Sunday, February 24

¿Quién Es Less Macho?


If this is truly the Decline and Fall of the Clinton Empire, it is marked by one freaky stroke of bad luck and one striking historical irony.

How likely is it that a woman who finally unfetters herself from one superstar then finds herself eclipsed by another?

And when historians trace how her inevitability dissolved, they will surely note this paradox: The first serious female candidate for president was rejected by voters drawn to the more feminine management style of her male rival.

The bullying and bellicosity of the Bush administration have left many Americans exhausted and yearning for a more nurturing and inclusive style.

Sixteen years of politicians in Washington clashing in epic if not always essential battle through culture wars, the right-wing war against the Clintons, the war-without-end on terror, and the war-with-no-end-in-sight in Iraq have spawned a desire for peace and pragmatism.

Hillary was so busy trying to prove she could be one of the boys — getting on the Armed Services Committee, voting to let W. go to war in Iraq, strong-arming supporters and donors, and trying to out-macho Obama — that she only belatedly realized that many Democratic and independent voters, especially women, were eager to move from hard-power locker-room tactics to a soft-power sewing circle approach.

Less towel-snapping and more towel color coordinating, less steroids and more sensitivity.

Business schools have begun teaching the value of a less autocratic leadership style, with an emphasis on behavior women excel at: reading emotions and social interactions, making eye contact and expressing empathy.

At the University of Texas on Thursday morning, Obama proved that he was not a cowboy in overdrive like W. when he demurred at throwing a spiral because his pass might not be as good as the Longhorn stars’.

After so many years when W. and Cheney stomped on the world and the world glared back, many Americans would like to see their government focus more on those staples of female fiction: relationships and conversation.

At first in Austin, Hillary did not channel Jane Austen. She tried once more to cast Obama as a weak sister on his willingness to talk to Raúl Castro.

Obama tapped into his inner chick and turned the other cheek. To cheers, he said, “I think that it’s important for us, in undoing the damage that has been done over the last seven years, for the president to be willing to take that extra step.”

Hillary tried to rough up Obama on copying his pal’s language even as she copied her husband’s line from 1992: “The hits that I took in this election are nothing compared to the hits that the people in this state and this country are taking every day of their lives under this administration.”

While Obama looked at her warily, even fearfully, Hillary suddenly switched to her feminine side. Getting New Hampshire misty, she said she was “absolutely honored” to be there with him and that “whatever happens, we’re going to be fine.” (Her campaign defended the originality of the John Edwardsian sentiment, saying it had even been expressed by the likes of Lindsay Lohan). The press hailed the moment as heartfelt, but it was simply Hillary’s calculated attempt to woo women and protect her future in the party — by seeming more collegial. She’s furious that the Chicago kid got in the picture.

Her “My sister, my daughter” flip from muscular to tremulous left everyone confused. Many characterized her emulation of empathy as elegiac and submissive.

But she dispelled that Friday morning when she told Evan Smith, the editor of Texas Monthly, that she will push for Florida and Michigan delegates to be seated, despite her promise. Not for herself, mind you, but for them. “It’s in large measure because both the voters and the elected officials in Michigan and Florida feel so strongly about this,” she said.

Among her other cascading woes, it turns out that Hillary is not able to manage her political family’s money. Like a prudent housekeeper, Obama spent the cash he raised — including from his continuing relationships with small donors — far more shrewdly, on ads rather than on himself.

Hillaryland spent like a hedge fund manager in a flat-screen TV store. Her campaign attempted to show omnipotence by lavishing a fortune on the take-no-prisoners strategists Howard Wolfson and Mark Penn, and on having the best of everything from the set decoration at events to Four Seasons rooms. In January alone, they spent $11,000 on pizza, $1,200 on Dunkin’ Donuts and $95,384 at a Des Moines Hy-Vee grocery store for get-out-the-vote sandwich platters.

But total domination in the snack arena does not cut the mustard.

The Audacity of Hopelessness


WHEN people one day look back at the remarkable implosion of the Hillary Clinton campaign, they may notice that it both began and ended in the long dark shadow of Iraq.

It’s not just that her candidacy’s central premise — the priceless value of “experience” — was fatally poisoned from the start by her still ill-explained vote to authorize the fiasco. Senator Clinton then compounded that 2002 misjudgment by pursuing a 2008 campaign strategy that uncannily mimicked the disastrous Bush Iraq war plan. After promising a cakewalk to the nomination — “It will be me,” Mrs. Clinton told Katie Couric in November — she was routed by an insurgency.

The Clinton camp was certain that its moneyed arsenal of political shock-and-awe would take out Barack Hussein Obama in a flash. The race would “be over by Feb. 5,” Mrs. Clinton assured George Stephanopoulos just before New Year’s. But once the Obama forces outwitted her, leaving her mission unaccomplished on Super Tuesday, there was no contingency plan. She had neither the boots on the ground nor the money to recoup.

That’s why she has been losing battle after battle by double digits in every corner of the country ever since. And no matter how much bad stuff happened, she kept to the Bush playbook, stubbornly clinging to her own Rumsfeld, her chief strategist, Mark Penn. Like his prototype, Mr. Penn is bigger on loyalty and arrogance than strategic brilliance. But he’s actually not even all that loyal. Mr. Penn, whose operation has billed several million dollars in fees to the Clinton campaign so far, has never given up his day job as chief executive of the public relations behemoth Burson-Marsteller. His top client there, Microsoft, is simultaneously engaged in a demanding campaign of its own to acquire Yahoo.

Clinton fans don’t see their standard-bearer’s troubles this way. In their view, their highly substantive candidate was unfairly undone by a lightweight showboat who got a free ride from an often misogynist press and from naïve young people who lap up messianic language as if it were Jim Jones’s Kool-Aid. Or as Mrs. Clinton frames it, Senator Obama is all about empty words while she is all about action and hard work.

But it’s the Clinton strategists, not the Obama voters, who drank the Kool-Aid. The Obama campaign is not a vaporous cult; it’s a lean and mean political machine that gets the job done. The Clinton camp has been the slacker in this race, more words than action, and its candidate’s message, for all its purported high-mindedness, was and is self-immolating.

The gap in hard work between the two campaigns was clear well before Feb. 5. Mrs. Clinton threw as much as $25 million at the Iowa caucuses without ever matching Mr. Obama’s organizational strength. In South Carolina, where last fall she was up 20 percentage points in the polls, she relied on top-down endorsements and the patina of inevitability, while the Obama campaign built a landslide-winning organization from scratch at the grass roots. In Kansas, three paid Obama organizers had the field to themselves for three months; ultimately Obama staff members outnumbered Clinton staff members there 18 to 3.

In the last battleground, Wisconsin, the Clinton campaign was six days behind Mr. Obama in putting up ads and had only four campaign offices to his 11. Even as Mrs. Clinton clings to her latest firewall — the March 4 contests — she is still being outhustled. Last week she told reporters that she “had no idea” that the Texas primary system was “so bizarre” (it’s a primary-caucus hybrid), adding that she had “people trying to understand it as we speak.” Perhaps her people can borrow the road map from Obama’s people. In Vermont, another March 4 contest, The Burlington Free Press reported that there were four Obama offices and no Clinton offices as of five days ago. For what will no doubt be the next firewall after March 4, Pennsylvania on April 22, the Clinton campaign is sufficiently disorganized that it couldn’t file a complete slate of delegates by even an extended ballot deadline.

This is the candidate who keeps telling us she’s so competent that she’ll be ready to govern from Day 1. Mrs. Clinton may be right that Mr. Obama has a thin résumé, but her disheveled campaign keeps reminding us that the biggest item on her thicker résumé is the health care task force that was as botched as her presidential bid.

Given that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama offer marginally different policy prescriptions — laid out in voluminous detail by both, by the way, on their Web sites — it’s not clear what her added-value message is. The “experience” mantra has been compromised not only by her failure on the signal issue of Iraq but also by the deadening lingua franca of her particular experience, Washingtonese. No matter what the problem, she keeps rolling out another commission to solve it: a commission for infrastructure, a Financial Product Safety Commission, a Corporate Subsidy Commission, a Katrina/Rita Commission and, to deal with drought, a water summit.

As for countering what she sees as the empty Obama brand of hope, she offers only a chilly void: Abandon hope all ye who enter here. This must be the first presidential candidate in history to devote so much energy to preaching against optimism, against inspiring language and — talk about bizarre — against democracy itself. No sooner does Mrs. Clinton lose a state than her campaign belittles its voters as unrepresentative of the country.

Bill Clinton knocked states that hold caucuses instead of primaries because “they disproportionately favor upper-income voters” who “don’t really need a president but feel like they need a change.” After the Potomac primary wipeout, Mr. Penn declared that Mr. Obama hadn’t won in “any of the significant states” outside of his home state of Illinois. This might come as news to Virginia, Maryland, Washington and Iowa, among the other insignificant sites of Obama victories. The blogger Markos Moulitsas Zúniga has hilariously labeled this Penn spin the “insult 40 states” strategy.

The insults continued on Tuesday night when a surrogate preceding Mrs. Clinton onstage at an Ohio rally, Tom Buffenbarger of the machinists’ union, derided Obama supporters as “latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust-fund babies.” Even as he ranted, exit polls in Wisconsin were showing that Mr. Obama had in fact won that day among voters with the least education and the lowest incomes. Less than 24 hours later, Mr. Obama received the endorsement of the latte-drinking Teamsters.

If the press were as prejudiced against Mrs. Clinton as her campaign constantly whines, debate moderators would have pushed for the Clinton tax returns and the full list of Clinton foundation donors to be made public with the same vigor it devoted to Mr. Obama’s “plagiarism.” And it would have showered her with the same ridicule that Rudy Giuliani received in his endgame. With 11 straight losses in nominating contests, Mrs. Clinton has now nearly doubled the Giuliani losing streak (six) by the time he reached his Florida graveyard. But we gamely pay lip service to the illusion that she can erect one more firewall.

The other persistent gripe among some Clinton supporters is that a hard-working older woman has been unjustly usurped by a cool young guy intrinsically favored by a sexist culture. Slate posted a devilish video mash-up of the classic 1999 movie “Election”: Mrs. Clinton is reduced to a stand-in for Tracy Flick, the diligent candidate for high school president played by Reese Witherspoon, and Mr. Obama is implicitly cast as the mindless jock who upsets her by dint of his sheer, unearned popularity.

There is undoubtedly some truth to this, however demeaning it may be to both candidates, but in reality, the more consequential ur-text for the Clinton 2008 campaign may be another Hollywood classic, the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy “Pat and Mike” of 1952. In that movie, the proto-feminist Hepburn plays a professional athlete who loses a tennis or golf championship every time her self-regarding fiancé turns up in the crowd, pulling her focus and undermining her confidence with his grandstanding presence.

In the 2008 real-life remake of “Pat and Mike,” it’s not the fiancé, of course, but the husband who has sabotaged the heroine. The single biggest factor in Hillary Clinton’s collapse is less sexism in general than one man in particular — the man who began the campaign as her biggest political asset. The moment Bill Clinton started trash-talking about Mr. Obama and raising the specter of a co-presidency, even to the point of giving his own televised speech ahead of his wife’s on the night she lost South Carolina, her candidacy started spiraling downward.

What’s next? Despite Mrs. Clinton’s valedictory tone at Thursday’s debate, there remains the fear in some quarters that whether through sleights of hand involving superdelegates or bogus delegates from Michigan or Florida, the Clintons might yet game or even steal the nomination. I’m starting to wonder. An operation that has waged political war as incompetently as the Bush administration waged war in Iraq is unlikely to suddenly become smart enough to pull off that duplicitous a “victory.” Besides, after spending $1,200 on Dunkin’ Donuts in January alone, this campaign simply may not have the cash on hand to mount a surge.

Friday, February 22

The "Xerox" Moment

It'd be a shame to think that, for all the energy and potential of Hillary's campaign, one of the last great mistakes might been the "Xerox" moment in the Texas debate with Obama.

From Slate:

"The Wisconsin vote, in which Obama won the majority of people who had made up their minds in the previous week, proved just how ineffective the attacks had been. Something about the charges wasn’t sticking. But the Clinton camp apparently hadn’t learned its lesson. During the debate, Hillary does conspicuously decline to attack Obama in a few places. Twice, when asked whether he could be commander-in-chief, she demurs. But the Xerox line—so plodding, so preplanned, so poorly timed (Obama was coming off an elegant flourish about words vs. deeds)—will survive the night."


"It's change you can Xerox?!?" What high-priced rhetorician came up with this plodding nonsense? Why not something that makes some semblance of grammatical sense, such as, "If leadership is about authenticity and character, one should at least have the decency to own one's own words." Or something like that. Actually, I know what it is - they were trying for the ill-conceived unconsious meme theory that some progressives have gotten from Lakoff where the goal is to say something so spectacular that it "sticks" in the mind and works to overcome a previously entrenched mental frame. The big example so far, not spectacularly successful in my humble opinion, was "General Petreus, don't Betray Us!" And, of course, its impossible to tell these people it didn't work, because they characteristically take all evidence of public outrage as an indication of efficacy.

Nevertheless, I think - as surely anyone could have predicted - that the Xerox line not only fell flat, but clinched associations of Clinton with the hard-scrable politics of the mid-90s cultural wars which they would much rather forget.

Wednesday, February 20

An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton

Hillary, we have to talk.

I know you have a lot of highly paid consultants, but they don't seem to be doing much for you at present. Me, I've got a Ph.D in Rhetoric from UC Berkeley and a few minutes to kill before I go to bed.

I like you. I think you'd be a great president. I'm hoping Obama will win the nomination, but I'd vote for you in a heartbeat if you ended up getting the nod.

This seems increasingly unlikely, however, because you have been doing virtually everything wrong for a while now. Where to begin?

Change vs Experience

What moron came up with this frame? First, you don't have a lot of experience, and second, a lot of your experience is losing or getting attacked. You don't pick a boxer who's gotten the #$@* beat out of him because he claims to be "experienced." That's not really the kind of experience people are looking for. You'd rather pick the fresh face who looks like he might be the next Ali. Why surrender the change mantle to Obama? That's mistake #1.

Pretty speeches

Hillary, even your working class demographic is smart enough to see the basic performative contradiction here. You're forced to make speeches claiming speeches are evil. Powerful speeches of your own which take discredit the idea of making powerful speeches. It's just a silly tack, and it's never going to work. Speeches are the coin of the realm. You can talk all you want about "action", but all you're doing- and all you _can_ do, is talk. And people see that. They're never going to think, well, that guy's really inspiring and makes me feel good and everything, but she says he's full of it. Which do you think they're ultimately going to choose? You're totally playing into his trap. He says you're the old, evil establishment, the obstinate, bickering, my-way-or-the-highway style politics, and what do you do? You go ahead and prove him right! This is why the Democrats lose time and time again. The Republicans pick some generally affable bonehead who repeats a few easy feel-good lines until everyone has them in their head like the latest hit pop song. The Democrats? They get someone like Mondale or Dukakis or Gore or Kerry who reads position papers and lectures people and generally has no charisma whatsoever.

You'd think it would be warning sign when all the papers have lead stories saying "Clinton and McCain make same attacks against Obama." Can you imagine anything worse for your image than being associated with McCain in terms of both your style and your "experience." Not only are you crushing the "change" idea you're supposed to be embodying, but you're regressing to the very thing people are asking for change FROM!

Look, it may be too late at this point, but just ignore Obama. Make some pretty speeches of your own. Stress the good ideas you have. SHOW, don't tell, the voters what a great, charismatic, inspiring leader you can be. Show them that you, like Obama, can bring all kinds of new faces into the Democratic party, even bring over some Bush Republicans to our side. Be the kind, generous Queen who is so strong she can constantly speak good about Obama and know that she will get the nomination because of it. If you go the annoying, hectoring nag route, you'll play into every negative perception that's ever been floated about you, and sympathy will balloon for Obama and you'll be done.

Honestly, though, I don't think there's any hope at this point. Wisconsin voters think Obama has a better chance against McCain by a 2:1 margin, and Wisconsin was supposed to be a good state for you. Here's my prediction for the coming weeks:

1) your dumb advisors will tell you to go on the attack, to tear down Obama by any means necessary.

2) this will backfire massively. you will be increasingly viewed as unstatesmanlike, lacking in grace and poise, and positively embodying the very negativity that Obama's campaign is claiming to transcend. You may squeek a win in Ohio and Texas, but it will not be a blow out, and Obama will keep his momentum simply by virtue of stopping you. Superdelegates will be under increasing pressure to side with Obama, since he is now leading you in a prospective McCain matchup in every poll. Furthermore, your claims that Obama can't take the heat against a republican will be shown to be false, because people will see you turning up the heat and getting nowhere, which is precisely what McCain is going to do to no avail. McCain is a thousand years old, completely uninspiring as a prospective leader, embodies all the fear-mongering that people have now come to despise about the Bush administration, is amazingly gung-ho about a massively unpopular war, has no great plans to do anything other than maintain the status quo when polls have routinely shown Americans do not like the status quo, and last but certainly not least, is not even well-loved by the Republican base. The more people see and hear Obama, the more of a blow-out this race will become.

Monday, February 18

What is the point of a paper of record that decides the untarnished record is too much for readers?

What is the point of a paper of record that decides the untarnished record is too much for readers?

By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Monday, Feb. 18, 2008, at 11:53 AM ET

Do you ever wonder what is the greatest enemy of the free press? One might mention a few conspicuous foes, such as the state censor, the monopolistic proprietor, the advertiser who wants either favorable coverage or at least an absence of unfavorable coverage, and so forth. But the most insidious enemy is the cowardly journalist and editor who doesn't need to be told what to do, because he or she has already internalized the need to please—or at least not to offend—the worst tyranny of all, which is the safety-first version of public opinion.

Take, just for an example, the obituaries for Earl Butz, a once-important Republican politician who served Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford as secretary for agriculture until compelled to resign after making a loutish and humorless observation in the hearing of the Watergate whistle-blower John Dean. In the words of his New York Times obituarist, Butz (who "died in his sleep while visiting his son William," which, I must say, makes the male offspring sound exceptionally soporific) had "described blacks as 'coloreds' who wanted only three things—satisfying sex, loose shoes and a warm bathroom." There isn't a grown-up person with a memory of 1976 who doesn't recall that Butz said that Americans of African descent required only "a tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit." Had this witless bigotry not been reported accurately, he might have held onto his job. But any reader of the paper who was less than 50 years old could have read right past the relevant sentence without having the least idea of what the original controversy had been "about."

What on earth is the point of a newspaper of record that decides that the record itself may be too much for us to bear? My question is prompted by some recent developments from a previous front-page sensation. In Denmark last week, the authorities detained three people in an alleged plot to murder a 72-year-old Dane named Kurt Westergaard. Westergaard is an illustrator who lives peacefully in a university town. Not very long ago, he joined with other cartoonists in an open society in drawing some caricatures of the alleged "prophet" Mohammed. The object of the satire was to break the largely self-imposed taboo on the criticism of Islam and its various icons. The satire was wildly successful, in that it resulted in hysterical Muslims making public idols out of images they had proclaimed to be unshowable lest they became idols. Much nasty violence and intimidation accompanied this stupidity.

Anyway, last week, almost every Danish newspaper made a deliberate decision to reprint the offending cartoons. Perhaps, if you live in most of the countries where this column of mine is syndicated or reprinted, you wonder what all the fuss can have been about. Certainly, if you live in the United States or Britain, you will be wondering still. This is because your newspapers have decided for you—as with Butz—that you must be shielded from the unpalatable truth. Or can it really be that? We live in the defining age of the image and the picture; how can it be that the whole point of an entirely visual story can be deliberately left out? (To see the original cartoons, by the way, click here.) I have a feeling that the decision to protect you from the images was determined this time by something as vulgar as fear.

The cowardice of the mainstream American culture was something to see the first time around. The only magazines that bucked the self-censorship trend, or the capitulation to undisguised terror, were the conservative Weekly Standard and the atheist Free Inquiry—two outlets (for both of which I have written) with a rather small combined circulation. Borders thereupon pulled Free Inquiry from its shelves, with the negligible consequence that I will never do a reading or buy a book at any of its sites ever again. (By the way, I urge you to follow suit.) I think it's pretty safe to say that most Americans never even saw this sellout going on. But that was because their own newspapers were too shamefaced to report a surrender of which they were themselves a part.

In Canada, only two minority papers reprinted the cartoons. The Western Standard, now online only, and the Jewish Free Press were promptly taken before a sort of scrofulous bureaucratic peoples' court describing itself as the Alberta Human Rights Commission. If you think that's a funny name, try the title of the complainant: the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada. Who knows how long such a stupid "hate speech" case might have dragged on or how much public money and time it might have consumed, but last week the Islamic supremes decided to drop it. "I understand that most Canadians see this as an issue of freedom of speech," said Syed Soharwardy of the case that he had originated, adding "that principle is sacred and holy in our society." Soharwardy went on to say, rather condescendingly perhaps, that: "I believe Canadian society is mature enough not to absorb the messages that the cartoons sent. Only a very small fraction of Canadian media decided to publish those cartoons." Without the word not and without the sinister idea that Soharwardy's permission is required for anything, that first sentence would have been a perfectly good if banal statement. But with the addition of his remark about the "small fraction" and the concomitant satisfaction about the general reticence, we have no choice but to conclude that Soharwardy is satisfied on the whole with the level of frightened deference to be found north of the U.S. border. I mention this only because the level of frightened deference to be found south of that border is still far in excess of what any censor, or even self-censor, might dare to wish.

“Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain.”

The New York Times
February 18, 2008

Poverty Is Poison

“Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain.” That was the opening of an article in Saturday’s Financial Times, summarizing research presented last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

As the article explained, neuroscientists have found that “many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development.” The effect is to impair language development and memory — and hence the ability to escape poverty — for the rest of the child’s life.

So now we have another, even more compelling reason to be ashamed about America’s record of failing to fight poverty.

L. B. J. declared his “War on Poverty” 44 years ago. Contrary to cynical legend, there actually was a large reduction in poverty over the next few years, especially among children, who saw their poverty rate fall from 23 percent in 1963 to 14 percent in 1969.

But progress stalled thereafter: American politics shifted to the right, attention shifted from the suffering of the poor to the alleged abuses of welfare queens driving Cadillacs, and the fight against poverty was largely abandoned.

In 2006, 17.4 percent of children in America lived below the poverty line, substantially more than in 1969. And even this measure probably understates the true depth of many children’s misery.

Living in or near poverty has always been a form of exile, of being cut off from the larger society. But the distance between the poor and the rest of us is much greater than it was 40 years ago, because most American incomes have risen in real terms while the official poverty line has not. To be poor in America today, even more than in the past, is to be an outcast in your own country. And that, the neuroscientists tell us, is what poisons a child’s brain.

America’s failure to make progress in reducing poverty, especially among children, should provoke a lot of soul-searching. Unfortunately, what it often seems to provoke instead is great creativity in making excuses.

Some of these excuses take the form of assertions that America’s poor really aren’t all that poor — a claim that always has me wondering whether those making it watched any TV during Hurricane Katrina, or for that matter have ever looked around them while visiting a major American city.

Mainly, however, excuses for poverty involve the assertion that the United States is a land of opportunity, a place where people can start out poor, work hard and become rich.

But the fact of the matter is that Horatio Alger stories are rare, and stories of people trapped by their parents’ poverty are all too common. According to one recent estimate, American children born to parents in the bottom fourth of the income distribution have almost a 50 percent chance of staying there — and almost a two-thirds chance of remaining stuck if they’re black.

That’s not surprising. Growing up in poverty puts you at a disadvantage at every step.

I’d bracket those new studies on brain development in early childhood with a study from the National Center for Education Statistics, which tracked a group of students who were in eighth grade in 1988. The study found, roughly speaking, that in modern America parental status trumps ability: students who did very well on a standardized test but came from low-status families were slightly less likely to get through college than students who tested poorly but had well-off parents.

None of this is inevitable.

Poverty rates are much lower in most European countries than in the United States, mainly because of government programs that help the poor and unlucky.

And governments that set their minds to it can reduce poverty. In Britain, the Labor government that came into office in 1997 made reducing poverty a priority — and despite some setbacks, its program of income subsidies and other aid has achieved a great deal. Child poverty, in particular, has been cut in half by the measure that corresponds most closely to the U.S. definition.

At the moment it’s hard to imagine anything comparable happening in this country. To their credit — and to the credit of John Edwards, who goaded them into it — both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are proposing new initiatives against poverty. But their proposals are modest in scope and far from central to their campaigns.

I’m not blaming them for that; if a progressive wins this election, it will be by promising to ease the anxiety of the middle class rather than aiding the poor. And for a variety of reasons, health care, not poverty, should be the first priority of a Democratic administration.

But ultimately, let’s hope that the nation turns back to the task it abandoned — that of ending the poverty that still poisons so many American lives.



The New York Times
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February 22, 2008
Children in Poverty: There Is No Excuse

To the Editor:

“Poverty Is Poison,” by Paul Krugman (column, Feb. 18), echoes what members of Congress heard at a national summit meeting about child development that Democrats convened last year. Children who grow up in poverty have a much lower chance of success in school and in life, but investments in early childhood development help to even the odds, offering hope and opportunity where little existed before.

The despair that poverty brings to millions of American children compels us to take a serious and sustained national approach. Last year’s bipartisan revamping of the Head Start program to focus on early intervention was huge progress; now we need to do the hard work of making sure this important initiative is financed.

Other solutions can be found in our tax policy — we can reward parents struggling to lift their families out of poverty.

Democrats insisted that the recent economic stimulus package include rebate checks for 35 million families who work but earn too little to pay federal income tax, and we included additional benefits for families with children. The approach of these recovery rebates is similar to that of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is widely recognized as one of America’s most effective anti-poverty policies.

Poverty is indeed poison — to the children who fall prey to it, and to the future strength of our nation. With a singularity of purpose, America can develop an antidote.

Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House
Washington, Feb. 20, 2008

To the Editor:

Paul Krugman is right that the “War on Poverty” 44 years ago had a positive effect by reducing poverty, particularly among children. That this effort to improve the lives of millions of Americans was derailed by reactionary politics couldn’t be more true.

In the late 1960s, I was responsible for coordinating federal antipoverty programs for the six states of the Northeast at the United States Office of Economic Opportunity. I saw firsthand the positive effects of programs like Head Start, the Job Corps and the Neighborhood Youth Corps — designed to help children and teenagers.

I also witnessed the cynical, systematic attacks on these programs by Richard M. Nixon and his point man, Spiro T. Agnew. The phony rhetoric they used to stigmatize the programs was passed along by the media. Thus, “economic opportunity” programs became “minority” and then “welfare dependency” ones. The reality was that two-thirds of the poor being served were white.

Nixon severely weakened the national initiatives, and then Ronald Reagan abolished the coordinated federal effort altogether in 1981. (At the time I was chairman of the president’s National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity.) The consequence: four million Americans were driven into poverty, most of whom were women and children.

Poverty is poison, and politics can be toxic.

Arthur I. Blaustein
Berkeley, Calif., Feb. 18, 2008

To the Editor:

Paul Krugman helps shatter the myth that there is nothing we can do about poverty. Too many people think that the state of poverty in America is inevitable, never questioning what we can do to change it nor looking at the inspiring progress of other industrialized nations.

I believe that it is possible not only to end poverty in the United States, but also to end extreme poverty around the globe within our lifetime. Our country can help make this happen by passing the Global Poverty Act and holding ourselves accountable for our part in achieving the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

Cynthia Changyit Levin
Morton Grove, Ill., Feb. 18, 2008

To the Editor:

Having worked in Newark for over a decade, I am bewildered that people could believe that poor Americans are not that poor.

Poverty anywhere is not a fixed notion but a relationship between the resources available to the general public and the resources available to the poor. From health care and nutrition to transportation and access to good schools, poor children and their families struggle every minute of every day. Those who do climb out of poverty have done so with immense and uncommon personal effort. Not everyone is so gifted.

John Edwards did indeed set the stage for Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton to follow on this matter.

Jo Ann Joseph
Glen Ridge, N.J., Feb. 18, 2008

To the Editor:

In a new study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, cognitive neuroscientists found that while stories were being read to children of poverty, they were “less able to screen out noises embedded in the stories” than were children from more affluent families. Such evidence suggests that cognitive skills are strongly influenced by environment.

Since distractions of all kinds, including those that stem from difficult home environments and antisocial street behaviors, are a constant in the lives or many poor children, it is no wonder that their reading test scores suffer. Nor is it then surprising that as a consequence, dropouts and suspensions are disproportionate among minority children, especially black boys.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, now all but forgotten, needs to be revived by our next president.

Jerrold Ross
Jamaica, Queens, Feb. 18, 2008

The writer is dean of the school of education, St. John’s University.

Sunday, February 17

Obama votes uncounted in NYC- Clinton tricks?

[I heard reports of in my heavily pro-Obama section own part of Brooklyn, of people who reportedly saw people taking the tallies simply put down "0 votes" for Obama regardless of what the actual number was. Sounds too incredible to believe, except that now there's proof that a number of areas were supposedly won by over 100 to 0. No votes for Obama whatsoever? None? Sound fishy? Read on...]

The New York Times
February 16, 2008
Unofficial Tallies in City Understated Obama Vote


Black voters are heavily represented in the 94th Election District in Harlem’s 70th Assembly District. Yet according to the unofficial results from the New York Democratic primary last week, not a single vote in the district was cast for Senator Barack Obama.

That anomaly was not unique. In fact, a review by The New York Times of the unofficial results reported on primary night found about 80 election districts among the city’s 6,106 where Mr. Obama supposedly did not receive even one vote, including cases where he ran a respectable race in a nearby district.

City election officials this week said that their formal review of the results, which will not be completed for weeks, had confirmed some major discrepancies between the vote totals reported publicly — and unofficially — on primary night and the actual tally on hundreds of voting machines across the city.

In the Harlem district, for instance, where the primary night returns suggested a 141 to 0 sweep by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the vote now stands at 261 to 136. In an even more heavily black district in Brooklyn — where the vote on primary night was recorded as 118 to 0 for Mrs. Clinton — she now barely leads, 118 to 116.

The history of New York elections has been punctuated by episodes of confusion, incompetence and even occasional corruption. And election officials and lawyers for both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton agree that it is not uncommon for mistakes to be made by weary inspectors rushing on election night to transcribe columns of numbers that are delivered first to the police and then to the news media.

That said, in a presidential campaign in which every vote at the Democratic National Convention may count, a swing of even a couple of hundred votes in New York might help Mr. Obama gain a few additional delegates.

City election officials said they were convinced that there was nothing sinister to account for the inaccurate initial counts, and The Times’s review found a handful of election districts in the city where Mrs. Clinton received zero votes in the initial results.

“It looked like a lot of the numbers were wrong, probably the result of human error,” said Marcus Cederqvist, who was named executive director of the Board of Elections last month. He said such discrepancies between the unofficial and final count rarely affected the raw vote outcome because “they’re not usually that big.”

On primary night, Mrs. Clinton was leading with 57 percent to Mr. Obama’s 40 percent in New York State, which meant she stood to win 139 delegates to Mr. Obama’s 93, with 49 others known as superdelegates going to the national convention unaffiliated.

Jerome A. Koenig, a former chief of staff to the State Assembly’s election law committee and a lawyer for the Obama campaign, suggested that some of the discrepancy resulted from the design of the ballot.

Candidates were listed from left to right in an order selected by drawing lots. Mrs. Clinton was first, followed by Gov. Bill Richardson and Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., who in most election districts received zero votes, and by John Edwards, who got relatively few. Mr. Obama was fifth, just before Representative Dennis J. Kucinich.

Mr. Koenig said he seriously doubted that anything underhanded was at work because local politicians care more about elections that matter specifically to them.

“They steal votes for elections like Assembly District leader, where people have a personal stake,” he said.

A number of political leaders also scoffed at the possibility that local politicians, even if they considered it vital that Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton prevail in the primary, were capable of even trying to hijack such a contest.

Still, for those inclined to consider conspiracy theories, the figures provided plenty of grist.

The 94th Election District in Harlem, for instance, sits within the Congressional district represented by Charles B. Rangel, an original supporter of Mrs. Clinton.

Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright, a Clinton supporter who represents the same area, said he was confident that there was an innocent explanation for the original count giving Mr. Obama zero votes.

“I’m sure it’s a clerical error of some sort,” Mr. Wright said. “Being around elections for the last 25 years, no candidate receives zero votes.”

But Gordon J. Davis, a former New York City parks commissioner and an Obama poll watcher in the district, remained skeptical, even after being informed of the corrected count.

“First it was reported at 141 to 0, now it’s 261 to 136 in an Assembly district that went 12,000 to 8,000 for Barack,” Mr. Davis said on Friday.

“I was watching like a hawk, but how did I know the machine had a mind of its own?” he added. “And I speak as one who grew up on the South Side of Chicago where we delivered the margin of victory for John F. Kennedy at 4 in the morning.”

At the sprawling Riverside Park Community apartments at Broadway and 135th Street, Alician D. Barksdale said she had voted for Mr. Obama and her daughter had, too, by absentee ballot.

“Everyone around here voted for him,” she said.

The 53rd Assembly District, in Brooklyn, is represented by the borough’s Democratic chairman, Assemblyman Vito P. Lopez, another Clinton supporter. He said the party faithful have produced lopsided margins of as much as 160 to 4 and that on Primary Day he fielded election captains in every district to galvanize Hispanic voters for Mrs. Clinton.

“We ran it the old-fashioned way,” he said. Still, he said, the 118 to 0 vote “has to be a mistake.”

At the Archive, a cafe and video store on the border of Bushwick and East Williamsburg, the manager, Brad Lee, agreed. “There were Obama posters in everyone’s windows,” he said. “There was even Obama graffiti.”

Most election-night anomalies are later reconciled by the official canvass of the machines and in the formal count of absentee returns and of paper affidavit ballots issued on Primary Day, to people who do not appear to be eligible but demand the right to vote, and later validated.

On Feb. 5, Mrs. Clinton carried 61 of the state’s 62 counties but won Brooklyn by a margin of less than 2 percent. Because delegates are awarded proportionately on the basis of the primary vote in each Congressional district, Obama supporters expressed hope that if the official count continued in their favor, they might gain an additional delegate or two.

Kate Hammer and Robin Stein contributed reporting.

America closes the book on intelligence

Our country is barely smarter than a fifth grader -- no wonder it's drowning in religious fundamentalism and political ideologues on both sides, argues Susan Jacoby.

By Laura Miller

Feb. 15, 2008 | For an author of serious nonfiction, success can lead to some surprisingly disheartening encounters with the reading public. Susan Jacoby's 2004 history of American secularism, "Freethinkers," was among the first in the recent wave of welcome books protesting the growing influence of religion in civic life, and universities and other institutions soon began asking her to deliver lectures. Jacoby jumped at the chance, only to find that wherever she spoke, "my audiences were composed almost entirely of people who already agreed with me." Instead of participating in the great public debate that she envisions as central to American culture, she was preaching to the choir. What's more, she learned, "serious conservatives report exactly the same experience on the lecture circuit."

A couple of years later, put up in a student dormitory after giving another talk, she found her environs "eerily quiet." Gone were the "high level of noise and laughter," the "late-night and all-night" conversations she remembered from her own undergraduate years. Instead, everybody was "on line or in an iPod cocoon." To top it all off, when she was invited back to her alma mater, Michigan State University, to receive an honorary award, she struck up a conversation with an honors student in the College of Communications Arts, only to find that the young woman had never even heard of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats. Apparently, even when students felt like talking they didn't know enough about their own disciplines to be worth talking to.

Such are the little disillusionments that vex a public intellectual's soul. Furthermore, as Jacoby sees it, they are telling the same story as those shocking polls that show most Americans can't list the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment or find Iraq on a map. All of it confirms her suspicion that "the scales of American history have shifted heavily against the vibrant and varied intellectual life so essential to a functioning democracy."

Richard Hofstadter's 1963 classic, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life" (a clear inspiration for this book), described anti-intellectualism as "older than our national identity" and deeply rooted in our history. Jacoby thinks the old American distrust of those who devote themselves to "ideas, reason, logic, evidence, and precise language" has been worsened by the conditions of contemporary life. There is, she writes, "a new species of semi-conscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic." People never read books, they can't concentrate on anything significant for more than a minute or two, and as a result they don't really think anymore. Lulled by the "pacifier" of "infotainment," their civic and political decisions emerge from a confused welter of laziness, reckless emotion and prejudice.

The chief manifestations of this newly virulent irrationality are the rise of fundamentalist religion and the flourishing of junk science and other forms of what Jacoby calls "junk thought." The mentally enfeebled American public can now be easily manipulated by flimsy symbolism, whether it's George W. Bush's bumbling, accented speaking style (labeling him as a "regular guy" despite his highly privileged background) or the successful campaign by right-wing ideologues to smear liberals as snooty "elites." Unable to grasp even the basic principles of statistics or the scientific method, Americans gullibly buy into a cornucopia of bogus notions, from recovered memory syndrome to intelligent design to the anti-vaccination movement.

"The Age of American Unreason" veers unevenly between well-argued debunkings of assorted crackpot claims and litanies of gripes that come dangerously close to diatribes. A former reporter for the Washington Post and program director of the Center for Inquiry-New York City, a rationalist think tank, Jacoby can certainly formulate concise ripostes to the likes of former Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers, who suggested that the underrepresentation of women among the top ranks of the hard sciences must be due to innate gender traits. "What places Summers' speculative statements within the realm of junk thought," she writes, "is not the idea that there might be some differences in aptitude between men and women but his unsupported conclusion that such disparities if they exist, are more important than the very different cultural messages girls and boys receive about whether they can expect to succeed in science."

Jacoby takes care to point out that the political right and left have both indulged in anti-rationalism, and this is one of her book's strengths. Intellectuals themselves often come in for a drubbing at her hands. She reproaches those deluded American leftists who defended Soviet communism in the 1930s and '40s, long after it had become obvious that Stalin and his successors presided over a brutally oppressive regime. (She also points out that the influence of such figures on American culture at large has been vastly overstated by both their friends and their enemies.) She quotes goofy feminist theorists from the 1980s, academics who likened Isaac Newton's laws of mechanics to a "rape manual" and called Beethoven's Ninth Symphony "horrifyingly violent."

Although Jacoby scolds culture warriors like Allan Bloom, author of "The Closing of the American Mind," for both misunderstanding and misrepresenting the upheavals on American campuses during the 1960s and '70s, she also deplores many of the leftist remedies for those conflicts. Women's and African-American studies departments, she argues, only "ghettoize" the subject matter they champion, and further Balkanize and provinicalize university students. Not coincidentally, the creation of those departments generated more faculty jobs without pressuring traditional professors to reassess their curricula: "Too many white professors today could not care less whether most white students are exposed to black American writers, and some of the multicultural empire builders are equally willing to sign off on a curriculum for African-American studies majors that does not expose them to Henry James and Edith Wharton."

Jacoby, who covered education for the Post during the '60s, sees herself as a "a cultural conservationist, committed, in the strict dictionary sense, to the preservation of culture." She believes in the classics (whether of literature, music or the visual arts), and at the same time sees no reason why they can't be expanded to include great works by people (women and racial minorities) previously excluded from the canon. It's not a zero-sum game. Hers is a moderate, sensible, well-founded position, shared by many Americans, yet it somehow rarely got voiced amid the raging hyperbole of the culture wars.

Fundamentalism, however, is the real red-hot center of American irrationality, and Jacoby calls religious assaults on the theory of evolution "a microcosm of all the cultural forces responsible for the prevalence of unreason in American society today." She notes that in the summer of 2005 nearly two-thirds of Americans told pollsters that they believed creationism should be taught in schools alongside Darwinian evolution. The poll revealed what Jacoby characterizes as "an intellectual disaster as grave as the human and natural disaster unfolding in New Orleans" at the same time.

It's hard to quarrel with her on that one, and compounding the mess is the fact that most Americans don't even understand the religion they want to see defended: "A majority of adults, in what is supposedly the most religious nation in the developed world, cannot name the four Gospels or identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible." For me, this startling information immediately brought to mind Stephen Colbert's interview with Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland on "The Colbert Report." Westmoreland co-sponsored a bill that would require the display of the Ten Commandments in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but, when asked, couldn't actually list the commandments he's fighting to enshrine.


Perhaps we're better able to assess the "reality-based" consequences of putting a fundamentalist in the White House than we once appeared to be. The problem is, when push comes to shove, we don't always feel like facing reality.

The missing factor in Jacoby's formula is just that: In addition to being capable of rationality, we also have to want to be rational. Intellect, copious reading and education by themselves are no guarantee of reasonable or even sensible behavior, as the neo-conservative true believers responsible for the Iraq war have amply demonstrated. Yet this is one aspect of American religiosity that doesn't seem to interest Jacoby much. In considering the Second Great Awakening, the outburst of religious revivalism that swept through the nation in the early 19th century, she kicks around some possible causes (the "unsettled" social conditions following the Revolution, the difficulties of life on the frontiers, etc.) in a desultory fashion. Then she writes, "in any event, the reasons why fundamentalism triumphed over 'rational' religion in the American spiritual bazaar are less important than the fact that fundamentalism did succeed in capturing the hearts of large numbers of Americans."

It's hard to imagine what could be more central to Jacoby's subject than the motivations of those Americans who chose what she describes as "willed ignorance" over reason. Isn't it likely that the recent resurgence of that ignorance arises from similar needs and desires? If there were some other way to address those needs (or fears), perhaps fundamentalism would be less appealing, and perhaps reason could be made more so. However, that would require admitting that people who are capable of reason will nevertheless sometimes pick an irrational course of action or belief. Rational people do this all the time, of course -- even intellectuals.

The Grand Old White Party Confronts Obama


THE curse continues. Regardless of party, it’s hara-kiri for a politician to step into the shadow of even a mediocre speech by Barack Obama.

Senator Obama’s televised victory oration celebrating his Chesapeake primary trifecta on Tuesday night was a mechanical rehash. No matter. When the networks cut from the 17,000-plus Obama fans cheering at a Wisconsin arena to John McCain’s victory tableau before a few hundred spectators in the Old Town district of Alexandria, Va., it was a rerun of what happened to Hillary Clinton the night she lost Iowa. Senator McCain, backed by a collection of sallow-faced old Beltway pols, played the past to Mr. Obama’s here and now. Mr. McCain looked like a loser even though he, unlike Senator Clinton, had actually won.

But he has it even worse than Mrs. Clinton. What distinguished his posse from Mr. Obama’s throng was not just its age but its demographic monotony: all white and nearly all male. Such has been the inescapable Republican brand throughout this campaign, ever since David Letterman memorably pegged its lineup of presidential contenders last spring as “guys waiting to tee off at a restricted country club.”

For Mr. McCain, this albatross may be harder to shake than George W. Bush and Iraq, particularly in a faceoff with Mr. Obama. When Mr. McCain jokingly invoked the Obama slogan “I am fired up and ready to go” in his speech Tuesday night, it was as cringe-inducing as the white covers of R & B songs in the 1950s — or Mitt Romney’s stab at communing with his inner hip-hop on Martin Luther King’s birthday. Trapped in an archaic black-and-white newsreel, the G.O.P. looks more like a nostalgic relic than a national political party in contemporary America. A cultural sea change has passed it by.

The 2008 primary campaign has been so fast and furious that we haven’t paused to register just how spectacular that change is. All the fretful debate about whether voters would turn out for a candidate who is a black or a woman seems a century ago. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama vanquished the Democratic field, including a presidential-looking Southern white man with an enthusiastic following, John Edwards. What was only months ago an exotic political experiment is now almost ho-hum.

Given that the American story has been so inextricable from the struggle over race, the Obama triumph has been the bigger surprise to many. Perhaps because I came of age in the racially divided Washington public schools of the 1960s and had one of my first newspaper jobs in Richmond in the early 1970s, I almost had to pinch myself when Mr. Obama took 52 percent of Virginia’s white vote last week. The Old Dominion continues to astonish those who remember it when.

Here’s one of my memories. In 1970, Linwood Holton, the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction and a Richard Nixon supporter, responded to court-ordered busing by voluntarily placing his own children in largely black Richmond public schools. For this symbolic gesture, he was marginalized by his own party, which was hellbent on pursuing the emergent Strom Thurmond-patented Southern strategy of exploiting white racism for political gain. After Mr. Holton, Virginia restored to office the previous governor, Mills Godwin, a champion of the state’s “massive resistance” to desegregation.

Today Anne Holton, the young daughter sent by her father to a black school in Richmond, is the first lady of Virginia, the wife of the Democratic governor, Tim Kaine. Mr. Kaine’s early endorsement of Mr. Obama was a potent factor in his remarkable 28-point landslide on Tuesday.

For all the changes in Virginia and elsewhere, vestiges of the Southern strategy persist in some Republican quarters. Mr. McCain, however, has been a victim, rather than a practitioner, of the old racial gamesmanship. In his brutal 2000 South Carolina primary battle against Mr. Bush and Karl Rove, Mr. McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter was the target of a smear campaign. He was also pilloried for accurately describing the Confederate flag as a “symbol of racism and slavery.” (Sadly, he started to bend this straight talk the very next day.) He is still paying for correctly describing Jerry Falwell, once an ardent segregationist, and Pat Robertson, a longtime defender of South African apartheid, as “agents of intolerance.” And of course Mr. McCain remains public enemy No. 1 to some in his party for resisting nativist overkill on illegal immigration.

Though Mr. Bush ran for president on “compassionate conservatism,” he diversified only his party’s window dressing: a 2000 Republican National Convention that had more African-Americans onstage than on the floor and the incessant photo-ops with black schoolchildren to sell No Child Left Behind. There are no black Republicans in the House or the Senate to stand with the party’s 2008 nominee. Exit polls tell us that African-Americans voting in this year’s G.O.P. primaries account for at most 2 to 4 percent of its electorate even in states with large black populations.

Mr. Obama’s ascension hardly means that racism is kaput in America, or that the country is “postracial” or “transcending race.” But it’s impossible to deny that another barrier has been surmounted. Bill Clinton’s attempt to minimize Mr. Obama as a niche candidate in South Carolina by comparing him to Jesse Jackson looks more ludicrous by the day. Even when winning five Southern states (Virginia included) on Super Tuesday in 1988, Mr. Jackson received only 7 to 10 percent of white votes, depending on the exit poll.

Whatever the potency of his political skills and message, Mr. Obama is also riding a demographic wave. The authors of the new book “Millennial Makeover,” Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, point out that the so-called millennial generation (dating from 1982) is the largest in American history, boomers included, and that roughly 40 percent of it is African-American, Latino, Asian or racially mixed. One in five millennials has an immigrant parent. It’s this generation that is fueling the excitement and some of the record turnout of the Democratic primary campaign, and not just for Mr. Obama.

Even by the low standards of his party, Mr. McCain has underperformed at reaching millennials in the thriving culture where they live. His campaign’s effort to create a MySpace-like Web site flopped. His most-viewed appearances on YouTube are not viral videos extolling him or replaying his best speeches but are instead sendups of his most reckless foreign-policy improvisations — his threat to stay in Iraq for 100 years and his jokey warning (sung to the tune of the Beach Boys’ version of “Barbara Ann”) that he will bomb Iran. In the vast arena of the Internet he has been shrunk to Grumpy Old White Guy, the G.O.P. brand incarnate.

The theory of the McCain candidacy is that his “maverick” image will bring independents (approaching a third of all voters) to the rescue. But a New York Times-CBS News poll last month found that independents have even a lower opinion of Mr. Bush, the war, the surge and the economy than the total electorate and skew slightly younger. Though the independents in this survey went 44 percent to 32 percent for Mr. Bush over John Kerry in 2004, they now prefer a Democratic presidential candidate over a Republican by 44 percent to 27 percent.

Mr. McCain could get lucky, especially if Mrs. Clinton gets the Democratic nomination and unites the G.O.P., and definitely if she tosses her party into civil war by grabbing ghost delegates from Michigan and Florida. But those odds are dwindling. More likely, the Republican Party will face Mr. Obama with a candidate who reeks even more of the past and less of change than Mrs. Clinton does. I was startled to hear last week from a friend in California, a staunch anti-Clinton Republican businessman, that he was wavering. Though he regards Mr. McCain as a hero, he wrote me: “I am tired of fighting the Vietnam war. I have drifted toward Obama.”

Similarly, Mark McKinnon, the Bush media maven who has played a comparable role for Mr. McCain in this campaign, reaffirmed to Evan Smith of Texas Monthly weeks ago that he would not work for his own candidate in a race with Mr. Obama. Elaborating to NPR last week, Mr. McKinnon said that while he is “100 percent” for Mr. McCain and disagrees with Mr. Obama “on very fundamental issues,” he likes Mr. Obama and what he’s doing for the country enough to stay on the sidelines rather than fire off attack ads.

As some Republicans drift away in a McCain-Obama race, who fills the vacuum? Among the white guys flanking Mr. McCain at his victory celebration on Tuesday, revealingly enough, was the once-golden George Allen, the Virginia Republican who lost his Senate seat and presidential hopes in 2006 after being caught on YouTube calling a young Indian-American Democratic campaign worker “macaca.”

In that incident, Mr. Allen added insult to injury by also telling the young man, “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.” As election results confirmed both in 2006 and last week, it is Mr. Allen who is the foreigner in 21st century America, Mr. Allen who is in the minority in the real world of Virginia. A national rout in 2008 just may be that Republican Party’s last stand.

Friday, February 15

how the republicans did it

So if Obamamania doesn't come close to making the cut as a "cult," then just what the hell is going on there?

What's going on is that we've finally got a Democratic candidate who understands exactly how the Republicans did it. As I pointed out my very first week on this blog, the GOP didn't come to power by talking about plans and policies; they did it by using strongly emotional appeals that grabbed people by the gut and didn't let them go. Theirs was never a movement based on reason. It was, from the very beginning, a movement of hearts and souls. And it was that deep, emotionally sustaining commitment that drew people in so deeply that they were willing to give 25 years of their lives to bringing about the New World Order their leaders promised them. We may hate what they've accomplished -- but we're never going to be able to do better until we can inspire that same kind of passion for change.

And Obama's doing just that. He's tapped into a deeply pressurized seam of repressed fury within the American electorate, and he's giving it voice, a focus, and an outlet. Are the results scary? You bet: these people want change on a scale that much of the status quo should find terrifying. Are they unreasoning? The followers may be -- but as long as their leader keeps a cool head, that's not as much of a problem right now as we might think; and the heat will dissipate naturally in time. Is this kind of devotion even appropriate? You bet. You don't get the kind of deep-level change we need without first exposing and channeling people's deep discontent. Obama's change talk may be too vague for most people's tastes (including mine); but the fact is that if we're serious about enacting a progressive agenda, rousing people's deepest dreams and desires and mobilizing that energy is exactly how it's going to happen. And Obama's the first candidate we've had in a generation who really, truly gets this.

The energy of Obama's rallies scares the hell out of reason-bound, well-educated liberals; but it's nothing new to anyone who's spent time in the overheated revival-meeting atmosphere that conservative politicians have used to rouse their voters for decades. Stirring up their base in exactly this same way is how they won. Our chronic inability to move people like that is why we've continued to lose.

Hillary is going the old route, with more plans and promises. And she's losing. Obama is trying something that's new to Democratic politics -- but that also has a proven track record when it comes to raising and consolidating truly transformational movements. In fact: that kind of change simply does not happen unless you've got this kind of committed mass movement.

This misguided "cult" talk not only misunderstands how social change occurs; it's also giving the GOP a weapon it will use to the hilt if Obama is the candidate in the general election. They're going to demonize those energetic kids as the re-animated zombie ghosts of the dirty fucking hippies of the 60s. And, in a historic sense, they are. They're our own children, emerging to finish the work that their parents got too tired and too disillusioned to finish. For us old Boomers, they're our very last shot at the dream.

We have a choice here. We can either bless them for their energy and commitment, hand them our tattered old ball, and see just how far they'll be able to move it down the field -- even as we stand by with the Bandaids and Bactine, shouting encouragement and coaching tips from the bench, just as many of us have done at a thousand soccer games through the years.

Or we can doom their fresh efforts with our own cynicism, withdraw our approval, make fun of them, and tell them they're going off the deep end by joining up with some crazy mass movement that will never deliver on its promises of change.

But we betray them, our country, and ourselves if we turn around and do to them what the right wing did to us with the "dirty fucking hippies" slander by perpetuating this "cult" meme. It's not factually accurate. And it's not fair to Obama, his growing cadre of followers, or even what's left of our own abandoned dreams.

Tuesday, February 12

History Lesson: Bill Clinton's tenure was not a failure

By David Greenberg
Posted Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2008, at 3:34 PM ET

There are several reasons why Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign has shied away from running on the accomplishments of Bill Clinton's presidency: anxiety about a Clinton "dynasty," a concern not to be seen as dwelling on the past; and a clear public hunger for "change," however unspecified the content of that change may be. But the upshot has been a bit perverse: Clinton, like Al Gore in 2000, is downplaying what should be an enormous asset.

Barack Obama's upscale white supporters (and those too young to recall the 1970s and 1980s) tend to describe Clinton-ism as a betrayal of liberalism, a sellout to Wall Street, and proof that "the Clintons" won't bring about change—a view encapsulated in the Daily Kos blog's visceral aversion to Terry McAuliffe's mug. Yet while the courting of big donors with stays in the Lincoln Bedroom left a bad odor, as a historical matter, the Clinton years were unquestionably a time of progress, especially on the economy. And it seems that as Obama mania sweeps the educated classes, the party's struggling lower-income base still prefers Hillary. One reason is that they're less prone than their better-off party mates to vote out of an enthusiasm for stirring rhetoric or viral videos or a wish to play their part in a grand narrative of racial reconciliation. Having been battered by globalization, rising health care and education costs, and the subprime mortgage disaster, they're remembering the Clinton years and voting for who they think will help them.

Understanding Clinton-ism's appeal to the distressed starts with Bill Clinton's candidacy for president in 1992. Though he ran as a New Democrat, Bill was not, contrary to legend, a classic example of centrist Democratic Leadership Council thinking. He was well to the left of DLC stalwarts like Georgia's Sam Nunn or Virginia's Chuck Robb, who, according to Ken Baer's history of the DLC, Reinventing Democrats, had been the preferred choice of the body's chairman, Al From, to seek the presidency. Clinton also ran to the left of his chief rival for the Democratic nomination that year, Paul Tsongas, a former Republican who trumpeted his pro-business stands and his desire to reform Social Security. Clinton's 1992 slogan, "Putting people first," and his stress on "the economy, stupid," pitched an optimistic if still gritty populism at a middle class that had suffered under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Clinton's populism was complicated—more so than the simplistic "people versus the powerful" cant that has sapped the vigor from innumerable Democratic campaigns. Clinton's version incorporated a technocratic, neoliberal vision. Before globalization became a buzzword, Clinton grasped that the main reasons for worsening inequality and the disappearance of good jobs were those larger economic forces that regressive tax policy might exacerbate but that even progressive tax policy would be powerless to stop. So on issues like trade, he argued that liberals had to make peace with globalization and find policies to help spread more fairly the wealth that globalization would create.

Clinton's neoliberal strains and his populism—as well as the budget-balancing zeal of deficit hawks such as Lloyd Bentsen and Leon Panetta, who joined his first administration—naturally conflicted at times. In 1994, I assisted Bob Woodward with his book The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, which pulled back the curtain on infighting among the different factions in Clinton's first year as they struggled to craft and pass the 1993 budget bill. Although some of the populists saw Clinton as having caved to the moderates, the resulting deal included a good dose of increased progressivity. Indeed, the tax hikes on the upper brackets were the main elements that made it controversial even in a Democrat-controlled Congress and led to its passage by only one vote in the Senate and two in the House.

But the bill was a pretty good compromise. It made the tax code fairer while setting the budget on a path that—in one of the most astounding achievements of Clinton's presidency—turned record budget deficits into record surpluses. A little thing called the Internet boom obviously helped, too, and, as Alan Greenspan never tired of noting, so did the increased productivity of American workers. But for this turnaround to occur, Washington had to get its house in order, and Clinton's bill—though passed amid internal chaos and the president's storied "purple fits"—was also a bravura feat of improvised legislative strategy. That the Bush tax cuts have now reconverted those surpluses into deficits again shouldn't be reason to diminish the Clinton achievement.

Clinton detractors also like to grouse about "triangulation." This was pollster Dick Morris' cynical term for the election-year opportunism behind Clinton's moderate-seeming but mostly inconsequential ideas in 1996, like the V-chip (to screen out television violence) and school uniforms. On economics, however, Clinton's construction of policies that defied traditional left-right categories was substantive. The Earned Income Tax Credit, which originated in a pilot form in the 1970s, attracted conservative support in the 1980s as an alternative to transfer payments as a way to help the working poor; Clinton made it a signature policy, expanding it in his 1993 bill to an additional 15 million families—a result that added up to the most significant anti-poverty measure since the Great Society. The virtuous cycle engendered by Clinton's balanced budgets—which by paying down the debt won the confidence of bond traders and helped bring down interest rates—eventually won over many who had doubted the strategy.

Both Clintons bear some blame for the Democrats' loss of the Congress in 1994, to the extent that it stemmed from the failure of their health care plan (though anyone who thinks the plan's demise was just a matter of too much secrecy and too much big government should read Paul Starr's historically accurate American Prospect piece from last fall). But if that loss impeded the passage of big-ticket legislation, it also led to bipartisan laws like welfare reform, which remains an apostasy to many on the left but did probably help to reduce poverty and promote employment. Equally significant for historians, the shift of the administration's focus from big legislation to the filigree of the budgetary process led Clinton to achieve much under the radar. The Children's Health Insurance Program—crafted by Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, with Hillary Clinton as a central player—was passed in Clinton's 1997 budget bill, not as a stand-alone item. Other budgets increased funding for the worker retraining that Clinton said was necessary to adapt to the dislocations of globalization.

By the end of the Clinton presidency, the numbers were uniformly impressive. Besides the record-high surpluses and the record-low poverty rates, the economy could boast the longest economic expansion in history; the lowest unemployment since the early 1970s; and the lowest poverty rates for single mothers, black Americans, and the aged. Real wages, after declining over the course of the Reagan and Bush years, rose under Clinton. To be sure, the gap between the very rich and everyone else widened—as it has continued to do since—but gains for the rich, for once, didn't leave behind the poor and lower middle class.

This isn't to say that Clinton never favored Wall Street interests. The repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 allowed financial institutions to consolidate, which many on the left, such as economics journalist Robert Kuttner, believe contributed to the mortgage crisis. NAFTA and GATT remain controversial, though most experts agree that free-trade agreements are necessary for maintaining America's economic strength. But the wisdom of Clinton-ism was to see past the old frameworks that pitted advocates of growth against proponents of fairness and to find ways, using the high-tech economy, to reach both goals together.

It's the economic achievements of the Clinton years that people recalled when they scratched their heads at Obama's claim that during the last 10 to 15 years—i.e., the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies—Republicans had the "new ideas." On the contrary, while it's possible to argue that the GOP claimed the mantle of newness in the 1980s, when Democrats were still groping for their postindustrial vision, it was precisely in 1992—with the emergence of Clinton's fusion of populism and neoliberalism—that Democrats did find a program for the globalization age. And it worked.

This is one reason for the economic split between Democratic voters this winter. While upscale whites and blacks of all income groups are preferring Obama, downscale white and Hispanic voters in the Democratic Party—and a considerable number of struggling African-Americans, too—regard a Hillary Clinton presidency with hope and optimism. For them, the Bush administration's neglect hurts in the pocketbook. A recent quote from a high-profile Democrat put it well: "I think there's no doubt that there were good things that happened during those eight years of the Clinton administration. I think that's undeniable. … And, particularly, when looked at through the lens of the last eight years with George Bush, they look even better." The speaker? Barack Obama.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers, has two new books out: Presidential Doodles and Calvin Coolidge.

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Monday, February 11

One Nation Under Multiple Gods: The British tabloids are right to bash the archbishop of Canterbury.

One Nation Under Multiple Gods
The British tabloids are right to bash the archbishop of Canterbury.
By Anne Applebaum
Posted Monday, Feb. 11, 2008, at 8:04 PM ET

Is this a storm in a teacup, as the archbishop now claims? Was the "feeding frenzy" biased and unfair? Certainly, it is true that, since last Thursday, when Rowan Williams—the archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the Church of England, symbolic leader of the international Anglican Church—called for "constructive accommodation" with some aspects of sharia law and declared the incorporation of Muslim religious law into the British legal system "unavoidable," practically no insult has been left unsaid.

One Daily Telegraph columnist called the archbishop's statement a "disgraceful act of appeasement"; another called it a "craven counsel of despair." An Observer columnist eruditely wondered whether the archbishop's comment might count as a miracle, according to David Hume's definition of a miracle as a "violation of the laws of nature," while the notoriously sensationalistic Sun launched a campaign to remove the archbishop from office.

Feebly, the archbishop's supporters have tried to defend him, reporting that he is "completely overwhelmed" by the hostility and "in a state of shock." Arguing that his remarks were misunderstood, misinterpreted, and taken out of context, his office even took the trouble to publish them, both in lecture form and in a radio interview version, on his official Web site. I highly recommend a closer look. Reading them, it becomes instantly clear that every syllable of the harshest tabloid criticism is more than well-deserved. The archbishop's language is mild-mannered, legalistic, jargon-riddled; the sentiments behind them are profoundly dangerous.

What one British writer called the "jurisprudential kernel" of his thoughts is as follows: In the modern world, we must avoid the "inflexible or over-restrictive applications of traditional law" and must be wary of our "universalist Enlightenment system," which risks "ghettoizing" a minority. Instead, we must embrace the notion of "plural jurisdiction." This, in other words, was no pleasant fluff about tolerance for foreigners: This was a call for the evisceration of the British legal system as we know it.

I understand, of course, that sharia courts vary from country to country, that not every Muslim country stones adulterers, and that some British Muslims volunteer to let unofficial sharia courts monitor their domestic disputes, which is not much different from choosing to work things out with the help of a marriage counselor. But the archbishop's speech actually touched on something far more fundamental: the question of whether or not all aspects of the British legal system necessarily apply to all the inhabitants of Britain.

This is no merely theoretical issue either, since conflicts between sharia law and British law arise ever more frequently. One case currently before the British court of appeals concerns a learning-impaired man who was "married" over the telephone to a woman in Bangladesh. Though British law recognizes sharia weddings, just as it recognizes Jewish or Catholic weddings, this one, it has been argued, might be considered so "offensive to the conscience of the English court" that it cannot be recognized—unless, of course, the fact that the marriage is legal under Bangladeshi sharia law is the most important consideration. Meanwhile, police in Wales are dealing with an epidemic of forced marriages; honor killings remain a perennial problem; and British law has already been altered to accommodate "sharia mortgages." The archbishop is absolutely right in his belief that a universalist, Enlightenment system—one in which the legitimacy of the law derives from democratic procedures, not divine edicts, and in which the same rules apply to everyone living in the same society—cannot easily accommodate all these different practices.

Many explanations for the archbishop's statements have already been proffered: the weakness of the Church of England, the paganism of the British, the feebleness of Williams' intellect, the decline of the West. At base, though, his beliefs are merely an elaborate, intellectualized version of a commonly held—and deeply offensive—Western prejudice: Alone among all the world's many religious groups, Muslims living in Western countries cannot be expected to conform to Western law—or perhaps do not deserve to be treated as legal equals of their non-Muslim neighbors.

Every time police shrug their shoulders when a Muslim woman complains that she has been forced to marry against her will, every time a Western doctor tries not to notice the female circumcisions being carried out in his hospital, they are acting in the spirit of the archbishop of Canterbury. So is the social worker who dismisses the plight of an illiterate, house-bound woman, removed from her village and sent across the world to marry a man she'd never met, on the grounds that her religion prohibits interference. That's why—if there is to be war between the British tabloids and the archbishop—I'm on the side of the Sun.

Anne Applebaum is a Washington Post and Slate columnist. Her most recent book is Gulag: A History.

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To Hell With the Archbishop of Canterbury: Rowan Williams' dangerous claptrap about "plural jurisdiction."

Rowan Williams' dangerous claptrap about "plural jurisdiction."
By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Monday, Feb. 11, 2008, at 12:27 PM ET

In December 1931, George Orwell got himself arrested in the slums of East London in order to find out about conditions "inside," and then he wrote an essay about the people he met while in detention. One of them was a buyer for a kosher butcher who had embezzled some of his boss's money. To Orwell's surprise, the man told him that "his employer would probably get into trouble at the synagogue for prosecuting him. It appears that the Jews have arbitration courts of their own, and a Jew is not supposed to prosecute another Jew, at least in a breach-of-trust case like this, without first submitting it to the arbitration court."

You might think that such relics of the medieval ghetto, and of the rabbinical control that was part of ghetto life, had more or less disappeared in England in the 21st century. And you would largely be right. There exists a "Beth Din," or religious court, in the prosperous North London suburb of Finchley to which the ultra-Orthodox submit some of their more arcane disputes. (This little world is very amusingly described by Naomi Alderman in her lovely novel Disobedience.) But to speak in general, Jews in Britain consider themselves, and are considered, to be answerable to the same laws as everybody else. Should I mention any of the numerous reasons why it would be extremely nerve-racking if this were not true?

But now the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has cited the Beth Din as one of his reasons for believing that sharia, or Islamic law, can and should become a part of what he called "plural jurisdiction" in Britain. His reasoning, if one may call it that, is clear: Other faiths already have their own legal authorities, so why not the Muslims, too? What could be more tolerant and diverse? This same argument has been used already, and will be used again, to demand that laws governing "blasphemy," originally written to protect only Christians from being upset, should now, in a nondiscriminatory way, be amended to cover Muslims as well. The alternative—don't have any blasphemy laws and let religious people's feelings be hurt, just as the feelings of the secular are regularly offended by religion—doesn't occur to the archbishop and people who think like him.

A BBC interview with Williams had him saying that the opening to sharia would "help maintain social cohesion." If that phrase is even intended to mean anything, it can only imply that a concession of this kind would lessen the propensity to violence among Muslims. But such abjectness is not the only definition of social cohesion that we have. By a nice coincidence, a London think tank called the Center for Social Cohesion issued a report just days before the leader of the world's Anglicans and Episcopalians capitulated to Islamic demands. Titled "Crimes of the Community: Honour-Based Violence in the UK," and written by James Brandon and Salam Hafez, it set out a shocking account of the rapid spread of theocratic crime. The main headings were murder and beating of women, genital mutilation, forced marriage, and vigilante methods employed against those who complained. It could well be—since we are becoming every day more familiar with the first three—that the fourth is the one that should concern us most.

Picture the life of a young Urdu-speaking woman brought to Yorkshire from Pakistan to marry a man—quite possibly a close cousin—whom she has never met. He takes her dowry, beats her, and abuses the children he forces her to bear. She is not allowed to leave the house unless in the company of a male relative and unless she is submissively covered from head to toe. Suppose that she is able to contact one of the few support groups that now exist for the many women in Britain who share her plight. What she ought to be able to say is, "I need the police, and I need the law to be enforced." But what she will often be told is, "Your problem is better handled within the community." And those words, almost a death sentence, have now been endorsed and underwritten—and even advocated—by the country's official spiritual authority.

You might argue that I am describing an extreme case (though, alas, now not an uncommon one), but it is the principle of equality before the law that really counts. And just look at how casually this sheep-faced English cleric throws away the work of centuries of civilization:

[A]n approach to law which simply said "there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts"—I think that's a bit of a danger.

In the midst of this dismal verbiage and euphemism, the plain statement—"There's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said"—still stands out like a diamond in a dunghill. It stands out precisely because it is said simply, and because its essential grandeur is intelligible to everybody. Its principles ought to be just as intelligible and accessible to those who don't yet speak English, in just the same way as the great Lord Mansfield once ruled that, wherever someone might have been born, and whatever he had been through, he could not be subject to slavery once he had set foot on English soil. Simple enough? For the women who are the principal prey of the sharia system, it is often only when they are shipped or flown to Britain that their true miseries begin. This modern disgrace is deepened and extended by a fatuous cleric who, presiding over an increasingly emaciated and schismatic and irrelevant church, nonetheless maintains that any faith is better than none at all.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Saturday, February 9

When Women Rule


While no woman has been president of the United States — yet — the world does have several thousand years’ worth of experience with female leaders. And I have to acknowledge it: Their historical record puts men’s to shame.

A notable share of the great leaders in history have been women: Queen Hatshepsut and Cleopatra of Egypt, Empress Wu Zetian of China, Isabella of Castile, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Maria Theresa of Austria. Granted, I’m neglecting the likes of Bloody Mary, but it’s still true that those women who climbed to power in monarchies had an astonishingly high success rate.

Research by political psychologists points to possible explanations. Scholars find that women, compared with men, tend to excel in consensus-building and certain other skills useful in leadership. If so, why have female political leaders been so much less impressive in the democratic era? Margaret Thatcher was a transformative figure, but women have been mediocre prime ministers or presidents in countries like Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and Indonesia. Often, they haven’t even addressed the urgent needs of women in those countries.

I have a pet theory about what’s going on.

In monarchies, women who rose to the top dealt mostly with a narrow elite, so they could prove themselves and get on with governing. But in democracies in the television age, female leaders also have to navigate public prejudices — and these make democratic politics far more challenging for a woman than for a man.

In one common experiment, the “Goldberg paradigm,” people are asked to evaluate a particular article or speech, supposedly by a man. Others are asked to evaluate the identical presentation, but from a woman. Typically, in countries all over the world, the very same words are rated higher coming from a man.

In particular, one lesson from this research is that promoting their own successes is a helpful strategy for ambitious men. But experiments have demonstrated that when women highlight their accomplishments, that’s a turn-off. And women seem even more offended by self-promoting females than men are.

This creates a huge challenge for ambitious women in politics or business: If they’re self-effacing, people find them unimpressive, but if they talk up their accomplishments, they come across as pushy braggarts.

The broader conundrum is that for women, but not for men, there is a tradeoff in qualities associated with top leadership. A woman can be perceived as competent or as likable, but not both.

“It’s an uphill struggle, to be judged both a good woman and a good leader,” said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor who is an expert on women in leadership. Professor Kanter added that a pioneer in a man’s world, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, also faces scrutiny on many more dimensions than a man — witness the public debate about Mrs. Clinton’s allegedly “thick ankles,” or the headlines last year about cleavage.

Clothing and appearance generally matter more for women than for men, research shows. Surprisingly, several studies have found that it’s actually a disadvantage for a woman to be physically attractive when applying for a managerial job. Beautiful applicants received lower ratings, apparently because they were subconsciously pegged as stereotypically female and therefore unsuited for a job as a boss.

Female leaders face these impossible judgments all over the world. An M.I.T. economist, Esther Duflo, looked at India, which has required female leaders in one-third of village councils since the mid-1990s. Professor Duflo and her colleagues found that by objective standards, the women ran the villages better than men. For example, women constructed and maintained wells better, and took fewer bribes.

Yet ordinary villagers themselves judged the women as having done a worse job, and so most women were not re-elected. That seemed to result from simple prejudice. Professor Duflo asked villagers to listen to a speech, identical except that it was given by a man in some cases and by a woman in others. Villagers gave the speech much lower marks when it was given by a woman.

Such prejudices can be overridden after voters actually see female leaders in action. While the first ones received dismal evaluations, the second round of female leaders in the villages were rated the same as men. “Exposure reduces prejudice,” Professor Duflo suggested.

Women have often quipped that they have to be twice as good as men to get anywhere — but that, fortunately, is not difficult. In fact, it appears that it may be difficult after all. Modern democracies may empower deep prejudices and thus constrain female leaders in ways that ancient monarchies did not.

Where's the Big Idea?

Bob Herbert

There is plenty for Democrats to admire in the candidacies of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

They are smart, appealing and politically gifted. High fives are in order. Their success to date represents advances in American society that many would have seen as unthinkable just a few years ago.

There’s actually a lot for Americans of all political persuasions to admire this election season. This is how we change regimes in the U.S. — peacefully. I had a long conversation the other day with a writer from Kenya, Edwin Okong’o, who is visiting the University of California campus here.

He found it difficult to hide his grief as he spoke of the murderous violence that has followed a disputed election in his country. Then he managed a smile. “It’s all about corruption,” he said. “I am always amazed when people say they are leaving the American government because they have to make more money. In my country, you go into the government to make the money.”

But for all its upside, there is something important missing from this year’s presidential campaign. In an era that cries out for real change, John McCain, the presumptive G.O.P. nominee, is selling himself to voters not as the maverick he may once have been, but as a faithful follower of policies the country should be eager to discard.

With the Democrats, we seem obsessed with whether Senator Obama can get his new voters to the polls, and whether Senator Clinton can keep enough cash coming in, and whether there’s an inch or an inch-and-a-half’s worth of difference between their positions on health insurance and the war in Iraq.

Where, in this alleged season of change, is the big idea?

What’s missing in this campaign is a bold vision of where the United States should be heading in these crucially important early years of the 21st century. In their different ways, Senators Clinton and Obama have shown themselves to be inspirational and at times even heroic figures. But neither has offered the vision that this moment in history demands.

We’re excited more by who they are than by what they’ve promised to do.

All the candidates have detailed policy proposals — masterpieces of minutiae.

But do we have any real sense of what Senator Obama will do to stop the stagnation of the middle class and resuscitate the American dream? Do we have any reason to believe that during a Clinton presidency we’ll see a transformation of the nation’s decaying infrastructure? Does John McCain have the stuff to lead us from a long debilitating period of dependence on foreign oil to a new and exciting world of energy efficiency and innovation?

The essential question the candidates should be trying to answer — but that is not even being asked very often — is how to create good jobs in the 21st century. Thirty-seven million Americans are poor, and roughly 60 million others are near-poor. (These are people struggling to make it on incomes of $20,000 to $40,000 a year for a family of four.)

The middle class is hardly flourishing. In testimony before a House subcommittee last year, Harley Shaiken, a Berkeley professor who is an expert on labor and employment, remarked: “During a period of robust economic growth, record profits and the fastest sustained productivity increases since the 1950s, only a thin slice at the top of the economic heap is enjoying higher living standards.”

Now the country is faced with a possible recession and the likelihood of moving further backward rather than forward on employment.

“We’re building exit ramps from the middle class,” said Mr. Shaiken during an interview. “But what is the path to the middle class for most Americans now? We need to figure out how to resume building entrance ramps.”

The most direct route to the middle class has always been a good job. An obvious potential source of new jobs would be a broad campaign to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure — its roads, bridges, schools, levees, water treatment facilities and so forth.

Another area with big job creation potential is the absolutely vital quest to develop alternative sources of energy. That effort should carry the same high national priority that was accorded the Manhattan Project during World War II. I’d even call it Manhattan II.

There are moments in history that demand not just talent in a nation’s leadership, but greatness — men or women with the courage to dream bigger and the ability to convince others that those dreams can be realized.

The presidential candidates don’t seem to be rising to the nation’s many crucial challenges with the sense of urgency and the creative vision that is called for. Not yet, at least.