Monthly Archives: October 2010

Polls can be wrong, but if they are right the Democrats will get their heads handed to them in Tuesday’s midterm elections. If the party loses control of the House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate too, President Barack Obama’s administration will be forced to change course or be stopped in its tracks. Two years after US liberals were celebrating the death of conservatism and the start of a new progressive era, a stunning reversal looks likely.

Dana Milbank sees Obama’s appearance on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show as less than a triumph. I agree.

On Comedy Central, the joke was on President Obama Wednesday night.

The president had come, on the eve of what will almost certainly be the loss of his governing majority, to plead his case before Jon Stewart, gatekeeper of the disillusioned left. But instead of displaying the sizzle that won him an army of youthful supporters two years ago, Obama had a Brownie moment.

The Daily Show host was giving Obama a tough time about hiring the conventional and Clintonian Larry Summers as his top economic advisor.

“In fairness,” the president replied defensively, “Larry Summers did a heckuva job.”

“You don’t want to use that phrase, dude,” Stewart recommended with a laugh.

Dude. The indignity of a comedy show host calling the commander in chief “dude” pretty well captured the moment for Obama.

There was worse.

“You wouldn’t say you’d run this time as a pragmatist? It wouldn’t be, ‘Yes we can, given certain conditions?’”

“I think what I would say is yes we can, but…”

Stewart, and the audience, laughed at the “but.”

Actually they were laughing at Obama.

An excellent piece by John Heilemann describes how Sarah Palin could become the next president. Will she run, he asks? She’s already running, he answers. Could she get the nomination? You betcha. Well, supposing she goes forward to the general election, could a candidate with such a low national approval rating (barely 20% at the moment) actually win? Maybe, so long as she “provoked a credible independent candidacy”.

What if the candidacy in question was that of, oh, Michael Rubens Bloomberg? What would happen then?…

Almost all Democrats and even some Republicans were sure the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a measure opposed by most Americans when Barack Obama signed it in March, would be popular in short order. The electorate is timid about far-reaching change, they reasoned, but once the law passed, people would come around. The act was designed to deliver good news first and bad news later, which would help change minds. Pressing on was not as risky as it looked.

I am startled by the news that NPR has sacked Juan Williams, apparently for saying this on The O’Reilly Factor:

I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.

If you’ve read his books or listened to much of his commentary on Fox or NPR, you know that Williams is not a bigot. That is something that the bloggers celebrating his firing ought to notice. But do his comments, taken in isolation, deserve to be condemned? I don’t think so. Williams was not expressing hatred or intolerance of Muslims. He was confessing to the kind of anxiety that I suspect many and possibly most Americans feel. (Watch the body language in the departure lounge.) He was acknowledging a sad reality.

Jesse Jackson once said,

There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved….

I don’t think that made Jackson a bigot, either. If we want the charge to retain its sting, as we should, we ought to use it cautiously. It needs to mean something worse than ordinary human weakness. Show me some malice. (The remarks that led to Helen Thomas’s forced retirement would qualify.) If what Williams said was bigoted, then this is a nation of bigots, and the term no longer means anything.

Williams is an excellent, open-minded commentator and a great loss to NPR. I think the decision to sack him was shameful.

How deferential should society be to its experts? Joe Klein recently drew attention to the “classic American myth” of the political amateur, possessed of ordinary integrity and plain common sense–Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and all that. Regard for such types can be taken much too far, he argued. Or, as he put it:

There is something profoundly diseased about a society that idolizes its ignoramuses and disdains its experts.

He has a point, no doubt. Still, idolizing experts and disdaining the supposedly ignorant masses is at least as dangerous. The intelligent use of experts is not straightforward. Technical expertise tends to be narrow, sometimes extremely narrow. Many policy-oriented experts are only too pleased to exceed their limits, pronouncing widely and authoritatively on matters they understand hardly any better than non-experts. Economists and climate scientists spring instantly to mind.

Experts are as susceptible to ideological bias and conflict of interest as the rest of us. And one should not forget that they can be plain wrong. Experts often disagree about their own terrain, let alone about the issues that lie beyond it: they cannot all be right. The instinct to put experts in charge of policy and just let them get on with it is deeply misguided.

As I was pondering Klein’s observation I read this Atlantic article on medical research–Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science. It’s sobering. Contempt for experts might be diseased, but intelligent skepticism is surely very healthy.

Last night WV Senate candidates Joe Manchin, supposedly a Democrat, and John Raese, the Tea Party favourite, met (along with the Mountain party and Constitution party candidates, deservedly trailing far behind) in their only planned TV debate. I thought Manchin was not just much the most impressive of the bunch, but the only one remotely fit for high office. Raese has a steady, confident presence, I grant you, and a fine baritone, but his views are anything but calm. He called Obamacare “pure unadulterated socialism”. He is a full-frontal global-warming denier: (a) it isn’t happening and (b) if it were, it wouldn’t be our fault. On foreign policy: “My philosophy has always been very simple. We win, you lose.” Once you understand that, I suppose, the rest is easy.

Think of Manchin, on the other hand, as a moderate Republican running as a Democrat–for which there is much to be said. He is willing to work with Obama, he conceded, but then he is willing to work with anybody. He looked competent, and sounded as though he might know what he was talking about. In this field, that set him apart. I can see why West Virginians might prefer to retain him as governor (see previous post) rather than send him to DC.

What surprised me about the other two candidates was how unprepared they seemed. It was as if they had been picked up at random and brought to the set with sacks over their heads. Asked to make opening statements, they looked instantly wrong-footed: who said anything about opening statements?  Jeff Becker of the state’s Constitution party is a truther, by the way: he answered a question on Afghanistan by pointing out anomalies in the conventional wisdom about  9/11 and (if I understood him correctly, which I cannot swear I did) alleging BBC involvement in the plot.

I say vote Manchin.

Update: Incidentally, you can watch the Manchin TV spot I mentioned in my Monday column about the race here.

West Virginia is one of the poorest and most beautiful states in the union; recently it has been one of the most interesting to students of US politics. As a new (for the moment, part-time) resident, I am following with particular curiosity the battle for the Senate seat formerly occupied, one might say owned, by Democrat Robert Byrd, who died in June. It is indeed a battle, though it should not have been.

From Peter Baker’s profile of Obama in the NYT magazine:

As we talked in the Oval Office, Obama acknowledged that the succession of so many costly initiatives, necessary as they may have been, wore on the public. “That accumulation of numbers on the TV screen night in and night out in those first six months I think deeply and legitimately troubled people,” he told me. “They started feeling like: Gosh, here we are tightening our belts, we’re cutting out restaurants, we’re cutting out our gym membership, in some cases we’re not buying new clothes for the kids. And here we’ve got these folks in Washington who just seem to be printing money and spending it like nobody’s business.”

Restaurants? Gym memberships? Surely things aren’t that bad.

The New Republic has posted some interesting pieces on the politics of climate change. Bill McKibben deplores the anti-science stance of the Republican party. Jim Manzi replies that McKibben and other climate-change activists have relied too much on stirring fear and exaggerating the costs of climate change–a strategy which, evidently, is no longer working.

This is the crux of problem with McKibben’s argument: According to the IPCC, the expected economic costs of global warming are about 3 percent of GDP more than 100 years from now. This is pretty far from the rhetoric of global devastation that McKibben, and so many others, use.

McKibben can use all the scare terms he wants, but this is not a prima facie case that we should want governments to reengineer the energy sector of the global economy coercively around the primary goal of lowering these projected future damages at the expense of, for example, more rapid worldwide economic growth.

Manzi is right about the disconnect between climate-activist rhetoric and the best estimates of what is at stake. The strongest argument for action is the the possibility of catastrophic outcomes much worse than the scenarios the IPCC and other modelers are discussing. Manzi dismisses this far too lightly. Attuning policy to this kind of small and unquantifiable danger is very difficult, but that is the challenge.

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus take on the “green jobs myth”.

The Obama administration’s own analyses concluded that cap-and-trade would have resulted in net job loss, not job creation. That’s because the primary obstacle to building a clean-energy economy is not the absence of a carbon price, such as the one that would have been created by cap-and-trade. Rather, it is the vast price gap between fossil fuels and clean-energy technologies. While fossil fuels are energy dense, widely available, easy to consume, and supported by a well developed infrastructure, the alternatives are costly, cumbersome, intermittent, or all of the above.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus see little purpose in cap and trade, or other ways to raise the price of carbon. They want long-term public investment in green innovation instead. Must it be one or the other? These look like complementary approaches to me. Do both in moderation. The political challenge of bringing public opinion round has to be dealt with in either case.

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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