Saturday, January 12, 2008

Does the 2008 election augment America's soft power?

There's been a lot of talk over the past year two years four years since Operation Iraqi Freedom about the erosion in America's "soft power" resources. There's also been a lot of talk about how some of the candidates for the 2008 election might, because of their personal attributes or personal history, automatically boost our soft power.

In the Washington Post, however, Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan implicitly raise an intriguing possibility -- the topsy-turvy nature of the election campaign itself could improve America's image abroad:

John Mbugua, 56, a taxi driver in Mombasa, Kenya, woke himself at 3 a.m. the day of the Iowa caucuses and flipped on CNN. He said he watched for hours, not understanding precisely what or where Iowa was but thrilled about the victory of Barack Obama, the first U.S. presidential contender with Kenyan roots.

"I have never been interested in the elections before," Mbugua, who also got up at 4 a.m. to watch the New Hampshire primary results, said in a telephone interview. "But now everybody is watching. Everybody feels that Kenya has a stake in the outcome of the U.S. election."

From Mombasa's sandy shores on the Indian Ocean to the hot tubs of Reykjavik, Iceland, the U.S. primary elections are creating unprecedented interest and excitement in a global audience that normally doesn't tune in until the general election in November.

This year's wide-open primary season, filled with big personalities and dramatic story lines, has created an eager global audience that suddenly knows its Hillary from its Huckabee.

"It's a great spectacle, and people are avidly devouring it," said Jeremy O'Grady, editor in chief of the Week, a British magazine. O'Grady said major British newspapers this week alone have devoted more than 87 pages to news of the U.S. primaries, including 22 front-page stories -- exceptionally intense coverage of a foreign news event. More than 700 correspondents from 50 countries covered the Iowa and New Hampshire events.

A popular BBC radio program, "World Have Your Say," devoted an hour this week to parsing how pollsters wrongly predicted that Obama, an Illinois senator, would win the Democratic primary in New Hampshire. The show attracted detailed and nuanced calls and text messages from Romania, South Africa, Liberia and other countries.

About 1.5 million people visited the BBC Web page reporting the win by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) over Obama in New Hampshire, making it one of the most-read stories in months, a BBC spokesman said.

"The candidates have more iconic status than usual," O'Grady said. "They are almost like superhero cartoons: the Mormon, the woman, the black, the millionaire, the war hero. . . . We do love a good show over here."

I have mixed feelings about the global attention to our little campaign. On the one hand, the campaign rhetoric since the new year has been so banal that I can see it being offputting.

The Cliff Notes version of the past two weeks of the campaign for the Democrats has been as follows: "Hope, change, real change, experience, change, likeability, false hope, change, fairy tale, change, even more change."

For the Republicans: "Merry Christmas, Reagan, Reagan, Reagan, Happy New Year, Reagan, tax cuts, Reagan, Reagan, Reagan, Reagan, Reagan!"

We're not talkng the Lincoln-Douglas debates here.

On the other hand, there are ways in which the race has highlighted some positive qualities of the American system. Consider:

1) This might be the most competitive presidential election in modern history. No incumbent president or vice president is running. On the Democratic side, there are/were three candidates with viable shots at the nomination; On the GOP side, there are/were four.

2) Front-runners have fallen. On the Democratic side, Clnton and then Obama have been brought low by the shifts in voter sentiment. On the GOP side, it's been even more dramatic. McCain was the frontrunner, then Romney, then Giuliani, then Romney, Huckabee, and now McCain again.

3) Negative campaigning has not worked. Part of the explanation for Huckabee's rise has been the relentlessly upbeat quality of the campaign and the man. Mitt Romney, in contrast, has not gained much from going after either Huckabee or McCain. Obama's optimism on the campaign trail worked well for him, until women thought Hillary was being unfairly attacked and rallied behind her. I suspect, in South Carolina, that she will pay a price for her "false hope" line, not to mention Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" line.

4) From an international perspective, the cream is rising to the top. The three candidates who would likely generate the most excitement outside the United States are Clinton, Obama, and McCain, and they've done pretty well so far.

Question to readers: will the campaign itself improve America's standing abroad?

posted by Dan at 01:30 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Your dumb-ass quote of the day

From John Kerry's endorsement of Barack Obama:

"Experience is not defined by years spent in Washington but by instinct and judgment and wisdom,” Mr Kerry told a crowd of about 2,000 at a college in Charleston, South Carolina.
I can sort of see judgment and wisdom emanating from experience... but instinct? Isn't that pretty much the opposite of experience?

Doesn't that almost sound like Stephen Colbert said it? I was wondering what his writers were doing during the strike.

UPDATE: Marc Ambinder has more.

posted by Dan at 08:21 AM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Great, I should vote for the nutjob

It turns out that half the country will be voting in a primary where the outcome is not preordained. This is a good thing -- but which candidate deserves your vote?

We here at will not be endorsing anyone -- despite claims to the contrary. However, as a useful exercise, some political scientists have put together a 36-question issues survey to see where you fit on the political landscape. It's called Electoral Compass. (One obvious downside to the survey: there's no effort to weight issues to your intensity of preference).

Taking the survey, I discovered -- yet again -- that I'm a social liberal and on the economic right. The only candidate even close to my orbit is Ron Paul. Among the Democrats, the closest candidate to my ideal point is Barack Obama. Among "contending" Republicans, it's Rudy Giuliani.

This, by the way, is why things like pesonality and leadership style are relevant to voting decisions (and are tough to capture in suveys). A candidate's policy positions are not the only thing that matter. The way in which the candidate will try to implement these policies matters too. I wouldn't vote for a candidate who shared my precise policy positions but decided to implement them by constitutionally questionable methods, for example. Process matters just as much as substance.

Mostly, the survey confirms that it's lonely out there for both libertarians and populists. The Democrats are tightly bunched in the socially liberal/economic left category, the Republicans are (somewhat less) tightly bunched in the socially conservative/economically right category. This is why, by the way, efforts to forge bipartisanship can lead to wildly divergent outcomes.

Take the survey yourself and report back where you land.

UPDATE: James Joyner has further criticisms of the survey methodology.

posted by Dan at 09:20 AM | Comments (25) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Your cultural question of the winter

As the writer's strike continues to not end, let's consider a key cultural question that's been nagging me in recent weeks.

I don't care for Alec Baldwin's politics, and I suspect he's not really a terribly nice person. That said, the man can chew through scenery with the best of them, and he's the best thing on the best comedy on television, 30 Rock.

So, here's your question: which is the signature Alec Baldwin performance? The gold standard, of course, is his very not-safe-for-work monologue in Glengarry Glen Ross:

However, maybe, just maybe, Baldwin's psychiatric role-playing tour-de-force in an October episode of 30 Rock tops his previous acting apex. Watch for yourself and help me decide:

posted by Dan at 02:10 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Going medieval on a bad paper

The editors of Foreign Policy asked me to review an article for them for their "Global Newsstand" section of the January/February 2008 issue.

The result: "Dismal Political Science":

Are economists increasingly in charge of politics? Do economists make better leaders? These are the questions that Anil Hira, a political scientist at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, is ostensibly trying to answer in his essay, “Should Economists Rule the World?” in the June 2007 issue of the International Political Science Review. In the article, he claims that “there has been a notable rising importance of economics as a background for leaders in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.” But he concludes that, even if economics is appearing on more political resumes, this training does not appear to help these leaders achieve better economic outcomes. (Hira cites Peru’s Alejandro Toledo, Indonesia’s Suharto, and U.S. President George W. Bush as examples of leaders who may have disappointed their economics instructors.) These are fascinating results. Alas, they’re fascinating in ways that lead one to seriously question the refereeing process at the International Political Science Review.
I'm afraid the rest is firewalled, but here's the nut paragraph:
Simply put, the paper provides no actual evidence to support his conclusion that economists are ineffective leaders of national economies. To do that, he would have had to compare the periods when a technocrat was the national leader with the periods when there was a different kind of leader. Or he could have compared countries that had economists in charge with those countries that did not. Or he could have done both. But Hira did none of the above. Rather, he points to three trends over time: an increase in economically literate leaders, a slowdown of economic growth, and an increase in inequality. Then he simply asserts that the first trend must have caused the latter two trends. That’s Olympics-caliber hand-waving.

posted by Dan at 11:47 AM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Hey, I'm just the publisher, don't look at me!

The New Republic's Jaime Kirchick looks at the newsletters Ron Paul used to send out to subscribers back in the day. The results are not pretty:

[W]hoever actually wrote them, the newsletters I saw all had one thing in common: They were published under a banner containing Paul's name, and the articles (except for one special edition of a newsletter that contained the byline of another writer) seem designed to create the impression that they were written by him--and reflected his views. What they reveal are decades worth of obsession with conspiracies, sympathy for the right-wing militia movement, and deeply held bigotry against blacks, Jews, and gays. In short, they suggest that Ron Paul is not the plain-speaking antiwar activist his supporters believe they are backing--but rather a member in good standing of some of the oldest and ugliest traditions in American politics.
Read the whole thing -- it's pretty devastating. Ron Paul's response is here, and includes this passage:
When I was out of Congress and practicing medicine full-time, a newsletter was published under my name that I did not edit. Several writers contributed to the product. For over a decade, I have publicly taken moral responsibility for not paying closer attention to what went out under my name.
Note to self: reconsider outsourcing blog to nice man from Nigeria who promises to transfer 1 million pounds to my bank account.

UPDATE: At one point, Kirchick writes that Paul's supporters are "are nothing like the urbane libertarians who staff the Cato Institute or the libertines at Reason magazine." Does this mean there are no libertines at Catoand no urbane libertarians at Reason?

Of course, Kirchick also forgot the final clause in his sentence: "or the complete geeks at the Institute for Humane Studies."

posted by Dan at 07:26 PM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, January 7, 2008

Deconstructing Hillaryvision

Two snippets of video regarding Hillary Clinton have/will dominate the current news cycle. The first one happened at the weekend debate in New Hampshire, and is currently #1 at YouTube:

The second one happened today -- as Newsweek put it, "Hillary Tears Up." Take a look:
Here's the New York Times' coverage of the same incident

If Hillary does worse than expected, pundits will point to the first snippet of video as an example of her "heated response" turning off voters. If Hillary does better than expected, pundits will point to the second snippet of video as the moment when Hillary "humanized" herself to the voters of New Hampshire, and made the political personal.

Me, I saw the exact same Hillary in both pieces of footage. In both instances, Hillary's words and intonation made two things abundantly clear:

1) Hillary Clinton genuinely thinks the country needs change, and that she has the capacity, as president, to make the country a better place;

2) Hillary Clinton genuinely thinks that no one else but her possesses that capacity, and that it is insulting to suggest otherwise.

On foreign policy matters -- and that's the primary issue area I care about in this election -- there are ways in which I trust Clinton's experience more than Obama's. That second point, however, scares the ever-living crap out of me. That kind of belief bears a strong resemblance to the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvaia Avenue.

Screw the politics of fear and, frankly, screw the politics of hope. I want the politics of doubt. I want a president who, in these complex times, has the capacity to admit error before all is lost.

I get absolutely no whiff of that from Hillary Rodham Clinton.

UPDATE: I'm fascinated by the comment thread to this post. To clarify a few matters:

1) I'm fully aware that "the politics of doubt" is not a winning platform, and that all candidates must project confidence and reassurance in their campaigns. I have no illusions that my preference matches those of others (interestingly, I feel the same way about doctors visits. Doctors tend to project authority because patients feel better if they are completely sure of their diagnosis/course of action. Growing up with a doctor, I much prefer having my physician give a more probabilistic assessment of whatever is ailing me).

2) There's something else I didn't quite nail about Clinton's video sequences -- her sense of entitlement. Put it this way -- while Obama has taken some shots at Hillary's "experience," I haven't heard him say imply that she's unfit for the office. On the other hand, everything in those two video snippets suggests that Clinton has internalized the belief that no one else is remotely deserving of the Oval Office.

3) I'm not endorsing Obama -- not even close. I am paying more attention to the Democratic primary than the Republican one because I'm 80% sure that whoever gets the donkey nomination will be the next president.

posted by Dan at 06:26 PM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

I'm not saying this definitively, but I'm pretty sure that in a past life, Mark Penn killed a man

Your humble blogger has returned from his overseas travels in better physical shape but still jet-lagged.

I'm not so jet-lagged, however, to not appreciate this supreme bit of karmic payback that Hillary Clinton pollster Mark Penn might be facing this Tueday.

I received the following in an e-mail from Clinton's press office on Saturday (likely authored by Penn) entitled "WHERE IS THE BOUNCE?":

Two polls that had the race within a few points before the Iowa caucuses have the race tied in New Hampshire after the Iowa caucuses.

In today's CNN/WMUR New Hampshire poll, Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama are tied at 33 percent - their last two polls had Hillary up 4 points and before that had Hillary down 2 points, so there is no statistically significant change in their numbers before and after the Iowa caucuses.

And the Concord Monitor is out as well today with a poll showing the race at 33 percent for Hillary Clinton, 34 percent for Barack Obama and 23 percent for John Edwards – exactly the same margin as before Iowa.

Contrast that with the 17 points John Kerry gained in 2004 in the Boston Globe poll, which catapulted him from a 17-point deficit to a 20-point lead in New Hampshire after the Iowa caucuses. Or with the 7 points Al Gore gained in 2000 in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, increasing his lead in New Hampshire from 5 points to 18 points.

New Hampshire voters are fiercely independent. They will make their own decisions about who to support.

According to Reuters, the fiercely independent New Hampshire voters are beginning to make their decision:
Democrat Barack Obama rocketed to a 10-point lead over Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire one day before their showdown in the state's presidential primary, according to a Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll released on Monday.

This is the first of the rolling New Hampshire polls taken entirely after last week's caucuses in Iowa, where Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee scored breakthrough wins that left Clinton and Romney reeling.

Obama, an Illinois senator bidding to make history as the first black U.S. president, gained 11 points on Clinton to lead the one-time Democratic front-runner 39 percent to 29 percent. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was third with 19 percent.

"This is a breathtaking movement in Obama's direction," said pollster John Zogby. "It's a surge for Obama and movement away from Clinton."

To be fair to Penn, not all of the tracking polls are showing this big a lead.

Still, there's something about the initial press release that suggests that karmic payback is coming.

posted by Dan at 09:02 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)