Friday, February 22, 2008

Debate in Austin

Random thoughts--

I wonder what a debate without a crowd would sound like, how much more substantive and time-efficient it would be? I found the cheering interruptions distracting.

I only watched the first 90 minutes of it, so I missed what was apparently Hillary's best moment in the closing. Good for her, if Marc Ambinder's take is a reasonable proximity to her perspective and intentions.

The first half of the 90 minutes I thought Obama appeared somewhat tired, not aggressive, and his voice hoarse. I thought Hillary had a stronger first half here, but I am one who finds Obama's debate "pauses" as some observers refer to them, to be a strength. He comes off genuine, non-programmed, thoughtful. And while I hate to attach any meaning to facial expressions and other asthetic concerns, I much prefer Obama's "straight face" to Hillary's weird smirk or smile or whatever it is she presents. Obama has a great poker face, and comes across tough and knowledgeable without allowing himself to get unnecessarily provoked. I think he will handle McCain OK.

The second half got more testy, but Obama appeared to come back after the first break as if he had been injected with assertiveness juice, as he was much more engaged. Hillary's "xerox" line made her look small, as did the whole exchange on the plagiarism charge. And her reference to the Texas representative who got stumped by Chris Matthews as to Obama's accomplishments also seemed, as Obama referred to it as, another contribution to "silly season". It was beneath her.

The first question out of the box delt with Cuba, and here, while I thought there was much more Obama could have said, his response was far and away superior to that of Clinton's, which sounded like Leave No Exile Behind boilerplate. Obama could have also said something along the lines of "China and Saudia Arabia aren't democracies and we talk to them, irregardless of their human rights records; Cuba's really no different. Unless there is some very clear, very serious strategic concerns separating Cuba from other non-democratic countries (and I don't see how there would be), our approach to its leadership should be roughly consistent with how we deal with other countries who don't share all our values."

But Obama's response was, nonetheless, a meaningful "change" from what Clinton offers on this count, as is his recognition of the need to reorient America's approach to the world and the need to begin treating other countries more respectfully rather than as disobedient children or poor relations.

On the economy, I thought Hillary responded well here, particularly to what she would do differently from Obama "from day one". Her emphasis on the country's mortgage crisis was also skillfully played, as well as prescient given the headline story in today's NYT. She also did well to emphasize the connection between her own, fairly aggressive policy prescription for the mortgage crisis to what many in the financial world, and to a lesser extent within the administration itself, appear to be coming around to. Paul Krugman also raises an important point by emphasizing the economic straights that may confront the next president.

Obama comes off less impressive here. The line about ending tax breaks for companies that ship jobs over seas sounds little better than the standard line about ending waste and abuse in government. I'm left wondering--how many jobs are at stake here? How meaningful would such a change in tax policy be?

I would have appreciated some more challenging follow up by the debate panel, particularly when Hillary stated that $5 billion spent on "green (environmental-like) jobs" would put "hundreds of thousands to work". I don't know what she meant here or how the money would translate into so many jobs, but the debate panel didn't respond to it.

I did appreciate that the debate panel didn't let Obama or Hillary off with generic comments about the need for "comprehensive" immigration reform. They made the two talk about what changes if any should be made in any border fence program or border security. I don't happen to care all that much about immigration "reform", but I know many do, and even with McCain as the GOP nominee, the issue will surface in some way and the Dem nominee will have to address it in ways that go beyond the need to find a path to citizenship for the 12 million, give or take, illegal immigrants in the country. And along that line, why does Obama think hefty fines for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship are a good idea? It would seem to put an added incentive for undocumented workers to stay underground, and would impose considerable hardships on those workers who did apply for citizenship, as they are likely to be among the more economically distressed.

The health care skirmish I thought came out to about a draw. Hillary responded competently to Obama's argument about the mandate.

Overall, I am more impressed by Obama's presentation and debating approach then some--even among his supporters--are. And where Hillary comes across as competent and "ready", I can see why she has a reputation for appearing "chilly" in her on stage persona. I don't know if she is over-compensating for some perceived defect, or if this is her natural way of being.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Speeches vs. Solutions

I really don't understand the basis of this critique by Hillary:

Her candidacy on the line, Clinton signaled that her central "experience" argument would remain unchanged. "It is time that we moved from good words to good works, from sound bites to sound solutions"...

But as this is still the campaign, and not the governing stage, than, well, all we have to really go on is words. If Hillary really means that we shouldn't pay attention to the candidates' words, then we shouldn't pay much attention to her ads, debate performances, or non-concession concession speeches either.

If Hillary means to contrast her experience to his, than she has to point to any "good works" she can claim that Obama is lacking. But as I've said before, and as Ezra also suggests, neither Hillary's or Obama's U.S. Senate stays has been all that notable. Hillary has spent most of hers voting for a war against Iraq and a war-like resolution against Iran, while Obama has spent half of his Senate term campaigning for president.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Miscellaneous Election Thoughts

Maybe I'm among the campaign naive, but this website and message is pretty terrible and pathetic. I don't know if the HRC campaign has any direct link to this page or is in any way responsible for it, or even how recent it is, but its brazenly sad. After last night, it reaks of desperateness. (h/t Ezra Klein)

Also from Ezra's keyboard, I think he makes a possibly relevant point about Obama's breaking into Hillary's speech last night:

Obama just cut in on Clinton's speech. On the one hand, I sympathize with the intent. She wasn't giving a concession tonight -- she lost, but it didn't count, so no concession needed -- but instead using the tradition of the concession speech to offer a nationally televised "contrast" speech, in which she said things like "only one of us is ready on day one to be commander in chief, ready to manage our economy, and ready to defeat the Republicans. Only one of us has spent 35 years being a doer, a fighter and a champion for those who need a voice." Obama, realizing he owned the airwaves, started right over her. And why not? Why give her airtime to bash him?

My first instinct when I watched it was to think Obama was being rude or churlish. But if this was in fact what precipitated Obama's move, the justification provided by Ezra seems reasonable.

The only excuse I could see Hillary making about Wisconsin was that Independent voters were able to participate, and that Obama apparently only won the Democratic vote by 51% to 48%.

But (a) Obama still won the Democratic-only vote and (b) Hillary's inability to appeal to Independents does not bode well for how she would do as the nominee in the general election in November.

Update: The website I linked to above is (a) recent--today and (b) a creation of the Clinton campaign. (h/t John Cole)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Another Post on Cuba

While I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of Ezra, Steve Clemons, and many others, that U.S. policy towards Cuba is an irrational and immoral embarrasment and complete failure, I still have to take issue with how some on the Left approach the Castro-50-year-dictatorship, particularly those labeling themselves as wanting Democracy Now!

Below is the transcript of Amy Goodman's interview of the National Security Archive's Peter Kornbluh. My starky comments and questions are interspliced throughout the interview in brackets:

AMY GOODMAN: We go to our top story today: Fidel Castro has announced he is resigning as Cuban president, ending forty-nine years in power. In defiance of the United States, Castro has led the island since the Cuban Revolution succeeded in 1959 [is this a good thing?]. In a letter published in the Cuban newspaper Granma online, the eighty-one-year-old Castro wrote, “It would betray my conscience to take up a responsibility that requires mobility and total devotion, that I am not in a physical condition to offer.”

Castro temporarily handed over power to his brother Raul nineteen months ago due to illness. He has not been seen in public since. In his letter to the Cuban people, Castro said he would remain involved in Cuban affairs. He wrote, “I am not saying goodbye to you. I only wish to fight as a soldier of ideas.” [an odd comment given the limits on political dissent in Cuba--where does Castro plan to fight this battle of ideas and with who?]

President Bush was traveling in Rwanda when the news of Castro’s resignation broke early this morning. Bush told reporters, “The US will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty.”

Peter Kornbluh joins us now on the phone from Washington, D.C., senior analyst at the National Security Archive, where he directs the Cuba Documentation Project.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Peter. Did this announcement in the online edition of the Cuban newspaper Granma come as a surprise to you?

PETER KORNBLUH: It only came as a surprise in that it was announced today, Tuesday, rather than on Sunday, this coming Sunday, when the National Assembly was due to meet, and everybody widely expected that, although there were be some type of vote of support for Fidel, that he would at that point step aside and his brother would officially become president of Cuba and chief of the Cuban Communist Party. So Fidel has kind of gone out on his own terms at this point, [the desire of all dictators] making the announcement early and paving the way for the focus on Sunday to be on the future of Cuban leadership.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of Castro officially stepping down, resigning as president of Cuba?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, I think it’s a momentous occasion, because rulers like Fidel Castro [i.e. dictators] somewhat traditionally leave office in a coffin or during a military coup, and here he has basically, I think, capped his legacy of revolutionary leadership by leaving under his own terms [without being voted out in a competitive election], by helping to usher in a very smooth transition, almost seamless transition, to his brother and to younger disciples of both Castros, who will, I think, emerge on Sunday and in the days thereafter to lead Cuba. So Castro has lived to not only see the institutionalization of his revolution, but the passage of power peacefully to another generation [again, without the nastiness of a competitive, democratic election].

AMY GOODMAN: There has been a new book, an autobiography, actually, of Castro just published called Fidel Castro: My Life—A Spoken Autobiography. It was written by Castro in conversation with Ignacio Ramonet.

PETER KORNBLUH: Yes, it’s a very, very interesting book. And in the book, which is described as a spoken autobiography, which is very appropriate for Fidel Castro, who, of course, is known for his loquaciousness and long speeches, but in this book, which contains the extraordinary history of his life and his involvement in the third world and his relations with the United States and the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution, the last chapter is titled “After Fidel, What?” And he describes—very similar to the letter that he wrote that was published today in Granma, he describes the need to step aside, let another generation take over, that he would not want to continue in office if he was incapacitated.

He also issues a warning to his enemies, that if he dies, his ideas might become more powerful than when he was alive. And, of course, he’s not dying now; he’s simply officially changing titles, from commander-in-chief to commentator-in-chief, where he’s going to be that kind of columnist for the Cuban Communist Party newspaper [that is, the government-run press, which Goodman and Democracy Now would oppose if it was occuring here] and continue to, as he puts it, you know, be a soldier in the battle of ideas. So he’s not leaving the scene, but certainly, I think officially now, turning over the reins of power.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, he’s also still secretary of the Communist Party. He did not leave that. Is there a significance in this?

PETER KORNBLUH: I believe that on—I believe that on Sunday, he will be replaced by his brother as secretary of the Communist Party, or by another younger Cuban party member, who obviously—not clear who that will be, but from every indication in his autobiography and what he’s been saying over the last six or seven weeks about making sure a new generation of leadership emerges, it is clear that the Communist Party is taking steps to start to move younger leaders into position very high up in the party for the future.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush is in Rwanda today, part of his five African country tour. When he learned of this announcement of the resignation of Fidel Castro, he said, “The US will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty.”

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, there’s very little that the Bush administration can do that it hasn’t already tried to do. It actually had what was billed as a comprehensive plan to prevent Fidel Castro from turning over the reins of power to his brother Raul, and that plan has clearly and objectively failed.

There will be a tremendous opportunity for the next president of the United States to look at Cuba, see a change in leadership there and say, after fifty years it is time to change the perpetual antagonism and hostility in US policy towards the Cuban Revolution. At that point, the Cuban Revolution will have turned fifty years old at the end of this year. And US policy has failed in all of its objectives to roll back that revolution. And the next president, I think, pragmatically will have to look at the situation and say, we are more isolated in the world because of our policy of trying to isolate Cuba than Cuba is, and it’s time for us to change this policy, which has not worked and which is not in the US interest.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, what is the US Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, the United States, under the Bush administration, has allocated $80 million to send to dissident groups not only in Cuba, but around the world, who are pushing to organize opposition to communism in Cuba. Obviously, the United States has adopted a diplomatic effort with its allies in Europe and elsewhere to try and curtail economic ties to Cuba, but that has failed. George Bush gave a speech last fall in which he once again virtually begged his allies to join the United States to support what he sees as the march of freedom in Cuba. But by any objective standard, there is not an organized opposition to the Cuban Communist Party and no real hope that in the near future, at least, there will be. [I wonder why?]

What I think will happen is that if the next president of the United States steps back, adopts a dialogue and more normal relations with Cuba, the space in Cuba for the kind of national security state side of the Cuban Revolution to soften, I think, will grow broader. And Raul Castro is committed to some significant economic changes, which we’ll be hearing more about in the weeks to come, which also in the months to come will, I think, lead to more economic and social openings in Cuba.

AMY GOODMAN: [very hestitantly and skeptically] What do you mean? [Yeah, isn't universal health care democracy enough for these people?]

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, he’s going to be certainly working on changing the kind of—Fidel’s kind of hard-line position on entrepreneurship, on small businesses, on farming, agricultural cooperatives and private farming to increase production of agriculture. As Cubans become more independent economic actors, there certainly will be a push for them to—for Cuban civil society to organize around economic units and broaden the social movement towards more freedom of expression, more organization of the society. Is that going to happen any time soon? No. [after a dutifully promising start, Kornbluh is in serious jeapardy of not getting invited back on this show] But I think that would be the progression of events.

And, of course, that is—those types of openings are the type of thing that Fidel feared [there he goes again. sigh.] and why Cuba really, under his leadership, really didn’t move significantly in that direction. But Raul is not a charismatic leader. He understands that Cubans, kind of in their daily lives, have significant needs and legitimate demands for economic change. [but, but, but, everybody in Cuba has health care!] And I think you’re going to be hearing more about that on Sunday, when the National Assembly officially, you know, positions Raul as the new leader and president of Cuba.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Peter Kornbluh, the presidential candidates’ positions on Cuba and the embargo—today, of course, the race in Wisconsin, but Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain.

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, Barack Obama, of the three, has taken the most progressive position, although it’s still a very timid position. He’s only called for opening up Cuban American travel, not broad US travel to Cuba, but only Cuban American families being able to travel to Cuba to see their loved ones and their relatives. And—but he’s also said that he is willing to enter into a dialogue with leaders such as Raul Castro and others. And that, I think, portends a significant change in US policy, if Barack Obama was to become president.

Hillary Clinton’s position has been a politically calculating one, where she doesn’t want to give up a single exile vote in Florida, [No Exile Left Behind] so therefore she’s basically adopted the same position as George Bush has on Cuba, that US policy will not change until there’s fundamental changes in Cuba. I would assume her campaign is going to reevaluate that, now that Fidel has officially resigned, but I don’t think you’ll hear any change in her rhetorical position while she continues to try and run for the nomination.

And, of course, John McCain went to Miami recently, sat down at the exile restaurant Versailles and basically bellicosely threatened, you know, US aggression towards Cuba and a hard line towards Cuba, if he is president. So I wouldn’t expect too much change from a Republican president, at least in the beginning.

But I think any president will confront a new leadership in Cuba, the fait accompli of the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, and I think the pressure from our own allies to adopt a more reasonable position on our policy towards Cuba.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, I want to thank you very much for being with us, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, public-interest documentation center in Washington, D.C. Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba and Chile Documentation Projects.

That Heritage Clock (updated below)

I wish Glenn Greenwald and others would stop being so mean about that doomsday clock.

After some initial confusion, it now appears clear that the clock is measuring time in business days, which is, after all, how the really bad terrorists who want to kill us all are measuring time.

Update 1:38 pm EST: Uh oh. The clock is gone. Does that mean we're all dead now?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Not Ready on Day One

From the Washington Post, via Hilzoy, guesting at Andrew Sullivan's pad:

"Supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton are worried that convoluted delegate rules in Texas could water down the impact of strong support for her among Hispanic voters there, creating a new obstacle for her in the must-win presidential primary contest.

Several top Clinton strategists and fundraisers became alarmed after learning of the state's unusual provisions during a closed-door strategy meeting this month, according to one person who attended.

What Clinton aides discovered is that in certain targeted districts, such as Democratic state Sen. Juan Hinojosa's heavily Hispanic Senate district in the Rio Grande Valley, Clinton could win an overwhelming majority of votes but gain only a small edge in delegates. At the same time, a win in the more urban districts in Dallas and Houston -- where Sen. Barack Obama expects to receive significant support -- could yield three or four times as many delegates.

"What it means is, she could win the popular vote and still lose the race for delegates," Hinojosa said yesterday. "This system does not necessarily represent the opinions of the population, and that is a serious problem.""