer, and stated in her acceptance speech, "Al-Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America …he's worried that someone won't read them their rights?" (emphasis mine)

Item:The same candidate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, implied, in a misquote of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that women who don't support her are going to hell.("There's a special place in Hell reserved for women who don't support other women.")

Item:The GOP presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, has abandoned all pretense of conservatism in favor of an erratic populism that in its promising of huge rewards for no cost resembles nothing so much as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny . Case in point: his plan for the government to buy up bad mortgages directly at face value.

Item:Writer Christopher Hitchens, who was once a Trotskyist but now embraces a more "conservative" world view, is now on record as saying that America's only worthy institution is the military:

In addition to exhibiting extraordinary efficiency and, most especially under the generalship of David Petraeus, performing some great feats of arms and ingenuity, the American armed forces manifest all the professionalism and integrity that our rulers and oligarchs lack. Who was it who the stricken inhabitants of New Orleans and later of the Texas coastline yearned to see? Who was it who informed the blithering and dithering idiots at FEMA that they could have as many troops as they could remember to ask for, even as volunteers were embarking for Afghanistan and Iraq? What is one of the main engines of integration for blacks and immigrants, as well as one of the finest providers of education and training for those whom the system had previously failed?

Ah, yes. Can't blame the military for anything, they're perfectly honorable, decent, and capable. It's just that the civilian leadership has let them down, stabbed them in the back as it were. Seems I've heard that song before.

Item: At a rally in Florida, Gov. Palin criticizes Barack Obama as a friend of terrorists, when someone in the crowd calls out "kill him!" 1(, nor does she denounce this outburst, and instead continues her speech.

Taken one at a time, with the exception of the first two items, all these things are explainable as the sort of silliness and drama that normally takes place on the campaign trail. But in a situation like the one we are in today, with the economy imploding and the public's fears at a high level, one needs to be cautious. History shows that economic dislocation can lead to political extremism and governmental upheaval, and those who think that we are somehow immune to such things are sadly mistaken. We've had plenty of homegrown extremists--just look at Huey Long, William Pelley, and Father Coughlin.

I don't really believe that this is what McCain and Palin are aiming towards. At least I hope not. But to the extent that they are tapping into dark forces that they don't really understand and ultimately can't control, they should be more careful. Sinclair Lewis once said that "when Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." His book, It Can't Happen Here, is eerily prescient when read in this age of the so-called Patriot Act, indefinite detention and extraordinary rendition. It should be mandatory reading.

As we approach Election Day, there's a chill wind blowing. Let's try to make sure we don't reap the whirlwind.

  1. Palin does not react

Profile of a voter

Conor Friedersdorf is asking people to send in election news from their neighborhoods.The latest oneis too depressing for words:

I am a third year law student here in Columbus, Ohio, the capitol of Buckeye Nation. My wife and I have lived here for the past four years, but we were both born Midwesterners, me, in Indiana and my wife, in Akron, Ohio. We live in the northern suburbs of Columbus, just south of Delaware County, one of the fastest growing counties in the US, and a GOP stronghold.

I work in a law office for a Fortune 500 Insurance company and it is a very conservative office. Everyone there loves Palin, including a life-long Democrat secretary who despises Obama. Several of the attorneys have attended McCain and Palin rallies here in Ohio. This Brooks/Krauthammer/Will-type elite derision of Palin just does not resonate with GOPers here, even with bright white-collar professionals (not that blue-collar equals dim!). I've heard several of them say, she understands us, she is like us, she gets where we are coming from.

Interesting. White-collar Midwestern attorneys say Palin "is like us." Another excerpt (emphasis mine):

My neighbor and his wife are United Food and Commerical Workers union members and they are McCain folks, mostly because they still think Obama is a Muslim, as do my other neighbors.

Repeat after me, folks: Obama is not a Muslim . Last time I checked, Obama belonged to the United Church of Christ, a rather liberal Protestant denomination. I suspect the fact of his middle name being Hussein has something to do with the misconception, regardless of the fact that he was named after his father, who left early on. His middle name is Hussein, so he must be a Muslim. Either that, or his childhood years in Indonesia when he was sent to a Muslim school are the reason. By that reasoning, my middle name is Edward (like King Edward VIII) and I was sent to a non-religious public school, so I must be atheist (or at least agnostic) British royalty (boy, would that come as a surprise to my priest). Anyway, back to the poster:

Speaking for myself, I was originally attracted to Obama's seeming embrace of George H.W. Bush's foreign policy. My heart lept at a possible return to realism! Since then, I must admit, I am incredibly taken with the Palin pick. No, she may not be at 100%, but dammit, she does understand us. She's worked in a factory, lacked health insurance, and is worried about paying for her kids' college tuition.* People here are loving that, including myself.

OK. I know I'm in the minority here, but I don't give a tinker's damn whether or not a President, or a Vice President, "understands me." I don't care whether or not he (or she) knows what it's like to be a Californian, to have grown up in a single-parent household, to have been an adult re-entry student at a university, or to have changed one's religious affiliation. I don't care if he knows what it's like to be underpaid. I don't care if he knows what it's like to have worked in a fast-food restaurant. I don't care if he knows what it's like to drive a pickup truck with 200,000 miles on it. I don't care if he knows what it's like to do or be anything I've done or been in my life.

What I do care about is whether or not he's intellligent and thoughtful--preferably, far more intelligent and thoughtful than I. I would like him to know something about the world, and to have the good sense to surround himself with the best advisers possible. I want him to be cool and calm, and not react to potential threats, whether terrorist attacks or intercontinental ballistic missiles, on the basis of emotion or misplaced religious zeal. I would be delighted if he had some experience of the world outside the U.S., because the one area in which the President has the field pretty much to himself is the area of foreign policy. I wouldn't choose a brain surgeon on the basis of whether or not he understood me, nor would I choose the pilot of a plane on which I was about to fly on that basis. Why would I choose a President or Vice President that way?

(Postscript: I seriously doubt the Palins have to worry too much about paying for their kids' college education.)

A lovely morning

I looked online this morning to see what reaction was to the debate last night. Not much news there, but boy oh boy was there economic news:

The Fed is announcing an emergency rate cut, the British government is partially nationalizing some of the biggest banks in the UK, the Tokyo market crashed overnight, Russia shut down its stock exchanges for the rest of the week, and Iceland's currency has collapsed.

It's going to be an interesting day.

Late Show debate highlights

Let this be a lesson to John McCain: never, ever p*ss off David Letterman.

Debate postscript

Something to think about, from Conor Friedsdorf:

I ask the following of everyone who watched tonight's debate--were John McCain assassinated at his inauguration by terrorists, even as two American cities saw buildings partially blown up by truck bombs, and Vladimir Putin used the opportunity to move troops into a former Soviet Republic, would you trust that Governor Palin would have the knowledge, credibility, bearing and calming influence on the country to handle the situation? Or would having her in the Oval Office freak you out in a deep way?

Personally, it would freak me out. What say you?

Sarah Palin, news hawk

Wow. Republican vice-presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska reads every newspaper and magazine. In her own words, "all of them." Unfortunately, she can't name any of them.

Here's a transcript of the relevant part:

COURIC: And when it comes to establishing your world view, I was curious--what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?

PALIN: I've read most of them again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media --

COURIC: But what ones specifically? I'm curious.

PALIN: Um, all of 'em, any of 'em that, um, have been in front of me over all these years.

COURIC: Can you name a few?

PALIN: I have a vast variety of sources…

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. My own reading runs the gamut. I read the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times daily, the Economist weekly, and everything from National Review Online to the Socialist Worker as the mood strikes. Internationally, I view the BBC News website, the Sydney Morning Herald online (occasionally), and anything else that will bring me information. I got in the habit of reading the South China Morning Post in the runup to Britain's handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and Google News gives a nice overview of various English-language news sources from around the world. The fact that I appear to be more widely read and better-informed than the GOP nominee for the nation's second highest post quite frankly frightens the hell out of me.

Perhaps the only more frightening thing is that John McCain claims to have turned to her for advice "many times in the past." God help us all.

The best-laid plans

I was working on a post about the imminent passage of the bailout package when the news came that the deal is in serious danger of falling apart. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the President's own party that seems to be the one torpedoing the deal, fearing that it is leading to socialism.

I suppose it's only appropriate. After all, the first Great Depression happened under a Republican president, Calvin Coolidge. If the second one happens under Bush, the GOP will be two for two.

Ironically, if the economy does completely collapse, it will probably usher in an era of socialism faster than anything else could. Norman Thomas must be enjoying the show, wherever he is.

Fin de siècle

After several tumultuous days, it is now becoming fairly obvious that Congress will pass some form of bailout packagefor Wall Street, despite widespread public opposition. What this means is that a Republican administration is about to take part in the most dramatic economic intervention in U.S. history, one that flies in the face of traditional conservative economics, and which bears more than a little resemblance to European-style Social Democratic norms.

It also means we are seeing the definitive end of the Reagan era and its policies, which tended to favor free-market forces over government regulation. This is, perhaps, as it should be. Ronald Reagan was first elected in 1980, which was 28 years ago. The policies espoused by President Reagan in 1980 are no more suited to today's conditions than the policies of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 would have been to the conditions of 1980--or the policies of Calvin Coolidge in 1924 would have been to Ike's time.

In short, we have reached the end of an era. The question now is simple: what will the next era look like?

There are no easy answers, particularly six weeks before a presidential election. There are a lot of things that can change between now and Election Day, both in the political world and in the world of Wall Street. To answer the question requires that we first take a look at two lessons that we have learned, somewhat painfully, in the last several days.

The first lesson is that free markets cannot be trusted to regulate themselves, because human nature, and therefore human greed, has not changed. It's like leaving children alone in the house with a box of chocolates on the coffee table, and expecting them to eat their broccoli. Without oversight, you will continue to see bad decisions being made by people who should know better, because they cannot help themselves in the face of so much money (this, by the way, is also an excellent argument for making sure that congressional oversight is built into any bailout plan). Our first task, therefore, is to figure out a way to guard against the greed.

The second lesson is that the government will always step in to prevent disaster, because it is in the public interest to do so, the alternative possibly being Great Depression II. What this means in the short term is that we will bail out the same people who were carrrying money away in buckets when times were good. This will require government money--i.e., our tax dollars--to be spent on companies that pocketed literally billions of dollars. Since the public will be subsidizing the losses, a way should be found for the public to benefit from any profits that may later arise as a result of the bailout, as otherwise we have privatized the profits but socialized the risk.