THINGS I’VE BEEN WONDERING (NON-SNARKY, EARNEST EDITION)

Points for answers. Extra credit if you can identify the podcasts I’ve been driving with recently.

Do GOPers make their global warming messaging about attacking Al Gore because they think he’s unpopular and they want to discredit science? Because they think he’s popular and they want to discredit him? Or just because they want to change the topic?

If Barack Obama combined a blue ribbon panel with a moratorium on firings of service members for being gay, how many Democrats in Congress would back him up?

Does having Democrats running the federal government make people who don’t like abortion but want it to stay legal feel more (not 8%, but maybe 1%) comfy identifying themselves “pro-life” without worrying about an abortion ban?

How do thousands of already-and-now-permanently married same-sex couples affect the fight for equal marriage rights for everyone else in California?

When will America have its first Supreme Court nominee who’s open about having had an abortion?

Is Obama serious about using our leverage to push Bibi?

Is Bruce Springsteen the only liberal immune from being tarred with the “elitist celebrity” brush? If so why?

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OBAMA AND MCCAIN DEBATE, ROUND ONE

Who won? I’d say scoring the debates on points, McCain came out somewhat ahead. But neither guy really distinguished himself, which is a victory for Obama: going into the debate more people wanted to vote for Obama, foreign policy is supposed to be John McCain’s best chance to get people to vote for him instead, and many of those people just needed Obama to hold his own and show himself a credible commander-in-chief, which he certainly did.

Neither man seemed really comfortable in his own skin, and each smothered some attack lines and one-liners by delivering them in a half-apologetic sounding way. But McCain, as we knew before, is a somewhat better debater. He sounded crisper, and he drove his lines of attack more directly and consistently. Obama went too far out of his way to emphasize where he agrees with McCain, and he didn’t draw on some of the more powerful lines of attack he’s leveraged against McCain in other fora (now that Iraq’s Prime Minister and George Bush have both come out for timetables, John McCain is standing all alone on this issue).

Mostly, Obama seemed eager to correct the record on particular points but once the debate moved from the economy to foreign policy, he offered a lot of good arguments against John McCain but not a unified theory of why he’d be a scary president.

Like George Bush in 2000 responding to Gore’s attack on his actual opposition to the actually-existing Patients’ Bill of Rights Legislation by spewing bipartisan happy-talk, John McCain did a good job of parrying criticism of his actual record with empty words about how he loves the veterans so much and they already know he’ll take care of them (even if he votes against improving the GI Bill) and “no one from Arizona is against solar power” (even though he keeps voting against solar power – maybe because he’s not from Arizona, he just moved there to run for Congress). If the media keeps letting them get away with that stuff, why wouldn’t they keep doing it?

As for the format, the much-hyped interactive format, to Jim Lehrer’s great consternation, mostly just made it clear that neither senator wanted to interact too much with the other. They didn’t respond to too many of each other’s attacks either.

Haven’t waded into the talking heads’ spin yet, but this seemed to me like a debate unlikely to distract attention for too long from the $700 billion bail-out that seems to be coming down the pike or the Bush-McCain record that got us into the mess. Not to worry: John McCain will cut down on our $18 billion in earmarks! (Does that include aid to Israel?)

QUICK THOUGHTS ON OBAMA’S SPEECH

To choose a favorite talking head buzz phrase, I think Barack Obama did what he had to do tonight. And he did it quite well.

First, closing a convention that erred too far on the side of nice (that means you, Mark Warner), Barack Obama came out swinging against John McCain, and I think he managed to do it in a way that’s hard to characterize as “nasty” or “shrill” or “too angry,” unless you’re one of the people who characterizes Democrats that way for a living. He crossed that threshold John Kerry or Al Gore never quite did, where you take on political opponents with a toughness that suggests you could take on enemies as President. And he maintained his sense of humor while doing it.

Second, Obama also addressed the imaginary lack of specificity in his policy proposals (the only thing more imaginary may be the desire among voters to hear specifics of policy proposals) by laying out a series of them (including improvements to the bankruptcy law that his running mate helped worsen). He had to do it; it’s good that he did. But it’s an especially silly expectation coming from a press corps that lets John McCain continue praising himself for having championed policies he currently opposes. It’s a good sign that the speech gets compared to a State of the Union address (or is that too presumptuous!).

Third, Obama talked about his own story, not in the linear way he has in the past and others have at this convention, but by explicitly comparing experiences in his life to experiences of Americans he’s met. Of course it’s sad that he has a higher bar to clear here than would a White candidate. That said, he did a compelling job connecting Americans’ stories and his own and explaining how they inform where he’ll take the country.

And the uplift was there too.

As for the disappointment, of course some of the self-consciously non-that-kind-of-Democrat stuff (are we reinventing government again?) is bothersome.

And in a speech that was more aggressive than we’ve come to expect from Democratic nominees, there was some needless defensiveness. If you’re going to talk about the importance of fatherhood, why say it’s something we “admit”? Aren’t you undercuttng yourself? Why say “Don’t tell me Democrats won’t defend America,” as though you concede that that’s the perception – and why respond to the criticism you brought up by naming presidents from forty years ago? Obama seems unable to help himself from rehearsing potential counterarguments in a way that doesn’t really help him – as in “Some people will say that this is just a cover for the same liberal etc…” And I think Obama made himself seem a little smaller when he followed talking about the struggles his family has overcome by protesting that he’s not a celebrity. Finally, while he effectively seized the high ground on patriotism, it seems overly restrictive for Obama to say he won’t suggest that McCain takes his policy positions with any eye to political expediency – I hope he doesn’t really mean that part, which would seem to leave John Kerry’s “Senator McCain v. Candidate McCain” line of attack off limits.

NEAR-VICTORY HAS A THOUSAND FATHERS

Democrats got the closest thing to a surprise electoral victory we’ve had in a while on Tuesday when Paul Hackett pulled over 48% in the most Republican district in Ohio. Understandably, spin machines on all sides have been in overdrive in the week since to claim vindication in the results. Case in point: Ed Kilgore’s claim that Hackett made it to 48% because the unreconstructed liberals in the “netroots” were willing to face facts, eschew their litmus tests, and let Hackett run with the kind of centrism the DLC has been shopping around the country:

The best sign, IMO, is that all this excitement was generated on behalf of a candidate nicely tailored to a “red” district, whose policy views probably were at odds with those of a lot of the folks generating the excitement and the cash. And I gather the national groups and bloggers involved in Hackett’s campaign let the candidate and his staff call all the important shots.

Reading Kilgore’s take, you’d think Hackett was a regular Zell Miller – or at least a conservative Democrat, emphasis on the conservative, like Ken Salazar. It makes good copy if your organization is devoted to pulling the party away from the left: in a sudden fit of reasonableness, the liberal fringe recognizes reality and gets behind the centrist candidate who can win. Trouble is, Paul Hackett is no Ken Salazar. Don’t take it from me – check out his website. He bucks the party on guns, but otherwise, he’s in or to the left of the mainstream of the House Democrats. Not only is he resolutely opposed to Bush’s social security privatization scheme, he takes the step most Americans support but too many Democrats are afraid to talk about: calling for an increase in the cap on the payroll tax (hear that suggested by the DLC recently? Didn’t think so). He condemns outsourcing, and rather than echoing GOP rhetoric about “big government,” he exposes it for the sham argument that it is. And on perhaps the signal issue of the campaign – the war in Iraq – he stands well to the left not only of the DLC of a significant chunk of the Democratic party in the House. If not for his being a veteran, one would expect the DLC to respond to his rhetoric opposing the decision to go to war with the usual hand-wringing about the party’s flagging credibility on national security.

Of course, if Paul Hackett hadn’t been a veteran, it would have been a very different race. But if all Kilgore means is that liberals conceded to pragmatists by getting behind a veteran, then the obvious question is whhere he got the idea that liberals in their hearts of hearts would rather have men and women in Congress who’ve never served in war. Maybe by reading all those DLC memos about how the Democratic party has no credibility on national security.

Bottom line is, if Paul Hackett had tanked, we’d be hearing from the conservative wing of the party about how his unreconstructed liberalism failed to resonate with mainstream voters. Making Hackett out to be an extreme left-winger would certainly be less of a leap for them than it was to make one out of John Kerry or Al Gore.

US News and World Report joins the scattered speculation about Presidential prospects for Russ Feingold:

He’s on a nationwide mission to test out his progressive message that’s liberal on some issues, like universal healthcare, and conservative on others, like the deficit. Fans think he can bridge the blue-state-red-state divide, making him not just a voice for a changing Democratic Party but a possible ’08 presidential candidate.

Feingold, re-elected in November to US Senate – from Wisconsin no less – by a wide margin, was also just named Deputy Democratic Whip. Feingold’s success should be not only inspirational but instructive for the party. Voters gave him six more years by a 12% margin while breaking only narrowly for John Kerry. It wasn’t that they thought Feingold was more moderate (even Karl Rove, when asked by a Wisconsin reporter weeks before whether the so-called “most liberal Senator” was really to the left of Feingold, declined to answer). Looks like it was Russ Feingold who was more compellingly able to speak to the issues facing Wisconsin voters and to their better angels and greater hopes. Looks like Wisconsin voters recognize what Feingold does, and what the pundits don’t: that being an independent is a very different task from being a moderate. That political courage isn’t a matter of sometimes reading from the other party’s talking points but of privileging allegiance to a set of values over capitulation to consensus, whether partisan or (as is too often the case) shared by powerbrokers in both parties. That meant standing for fair trade even as the Democratic party embraced NAFTA’s global race to the bottom. That meant successfully building a majority for real steps, however tentative (and in a few cases, counterproductive), towards limiting the suffocation of democracy by money. And that meant standing in the shadow of September 11 for that which is strongest in the American tradition by breaking with all 99 of his colleagues and voting against the PATRIOT Act. Russ Feingold didn’t run away from these votes when Tim Michels campaigned against them. He ran on them. And he won counties that John Kerry lost.

It’s not the first election in which Feingold defied political prognostication. He won in 1992 against well-financed better-recognized opposition with ads patterned more on Michael Moore movies than conventional TV spots. He showed up at his opponents’ mansions with a camera crew to ring their doorbells and ask for a debate (no response). He took viewers on a tour of his own home (“Here’s the closet: Look, no skeletons”), including the garage door on which he’d painted his three campaign commitments: No out-of-state funding. Town meetings in every county of Wisconsin every year. And no pay raises while in the Senate (a twelve-year legacy recently celebrated by a conservative stalwart). Go watch those ads. And the latest batch as well. They’re not just clever – they’re courageous.

So is Russ Feingold. He publically criticized Kerry and Edwards both for voting for the Iraq War and for voting against the $87 billion. He’s introduced or co-sponsored legislation to bar state and federal executions, use of permanent replacements during strikes, and drilling anywhere in the Great Lakes. He’s voted against NAFTA, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the No Child Left Behind Act. He’s cast a few bad votes. One was to confirm John Ashcroft as Attorney General; another was against scuttling impeachment proceedings against Clinton. He justified confirming Ashcroft, whose nomination he condemned, on the grounds that Presidents deserve the counsel of a cabinet of their own choosing. He justified his vote against halting impeachment on the grounds that the charges merited a full debate. Feingold voted against impeachment on both counts, though his comments were strongly – I would say unjustly – critical of Clinton’s conduct. They do demonstrate a hearteningly high set of ethics standards for elected officials, even if unfortunately misapplied in the Clinton case. And as the Madison Capital Times observed when Gore announced his running mate, Feingold’s criticism of Clinton’s use of political power in the Lewinsky investigation was far more credible than Lieberman’s self-serving reminders to America that sex outside of marriage is immoral.

Peter Beinart argued after the Ashcroft vote that Feingold was guilty of “the proceduralist delusion, that if you get the process right–figure out how much deference presidential nominations deserve or how much money candidates should spend–you can avoid taking sides politically.” But while Beinart is certainly right that “good government” reforms alone won’t overthrow entrenched noxious power or achieve social justice, only willful blindness could lead one to argue that Feingold has avoided taking sides on the divisive moral questions of the day. Beinart’s likely rightly to argue that Feingold’s 1998 campaign could have focused more on what he was doing in Congress and less on how he was campaigning (positively, and with in-state contributions). But in an era in which everyone expresses a desire to clean up American politics but most politicians bristle at regulations which could mean changing the way they themselves do business, Feingold deserves a great deal of credit for leading by example, holding himself to the standards of what would become McCain-Feingold three years before it became law. And Beinart is himself falling prey to delusion if he believes that the means by which politics is conducted has no impact on the relative power of the good guys and the bad guys to achieve their ends (all that said, McCain-Feingold of course still needs a great deal of work).

Feingold’s commitment to progressive means and progressive ends has struck a cord with voters we might expect and voters we might not. His capacities both to take courageous stands on principle and to cooperate constructively with unlikely allies have yielded a string of victories – some immediate, some partial or deferred. Russ Feingold serves as a telling reminder for the rest of the Democratic party that the road to victory in the next Presidential match doesn’t run away from the values of liberalism. And I’d say he has a better claim than most at serving as the party’s standard bearer in that fight. Looks like he’s beginning to think so as well:

Now, some may think that Alabama and Wisconsin are the polar opposites of American politics. But in both states I’ve found that — along with sharing a sincere appreciation of a good turkey dinner — too many hardworking people are losing their battles for decent paying jobs and adequate healthcare. I’m tired of seeing the power-hungry persuade the hardworking people of this country that the only way to preserve important values is to vote against their own families’ basic interests. I believe that the working people of both states have sacrificed for other people’s agendas for too long. And I believe that any political party or political movement or political candidate who would consistently say this would be heard throughout America.

This is an election we should have won. This is an election we could have won if the candidate had been working as hard, and as smart, as everybody else that was trying to get him elected. We almost won it anyway. It could be that we did. But given Kerry’s unwillingness to wait as long as folks did in line to vote for him before saying, in the name of national unity, that their votes needn’t be counted, we may never know.

I think the most striking find in the exit polls was that significant majorities said they supported Kerry on Iraq but Bush on the war on terror. Funny thing is, main thing Bush has done in the name of stopping terror is ignore Osama bin Laden and create a terrorist playground in Iraq, while refusing necessary funding for homeland security. This says to me that Bush succeeded in making terrorism a question of character rather than of policy. Kerry was certainly savaged by the media in the same way Gore was, while Bush too often got a free pass. But Kerry failed for months to put out a coherent, comprehensible message on Iraq (as on too many other issues), and while voters rightly prefered an alleged flip-flopper to an obvious belly-flopper on the issue, I think he shot a lot of his credibility as a strong leader and he may have lost the rhetorical battle for Commander-in-Chief. His unwillingness to aggressively defend himself, especially from the vile Swift Boat Vet attacks, can’t have helped. What’s tragic, of course, is that Bush has flip-flopped far more, even on whether we can win the war on terror, and that the extent his policy has been consistent, it’s been stubbornly, suicidely dangerous. On this issue, as on every issue, some will argue that Kerry was just too left-wing, which is anything but the truth (same goes for Dukakis, Mondale, Gore). A candidate who consistently opposed the war and articulated a clear vision of what to do once we got there could have fared much better.

Then there’s the cluster of issues the media, in an outrageous surrender to the religious right, insist on calling “moral values” (as if healthcare access isn’t a moral value). Here Kerry got painted as a left-winger while abjectly failing to expose the radical right agenda of his opponent. Most voters are opposed to a constitutional ban on all abortion, but Kerry went three debates without mentioning that it’s in the GOP platform. That, and a ban on gay adoption, which is similarly unpopular. And while he started trying towards the end to adopt values language in expressing his position on these issues and on others, it was too little, too late. An individual may be entitled to privacy about his faith and his convictions, religious or otherwise but a Presidential candidate shouldn’t expect to get too far without speaking convincingly about his beliefs and his feelings (I’m hoping to get a chance to read George Lakoff’s new book on this – maybe Kerry should as well).

This election will provide further few to those who argue that Republicans are a cadre of libertarians and the poor are all social conservatives who get convinced by the GOP to ignore class. The first problem with this argument when folks like Michael Lind articulate it is that it ignores the social liberalism of many in the working class. There are others – like the economic breakdown of voting patterns in 2000, which would make David Brooks’ head explode because the fact is Gore got the bottom three sixths and Bush got the top. But few can argue that a not insignificant number of working class voters in this country consistently vote against their economic interests, and that at least in this election, they have enough votes to swing the result. Here too some will argue the Democrats just have to sell out gay folks and feminists to win back the Reagan Democrats. I think Thomas Frank is much closer to the truth: People organize for control over their lives and their environments through the means that appear possible, and the Democrats’ ongoing retreat from an economic agenda which articulates class inequality has left the Republicans’ politics of class aesthetics (stick it to the wealthy liberals by putting prayer back in schools) as an alternative. For all the flack he got over wording, Howard Dean was speaking to an essential truth when he recognized that working-class southern whites don’t have much to show for decades of voting Republican, and Kerry didn’t make the case nearly well enough. He also seems to have bought into Republicans’ claims that Democrats always spend the last few weeks beating old folks over the head with claims that they’ll privatize social security and forgotten that Republicans, in fact, will privatize social security if they can. So he let too many of them get pulled away to the GOP. Part of the irony of the debate over the tension between the left economic agenda and their social agenda, and whether being labelled with the latter stymies the former, is that as far as public opinion goes, I see much more reason for confidence that we’ll have gained tremendous ground on gay marriage in a generation than that we will have on economic justice. As far as policy goes, the next four years are a terrifying prospect for both, and for most things we value in this country.

Don’t mourn. Organize.

Today Floridians vote in Democratic and Republican Senate primaries. Commissioner of Education Betty Castor, a strong progressive endorsed by MoveOn, DFA, and the UFCW – which represented the employees of the University she served as President – has a commanding lead over Congressman Peter Deutsch, who’s been painting her as soft on terror and bashing Emily’s List as sexist for endorsing her, and Mayor Alex Pinelas, who refused in 2000 to endorse Al Gore or object to his constituents disenfranchisement at the polls. Most importantly, Castor has the intrepid support of my friend Val Baron. On the Republican side, former Congressman Bill McCollum has a couple-point lead on former Bush HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, who’s been attacking McCollum from the far right on gay marriage for supporting hate crime legislation. I’m confident Castor can take on either one.