HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

May 12, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Misreading
May 6, 2008

A basic lesson of history is that it's usually a mistake to think that what worked in one era will keep on working under different conditions. People who do that ignore the ability of people to learn and adjust. Yet, sticking with something too long continues to be one of the chief errors of politics.


It's a miscalculation the Clinton campaign has dived into whole hog. They appear to be so impressed with the tactics of Karl Rove they think they can adapt them for their own purposes. The primary Rovian tactic was to scare and manipulate people of little information who almost never pay attention to what's going on in national affairs. That has been the GOP strategy throughout the Bush years. Republicans have said to themselves, "Win the O'Reilly audience and you'll capture the nation."

The gas tax holiday, for example, is a perfect example of the way Rove operated. Who knows? Maybe it popped up as a result of his advice to John McCain. But, in any case, Hillary gobbled it down. And as a result, she has been forced to say more and more stupid things on the campaign trail. Among people who know how energy prices work she is becoming a joke. Yet, she professes not to care. The elitist vote, which she defines as the ballots of people who know things, isn't big enough to offset the support of people who think that any tax cut -- no matter what it is and no matter how it works -- will benefit them.

Here's Hillary's problem. George Bush could say stupid thing after stupid thing and not hurt himself -- at least not immediately -- because stupidity complemented his character. It became an element of his integrity. Hillary can't do that. A majority of voters know that she understands there's no real benefit for anyone in a temporary suppression of the gas tax. She advocates it just because she believes it will win her votes. She's not dumb enough to believe it will do any good. So, her stand is adding to her reputation as a person who will do anything in order to win. Anything!

There may well be advantage in cultivating that reputation to a degree. But Senator Clinton is pushing it past the point where it will work for her. In particular, being seen as purely ruthless won't help her among the people she most needs now -- traditional Democratic voters and the Democratic super-delegates.

She's trying to use Rovian tactics on a non-Bush audience, and in doing it she's insulting the intelligence of the persons she needs to help her to the nomination. I don't see how it will get her the support she needs, and in the process she is damaging her ability to function effectively after she loses the nomination.


One on One
May 7, 2008

Now that Barack Obama is almost sure to be the Democratic nominee, we will have torrents of analysis about what he or John McCain must do to win the presidency. Each will have to move towards the center, it will be said. Each must woo the independents, which will be a hard job since the independents themselves can't figure out what they want. Each will have to step away from his party's base. And so on.

Most of this analysis will be nonsensical. The race for the presidency is not like a race for the nomination. Now, there will simply be two figures before the voters of the country. And one of the two will win by appearing knowledgeable and strong while making his opponent look weak and confused. Another way of saying this is that you win the presidency by beating the guy who's running against you.

By the time a person gets the nomination his policies are basically set. By monkeying around with them he simply makes himself look indecisive. In the race for the presidency, one must be able to say with perfect confidence, my policies are based on thought, and fact and intelligence whereas yours don't make any sense because -- and here's the key thrust -- you don't make any sense. One can be as courteous as he wishes, but he has to say repeatedly and firmly of his opponent, you don't make any sense.

This being the case, Obama enters the race with an advantage. John McCain has taken positions that can't be backed up by fact or resort to reality. He has said more money can be saved by the government through eliminating waste than can be saved. He has said that military tactics will succeed when they won't succeed. He has said that U. S. economic strength can be bolstered when he has no idea how to do it. He has said respect for the United States can be restored when nothing he has done will work towards restoring our international respect.

If Obama simply points out, firmly and steadily who John McCain is, the Democrats will win the election. But, it's not a sure bet because the Democratic Party is riddled with captains of defeat. And Obama's biggest challenge will not be John McCain but, rather, getting rid of them.


The Financial Maze
May 8, 2008

No one can figure out how much money the United States government spends on the military each year. Even though the $670 billion reported for fiscal 2008, which is supposed to cover non-war related expenses, is the highest -- in constant dollars -- for more than half a century, it's pretty clear the real figure is much higher than that. But my point is, nobody knows how much higher -- not the president, not Congress, not the Defense Department, not anyone. The budgets that are supposed to report these figures are changed so rapidly you can't tell how the money spent one year relates to the money that goes out the next.

Senator McCain pretends to be furiously indignant over a million dollar grant to track the DNA of bears, which is accounted for very carefully, when billions drain into the Pentagon maze every day without either senatorial twinge or genuine accounting control.

This is not the behavior of a democratic people. In fact, the American citizens' relation to their country's military operations is the greatest piece of evidence we have that the United States is, at best, only partially a democracy and that the democratic elements of our national behavior are shrinking every year. If we continue at the current pace, they will have shrunk away within a decade, replaced, mainly, by a big, long-running TV show.

If you went out into the streets of any town in America and asked ten people how many foreign military bases their taxes maintain, what answers do you suppose you would get? Would anyone come within a hundred, or even five hundred of the right number? Come to think of it, nobody could state the right answer, because the Pentagon no longer lets you know how many there are. But the last time anybody counted -- at least publicly -- there were more than seven hundred. And there clearly has not been a reduction since then.

It was said that Frederick the Great's Prussia was not a country with an army, but rather an army with a country. Obviously, there several political entities around the world which fall into the latter category, and the United States -- remember the land of the free and the home of the brave? -- seems bent on rushing to join them.


Without A Clue
May 9, 2008

Americans are aware that gas costs more now than it did a few years ago, but the average voter doesn't begin to understand how the country's dependence on expensive foreign oil is undermining our social health and the ability to solve our problems.

Late in 2001, a barrel of oil cost about $20. The price yesterday was $123. The change is George Bush's primary legacy. We have to import a billion and a half dollars worth of oil every day to keep the country running. Meanwhile in Iraq, the U.S. military buys 4.37 million gallons of petroleum each day to maintain the occupation.

Now there are predictions that the price of oil will spike to $200 a barrel within a couple years. What are we going to do then?

American wealth is running out of the country like blood from a guy shot full of holes.

In history, national collapse has generally come about without the general population being aware that it was on the horizon. And when it happens, it happens rapidly.

Why isn't the American electorate awake to the impending breakdown? The answer is that politicians don't dare include reality in their pitches. They want to assure us that if they can win elections, everything will be okay. But everything is not going to be okay unless we change our behavior, and change it pretty dramatically.

The first step would be for us to stop pouring out our treasure on military waste, that is military expenditure that has nothing to do with the security of the nation. We can't afford the big military show that allows yahoos to glow with pride. We don't have the money anymore.

The second step would be conservation beyond what we have previously imagined. Everybody has got to use less oil. That means you and me. And if we don't we're going to be facing miserable conditions.

To do these things, we, collectively, must have a politics which allows us to behave sensibly. That's the biggest problem of all. At the moment we seem incapable of realizing that continuing bombast by buffoons is leading us into the pit.


Psychic versus Chronological
May 10, 2008

Joe Lieberman says that he has counted John McCain's bearings and that they're all there. This is Senator Lieberman's awkward way of trying to refute charges that McCain is too old to seek the presidency.

There will doubtless continue to be commentary about McCain's age and most of it will be foolish. That's because people have foolish concepts about the aging process. A majority seem to think it's a standard and well understood procedure. They acknowledge that some go longer than others before demonstrating the effects of aging, but the effects themselves are perceived to be uniform. One starts on a gradual decline in which energy and mental acuity diminish. Some begin at fifty, some at sixty, some even later, but all move onto the downhill slope, and once one is on that slope, he or she shouldn't be taking on major responsibilities.

Thus runs common sense on getting old. And like most common sense it's anything but sensible.

The genuine issue with aging is whether one gets stuck -- and when that happens. There are some people who continue to learn throughout long lives and others who learn almost nothing after they're about twelve years old. The most important decision regarding a politician is whether he's stuck, and if he is, at what age he got glued into place.

So far as McCain is concerned, I suspect it happened at a fairly early age. If we decide to make him president we're likely to have a sixteen year old psyche in the White House. His values remain the values of a sixteen year old boy who considers himself something of a hotshot. He's not going to wave the white flag of surrender, and by that, he means he'll keep on with a stupid policy forever if he becomes convinced it's tied up with his manhood. He can't be bothered with the complexities of economics because that's just not what a cool guy does.

John McCain's chronological age is not the problem. He's just as good now as he has been at any time in the past half-century -- exactly that good and not a whit better.


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