Monday, March 31, 2008

Anybody But Gore

We need a fifty-first state and we need it now. It doesn’t matter how we do it. Add Puerto Rico or Guam, take on Saskatchewan, or buy Guadeloupe from the French. Carve West Virginia in half and create the state of East West Virginia. Annex the Moon and give it three electoral votes. I don't care as long as someone promises to hold a primary election next week. Because really, if we have to wait three more weeks for Pennsylvania to go to the polls, we're all going to go crazy.

The best evidence of this impending lunacy is the suggestion, which has received a staggering amount of airtime this week, that the Democrats should simply abandon both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and ask Al Gore to accept their presidential nomination. Al Gore! The man has already won a Nobel, an Oscar, a Grammy, and probably the Publishers' Clearinghouse grand prize. And now we want to give him the keys to the White House? Let's just award him the Stanley Cup while we're at it.

Seriously, though, this is truly a bad idea, the sort that only comes to you after your fifth beer or when you have a cable talk show and you've run out of things to discuss. Shall we start with the obvious point? What sort of reaction would the Democratic Party generate were they to dismiss both of their history making candidates in favor of an aging white guy who already failed in his two previous bids for the presidency? What would the slogan be? How about, "Al Gore: Because History Can Wait".

Also, isn't this supposed to be a "change" election? I know Hillary's husband was once president, but at least she is relatively new to public office and her gender does set her apart from all previous viable candidates. But how can we have a change election, an election about washing the foul taste of the past eight years out of our mouths, if our only choices are the two guys that George W. Bush beat back in 2000.

And it's not as though the media ever stopped holding Al Gore in contempt. If anything, his success away from politics has only made the bullying pundits angrier. Even today, we are still periodically treated to the hackneyed (and untrue) story about Gore claiming to have invented the internet. Do you really want to go through all that again during the most important election of our lifetime? Just let candidate Gore say that he ordered the filet mignon when it was really the T-bone, and the media dam will burst with all the old chestnuts about Al the serial exaggerator, the man with the weird penchant for making things up. After all, the guy even thinks he invented the freaking internet!

There's another thing, too, something that people forget now that Al Gore is a multimedia superstar. As a political candidate, he absolutely sucks. He ran as the incumbent party's nominee during a time of peace and prosperity and he lost. He faced off against a callow, ignorant, part-time politician who could barely form a coherent sentence and he finished second. He even managed to win the election but somehow screwed that up.

Did we mention that Al Gore once had the chance to select from hundreds of brilliant, charismatic, loyal Democrats to serve as his running mate and instead opted for Joe Lieberman. Not only did Lieberman bring his tiresome national nag act to the campaign trail, but he managed to do something that had previously been considered impossible: he actually lost a debate to Dick Cheney. And when the party needed him to fight for them in the noise and corruption of the disputed Florida results, Lieberman high-tailed it out of town, desperate to protect his own presidential viability for 2004 even if that meant allowing George Bush to seize a victory he did not earn.

Of course, the same could be said of Gore. As soon as the networks—not coincidentally led by Fox—prematurely declared Bush the winner, the Democratic nominee hopped into his limo all ready to concede. It took a phone call from his Florida operatives to persuade him to wait until the actual votes were tallied. And even after various recounts showed him gaining on his rival in the Sunshine State, Gore's phlegmatic approach to the whole process seemed both weak and petulant. Despite the fact that he probably did win Florida, and thus the election, he became Sore Loserman.

But that's not the worst of it. The worst of it was that either his ego prevented him from running on the highly popular Clinton record, or his political instincts were so bad that he actually believed all that crap about "Clinton Fatigue". Indeed, the choice of Lieberman represented an explicit attempt to distance himself from his boss, Lieberman having delivered a famous (and characteristically sanctimonious) speech criticizing Bill Clinton for his dalliance with Monica during that critical time when the Republicans were attempting their coup-by-sex-scandal.

Gore's refusal to embrace the Clinton presidency left him open to GOP charges that he was a tax and spend liberal in the Mondale/Dukakis mold. It also deprived him of the most salient argument in his own favor. The election of 2000 was most decidedly not a change election until Al Gore stupidly made it into one. And once that happened, Bush's line about compassionate conservatism trumped his opponent's rambling musings about Social Security lockboxes. In the big scheme of things, Gore is far more responsible than Ralph Nader for the ruinous Bush presidency.

So far, at least, the Draft Gore movement does not appear to be picking up any steam. Maybe it exists only in the fevered minds of cable TV anchors desperate to put some excitement back into a Democratic campaign held in suspended animation by the currently empty political calendar. But any Democrat who would seriously entertain this possibility might just as well avoid the middle man and send her contributions directly to the McCain for President campaign.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

When Cynics Fall in Love

Political reporters are among the most cynical people on the planet. They have to be. Their careers consist largely of parsing the self-serving words of preternaturally ambitious politicians who lie without embarrassment. They watch ideologies blur and positions change as even the most respectable public servants calculate which positions will help them secure re-election. Too often, Washington journalists find themselves covering powerful men and women whose venality, ignorance, and bigotry can never be fully revealed to their constituents, who, in most cases, would simply accuse the messenger of partisan bias anyhow.

Astute observers of the political scene often accuse the D.C. press corps of treating government and serious public policy choices as a game, emphasizing winners and losers rather than the impact legislation has on the real lives of real people. The problem, of course, is that the politicians themselves never stop playing, and most of their actions involve trying to gain some sort of advantage over their opponents, both intramural and extramural. How, for example, is it possible to cover the Obama-Clinton Democratic presidential contest, a battle between ideological soulmates, as anything other than a horserace?

And it's not as though the American people do much to spur political journalists to greater and more enlightening insights. Long discussions of public policy cause most voters to reach for their channel changers. Fox News, which specializes in dumbed-down coverage, quickie sound bites, and non-substantive stimulation, blew CNN out of the ratings water after less than a decade on the air. CNN, which was never exactly the New York Times to begin with, has responded with its own edgy shows that reduce the news to ranting argument and titillation. No real journalist wants to share the airwaves (or the cable tubes) with carnival barkers like Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck, but they prefer it to unemployment.

Still, I am convinced that most political reporters, even more than most politicians, got into the business because they once cared deeply about public policy. They started at small newspapers in insignificant cities where they encountered local government types who cared as much as they did. They interviewed school board members whose own children were in the system, city councilwomen who took calls from constituents at all hours of the day and night, and took pride in their ability to fix potholes and beautify failing neighborhoods. Sure, these rookie journalists also met the local conmen and the drunken incompetents, but they nevertheless saw firsthand how government could effect change for the benefit of its citizens.

If these reporters were good enough, they eventually made their way to the larger urban dailies (or to their big city TV equivalents) where they began to cover politicians of statewide and even national stature. No doubt they expected these people to be smarter, more energetic versions of the local officials they had once covered in Podunk, Iowa. What they often found instead were cynical men and women for whom politics was not a calling, but a path to personal glory. Detached from the everyday lives of the people they served, these governors or senators or presidential candidates inhabited a world where power and ambition corrupt equally, and nothing matters other than who wins and who loses.

To survive, to cover these self-important people and their petty games on a daily basis, it was necessary for the reporters themselves to adopt a veil of cynicism. Imagine a job in which the norm is that everyone you encounter is trying to spin you and nobody tells you what they really think. What must it be like to leave a congressman's office only to watch three lobbyists enter by the side door, and knowing that, in all likelihood, the lobbyists will get what they want? It's not as though we send corrupt people to Washington; rather, we send strivers and high achievers who will do whatever it takes to hold their position or to climb up the ladder. While many of us understand this on a theoretical level, for the political journalist it is a persistent fact of life.

Still, buried beneath layers of practiced cynicism and ennui masquerading as objectivity, the idealist remains. Reporters may swear off political romance, but love sometimes takes them by surprise regardless. Surrounded by professional liars, they crave authenticity. Overwhelmed by men and women who can't decide where to have dinner without convening a focus group, they are drawn to the very few who are willing to risk it all for a higher cause.

They despise the Clintons because Bill, a talented young governor who swept into Washington in a wave of hope, let them down in so many ways. They flirted with Barack Obama—even jaded reporters can be inspired—but are increasingly put off by his industrial strength ambition and the ideological emptiness at the core of so much of his eloquence. Political reporters almost certainly develop an aversion to those who have been running for president since they were in second grade, and Bill, Hillary, and Barack all fall clearly into that category.

John McCain, on the other hand, had a life before politics (and not just 15 minutes before, Obama fans). He put himself on the line as a young man in the most serious manner possible and endured horrors that few of us could imagine. Perhaps even more important, he speaks frankly and directly with the press corps, even when explaining his regular pattern of flip-flopping on the issues.

The reporters, in turn, have fallen in love. Here, at last, is a man who has paid his dues in blood. Even the cynical are subject to the pull of hero-worship and McCain plays to that by allowing them to share in his persona, to feel more invigorated and macho as they bask in the glow of his bravery. And he doesn't insult their intelligence with risible talking points and perpetual spin. He embraces his political duplicity and lets the media in on his dirty little secrets.

From all appearances, John McCain would be a terrible president. He is ignorant on domestic matters, bellicose in foreign policy, and evidently prone to volcanic anger. At best, he would be Ronald Reagan, a realist conservative who could occasionally buck the will of his ideologically fanatical advisers. At worst, he would be George W. Bush, too intellectually lazy to do any more than rubber stamp the harebrained schemes of whichever aide could best play to his vanity and need for manly affirmation. Reagan was a bad president; Bush is an unqualified disaster.

But don't expect a fair fight in the coming election. When reporters don't respect you (Dukakis, Gore, Kerry), you start at a significant disadvantage. But when they've fallen in love with your opponent, you are fighting an uphill battle that makes Everest look like a pitcher's mound.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

It's Silly Season!

Campaigns ought to end the way trials do: as soon as the prosecution and defense rest, we hand the whole thing over to the jury, regardless of whether two, twenty, or two hundred days have passed. At some point, candidates should simply admit that they've run out of arguments and then immediately let the voters decide. Instead, we must wait for some arbitrary date on the calendar before we pass out the ballots, and politicians, like local anchors on a slow news day, must find some way to fill the allotted time.

As a result, every highly publicized campaign eventually reaches Silly Season, that moment after all plausible arguments have been made and all serious charges have been leveled. Unfortunately, presidential primaries bring out the worst in politicians because the actual policy differences between them are usually so slight. Our electoral system almost guarantees truly distinctive characters—Dennis Kucinich, say, or Ron Paul—an early appointment with oblivion, leaving us with choices between people like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, whose real differences are difficult to identify.

Seriously: name any issue in the current Democratic contest and describe in ten words or less how Clinton's views differ from those of Obama. You probably can't do it, at least not in ten words. You would need entire paragraphs to sort out what Al Haig used to call nuance-al distinctions between these two mainstream liberals. They're both pro choice and anti-war. They favor a similarly timid approach to reforming health care, they each want to cut taxes for the middle class, and neither one is willing to take sides in the immigration debate, except to suggest that we must simultaneously close our borders, step up enforcement, and help those who are here illegally to obtain citizenship, so long as they pay a gratuitous fine and write "I will not sneak into your country" 500 times on a blackboard (haven't these people heard of Power Point?).

Given few policy differences to work with, the campaigns quickly moved into a discussion of two factors that bear at least some relationship to voters' choices: experience and electability. Hillary Clinton claimed that eight years as her husband's consigliore qualify her to inherit the family franchise. Barack Obama responded that only he can inspire and mobilize enough new voters to secure a solid victory over the Republicans in November. Clinton defended her high negatives and suggested that her opponent was unseasoned. Obama repeatedly hammered his colleague for her vote authorizing President Bush's war with Iraq. Obama pledged to change things; Clinton promised to change things back.

All of these are reasonable bases for decision making, though they do force voters to speculate over issues about which they have little expertise. Other than actually being president, what truly prepares a person to sit in the Oval Office? Hell if I know. Without knowing what will happen between now and September, how can we really tell which contender has the better chance of beating John McCain in the general election? The last time Democrats worried about electability, they saddled themselves with John Kerry. The last time the country decided that executive experience was a singular qualification for the presidency, they sort-of elected George W. Bush.

Regardless, the debates between Clinton and Obama on the issues of qualifications and viability were played out weeks ago. By now, we all know that Barack Obama went into the United States Senate directly from junior high school and that Hillary Clinton has spoken with every significant foreign leader since Archduke Ferdinand. We are painfully aware that Senator Clinton's negative ratings stand at 102% (deep down, she even hates herself), and that Senator Obama will not only bring a generation of nipple-pierced slackers to polls, his charisma and eloquence will even raise the dead from their graves to support the Democratic ticket in 2008 (the man does hail from Chicago, after all). Clinton is more experienced and Obama is more electable; we get it.

This would, therefore, be an excellent time to take this case to the jury. But that's not the way our system works. Instead, we still must hear from Pennsylvania, Oregon, and about ten other states that couldn't rouse their legislators to move their primaries to Super Tuesday along with everyone else. To make matters worse, the Democratic race is—despite what Obama's supporters desperately want you to believe—a virtual tie. Obama's delegate lead gives him a strong edge, of course, but a Clinton sweep of most or all of the remaining races would make it hard to deny her the nomination without hanging a big sign on the front gate of the White House reading, "No Girlz Allowed". Obamamaniacs may bemoan the power of the Super Delegates, but their candidate, as well as Clinton, will nevertheless need some of their Super Votes in order to leave Denver as the Democratic standard bearer.

So we continue to continue, forcing us into an extended version of Silly Season. Issues recede, and minutia presides. Clinton works to remind voters that while she's sure her opponent loves his country at least as much as—oh, say—Jane Fonda, his former pastor said some rather incendiary things that now make Obama radioactive. The Obama campaign pounces on a trivial Clinton exaggeration about taking sniper fire in Bosnia and blows it up into the biggest political lie since Dick Nixon was reunited with Checkers. Serious pundits talk grimly of how all of these monumental gaffes threaten the Democrats' chances of beating a man who can't even distinguish between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, a far more serious lapse than Hillary's Tales from the Combat Zone.

It will not get better any time soon. Thanks indirectly to Margaret Soltan (a link that led to a link), I found this "record of exaggerations and misstatements" by Barack Obama on Apparently, according to his rival, Senator Obama once claimed to have "put Illinois on a path to universal [health] coverage" when in fact he had only sponsored a bill to create a task force! Quite damaging, though I suppose, to borrow from Hillary's husband, it depends on what your definition of "path" is. Technically, when you merge onto the San Bernardino Freeway in Los Angeles, you have put your car on a path to New Orleans, that path being Interstate 10. So Obama wasn't necessarily lying, even if it's likely that his scheme to insure all Illinoisans will break down, as I once did, somewhere outside Lordsburg, New Mexico. (Oh, calm down. Unlike President Bush, I only torture analogies.)

Another charge hurled by the Clinton campaign involves Obama's use of the title "law professor" when he is, in fact, only a Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. Says the website: "In academia, there is a vast difference between the two titles. Details matter. In academia, there's a significant difference: professors have tenure while lecturers do not."

Well, actually in academia, there are three levels of professors, only two of which usually enjoy tenure, but why get bogged down in details that don't, uh, matter. Besides, in academia, grownups with Ph.D.s routinely complain because their colleagues were given slightly bigger offices, so perhaps we're not the best group to use when making a point. In any event, the U of C now says that Obama is within his rights to call himself a professor, since all instructors are addressed as Professor even when they're not professors. Or something like that.

Finally, and this is my personal favorite, the Clinton campaign catches Senator Obama lying about his own conception. Evidently, Obama once told an audience that his parents were able to unite only as a result of Dr. King's march from Selma to Montgomery, which, it turns out, occurred several years after the senator's birth. If a man cannot speak truthfully about his own fetus-hood, how can we possibly trust him with THE BUTTON. (Hillary's disadvantage here is that we have video directly contradicting her story of sniper fire in Bosnia; we do not, Praise the Lord, have film of Barack Obama's conception.)

So I guess I really have no bigger point to make today. Just that it's Silly Season. We'll be over it soon, and all the cable TV gasbags can stop wringing their hands. It happens every four years. It's really no big deal.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Guns Don't Kill People, But Bad Ideas Might

Many years ago, I supported very strong—even confiscatory—gun control laws. If you grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s, you understood the power of firearms to equalize the battle between good and evil, often in favor of the latter. JFK. Bobby. Dr. King. Even George Wallace, a generally unappealing character back in 1972, but nevertheless an undeserving target of attempted murder. Gerald Ford, that most benign and inconsequential of presidents, found himself nearly victimized by two gun-toting women in two California cities in less than a month in 1975.

And then there was the crime. Thugs with guns never really threatened most Americans, but they dominated our fears, much as they do today. The botched robbery, the violence of street gangs, and the cold-blooded slaying just started to become staples of the local news during that era. Gun control laws were, as a result, generally quite popular, with large majorities favoring the banning of at least some types of weapons (typically handguns).

Over time, my views changed, though not because the danger ebbed. Sure, the crime rate fell during the 1980s and 1990s, but it would have been difficult to tell that from watching television, which continued to feed us a steady diet of homicide each evening. Besides, I never really felt all that vulnerable in a personal sense.

Instead, my change of heart resulted from a desire to reconcile my generally civil libertarian views with a reflexive distrust of gun owners and their political allies. The liberal argument in favor of gun control is not unlike the conservative plea for strengthening the government's hand in the battle against terrorism. Regardless of the Bush Administration's true motives, the case for domestic surveillance and warrantless wiretaps is based on the premise that protection of life sometimes justifies reductions in liberty. Proponents of restricting access to firearms take more or less the same position.

Eventually, I came to realize that I couldn't have it both ways. Strict, confiscatory gun control would almost certainly make us safer. But so would the imposition of a police state, permitting the authorities to monitor our every move and allowing the police to search people and property at the slightest whim. Freedom is a risky business, always has been, and if I have the right to turn away law enforcement when they come to my doorstep, then why shouldn't Jim Bob the gun nut enjoy that same privilege. We are after all, both innocent, law abiding citizens, even if Jim Bob has a soft spot in his heart for David Koresh and the Michigan Militia.

I'm intentionally being a little obnoxious here. Millions of firearm owners have no interest in building an arsenal, do not consider Janet Reno the Antichrist, and fully comprehend that Hillary Clinton didn't kill Vince Foster. Still, take my word for the fact that many vocal opponents of gun control make for terrible ideological allies. They can, on the one hand, defend their rights in the most libertarian tones, yet turn around and propound a naïve, anything goes philosophy in the war against terrorism. They claim that citizen ownership of weapons is a necessary bulwark against government tyranny just before lending their support to some of Washington's most tyrannical misdeeds. Many adorn their bumper with decals lauding "NRA Freedom" and then climb into the car wearing a "Club Gitmo" t-shirt.

And all too many, including some in positions of power, actually do their best to conform fully to the title of "gun nut". At some point, the rational argument in favor of weapons for the innocent becomes detached from all common sense, and guns, rather than being a tool, start to become an unqualified good in and of themselves, the solution to every problem. Not too long ago, I wrote of some startlingly unwise efforts to arm college professors as a way to deal with what remain very rare instances of violence on university campuses. The controversial right-wing social scientist John Lott once wrote a book called, "More Guns, Less Crime", a notion that must seem laughable to the gun-free, low-violence countries of Europe, as well as our own neighbors to the immediate north (a gun crime would lead a Canadian newscast not because it titillates, but because it shocks).

Another bad idea, courtesy of the NRA types, passed Congress with little fanfare in the wake of the hijackings and murders of September 11, 2001. The Air Line Pilots Association, generally a sensible group, asked legislators to give the occupants of America's cockpits the right to carry firearms aboard commercial aircraft. The House and Senate, always willing to entertain bad public policy in the service of their own re-election, quickly enacted this poorly considered legislation and the bill was signed by our Rhinestone Cowboy president.

It is, on the surface, a dumb idea. It assumes that terrorists have only one script and no ability to improvise. Once cockpit doors were made bulletproof and impregnable, the 9/11 scenario of commandeering an airplane and crashing it into a building was rendered inoperative. So exactly when would an armed pilot be of any value? Indeed the last thing you'd want in a repeat performance of that terrible day would be for the pilot to leave his or her sanctuary and provide the terrorist with any kind of opening.

Would pistol packing pilots have helped on 9/11? Of course not. Back then, our theory of airline hijackings was similar to our theory of bank robberies: give the bad guys what they want and end the standoff peacefully. Faced with terrorists holding box cutters to the throats of flight attendants, the pre-2001 pilot would have surrendered his or her weapon to save colleagues' lives. After that, we would all have assumed back then, the plane would be diverted to Cuba or Libya, extensive negotiations would take place (or an Entebbe-like raid would occur on the ground), and the situation would end with minimal or no loss of innocent human life.

So the bill to arm pilots was, at best, a classic case of locking the door of a now-empty barn and, at worst, a poorly thought our sop to macho pilots and NRA fanatics. Adding amateur marksmen (or women) to an equation that already includes nervous travelers and small pressurized compartments should have been recognized immediately as foolish. Even the law permitting armed air marshals to board aircraft is probably unwise in the big scheme of things, but at least in that case we're talking about highly trained professionals.

Well, the inevitable finally happened the other day. A US Airways pilot, supposedly stowing his handgun for landing, accidentally fired off a shot that tore through the plane's fuselage. The pilot's story seems a bit questionable, but that is for investigators to determine. All we know for now is that a commercial aircraft filled with innocent passengers came within an eyelash of disaster. What would have happened if the bullet had shattered the cockpit windshield? Or the co-pilot's skull?

This story was dutifully reported in the media, but has received far less attention than it deserves. It is clearly time to tell pilots that their desire to be armed is more dangerous than it is reassuring. Even the most basic rights are subject to time, place, and manner restrictions. Your right to free speech does not permit you to joke about bombs in the airport security line. And we can limit the First Amendment, we can also limit the Second.

No matter what my allies the gun nuts say.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Culture Warriors are Wrong: Part MCMXLIII

The only people who still believe the right-wing critique of academia are those who haven't set foot on a college campus for years or those who are so blinded by their own doctrinaire conservatism that any challenge to the existing order seems hopelessly radical. Most of the pundits and bloggers who push this line, of course, don't really believe it themselves. They merely resent the right's inability to penetrate the academy and silence left-of-center voices the way they have so effectively done in politics and journalism.

Because those who see American universities as leftist indoctrination centers are either ignorant, fanatical, or dishonest, there's really no reason to believe that they can be persuaded by facts or data. Study and after study provides evidence that academic indoctrination is neither common nor successful, but that hasn't daunted David Horowitz or the folks at ACTA. Neither will the latest research by a bipartisan pair of political scientists, soon to be published in one of their discipline's general interest journals.

Using a comprehensive survey of U.S. college students, the authors find only a slight liberal drift in ideology between the freshman and senior years. Further, they suggest that this drift can be explained by factors other than the political leanings of the students' professors. Indeed, even after four (or more) years of supposedly leftist indoctrination, the number of seniors describing their views as "far left" still falls below their age cohort in the general population.

No doubt we will hear the usual responses from the usual suspects. Some will take issue with the study's methodology. The most common, however, will sidestep the findings altogether and argue that the supposed lack of intellectual diversity on campus damages students even if most tenured radicals fail to persuade their captive audience.

On the website Inside Higher Ed, an article quotes a professor named Daniel Klein, a George Mason University economist who evidently obsesses about these matters. “Even if it were true that students totally took a Bart Simpson attitude toward their college professors and were completely uninfluenced by them," Kline tells the website, "I still think it would be a tragedy that during those four years, they were not getting the good stuff.” Tragedy is where you find it, I suppose, though when I encounter the word, I normally think of Hurricane Katrina rather than a 22-year old graduate going out into the world having never read Milton Friedman.

As for the "good stuff", well, leave it to a critic of the so-called liberal academy to undermine his own point. Precisely what makes Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Adam Smith (these are the examples Klein cites) "the good stuff' rather than, say, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, or even Paul Krugman? The answer, of course, is nothing, or at least nothing more than Klein's own judgment. Presumably, he would tell us that this judgment is based on his understanding of economics and objective reality rather than his desire to indoctrinate the students he encounters each semester. Imagine, though, how he and similar academic critics would respond to a leftist professor making an equivalent statement.

(For what it's worth, by the way, if you Google "economics", "syllabus", and "Keynes", you get 17,300 hits. If you Google "economics", "syllabus", and "Friedman", you get 102,000. Replace "Friedman" with "Marx" and the number declines to 68,100. It is certainly possible that all of these economists are simply availing themselves of the opportunity to trash Milton Friedman before an impressionable young audience, but that seems unlikely. Rather, though this little quick and dirty survey may not prove much, it does suggest that perhaps Professor Klein can take heart that at least one tragedy has been averted during the Bush Administration.)

If Daniel Klein can reference "The Simpsons", I can cite "South Park". The right-wing critique of the academy reminds me of the Underpants Gnomes, an industrious little group of cartoon characters who steal boxers and briefs out of the characters' homes. When finally traced to their hideout, the Gnomes explain that their theft is part of a three-step business plan. Step One concerns stealing underwear, while Step Three involves making a profit. When asked about Step Two, the Gnomes explain that they are still working on that one. The show does not make clear whether the Underpants Gnomes studied Hayek.

Interestingly, the logic of the anti-academic right displays a similar fundamental flaw. For them, Step One is proving that college professors, especially in the humanities and social sciences, are far more likely to be liberals and Democrats than the population at large, which they are. Step Three is to assert that this fact exposes American college students to the risk and reality of political indoctrination. But they never quite come to grips with Step Two, which would require evidence that these supposedly tenured leftists actually seek to indoctrinate in the first place. One of the few attempts to do this, ACTA's risible "How Many Ward Churchills?" study of college syllabi, failed so comprehensively that the organization's president, Anne Neal, was forced to argue that her methodological critics were "applying irrelevant 'scientific’ standards to textual analysis", a statement so profoundly ignorant that it released Ms. Neal from any further consideration as a serious student of the academy.

But the full truth is even more damaging. This latest study by the two political scientists demonstrates that Horowitz, ACTA, and the rest are, in fact, even less credible than the Underpants Gnomes. Not only have they failed to address Step Two, but now it appears that they fall short on Step Three as well. It's hard to sustain shrill jeremiads against academic brainwashing when the empirical evidence demonstrates persuasively that such indoctrination doesn't even take place.

It must be frustrating to conservatives that they have been unable to get the same sort of toehold in the academy that they enjoy in politics and the mass media. Unfortunately, the academic culture demands that adherents to any theory defend their assertions with evidence, something most right-wing culture warriors have little experience at. Even leftist professors must submit their work to peer review, and they cannot expect to pass the bar simply on the basis of their politics.

But in one sense, none of this really matters. The cultural right will forge ahead with their plans regardless of how high the mountain of evidence against them grows. They are not interested in reality; they are interested in ideological hegemony. After all, as Stephen Colbert once pointed out, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Daily Kos, Hillary Clinton, and Al Gore

Hypocrisy and rationalization grate regardless of the source. But somehow they always seem worse coming from those who claim purity of motive. Barack Obama and his internet cheerleaders promise a new politics, leaving behind the name calling and trivial attacks of the past. What they deliver, however, is generally more of the same.

Apparently, Hillary Clinton spoke several times of arriving in Bosnia back in 1996 under the threat of sniper fire, and having to race for shelter upon landing. Video of the event seems to contradict this claim, showing the First Lady and her daughter spending time on the tarmac greeting the locals, apparently unconcerned about the dangers lurking in the hills above. Naturally, this ludicrously unimportant matter has come to dominate this week's political news.

First, it remains unclear exactly what Senator Clinton was trying to accomplish with this story in the first place. Even if true, it would hardly make her a paragon of physical courage. Perhaps she simply figured that if enduring torture in Vietnam makes John McCain a foreign policy expert (which, of course, it does not) then dodging sniper fire in Eastern Europe gives Hillary a perspective on the world that Senator Obama cannot match. If that was, indeed, her gambit, it was pretty useless: whatever foreign policy experience Clinton accumulated in her world travels would have come from face to face meetings with international leaders rather than any brief taste of danger she may have experienced along the way. So really, this story is a nothing-burger to begin with.

In any event, Clinton disavowed the tale yesterday, acknowledging that she misspoke. Here's what she says now:

"I was told we had to land a certain way, we had to have our bulletproof stuff on because of the threat of sniper fire. I was also told that the greeting ceremony had been moved away from the tarmac but that there was this 8-year-old girl and, I can't, I can't rush by her, I've got to at least greet her -- so I greeted her, I took her stuff and then I left. Now that's my memory of it."

Who knows? Maybe the candidate misremembered events that occurred over a decade ago. It happens. Maybe the words "sniper fire" stayed with her even after other memories receded. Or perhaps—and let's face it, most likely—she thought she had an impressive story to wow her audiences and make her look dashing and daring, Hillary the Superhero. In short, she probably told a little campaign fib, the sort that was commonplace and unimportant until the age of YouTube and its associated legions of obsessive, unemployed internet fact-checkers armed with bags of Cheetos and dreams of stardom.

Over at the Obama for President branch campus at Daily Kos, the hive was buzzing with all the intensity of Encyclopedia Brown ready to call out the perpetrator of some sandlot crime. From the reaction of the Kossacks to this fairly inconsequential exaggeration, you would have thought that Senator Clinton had been caught bellowing, "God damn America!" This is, if the liberal blogosphere is to be believed, bigger than Teapot Dome, Watergate, and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping combined.

Here is the overwrought musing of one recommended Daily Kos diarist, doing the right wing's work for them:

"OK. The CBS story tonight is HUGE. It really rips Hillary apart on the Bosnia issues and just keeps nailing her. It's brutal. They really take her on. At this point, it's a beautiful dream come true."

This is, one assumes, a slightly different beautiful dream than the one espoused by Senator Obama on those days when he still talks about bringing America together. Karl Rove couldn't have said it better himself. To be fair, though, Rove would never have been so callow as to say it out loud. That is best left to the amateurs. (The breathless, sophomoric headline to this post, incidentally, is "She is SO screwed".)

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the proprietor of the site, even chimes in with his own triumphant snark:

"If Hillary Clinton lied about snipers in Bosnia because of sleep deprivation (doubtful, given it's a lie she's said at least four times), then what will she do when she gets that call at 3 a.m.? Remember, she's clothed and wearing makeup at that hour, so chances are, she's not getting much sleep."

Sure, we don’t all have the talent to write for David Letterman, but that's really not the important point here. Rather, it is instructive to keep in mind a simple fact: this is precisely what the political media did to Al Gore back in 2000. They seized on a few minor exaggerations and built them up into something HUGE.

Remember when Gore said that his mother used to rock him to sleep with the "Look for the Union Label" song, an advertising jingle that wasn't written until he was well into adulthood? Or during his first debate with George W. Bush, when Gore falsely told of visiting Texas during some wildfires, accompanied by the FEMA director (he was actually attending a fundraiser in Houston)? Or how about the time Gore inaccurately claimed that his mother-in-law paid more for an arthritis drug than the price charged when the same medicine was used to treat the candidate's dog? Ah, good times.

That's three exaggerations for Gore versus one for Hillary. Nevertheless, to this day, the liberal blogosphere, Daily Kos included, rages at the mass media for elevating these minor missteps into major campaign stories, thus easing Bush's ruinous entry into the White House. And they're right: the 2000 campaign was distorted and trivialized in any number of ways by a press corps that either detested Al Gore or was too lazy to develop a new script (or both).

But it turns out that the bloggers and their allies didn't really object to the unfairness of the coverage. They objected to the fact that it was unfair to their candidate. When this same sort of meaningless gotcha journalism is trained on the enemy du jour, the Daily Kos crowd can hardly contain their delight. Meet the new politics; same as the old politics.

Barack Obama's liberal internet supporters bristle at the suggestion that they constitute something of a cult of personality. And it is, in the main, an unfair charge. But it would be an easier charge to refute if they didn't adopt cult-like tactics in trying to destroy their opponent, particularly one who agrees with them on almost all the issues.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Left Blogosphere Creates a Monster

The John McCain World Tour is apparently over, having rocked the house in several Middle Eastern and European cities. It didn't get as much publicity as the senator might have hoped, what with the United States engaged in a vital debate over whether or not Barack Obama's former pastor should be allowed to speak at the next American Legion convention. But I'm sure someone in Baghdad right now is wearing the official tour t-shirt, albeit under about twenty pounds of armor and Kevlar.

Having dispatched the lesser life forms that once challenged him for the GOP presidential nomination, McCain evidently decided it was time to remind voters that he has foreign policy credentials, though nobody has identified for certain exactly what they are. His current calling card is the fact that he supported the troop "surge" that preceded—but did not necessarily cause—a reduction in violence and American casualties in Iraq. It probably didn't help that, within a week of McCain taking his victory lap around Mesopotamia, the U.S. death toll hit 4,000 and violence looked again to be on a slight uptick. On the other hand, it probably didn't hurt much, either, since there may not be ten Americans left who have yet to make up their minds about the wisdom of George W. Bush's current war of choice.

The most enduring memory of McCain's tour was the sight of Joe Lieberman whispering in the candidate's ear, reminding this expert on all things international that Sunni al Qaeda and Shi'a Iran don't much care for one another. Indeed, if the actions of the Bush administration ever did succeed in joining Osama in common cause with the Ayatollahs, that disaster alone that would supersede every other disaster caused by the president over his seven disastrous years in office. At least then, we'd finally understand what he meant back in 2000 when he called himself a "uniter".

But the link between Osama and Iran, as it turns out, exists only in John McCain's head, where it is apparently as unmovable as his preference for big band music and 78-rpm phonograph records. And before you call me ageist, please understand that this is not my opinion. Rather, it is the conclusion of former journalist Brit Hume, who offered, in damning defense of McCain's blunder, that the senator may simply have suffered a "senior moment". Which is exactly how a 72-year old candidate wants to be remembered by the electorate. Had Hillary Clinton or, especially, Barack Obama employed that phrase to describe McCain, Hume's Fox News employers would have broadcast a five-part series on "Why the Democrats Hate Older Americans".

Anyway, I do have a point here. As embarrassing as it may have been to see Lieberman correct his hero in front of an international audience, it would have been far worse if McCain's words had simply remained out there, waiting for the Democrats to pick the proper time to pounce. Let's face it: if John McCain doesn't have foreign policy credibility, he doesn't have much. His credentials on campaign finance reform basically evaporated the day he decided to game the system to accept, and then conveniently reject, public funding. Unless the voters decide that this is the guy they want at the helm the next time a crisis occurs, Senator McCain has little claim on anyone's support.

So Lieberman's role in the Republican campaign should not be underestimated. Already, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee has twice saved McCain's bacon (the other time came when McCain decided to label Purim as the Jewish Halloween; Lieberman took the blame for incompletely informing his friend about the nature of the holiday). It would not surprise anyone to see the former Democrat give a nominating speech at the GOP convention, a turn of events that would be far more devastating than the liberal blogosphere imagines. This would not be crazy-uncle-in-the-attic Zell Miller, all bulgy-eyed and sputtering, carrying on about them lib'ruls and revenuers. This would be the man who Al Gore selected less than a decade ago to serve one heartbeat away from the Oval Office.

Joe Lieberman was never my idea of the perfect Democrat. He got to office by running to the right of incumbent Republican Lowell Weicker, a man who, like him or not, possessed even more integrity than Lieberman pretends to have on his most sanctimonious day. Once in office, Lieberman's generally liberal voting record could not obscure the fact that he was, culturally, well to the right of his party, forever prattling on about the evils of various popular culture forms, such as rap music. When Bill Clinton was facing down the Republicans' attempt at a sex scandal coup, it was Lieberman who took the highly publicized opportunity to gain national attention by stabbing his one-time ally in the back with a characteristically prudish speech from the Senate floor.

Nevertheless, Lieberman was a Democrat and, other than his support for the Iraq War, a fairly liberal one, at least in terms of his voting record. His partisanship tethered him to some extent and prevented him from, for example, endorsing George W. Bush for re-election. Parties are big tents, and big tents have clowns. Professionals learn how to live with that fact.

Next door in Rhode Island, the GOP had their own outlier, in the form of left-wing Senator Lincoln Chafee. In 2006, the national Republicans did everything they could to help Chafee win re-election, even going so far as to help defeat a conservative primary opponent. They succeeded, though Chafee lost in the general election anyhow.

The left blogosphere, on the other hand, in a startling case of political naïveté, decided that they should back Lieberman's liberal challenger, Ned Lamont. They were overjoyed when Lamont edged the incumbent in the Democratic primary, only to find out to their dismay that Lieberman, under Connecticut law, could still mount an independent candidacy. The GOP, teaching the internet kids a lesson, backed the former Democrat. Lamont turned out to be an inferior candidate, and Lieberman was re-elected, this time with a huge chip on his shoulder.

The folks over at Daily Kos spend quite a bit of time patting themselves on the back over their questionable contributions to the Democrats' resurgence in 2006. Rarely, however, do they take a step back and engage in serious soul-searching about their unfortunate role in the transformation of Joe Lieberman from hawkish Democrat to McCain cheerleader. Not only did the Lieberman affair tarnish what would otherwise have been a clear Democratic takeover of the Senate in 2006, it also unleashed a monster, a well-respected national figure able to call his former party out at the worst possible time.

There is an arrogance to the left blogosphere, a youthful sense that enthusiasm trumps reflection and that a community of thousands cannot be defeated. But two years ago in Connecticut it was defeated, and the Democratic Party continues to pay the price for the careless hubris of young men and women who seem to think that they created populism (George McGovern's supporters thought the same thing back in 1972). Even now, the bloggers continue to funnel precious money into primary challenges against flawed Democratic incumbents who nevertheless provide the party with its slender congressional majorities.

And now they have decided that only Barack Obama can lead the Democrats out of the wilderness and take the White House back from the GOP. They may, perhaps, be right. But their track record offers little in the way of reassurance. Indeed, their greatest blunder—the elevation of Joe Lieberman to top McCain lieutenant—may yet help to seal their candidate's fate in November.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ben Stein's Baloney

Ben Stein, who gained improbable fame as the quintessential burnout, monotone teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off parlayed that notoriety into several commercial gigs and a short-lived cable game show with a misleading premise. Nobody on "Win Ben Stein's Money" actually won Ben Stein's money; the cash was fronted by the producers of the show and Stein, in addition to his salary, got whatever was left after the contestants were paid off. This little bit of misdirection, however, pales in comparison to Stein's earlier and subsequent work.

Before his celebrity breakthrough, Ben Stein was best known as a persistent apologist for Richard Nixon, the disgraced 37th President of the United States. Stein had been a speechwriter for Nixon, a politician known more for his revelatory extemporaneous asides ("I am not a crook!") than for his soaring rhetoric. To this day, Stein insists that Nixon's misdeeds were trivial, and that those who brought him down are responsible for the genocide visited on Cambodia by Pol Pot (Nixon, ever the humanist, would evidently have prevented the massacre for which his unwise invasion of Cambodia first lit the fuse). Fortunately, anyone inclined to believe Ben Stein on any of these points need only review the tapes and transcripts of Nixon's own words, reminding all of us just what an amoral, vicious, contemptible man Stein once worked for.

Well, it turns out that rehabilitating Tricky Dick is only one of Mr. Stein's bad ideas. While we were not looking, it seems that he has also taken up the banner of Intelligent Design (ID), the latest pseudo-scientific offering from the creationist community. Stein has lent his notorious voice to the production of Expelled, a documentary bemoaning the inability of opponents of the theory of evolution to be given total access to college biology classrooms.

For the purposes of this blog, I have no opinion as to how life on Earth began. Plenty of believers in evolution argue that a higher power summoned the Big Bang and started the whole thing going according to His or Her design. That's fine with me. Science was always intended to explain the natural world and to leave the realm of the supernatural to others.

Intelligent Design, however, is not a theory; it is an assertion. Theories, at least in the scientific sense, are both testable and falsifiable. Biologists have spent decades testing propositions about the development and adaptation of various species. Some have held up, and others have been discredited. But the evidence in favor of the reality of evolution simply overwhelms. Not the assertion; the evidence.

Some would-be scholars, most if not all driven by fundamentalist religious beliefs, have entered the scientific field with an eye toward discrediting evolutionary theories. That is, in itself, unscientific. Real scientists go where the evidence leads them. They do not drag the evidence along, kicking and screaming, in another direction. One may certainly conduct tests demonstrating the flaws in one or another study. Scientists refer to this as replication, and it is an important part of the process.

But a flawed study here and there, or even a hundred of them, says nothing about the broader issue of how life emerges and changes over time. The fatal weakness in ID, from a scientific point of view, is that it contends that every hole poked in research on evolution somehow provides positive evidence in favor of the notion that God created the universe, the flora, and the fauna. This is, very simply, bad science. Even if these neo-creationists were able to debunk every one of the thousands of pro-evolution findings in the literature—something they can never and will never do—the burden would still be on them to develop hypotheses by which Intelligent Design could be tested.

The question, then, is whether or not proponents of Intelligent Design—who have never developed a single empirical test of their "theory", indeed who believe it to be, a priori, unfalsifiable—should be permitted to peddle their wares in any Department of Biology worthy of the name. And the answer, obviously, is no. The minimum standard for serving as an academic scientist ought to be an adherence to the scientific method. Unless we are going to admit students of astrology into astronomy departments, this point should be fairly clear (and to be fair, astrology, unlike ID, actually does posit some testable—and presumably falsifiable—hypotheses, though astrologers rarely submit their work to such analysis).

Let's say I'm a poet, perhaps a very good one, but I insist that my proper role is to serve as a Professor of Music. When the time comes to present a recital, I read my poetry aloud without accompaniment. This, I insist, is every bit as musical as the output of the pianist, trumpeter, or mezzo-soprano. When I was ultimately fired—and it wouldn't take long—nobody would pay much attention to my complaints that I was unfairly expelled because of my renegade beliefs about music. Everyone would understand that my appropriate academic position would be in an English or creative writing department.

The same holds for proponents of Intelligent Design. They are not scientists; they do not begin with the premise that their ideas can be falsified. They would not, for example, agree that any appearance of an elementary design flaw in, say, the construction of a human being might provide evidence against ID. Ask an Intelligent Design advocate whether or not she would have developed the human throat so that both food and oxygen have to pass through the same opening, creating the possibility of choking. I doubt you could find a single one who would agree that this reality presents even a minor challenge to their worldview, even though it clearly does.

My point is not that choking proves there's no God. It is perfectly appropriate to debate these issues in theology or religious studies classes, and to insist that God has reasons and motivations that transcend human understanding. Scientists don't pretend to have answers to every one of life's biggest questions. Indeed, a fairly large percentage of them are themselves religious believers.

But the idea that Intelligent Design deserves equal billing with evolution as an alternative scientific theory is preposterous. It's just as absurd as suggesting that Richard Nixon was a misunderstood martyr. Or that game show winners' prizes were taken directly out of Ben Stein's checking account.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Howard Dean, Barack Obama, and Plan B

Here's a scary thought for the Democrats: we already know everything good there is to know about Barack Obama. We know his inspiring life story. We have all experienced the power of his oratory and his ability to move a crowd. Nobody could be unaware by now of the fact that Obama opposed the Iraq War from its very outset.

From here forward, everything else we will learn about the Illinois senator will chip away at this carefully cultivated image as a man above politics. The first, and stunningly devastating, revelation occurred with the airing of the incendiary words of Obama's former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. The candidate responded with a characteristically brilliant speech, but the Wright affair nevertheless cost Obama the support of thousands of independents, votes he will never get back. The Democrats may not realize it yet, but this is already Michael Dukakis in a tank, and could turn into Gary Hart in Bimini.

As we speak, the only remaining economic question seems to be whether the forthcoming recession will be mild or wrenching. The current Republican president suffers from the longest sustained levels of unpopularity on record. A pointless war continues to snuff out lives, with feckless politicians gloating of success because it is snuffing out fewer than it did a year ago. The worst vice president in American history, his vicious arrogance in full flower, replies to a reporter's question about massive public dissatisfaction with his administration's foreign policy by saying, "So?"

Out of a field of second-stringers, the Republican Party managed to nominate the single candidate most closely associated with the failures of the past seven years. John McCain remains one of the Iraq War's biggest cheerleaders, boasting of his wisdom in calling for a troop surge at a time when most Americans want out of Mesopotamia entirely. Lacking grounding in domestic affairs, McCain's platform, such as it is, amounts to warmed over Bushism, from tax cuts for the rich to privatizing Social Security.

Nevertheless, despite McCain's manifest disadvantages, he currently not only leads Obama in the presidential polls, but also holds a commanding advantage in Ohio and Florida, as well as a slight edge in Pennsylvania. Let's be clear: any Democrat who loses these three states will lose the election in November. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is essentially tied with McCain in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and is within striking distance in Florida.

Sure, these polls have come out after a week in which Jeremiah Wright has been the big national story. At some point, the subject will change. Springtime surveys rarely make for effective predictors of general election results.

But it's not as though this has been a banner week for the presumptive Republican nominee. The John McCain World Tour, expected to emphasize the candidate's foreign policy resumé, has instead been marked by a couple of rather serious gaffes. In addition to misstating the relationship between Sunni al Qaeda and Shi'a Iran, McCain also managed to suggest bizarrely that Purim is the Jewish version of Halloween.

And yet he still leads.

The Democrats, including those who support Barack Obama, must understand the trouble that they are in. They fell in love on the first date and accepted a marriage proposal on the second. And now they are trying to schedule the wedding as soon as possible. Go read Daily Kos and you will see dozens of diaries and front page articles talking about how Obama already has the nomination wrapped up and how Hillary Clinton should just go away and find herself some other country to govern.

This is politically suicidal. If the Democrats are really going to put Senator Obama on top of the ticket in perhaps the most important election of our lifetime, the least they could do is to extend the vetting process as far as the calendar will allow. I mean, what if Hillary had quit the race a month ago? Is it possible that the revelations about Reverend Wright would have been the GOP's October surprise? Is there anything else we don't know?

Howard Dean, who has done so much good for the party over the past three years, needs to take charge of this process. Specifically, he needs a Plan B in case Obama does not recover from the current freefall. It is clear that, under the current circumstances, the Super Delegates cannot overturn the primary and caucus results without opening the party to charges of unfairness, charges that will invariably have racial overtones (especially when the media blowhards get through with the story).

The only way out of this dilemma, then, is for Dean to demand (and pay for) a re-vote in both Florida and Michigan, to be held in June. By then, we should know just how damaged Obama is and whether or not Clinton can mount a comeback in the remaining primary states. If Obama can win either do-over primary, then he's probably the Dems' strongest nominee. But if Hillary goes on a big run between now and the first week of June, and then wins decisively in Florida and Michigan, the party will have the breathing room do what it has to do without any appearance of the nomination having been stolen.

Obviously, Barack Obama can win the presidency in November, even after the disastrous events of the past couple of weeks. This will almost certainly be a good Democratic year and John McCain continues to diminish himself whenever he veers from his script. But gone are the days when the Obama campaign could plausibly promise a 1932-style realignment, with previously deep-red states entering the Democratic column. Instead, the senator will need to eke out the same narrow victory that barely eluded Al Gore and John Kerry.

In the meantime, Governor Dean, rather than childishly adhering to his arbitrary rules that stupefyingly favor solidly Republican South Carolina over swing-state Florida, must find a way to bring all 50 states to the table. Barack Obama may, indeed, be the Democrats' best hope for beating John McCain. But it's Dean's job to make him prove it beyond all reasonable doubt. The stakes are bigger than any one man's (or woman's) ego.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

March Madness, Presidential Style

I was listening to the radio a couple of days ago when someone mentioned March Madness, the 2008 NCAA college basketball tournament. Since the games had not yet started and nearly all the experts had evidently weighed in, the topic at hand was who the major presidential candidates thought would take home the championship trophy. Hillary Clinton answered that she would have to defer to her husband, a huge college hoops fan. I don't recall John McCain's response, but I'm sure he said, "The United States will win, of course, though the tournament may have to go on for fifty rounds and last at least until September." (OK, I made that one up.)

The most interesting prediction, however, came from Barack Obama, who picked the University of North Carolina. My first reaction was surprise that Obama, of all people, would be such a chalk player (for you non-gamblers, that's someone who only bets on favorites). Carolina, after all, remains the Vegas choice to cut down the nets on April 7, and is one of four number one seeds going into this past weekend. Surely, I thought, the Candidate of Change would have yet one more surprise in store for us. But he did not.

There may be no candidate in history as qualified to handicap college basketball. Not only is Senator Obama a major roundball devotee, but his brother-in-law coaches the Brown University varsity. Though Brown did not win the Ivy League, and will thus watch the games on television along with the rest of us, there's nothing like having a well informed insider to consult when filling out one's brackets.

But then my cynical side took hold and I started thinking further about Obama's selection. Sports allegiances and sports predictions have often been manipulated for electoral gain in recent history. Rudy Giuliani, die-hard Yankees fan, went to New England last year and intimated that he hoped that the Boston Red Sox, the Yanks' most bitter rival, would defeat the Colorado Rockies and win the World Series. Hillary Clinton, lifelong devotee of the Chicago Cubs, found herself donning a Yankees cap when she decided, eight years ago, that she'd like to be a senator from New York State. Could Obama be engaging in this same sort of pandering?

Well, yes, of course he could. Everyone may be focusing right now on the upcoming Pennsylvania primary, but that may not be the most important race still coming down Interstate 95. Rather, Barack Obama's real firewall state is now (drum roll, please) North Carolina. Senator Clinton currently enjoys a double-digit lead in Pennsylvania, and a victory there would strengthen her claim that she is the real champion of the states that Democrats actually need to win to defeat John McCain in November. Indeed, a big enough victory in the Keystone State could inch her closer to an outright lead in the overall popular vote, a result that would put Obama in the embarrassing position of playing George W. Bush to her Al Gore (real voters be damned: only delegates count!).

Should Clinton win Pennsylvania decisively—and if she doesn't, it's all over—the next battle would come two weeks later with primary elections in Indiana and North Carolina. Indiana may border Obama's home base of Illinois, but the link is only geographical. Other than a few Hoosiers in the far northwest corner of the state, Indianans do not get their news from Chicago and even their Democrats are generally more conservative than those from the Land of Lincoln. Indiana may be a good state for Hillary Clinton, but even if she loses there, the media will still probably blame—incorrectly, in my view—an Illinois spillover.

North Carolina, on the other hand, seems tailor made for Barack Obama. The senator has yet to lose an open primary in a southern state, indeed winning most by a formidable margin. Clinton's southern victories have been limited to the closed primary in Tennessee, Bill's home state of Arkansas, and the phantom vote in Florida. By all rights, then, Obama should sweep to victory in the Tar Heel State.

His lead, however, is only about five points at the moment. Obama's campaign continues to battle back from the controversy over the words of his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Initial reactions to the senator's speech on race and religion seemed highly positive, but the issue has not receded. Republicans, and even some Democrats, continue to ask why Obama remained in a church where supposedly anti-American rhetoric was being delivered on a fairly regular basis. Nationally, Obama has dropped noticeably in the head-to-head polls against Senator McCain, having seen his support dip among the all important independent voters.

Should the Illinois senator lose badly in Pennsylvania next month, May 6 could become a make or break day for him. The Super Delegates do not want to upend the will of the voters, such as it is (the caucuses should still, in my view, be largely discounted). But they also do not want the 2008 presidential election to be a contest between God Bless America and "God Damn America". That this is enormously unfair to Barack Obama, an unabashed patriot, is beside the point. The point is to defeat John McCain and put the ruinous Bush years permanently behind us.

In any given NCAA tournament, about sixteen teams have a real shot at the national championship. The other three number one seeds represent states (California, Kansas, and Tennessee) whose primaries and caucuses have already passed. Of the remaining twelve teams, Obama could have predicted victory for the University of Pittsburgh (a number four seed), which might have pleased the folks in Western Pennsylvania. But instead he went with his firewall, North Carolina, and its flagship university. That meant picking against Duke, of course, another entry from the same state, but most Dukies come from elsewhere, particular Hillary's northeastern home base.

And sure, maybe Barack Obama simply believes that UNC is the best team in the tournament. A lot of other people do as well, including the NCAA selection committee. Still, whether Obama's choice was a matter of electioneering or expertise (or both), it does point out just how critical the upcoming North Carolina primary may be to a campaign that is, even while enjoying frontrunner status, taking on more water by the minute. To employ the parlance of the tournament, the Tar Heel Primary may effectively prove to be a single-elimination contest.

Friday, March 21, 2008

John McCain's Questionable Qualifications

Lately, the cable TV pundits have taken to filling the minutes between Viagra commercials with breathless discussion of the relative qualifications of the two Democratic candidates for president. This is not entirely their fault, of course. Hillary Clinton has largely staked her bid for the White House on the proposition that she, rather than rival Barack Obama, is fully prepared the lead the country into the next decade. Obama, in response, has questioned whether eight years as First Lady really contributed anything meaningful to his opponent's curriculum vitae (and yes, there is a subtle tinge of sexism to that position, but we'll leave it for another day).

In all the Democratic crossfire, one question has received surprisingly little attention from the talking heads: if we’re going to talk about qualifications, exactly how prepared is John McCain for the nation's top job. He has, of course, warmed a seat in the United States Senate for more than two decades, but his lengthy incumbency is hardly his most appealing calling card. Rather, McCain's Vietnam experience is constantly trotted out as de facto evidence of his fitness to enter the Oval Office. A few reporters have even gone so far as to suggest that commanding a squadron of fighter pilots somehow represents executive experience, something that Obama and Clinton do not have.

For quite a while, it looked as though McCain would be able to slide past the great qualifications war without so much as a cursory inspection of his credentials. This week, however, he brought himself back into the conversation in the worst possible way. Speaking in the Middle East, he announced that Shi'a Iran had made common cause with Sunni al Qaeda in Iraq. The gaffe was so great that one of the roadies on McCain's world tour, Dempublican Senator Joe Lieberman, had to whisper into the great man's ear that he should have mentioned "extremists" rather than bin Laden's Shi'a-hating outfit.

To be sure, everyone except Hillary Clinton is allowed one free blunder on the campaign trail, but it did not take long to uncover the fact that McCain had been publicly mixing oil and water for quite some time now. His slip-up in Jordan was far from the first time that the senator had made a mistake akin to talking about the British alliance with the IRA during the troubles in Northern Ireland. There is a rule in the proofreading business: if you misspell a word once or twice, it's a typo. If do you so more than that, it becomes clear that you are simply ignorant of the proper spelling.

And that, for McCain, is the best-case scenario. Perhaps he has spent his long years as one of the Senate's leading foreign policy voices utterly unaware of one of the most consequential splits in the Islamic world. Maybe he has come to accept that a Muslim is a Muslim, a terribly misguided—and arguably bigoted—view of the world. Certainly, this sort of information deficit is not unprecedented: on a good day, Ronald Reagan understood as much about the outside world as a second year drama major. But Reagan never claimed that foreign policy expertise was his major selling point.

Again, that's the best-case scenario. The less appealing story is that John McCain knows his Shi'a from his Sunni, but has chosen to lie to the American people anyway. Now why would he do that? Well, al Qaeda remains Public Enemy #1, the terrorist authors of the horrible September 11 attacks, the embodiment of all that is evil. If the Republicans ever hope to build a consensus in favor of action against Iran, especially after the ruinous consequences of the current war with Iraq, it would be helpful to convince the rubes that these two mortal enemies, Osama bin Laden and the Iranian ayatollahs, are joined at the hip and poised to reduce Albuquerque to rubble. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney spent the past seven years blurring the lines between fundamentalist al Qaeda and secular Saddam Hussein. Perhaps McCain has learned his lesson from their effective deceit.

So take your pick: either John McCain, the supposed master of foreign policy, has trouble keeping America's enemies straight, or he has willfully set out to bamboozle a frightened American public into buying into yet another unnecessary war. Either way, this seems far bigger than anything Jeremiah Wright or Geraldine Ferraro has ever said on their very worst days. For the moment, even McCain's cable TV cheering section has been forced to notice. The question is whether they will now let this story fade away.

Actually, that's not really the question. Of course, they'll let this one blow over. Not only do they like McCain, they are also constantly on the prowl for new material. It will be up to the Democrats to hammer this point home again and again.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Welcome to Year Six

World War II did not last five years. Nor did World War I, the Korean War, the Civil War, or the American Revolution. Many full presidencies never reach the half-decade mark. Even the original mandate of the Starship Enterprise called for the mission to be accomplished within a five year period, and they were traversing entire galaxies.

But the Iraq War, a ruinous, gratuitous conflict authored by a dishonest, incompetent administration, has now entered its sixth year. To celebrate, John McCain, who still doesn't understand the difference between Shi'a and Sunni Islam, dragged himself over to Baghdad to babble about victory before heading over to Israel to fit in a photo-op over at the Wailing Wall. To hear McCain talk, one could imagine that he still expects the conflict in Iraq to end with somebody (Osama bin Laden? The ghost of Saddam? Some anonymous warlord?) eventually surrendering to the United States like Lee handing his sword to Grant at Appomattox.

Meanwhile, back at home, George W. Bush, whose capacity for rationalization must daunt O.J. Simpson, keeps talking about winning as though he has any idea what that would mean. The United States, he insists, is making progress. The mass media, compliant as ever, fail to point out that there has been but one conflict in American history in which military and political leaders could claim only "progress" after five years of fighting. And that, of course, was the Vietnam War, another deadly monument to the failed ambitions of arrogant men.

The Bush Administration has moved the goal posts so often during the current war that it is sometimes difficult to remember the original promises made to the American people. But a quick accounting would include the following. The United States, we were told, would 1) topple Saddam Hussein; 2) seize and neutralize his weapons of mass destruction; 3) secure the Iraqi oil fields and help Iraqis to rebuild their economy; and 4) bring Sunni and Shi'a together to establish the first functioning Muslim democracy in the Middle East. Moreover, we would accomplish these objectives with 5) minimal loss of American life; 6) minimal death and destruction visited on the Iraqi people; and 7) only a small commitment from the U.S. Treasury.

Of these seven promises, only one—the removal of Saddam—has been accomplished, and that occurred within the first months of the conflict. The WMDs, of course, did not exist and the continuing inability to restore Iraqi oil production has helped to drive gas prices to record levels. Most tragically, however, the final three promises have all been irrevocably broken. This unnecessary war has cost nearly 4,000 American troops their lives (and tens of thousands of others their health and well-being) and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died. Most of the rest suffer under a crumbled economy, collapsed infrastructure, and daily threat of violence. And the cost of the war to American taxpayers has already reached into the multiple trillions, crippling the country's ability to meet its own needs just in time for what appears to be the onset of a major economic downturn.

Under these circumstances, debates over whether The Surge is succeeding are diversionary at best. To the extent this year-old policy is working, all it has done is to stop the bleeding. We are still losing, on average, one soldier a day, and Iraqi citizens continue to forfeit their lives to random bombings and other acts of terror. Misery and deprivation remain daily facts of life for a people who have already suffered far too much. It would have seemed impossible, back in 2003, to imagine that this once proud country could be worse off under U.S. command than under Saddam Hussein. But George W. Bush's presidency has been all about realizing the unthinkable.

But even this ignores the main point. The objective of the Iraq War, when it was launched five years ago, was ultimately political. That is why the U.S. did not withdraw forces as soon as the statue of Saddam came crashing down to Earth. The explicit American goal, made clear by the president and his chattering lackeys, was the establishment of democratic, constitutional rule in Baghdad. The mission was, after all, rather cynically labeled "Operation Iraqi Freedom". With Hussein removed and the nerve gas and nukes clearly nonexistent, the only possible justification for continuing a military presence in Iraq was to oversee the transition to self-sustaining, democratically elected, ethnically tolerant government.

By now, it is clear that this will never take place. Further, even one year after The Surge, not a bit of progress has been made on bringing liberal democracy to the Iraqi people. The Surge, therefore, is a failure, and the war has been lost. Whenever Bush, McCain, and the camera-hogging Joe Lieberman talk about the successes achieved by General Petraeus since last spring, simply remember this: if anyone had told you five years ago where we would be in March, 2008, in terms of costs and casualties and unmet objectives, you would have dismissed that person as insane. Even most of the opponents of the Iraq War probably didn't believe that it would go this badly.

At some point in the future, the conflict in Iraq will end. The best case scenario is that it will end in a stalemate, with a fake government following a fake constitution, while mullahs and warlords divide the country into factions and collect the spoils. If this is accepted as victory, it will further illustrate the descent of the United States as a world power. At least when the U.S. fought to a draw in Korea, the primary goal—preventing Communist troops from overtaking the south—was achieved. In the case of Iraq, all we can hope for is to leave the country only a little worse off than when we invaded. And that's the best case scenario, the one that doesn't include civil war, mass starvation, a Kurdish conflict with Turkey, or an Iranian puppet government in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, regardless of how or when this war ends, we will never recover the 4,000 irreplaceable young men and women who gave their lives so that dishonest politicians could play Stratego with real human beings. We will never bring the permanently injured back to full health, nor will we soon restore our economy to any semblance of balance. The hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis will never return to their families, and the miseries visited on a whole nation will not be forgotten. The rage stirred in the hearts of young Muslim men and women will not be stilled even by the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

We have, in short, already lost this war. The only remaining question is how much more we will lose before (and after) we finally get out.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Howard Dean's 48-State Strategy

Four years and three months ago, Howard Dean was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, proprietor of the infant weblog "Daily Kos" was one of Dean's biggest online cheerleaders. Though their efforts failed back in 2004—Dean simply wasn't up to the task of sustaining a top-tier candidacy—both survived the debacle quite nicely. Today, Moulitsas ("Kos") holds down a position as one of the most influential voices in the left blogosphere, and his blessing (as well as his fundraising prowess) is routinely sought by Democrats running for various offices from coast to coast. Howard Dean, once the quintessential insurgent, now chairs the Democratic National Committee.

Each came into the 2008 with a big idea. Kos argued, as he did during the Dean campaign, that rank and file Democrats must break the monopoly on power held by the party's sclerotic Beltway insiders, timid centrists, and money-grubbing consultants. In the subtitle of his coauthored book, Crashing the Gate, Moulitsas alliteratively argues for "the rise of people-powered politics".

Dean, suddenly finding himself the ultimate insider, defied the conventional wisdom of the pundit class by embarking on what he called a 50-state strategy. It was critical, he insisted, to rebuild the Democratic Party's infrastructure in states that had been all but abandoned to the GOP over the past quarter century. To the dismay of those who thought he was flushing vital millions down the commode, Dean sent cash and party troops to places like Mississippi and Wyoming, states whose hostility to the national Democratic Party had previously been unquestioned.

These efforts achieved some measure of fruition in 2006, as the Democrats regained majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives for the first time in a dozen years. Moulitsas and his "netroots" supporters backed insurgent Senate primary candidacies in Montana and Virginia, and saw their men achieve November victory over the Republicans. Dean's willingness to build up his party in hostile territory was rewarded not only with the two Senate wins, but also a handful of House seats in such unlikely venues as Kansas and Indiana.

It remains unclear, of course, just how much credit Dean and the Kossacks deserve for the party's midterm turnaround. It is quite possible that the establishment Democratic candidate could also have won the Montana seat (the state's other senator, after all, is already a Democrat), and Virginia's Jim Webb owed his triumph largely to incumbent Senator George Allen's campaign trail meltdown, in which he referred to a dark-skinned young opponent as "Macaca". Further, the Democrats' re-capture of the House had much less to do with breakthroughs in the pro-GOP heartland than it did with a realignment in the already competitive and relatively liberal states of the northeast and midwest.

Fortunately, both theories have been provided with a new test case in 2008, this time at the presidential level. Barack Obama, an anti-war liberal, is not only taking on one of the icons of the Democratic Party establishment, Hillary Clinton, he is doing so on the basis of grass-roots organizing and small-scale fundraising, much of it coming from the internet. Further, part of his claim on the party's attention is his supposed ability to mobilize young people and African Americans, perhaps making the Democrats competitive in states that they have not seriously contested, at least on the presidential level, since 1976. Obama thus embodies the fifty-state strategy.

Moulitsas has become an unabashed Obama supporter, and his blog now serves as a virtual branch office of the Illinois senator's campaign. Dean, as DNC chair, professes neutrality in the race, but given his own insurgent history, his liberal politics, and his uneasy relationship with the Clintons, it is hard to imagine that he has not spent the past few months privately rooting for an Obama victory. The man certainly has some scores to settle, as well as a perch from which to settle them, should he so choose.

All of this leads, of course, to Florida and Michigan. Flexing his muscles as party boss, Dean insisted that any state that defied his ban on holding primaries before February 5 (other than the chosen four—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) would not have its delegates seated at the Democratic convention in August. Florida and Michigan pushed ahead with their primary elections anyway and Dean held his ground. Even when the two states crawled back to the DNC asking for either forgiveness or a do-over, Dean refused to front the money for a revote.

This is, one might have thought, the sort of thing that would drive the folks at Daily Kos into outright rebellion. One set of party officials battles another, and the result is the effective disenfranchisement of Democratic voters in two of the most important swing states on the electoral map. Surely, people-power (whatever the heck that is) would demand that the blameless denizens of Miami and Muskegon should have their voices heard, whatever the cost. A party that can send real money to Nebraska and Utah can surely spare a couple of bucks so that the voters of actual competitive states can be represented.

Ah, but this is politics, and the DNC chair is now the darling of the netroots (or at least their leaders) and Obama is their candidate. The Kossacks have spent the past two months insisting that "rules is rules" and that Florida and Michigan have earned their punishment, regardless of the fact that ordinary Floridians and Michiganders had little say in the decision. Kos and the gang insist that their newfound devotion to the iron rule of the DNC has nothing to do with the fact that shutting out these two states will virtually assure that Barack Obama receives the Democratic nomination. What a difference four years makes.

As for Dean, it would be difficult to throw darts at a map and hit two states more critical to Democratic prospects of victory in November. Voters tend not to look kindly at a party that has deprived them of their voice in the electoral process. Should these states fall narrowly to John McCain in November, Howard Dean's legacy will be the squandering of the party's most important opportunity to capture the White House since at least 1932. If nothing else, perhaps that will make the world forget his infamous Iowa scream.

Clearly, Michigan and Florida constitute very different cases. Obama's name did not appear on the Michigan ballot, making it difficult to consider the Wolverine State's results valid. In Florida, on the other hand, both local campaigns were active (though neither candidate visited the state) and over 1.5 million voters went to the polls. Senator Clinton's victory there was at least as legitimate as Obama's various triumphs in low-turnout caucus states.

So this is what it comes down to: Will the DNC and its blogging cheerleaders sit idly by while the citizens of two critical swing states are denied the right to participate in the selection of the Democratic presidential nominee? Or are both Dean and the netroots so invested in an Obama victory that they are willing to achieve it through strong-arm tactics better suited to Karl Rove. The credibility of the advocates of "people-powered politics" is very much on the line.

So is that of Howard Dean and his 50—now 48—state strategy.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Faith, Race, and Barack Obama

OK, so let's for the sake of argument assume the worst case scenario. Somewhere a witness or, worse yet, a film clip exists verifying Barack Obama's presence in church at the moment his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, said something controversial and angry. Maybe even something along the lines of "God damn America".

Obviously, this would be devastating to Obama's campaign for president. It might even constitute a death blow. Indeed, the fact that this story has dominated the cable shows for nearly a week has already damaged the senator badly (Obama must wish that Eliot Spitzer had decided to tough it out for a while, rather than resigning immediately). The fallout from his former minister's remarks has been so great that Obama has been forced to schedule a speech today to address the one issue he had hoped to avoid: race in America.

But leaving aside the political consequences, consider what this incident says about Barack Obama the man. The answer, of course, is nothing, or at least nothing bad. Rather, it means that the senator is like a few million other Americans who regularly attend Sunday services and maintain their affiliations despite finding some of their preacher's words to be shocking, disappointing, or irritating.

Imagine that you are the Obamas and that Jeremiah Wright is that man who married you, who baptized your children, and who made the gospel relevant to your lives. Week after week, he inspires you with the teachings of Jesus Christ, emphasizing peace, brotherhood, and forgiveness. Once in a while, however, a brief streak of anger shows, and Wright's disappointment with how the United States has conducted itself spills over into his sermons.

Do you really get up and walk out? Even if you are deeply offended by Reverend Wright's suggestion that God condemns America for its treatment of African Americans (which is, after all, what "damn" means in this context), do you actually break your ties with a community of faith that has sustained you through some of the most difficult times of your life? Or do you shake your head, grit your teeth, and wait for your pastor to return to his day job, understanding that these sorts of diversions, however unsavory, are generally rare?

The notion that one's church can be changed as quickly and effortlessly as a pair of socks is contrary to everything we know about faith and worship. Indeed, the fact that Obama stayed with his church, even knowing how Reverend Wright's words might someday help derail his political ambitions, suggests that the senator's religious devotion is real and not just some convenient political accessory meant to appeal to the faithful. For a man whose authenticity often comes into question, Obama's stubborn unwillingness to abandon his house of worship provides testimony that he is more than just the sum of his ambitions.

There is a larger truth here, too, though it is probably one that Senator Obama, the candidate who supposedly transcends race, cannot tell us. Reverend Wright is in his seventies, meaning that he spent his formative years in the 1940s and 1950s, a time in which African Americans were subject to regular indignities and constant insulting reminders of their second class citizenship. Violence against black men and women was an all-too-common feature of life in many parts of the country, and juries routinely allowed white perpetrators to get away with their crimes. Even a man of God remains a human being, and few could endure such an experience without at least some residual bitterness. And if some of that bitterness occasionally bubbled to the surface during a Sunday sermon, his parishioners, including Obama, no doubt knew how to place it in the proper context and ignore it.

Other Americans, including political candidates, do this all the time without public awareness or condemnation. Many Catholics defy their Pope, practicing birth control and supporting the U.S. war with Iraq. Some protestants attend churches in which homosexuality is condemned as an unforgivable sin, then return home to provide aid and comfort to their gay and lesbian friends. Jeremiah Wright is hardly the only preacher in America ever to have uttered offensive words in a sermon without seeing his flock bolt en masse for the door.

Several weeks ago, John McCain's 95-year old mother made some statements that revealed a clear prejudice against Mormons. The story made the news, of course, but nobody expected McCain to renounce his mother and cut her out of his life. For years, people of faith have insisted that their churches and ministers are part of their spiritual family. If they really mean that—and I think most of them do—then expecting Barack Obama to walk out on Reverend Wright would be little different that asking John McCain to cut ties with his own mother.

The comments made by Jeremiah Wright may well doom Senator Obama's presidential candidacy. But if they do, then the people who caused this to happen—his political opponents, the usual media gasbags, and, indeed, all Americans who turned against him on this basis—should no longer speak about the depth and centrality of faith in their own lives. Not after telling Barack Obama that he is somehow obligated to leave his own church home of twenty years over some gratuitous and offensive expressions of bitterness by an imperfect man of God.

Monday, March 17, 2008

A St. Patrick's Day Message of Hope

On St. Patrick's Day, 2008, I happily recall a trip I took to the Emerald Isle a couple of years ago. The village of Belleek, in Northern Ireland, is known for its pottery, and our tour bus stopped there to give the passengers a chance to pick up a few souvenirs. Having no interest in pottery, I walked across a bridge in search of a pub.

Nothing remarkable about this other than the fact that the bridge crossed the River Erne and took me from County Fermanagh to County Donegal in the Irish Republic. Those of you younger than thirty might not grasp the significance of this, but as I sat down in the pub with a cool pint of Guinness, I reflected on how I had just crossed one of the most contentious borders of the 20th Century without encountering a checkpoint or even seeing so much as a local constable.

When I was a kid, the word "terrorist" was generally used to describe two organizations often referred to by their three-letter abbreviations: the PLO and the IRA. The Palestine Liberation Organization, during the 1960s and 1970s, filled the unfortunate role in the Arab-Israeli conflict now held by Hamas and Hezbollah. Its notorious leader, Yasser Arafat, was one of the most hated men in the world. Nevertheless, in 1993, under the hopeful eye of U.S. President Bill Clinton, Arafat and Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin shook hands in public for the first time and agreed on a commitment to mutual recognition. Although both Arafat and Rabin won the Nobel Peace Prize, the result was only a partial success and cost Rabin his life (he was assassinated two years later).

Bill Clinton's record in international affairs remains badly underrated, especially here in the United States. If his efforts in the Middle East never reached fulfillment, his record in Northern Ireland was nothing short of exceptional. Clinton and his emissary, former Senator George Mitchell, after months of hard work, brought together Protestant loyalists and Catholic IRA leaders on a power sharing agreement and peace treaty signed on Good Friday in 1998. A decade later, the political situation in Belfast remains volatile, but non-violence generally presides in Ulster.

At the time, of course, many Protestants and their British allies viewed the negotiations with the IRA as a stark example of appeasement. The provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army, after all, had been responsible for countless bombings and other acts of deadly terror. And now, many felt, they were being rewarded for their evil deeds by gaining a share of power in Northern Ireland that they had never before enjoyed. These fears multiplied when a Catholic splinter group set off a bomb four months after that wonderful Good Friday in the city of Omagh in County Tyrone. Though the IRA strongly condemned the attack, many Protestants feared that this was only the beginning of the price they would pay for appeasing terrorists.

But it wasn't, at least not so far. Even when political stalemate set in several years after the accords were signed, the IRA did not resort to violence to strengthen their bargaining position. Random assassinations are no longer a daily fear, nor do people treat each parked car as a potential time bomb. And over in Belleek, American tourists can casually stroll across a bridge between two countries that have turned from adversaries to allies.

If there is a lesson here, it is best reflected by John F. Kennedy's inaugural admonition that we must never negotiate out of fear, but we must never fear to negotiate. While the actions of terrorists are often horrible, inhuman, and despicable, little is accomplished by simply dismissing them as being entirely rooted in evil. Evil, after all, is unyielding, unthinking, and utterly divorced from any motivation other than all-encompassing hatred. All negotiation with evil is, by definition, appeasement, since evil will never back down or reverse course.

The things that the Irish Republican Army did during the 1970s and 1980s shocked the conscience of any fully civilized person. But they weren't the product of some satanic darkness of the soul or some fanatical religious fervor that could only be satisfied by killing the unconverted. Rather, these vicious acts of terrorism were a tactic designed to achieve certain objectives. And the objectives were, in the end, points that could be successfully negotiated.

My point--and I hope this is clear--is not that terrorism or terrorists should go unpunished. As JFK said, we cannot negotiate out of fear. But we must also understand that Manichean notions of good and evil, the sort that undergird much of the Bush administration's approach to the world, are ultimately both counterproductive and false.

And right at this very moment, someone is unknowingly proving this simply by crossing the River Erne from Fermanagh to Donegal.

Happy St. Patty's Day.