Monday, August 25, 2008

Barack's Attack Dog

As I read the McCain camp rebuttal to the recent number-of-houses barb from Obama, a dark shroud of implacable fear surrounded me. I realized later that it was actually some kind of crypto-partisan guilt because this was exactly what I would have said if the tables were turned:

Does a guy who made more than $4 million last year, just got back from vacation on a private beach in Hawaii and bought his own million-dollar mansion with the help of a convicted felon really want to get into a debate about houses?

Does a guy who worries about the price of arugula and thinks regular people 'cling' to guns and religion in the face of economic hardship really want to have a debate about who’s in touch with regular Americans?

Now, brothers and sisters, before you dismiss this counter-slam for its superficiality, please pause to admire the streamlined execution. By calling out one McCain flaw, Obama gets plastered for a handful before the sentence is half-over. It's a tight little cluster bomb of a rebuttal, lacquered with a stealthy dismissal of the whole attack -- it ends with a purely rhetorical question mark as if to say, "Let's not even go there." Compact, piercing, and inflammatory, it hits its target while giving the impression that it was launched from the high ground. Of course, it wasn't launched from the high ground; it was launched by a Rove protege using a Clinton crib-sheet. But no member of the Obama team has been able to deploy fighting words with such force and precision.

Enter Joe Biden. I remember feeling instant admiration for the man when, channel-surfing four years ago, I saw him in a C-SPAN clip (is there any better way to catch C-SPAN?). It was during one of his Judiciary Committee hearings and he was smacking around John Ashcroft for defending Abu Ghraib. At the time, there wasn't much of a formal debate about torture. This was well before Cheney attempted publicly to codify torture and toss out the Geneva Conventions. The theatrical sadists of Abu Ghraib were defended and dismissed as bad-apple frat house kids. And unlike Cheney's subsequent row with Congress, there was no specific policy at stake and therefore no focal point for sustained discussion. We swallowed the shame and re-elected Bush. But for a brief moment, our cruelty and hypocrisy were held in lyric suspension by the most powerful image to cross the national Imaginary since the panoramic hellscape of 9/11:

If you want a thousand-word capsule for this -- and an incisive review of a certain Mel Gibson movie -- click here.

Joe Biden was one of a few people to correctly intuit and loudly decry the basic moral failure of Abu Ghraib. Instead of making it another pissy bullet point for Bush's managerial incompetence, he made it a deeply personal issue of right and wrong. As the father of a soldier, he knew that the horrors of Abu Ghraib now gave the enemy license to practice the same indignity on his son. Held to this fatherly imperative, the Bushies didn't look tough or confident anymore -- they looked like pube-less bullies playing dress-up with dad's clothing.

Even if you believe, like Sally Quinn, that the President should be a manly winged centaur who protects his children (and presumably shits cocoa puffs for breakfast), you have to admit that Biden fulfills the emotional need at the center of that father-worship fantasy better than Cheney. His aggression and his wit are inseparable. And unlike Hillary Clinton, he won't be gunning for his boss's job in 2012 or beyond. Best of all, he is a value-added veep, not the naked gesture of electoral or geographic conciliation that Obama-Clinton or Obama-Kaine would have been.

In other words, there is no appeasing strategy behind the choice of Biden. He's simply better for the job than Hillary. His qualification derives not from yesterday's primary contest, but from tomorrow's challenges. Obama didn't pick him just to win one contest in November, he picked him to help govern for years beyond it. And let's not pretend Hillary actually wanted the number two slot to begin with. She's an all-or-nothing executive, not a supporting figure or attack dog. If she's not going to run the whole show, her talents are better employed back in Senate committees, not Observatory Circle.

(I understand the frustration felt by Hillary's supporters because I supported her too for a while. See the end of this post for my own personal Clinton postmortem.)


The torture debate is as good a place as any to segue from Biden to McCain. Like most of my lefty brethren, I do hope he picks Mitt Romney. I relish this prospect about as much as Kristol and McCain wish they had Hillary to rip apart right now. The electoral temptations of a Romney VP are obvious enough: He has roots in the indispensable Democratic territories of Michigan and Massachusetts. He was the (distant) runner-up in the delegate count. And unlike the Hillary Clinton, Romney actually represents a stubborn ideological faction within the Republican Party. He is also favored by the hard-right chattering class (Limbaugh, Coulter, et al) that would rather lose this race than see McCain become President. Finally, Romney's clumsy flip-flops and embarrassments are the sort that can be swept up and blunted while he marinates for four years as President-in-waiting.

Like two people in an elephant costume, McCain-Romney might each believe that they're the one who's really running the show. And the fractured American Right would happily join in that delusion and redouble its energy this fall.

But because of this, the primary fight between McCain and Romney was more pronounced and substantive than the superficial squabbles of Clinton, Biden, and Obama. If the McCain camp thinks they're having fun re-purposing Democratic primary jabs, just wait until they have to explain away McCain contra Romney smack-downs like this:

Or, better yet, this:

Or my personal favorite, this:

Clinton chided Obama on vague, subjective grounds: the length of a resume, the "readiness" to lead. By contrast, McCain beat the shit out of Romney for insoluble political and moral issues that can't be reconciled in a tart convention speech. Plus -- and it's a HUGE plus -- I'll bet dollars for donuts that Biden has the balls to confront Romney at the debates and ask him point-blank why he continued to work for an officially racist organization well into his adult life. Good luck carrying that bullshit rationalization into a general election against the first African American nominee in American history. But please, do try!

This is assuming McCain doesn't nominate Bobby Jindal, who satisfies the hard-right just as well as Romney and handcuffs the Dem's identity politics almost as well as Biden handcuffs the Republican's foreign experience charge. At 36, Jindal really makes you wonder about the life-expectancy rate in the late eighteenth century, when the Constitution set the minimum Presidential age requirement at 35. He's exactly one half of McCain's age. This would out-Quayle Quayle except Jindal is also the dynamic, articulate governor of Louisiana and Rush Limbaugh has dubbed him "the next Ronald Reagan." Did I mention he's the son of Indian immigrants?

Regardless, McCain still has one rather large tactical advantage over Obama at this stage in the game. For all his doddering low-blows, he's not dumb enough to ignore it. Because McCain isn't announcing his VP pick until August 29, Obama-Biden can only criticize half of the McCain ticket during the biggest campaign event of the season. For this same reason, McCain can use the Dem pageant to inform his VP choice, making that nomination a broad counter punch before his own pageant even begins. And when it does begin, McCain-Romney or McCain-Jindal will have the double-barrel blast of a surprise VP who enters the convention completely undiminished by the preceding DNC love/attack festival. Given this, I can understand why Obama would wish to close the gap between the VP announcement and the convention. After Labor Day, it's four big TV stops for the debates and then we're done. But right now, the election calendar favors the reactionary attack position that McCain has already exploited so well.

So I'm happy about Biden. I'm hopeful for Romney. But I fear the terrain gives McCain a generous handicap either way.


Because I'm a wonky geek with no real mommy damage to speak of, I admired Hillary's ability to answer debate questions with clear and specific bullet-lists. So for any frustrated Hillary supporters out there, let me present my departure from your camp in a similar fashion.
  • Her resume isn't that much thicker than Obama's.
  • To ascertain their policy differences would be an agonizing exercise in the bifurcation of hairs. McCain is not going to satisfy Hillary's view on abortion, Iraq, health care, or the economy at large.
  • Which leaves the question of executive/managerial competence. I humbly offer the recent primary-source profile of her primary campaign from the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly. You see, Obama won the primaries without stooping to innuendo and slurs-by-association and he did it with grass-roots organization that eschewed defense/pharma lobby money. He ended the whole marathon with class and cash to spare. Clinton took huge sums from the military-industrial complex and drug/insurance companies, added a huge personal debt of her own, and then squandered every penny slinging dirty ads. As the e-mails released in the above article show, she also failed to manage a civil war within her own campaign team. These are not the marks of a good or effective executive. There's plenty to admire in the woman, but she's also a low-blowing spendthrift who can't uniter her own team, never mind the party or the country.
  • As someone who endured baseless charges during the Whitewater scandal, she should know better than to use the same smear tactics against Obama w/r/t Rezko. But she doesn't and she didn't. Even the Wall Street Journal picked up on this hypocritical ploy against Obama.
Race and Gender cut to the quick because they both directly engage our sexuality. At the end of the day, racial and gender divisions aren't policy problems because they require a more intimate act of "transcendence." In this sense, they are one and the same issue (as in, "to issue" or give birth). I happen to believe -- to the irritation of my colleagues -- that sexism is a far graver issue than racism in this world. But that's precisely why the world deserves a better "identity politician" than Hillary Clinton.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Duh Profundis

They say that the average person's vocabulary contains more negative words and phrases than positive. This might explain why free-form snark rules the day, I suppose. On the whole, it's easier to spit invective than construct a compliment. And if you don't believe me, go fuck a rusty exhaust pipe you unrepentant joytard.

They also say that 90% of the neurotransmitter traffic in your brain is devoted to inhibition. Consciousness emerges through a plastic cascade of retreats -- an "inwardness" that characterizes the mind at its physiological building block. This is why I often find the asceticism of Schopenhauer and Beckett so irritating and redundant. Yes, we are born astride a grave (at least for now) but must we eat astride a toilet? Is the recipe complete without acknowledging the poop that will ultimately issue from it?

My sister got married this past weekend! Right now I feel as happy as I do old -- which isn't a bad tandem if you think about it. Somewhere between my third and fourth glass at the reception, my sister told me I was scheduled to make a toast. And I started to choke because for the life of me I couldn't summon one appropriately embarrassing story about her or her new husband Dave. Inhibition won over invective, I guess. What can I say? They're good people who deserve each other. And I can't wait to play the goofy uncle part that was written for me so long ago. They're also a smart, loving bipartisan couple whose very existence makes it easy to forget the wasted lump of carbon twitching under the breastbone of Ann Coulter or Frank Rich. They even made t-shirts that said "RACHEL-DAVE 2008: Peace. Hope. Matrimony."

Photos coming soon ...

I was watching MSNBC yesterday after my run. They sampled Obama's recent charge that McCain's off-shore drilling proposal has netted him a cool $1million from the oil lobby. Then some anchorface let a RNC wonk ramble through a feeble retort for two minutes. I waited for the conversation to begin, for some back and forth, for a confrontation or at least for an equally feeble response from a DNC wonk. But instead she excitedly rushed to her next story ... Tyra Banks posing as Michele Obama in the New York Post!! OMG!!! Apparently, this was such an imminent development that the network didn't have time to pull up some b-roll or slap together a title graphic. So the giddy anchorface had to hold up a copy of the Post so the camera could zoom in and catch the story. This was followed by thorough coverage of David Letterman's top ten list re: Barack's recent birthday.

Many, many chunks of uninhibited invective rushed to my throat. In no particular order:
  • Like everyone else in the comedy business, Letterman has stopped writing jokes. What the fuck happened to jokes? By jokes I don't mean Mike Meyers mugging or Colbert hyperbole. And I don't mean SNL's mean-spirited parodies or Sarah Silverman's reflexive turds of self-hatred. I mean that quaint modernist chestnut that doesn't need an attitude or posture to make you laugh: a set-up, a punchline, and some spark of wit to unite the two.
  • It seems Paul Shaffer has been instructed to slobber over every other word that comes out of Letterman's mouth so that the lameness of the material can be deflected to the lameness of Paul Shaffer -- thereby converting stillborn non-jokes into their Splenda equivalent: ad hominem mockery.
  • And speaking of SNL -- isn't it amazing how they've managed to get progressively, but imperceptibly, worse from year to year? I think it's part of a strategy to generate perpetual nostalgia for last year's not-quite-as-lame "Best Of" DVD. They really ARE cooking astride a toilet: the material only becomes compelling on the way out.
  • Family Guy and Robot Chicken are two orders of magnitude less creative than the above, but at least they leave a small carbon footprint. They're made of 96% post-consumer material, after all. They don't even recycle actual jokes -- they just recycle the mere memory of, say, having watched an obscure movie like The Empire Strikes Back. The "joke" is supposed to be the little memory neuron that fires with recognition of something you've already seen.
  • So just to sum up. Jokes are out. Mockery, nostalgia, and pop-referencing are in.
  • A man leaves Harvard Law School where he served as editor of the Law Review. He turns down clerkships and oxford-cloth lawyering gigs to camp out on the South Side of Chicago and help people. Clearly he is an arrogant bastard out of touch with regular American families.
  • What the hell is going on? McCain released an ad placing Obama next to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. I guess to show that Obama's popular. Britney*, you recall, advocates unblinking fealty to "whatever our President says." And Paris Hilton** -- that paragon of dynastic decadence -- is supposed to have common cause with the son of a goat herder. What the hell is going on?
  • Now, I'm guessing that the anchorface dug up the Tyra Banks story on her own because they had to zoom into a hand-held copy of the Post to explain it. But who arranges these things? Did the Obama campaign really think it could counter a RNC spokesperson with two pop-culture nuggets, Tyra and Letterman? Is it working? Or is this just how cable news works? Either way, I'm depressed.
  • Amazing how W managed to erase his blue-blooded pedigree with a few charming gaffes every other word or so. Bush never had to apply for a job or feed his family. But it's all in the twang, you see. And we don't like no uppity boy speakin' with fancy elitist subject-verb agreement and all that. So just to be clear: W comes from a regular American family and Obama is the authoritarian jerk with an outsized sense of entitlement, right?
  • Amazing how W managed to keep the rest of us so thrilled with our indignation and superiority that we forgave his petty catastrophes as the only real jokes worth telling in postmodern liberal America. Knock knock. Who's there? Katrina. Katrina who? Katrina Lewinsky. (REDEEM PUNCHLINE VOUCHER HERE)
  • What's worse than biting into an apple and finding a worm? The Holocaust.
  • How do Helen Keller's parents punish her? They beat the shit out of her.
  • How many women with PMS does it take to screw in a light bulb? Three. (long pause) It just DOES, okay?!
*Britney Isn't it amazing how her downfall and rehab and downfall was built into that first hit single? We knew back in 1998 that this was going to end in disaster. We were banking on it. Consequently, there was nothing remotely scandalous or newsworthy about her drug problem or custody battles or weight gain -- it was all part of the plan. We invested in her disgrace the day she first menstruated and now she's finally paying us back. It was like a college fund -- but instead of knowledge we got to masturbate over the image of a 15-year old girl and then punish her for it when she reached womanhood.

**Paris Hilton Has anyone done a parody character called Helena Travelodge? To complete the irony, she should be a Fulbright Scholar. And beautiful.