Monthly Archives: February 2008

I have lost count of how many people have sent me or urged me to read his column on the New York Times and John McCain. As others have remarked, it is a classic–and a Kinsley classic is an awesome thing.

To be absolutely clear: the Times itself was not suggesting that there had been an affair, or even that there had been the appearance of an affair. The Times was reporting that there was a time eight years ago when some people felt there might be the appearance of an affair, although others, apparently including Sen. McCain himself, apparently felt that there was no such appearance.Similarly, I am not accusing the New York Times of screwing up again by publishing an insufficiently sourced article then defending itself with a preposterous assertion that it wasn’t trying to imply what it obviously was trying to imply. I am merely reporting that some people worry that other people might be concerned that the New York Times has created the appearance of screwing up once again.

The article’s final two paragraphs are a triumph. I won’t clip them because you have to read the whole piece, if you haven’t already, to appreciate the full majesty of this crescendo. Because Mike is a writer on politics who is both extremely clever and extremely funny–a gift granted to very few (who else could one point to, apart from the unserious, and much less prolific, P.J. O’Rourke?)–he upsets some of the competition and has his detractors. Well, critics of Kinsley, read this column and weep.

I met the great man only once, and it was an odd experience. Michael Kinsley roped me into appearing in a “Firing Line Debate”, which he, Kinsley, was chairing; presumably I was being asked because somebody else had dropped out. I was to speak on Buckley’s team in favour of the proposition that the budget deficit was a bad thing, or words to that effect. This was back in 1992. In those days a lot of conservatives thought that big deficits were wrong, whereas most liberals thought they mattered not at all and that concern about them was just a ruse for cutting public spending and grinding the faces of the poor.

I had never watched “Firing Line” and I knew Buckley only by his writings and reputation; an innocent foreigner, I did not realise that the debate was essentially just a platform for him to perform. Mike, I recall, kept everybody else to a strict time limit–cutting me off in mid-sentence–in order to give Buckley all the time in the world to orate, with operatic pauses that seemed longer than my entire contribution. At one point, I recall, he read at some length from a sarcastic review I had written of a book by Robert Kuttner, one of our opponents, asking Kuttner exuberantly in conclusion: “What do you think accounts for such animadversion?” What a strange approach, I remember thinking. And surely not terribly effective: Kuttner was entitled to reply, “Why should that be any concern of mine? Ask Crook why he got my book so wrong.”

Did we–well, Buckley, I mean–win? Was the motion even put to a vote? I can’t remember. It turns out there’s an archive of these programs, but this one, unaccountably, is not available for download or purchase. (The synopsis quotes me, I am surprised to see. Did I really say that?)

I came away liking Buckley very much, but resolving not to take part in any more of his debates, for or against. He seemed a charming as well as brilliant man, with a constant twinkle in his eye. National Review says he was “sweet and merry”. The one time I met him, so he was.

Clinton and Obama both did well. I wouldn’t say there was a clear winner, or that anything in the debate was likely to change anybody’s mind–despite good probing questions from Russert and Williams. Hillary came across as the more forceful and dominating of the two, as usual, and Obama the more flexible and reflective. They engaged with no issues of substance that have not already been flogged to death, as far as I could see.

I did think Obama was a little tepid in his denunciation of Farrakhan (and he ignored the part of the question that dealt with his own pastor’s praise of the man; I would have liked to hear him say something about that). But then I think Hillary neutralised her own slight advantage by making a bit too much of it, in a way that seemed forced. Overall, both mainly just underlined their previous messages. Her line: she is a fighter and he is not. His line: she is a fighter apt to lose, and there is a better way to get things done. (Both cite health reform to prove their points.)

They were both more bitterly opposed to NAFTA than ever. Now they are threatening to tear up the agreement altogether unless it is renegotiated in ways that suit the US. I wonder what Mexico and Canada think about that. So much for the new spirit of multilateralism that will help repair the country’s standing in the world. The prospects for liberal trade look bleaker by the week.

The polls seem to be moving Obama’s way in Texas and Ohio. I can’t see this debate changing that, but who knows?

Hillary Clinton’s campaign is not over, but the US presidential election in November seems ever more likely to be between Barack Obama and John McCain. It would be a fascinating struggle and a quite different one from the nomination contests seen up to now. The issue of personality, which dominated the Democratic race from the start, would not disappear – nor should it – but it would subside and leave space for an overdue debate about policy. This shift may test Mr Obama, if he is indeed the nominee, more than he and other Democrats expect.

Mr McCain’s victory speech after the Potomac primaries entirely ignored Mrs Clinton. Without saying his name, Mr McCain attacked Mr Obama. “To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude.” That was a Clintonesque line of attack, to be sure. And of course Mr McCain will emphasise his years of experience (he has more to boast of, quantitatively and qualitatively, than Mrs Clinton) and contrast that with Mr Obama’s callow youth. But whereas the Democratic contest was about nothing else – Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton disagree about almost nothing – the general election will turn on large, substantive questions.

Interesting. Until the last question, I was getting ready to say that this was the first debate that Obama had won outright.

The format, allowing for longer answers than usual, suited him well. He was relaxed and assured. And some of the questions (especially the ones from John King, I thought) were more probing than average, inviting the kind of considered response that plays to Obama’s strength. He did well on the “commander-in-chief” question, too. Oddly, Hillary ignored that one to begin with, preferring to hammer away (with diminishing effect, I thought) on health mandates. When the national-security question was put again, she was not strong, settling for a quick tour of recent events–Cuba, Kosovo, Pakistan–as if to show she reads the foreign-news pages, glancing off lots of specifics but saying nothing about them. Obama answered the question in a broader way, as he does, but this time seemed firmer and more authoritative–”I would not be running for president if I thought I wasn’t ready to be commander-in-chief”.

And I also thought Hillary made a terrible error over the Obama-is-a-plagiarist nonsense. When asked about this accusation, a patently unsuccessful stratagem, instead of walking way from it, she dug herself deeper in, and even used a canned line about Obama’s standing not for “change you can believe in” but “change you can xerox”. Amazing. (I had to ask my wife if I had heard that correctly.) Hillary’s supporters were embarrassed into silence; somebody booed. Obama swatted it away as the kind of stupid politics he is opposed to: case closed. For Hillary to make that mistake in the heat of the moment would have been bad enough. To rehearse it beforehand, as she evidently had, is simply inexplicable.

That was a bad moment, all right, but overall, you understand, she was doing pretty well. We know she is a great debater. It’s just that Obama seeemed to be coming over unusually well in a setting he has often found discomfiting. And so, as I say, I had him as winner on points…until that last question.

“I’m wondering if both of you will describe what was the moment that tested you the most, that moment of crisis.”

Obama’s answer was only OK. He spoke about his life’s “trajectory”–which, who could deny, has been pretty impressive. But Hillary’s answer was superb. Also rehearsed, no doubt–but this time to magical effect. After alluding with a laugh to the fact that “everybody here knows I’ve lived through some crises and some challenging moments in my life,” she said that her problems didn’t really amount to much. She described a recent visit to a hospital where she had met injured soldiers.

And I remember sitting up there and watching them come in. Those who could walk were walking. Those who had lost limbs were trying with great courage to get themselves in without the help of others. Some were in wheelchairs and some were on gurneys. And the speaker representing these wounded warriors had had most of his face disfigured by the results of fire from a roadside bomb.

You know, the hits I’ve taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country.

And I resolved at a very young age that I’d been blessed and that I was called by my faith and by my upbringing to do what I could to give others the same opportunities and blessings that I took for granted.

That’s what gets me up in the morning. That’s what motivates me in this campaign.

Reading the words, it looks false. But delivering them, she was subdued, and seemed moved–as who would not be–and it came over as genuine. A brilliant, self-effacing answer: What are my moments of stress, compared with those facing so many ordinary Americans? What indeed. The stupid pettiness of the plagiarism charge, the strident bossiness of her prating on health care, so characteristically Clintonian, faded out. She stole it at the end, and the closing standing ovation was at least two-thirds for her.

Obama won big. Last week I pointed to an interesting article by Jay Cost which argued against the idea that Obama had already built unstoppable momentum, and showed that demographics could account for his recent run of successes, leaving Texas and Ohio as likely wins for Hillary. Jay’s update on Wisconsin is worth reading. If it is right, the news is bad for Hillary.

Hillary Clinton suffered a stinging blow last night, losing Wisconsin by 15 points. What is worrisome for her is that Obama seems to have broken into several of her core voting groups. This is the first real evidence of momentum we have seen on the Democratic side.

After the Potomac Primary last week, some argued that Obama had already begun to build momentum because of his large victories in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. I thought this talk was hasty. Given the large number of African American voters in each contest, and given that white voters in all three primaries were quite wealthy – Obama’s sizeable victories did not come as a surprise. In particular, 39% of all Maryland Democrats and 39% of all Virginia Democrats claimed to make $100,000 or more per year. So, it is hard to argue that Obama’s success among whites was due to him peeling off portions of the Clinton coalition. What seems more likely is that he won handily because his best voting blocs were in good supply that day.

The same cannot be said for Wisconsin. Just 20% of Wisconsin Democratic voters claimed to make $100,000 or more per year. So, there is strong evidence that, at least last night, Obama expanded his voting coalition. Consider the following chart, which uses the exit polls to review Obama’s margin of victory with key groups in the non-southern states in comparison to his performance with those same groups in Wisconsin last night. obama-margin-of-victory.jpg

So, for instance, Obama won white males in the non-South by 8 points prior to the Potomac Primary. Last night, he won them by 26 points, yielding a net increase of 18 points.

March 4th could settle it.

I should have known this but I confess I didn’t:

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign intends to go after delegates whom Barack Obama has already won in the caucuses and primaries if she needs them to win the nomination.

This strategy was confirmed to me by a high-ranking Clinton official on Monday. And I am not talking about superdelegates, those 795 party big shots who are not pledged to anybody. I am talking about getting pledged delegates to switch sides.

What? Isn’t that impossible? A pledged delegate is pledged to a particular candidate and cannot switch, right?

Wrong…

The notion that pledged delegates must vote for a certain candidate is, according to the Democratic National Committee, a “myth.”

“Delegates are NOT bound to vote for the candidate they are pledged to at the convention or on the first ballot,” a recent DNC memo states. “A delegate goes to the convention with a signed pledge of support for a particular presidential candidate. At the convention, while it is assumed that the delegate will cast their vote for the candidate they are publicly pledged to, it is not required.”

Since you can be “pledged” without being “bound”, this surely raises the question whether you can be “bound” without being “required”, or vice versa, or indeed whether you can be “required” without being “actually required”, or “bound, in fact”. Fortunately the party has a few lawyers on hand, so I’m sure the correct result will emerge in the end…but am I alone in thinking that this system leaves something to be desired?

Something I should have mentioned in my previous post on Obama’s “Patriot Employers” plan is the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that the arrangements he’s proposing are at odds with US treaty obligations under the WTO. Of course I understand that this only makes the idea even more attractive to hardline anti-trade types, Democrat and Republican alike. But I keep being told that one of the reasons for supporting Obama is that he would improve and even transform relations with America’s friends abroad. If he hopes to do that, picking an immediate fight over existing trade agreements might not be the best way to start. (I thank a European diplomat who would doubtless prefer to remain nameless for drawing this to my attention.)

International legality aside, why is the idea such a bad one? The plan appears to have two parts: cut taxes for companies that meet some tests of good behavior, and (to make good the revenue shortfall) raise the tax that US-based companies have to pay on profits earned abroad. The first is the kind of leaden-handed intervention that I had hoped Obama would avoid. The second reprises a discredited idea of John Kerry from 2004.

Let me refresh your memory about that earlier debate. At the moment, foreign investments by US-based companies are usually taxed at a lower rate than would apply to profits earned at home. Why? Because America’s corporate tax rates are higher than the rates typically levied by other countries. Making the US-based company pay the full US domestic rate (ie, the foreign tax, plus a margin to make up the difference) on overseas profits would, it is true, eliminate the tax incentive to invest those profits abroad. But it would also encourage US-based companies to divest their foreign activities outright, and it would put US companies that did continue to operate abroad at a significant disadvantage to their foreign competitors. Realistically, tax avoidance is only one factor, and usually not the main one, in investment decisions of this kind, so the effect of this change on jobs and wages might not be great either way–but I’d guess it more likely to be negative than positive.

Here is a good analysis of the Kerry proposal by Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. On the broader issue of outsourcing–what to do about it, and how much of a probelm it is in the first place–I recommend this paper by Greg Mankiw and Phillip Swagel.

Avidly seeking the blue-collar vote–in Wisconsin today and Texas and Ohio on March 4th–Obama continues to pump up the anti-trade populism, and to tack even further to the left. Ed Luce reports in the FT:

Barack Obama on Monday made an aggressive pitch at Ohio’s blue-collar workers by proposing a “Patriot Employers” plan that would lower corporate taxes for companies that did not ship jobs overseas.

The proposal, which came two weeks before the critical Ohio primary and just before on Tuesday’s nominating contest in Wisconsin, is the most radical any presidential candidate has put forward so far to mitigate the perceived effects of globalisation on US manufacturing…

Mr Obama’s plan would lower the corporate tax rate for companies that met criteria including maintaining their headquarters in the US, maintaining or increasing their US workforce relative to their overseas workforce, holding a neutral position in union drives among their employees and providing decent healthcare.

Yes, it is radical–and, on its economic merits, remarkably stupid. Are we even intended to take this seriously? “Holding a neutral position in union drives,” for heaven’s sake? That becomes a criterion for setting the corporate tax rate? “Providing decent health care,” whatever “decent” means? (I thought he had a plan for reforming healthcare; is this nonsense now part of it?) Hillary is making new populist thrusts as well, but nothing, so far as I know, as barking as this. It would take a lot to persuade me that Obama is the wrong choice for Democratic nominee, but if he keeps this up he might do it. And surely it is all an unforced error; Ed Luce again:

Mr Obama’s plan met instant scepticism from otherwise sympathetic Democratic economists who said it would require a large regulatory apparatus to put into practice. They also said that companies could “game the system” by spinning off overseas subsidiaries in order to reduce the offshore-onshore workforce ratio.

They questioned whether it was necessary to provide incentives for employers to provide health insurance since Mr Obama’s healthcare plan would already mandate them to do so. Finally, Mr Obama has already tied up the estimated $10bn (€6.8bn, £5.1bn) in revenues that would be saved from abolishing tax incentives for multinational companies that retain their profits overseas.

“I would say that this plan is borderline unimplementable,” said a Democratic economist in Washington. “It is also puzzling. Normally presidential candidates only come up with plans that are unrealistic when they are losing. But Obama is now the favourite.”

Earlier my friend Jonathan Rauch directed me to this article by Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune. It argues that Obama is more suspicious of heavy-handed economic intervention than Hillary.

In her campaign, she presents herself as an experienced hand with a penchant for practical solutions, suggesting that her opponent, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, dispenses nothing but vaporous oratory detached from the real world. When it comes to the mortgage meltdown, though, her policy rests on the assumption that upon arriving in the Oval Office, she’ll open the closet and find a magic wand. Obama, by contrast, acknowledges the bitter truth that when government regulators clamber into a carriage, it can easily turn into a pumpkin.

Their approaches to the problem are not an aberration but a symptom of a larger difference. Obama is not a staunch free marketeer, but he grasps the value of markets and shows some deference to economic laws. Clinton, however, tends to treat both as piddly obstacles to her grand ambitions.

As I read the article, I was mostly nodding in agreement. But Obama’s evolving views on corporate patriotism have got me wondering. Can a man who “grasps the value of markets and shows some deference to economic laws” really think this new proposal, political expediency aside, is a good idea?

With eight wins out of eight in the most recent contests and another expected on Tuesday in Wisconsin, Barack Obama is for the first time the clear favourite to win the Democratic nomination. His support continues to broaden: beyond the affluent, who liked him from the outset; beyond blacks, who switched wholesale from Hillary Clinton starting in South Carolina; lately even to the white working class and Latinos.

Those are the constituencies that Mrs Clinton is relying on to win the crucial primaries in populous Texas and Ohio on March 4. As that showdown approaches, contrary to Mrs Clinton’s claim to be the better manager, Mr Obama is running a more effective campaign, with more and better organisers in the right places and more and better advertising at the right times. The Clintons thought it would be all over by now: their planning beyond “Super Tuesday” was perfunctory and they are short of money. It is too soon to count Mrs Clinton out. She is nothing if not tenacious. But for the moment, she and her team are scrambling.

As I argued last week, this is good news for the Democrats. Mr Obama is so much the better candidate that I find the party’s hesitation difficult to credit. But I made the case for Mr Obama in terms of vision, temperament and appeal to uncommitted voters, not policy – where his differences from Mrs Clinton are slight. A fair comment, lodged by many readers, is that, as president, he would be judged by results, not speeches. The greater his appeal at the start, the bigger the disillusionment to come. In a low blow, Tony Blair was mentioned. With that, I knew how Mrs Clinton felt as she watched the results come in from Virginia.

The remainder of this column can be read here. Please post comments below.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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