Friday 5 September 2008

Another Great Speech

Wow! I didn’t know he had it in him – honestly. John McCain just gave a great acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. Although visibly uncomfortable at the beginning, he really hit his stride in his invocation of his captivity in the Vietnam war and how it changed him. Emotional, compelling: an eloquent testimony as to why John McCain is qualified to lead the United States of America.

As a result of the Republican Convention, I expect a bump in the polls, restoring the Republican “lag” to the Democratic campaign by about 2-3%, statistically insignificant given the problems with polling technology and sample selection. We may even see a Republican lead. Polls will no longer be as reliable as they have been in the past: much will depend on voter mobilisation, the ease of voting on Election Day, and the next two months of the campaign.

I’ve now spent some time observing the two conventions, and have just a few comments on the process:

a. The Republicans are relying on the heart: stirring images, patriotism, idealism. They ask us to forget the miserable record of the last 7.5 years of Republican administration. They focus on John McCain’s track record – his CV – and ask us to believe in this as an indication of future success, ignoring the rather poor policy recommendations on the McCain website. There is simply not enough detail, and not enough background on how to pay for things. This approach is effective: my impression is that the average citizen, and average family, wants to feel comfortable with the leader, and rely on them to sort out the problems. (Factors such as failed housing investments and high credit card debt are a good indication of the “average voter’s” economic and financial understanding, regrettably.)

b. The Democrats are relying on the head, the brain. They offer clear policies pitched to improve the lives of the majority of citizens. They are relying on an image of correcting past mistakes – even though they have controlled Congress since 2006, and have voted for many decisions before that. They focus on Barack Obama’s track record as one of a new reformer, even though his CV, objectively speaking, is essentially one of academia and legislation, not executive action, or business. This approach is currently effective among younger, college-educated, affluent voters. It remains to be seen whether it will be effective among the large majority of voters, who are of high school education, who have family incomes below $ 50,000 per year, and have far less social sophistication than the candidate.

In my opinion, neither the Iraq war nor “Foreign Policy” are major issues at the moment, but wedge issues, or issues affecting certain interest groups and affiliations who have largely already made up their minds. How different things are from 2006: America is now “winning” in Iraq, and the issue has faded from public consciousness, and public debate. There remains a total absence of real foreign policy strategy from both parties (not to mention the government) for dealing with global, regional and bilateral issues over the next 4 years. But this is par for the course in the last 20-25 years.

Neither party offers a comprehensive policy platform that addresses both economic competitiveness (education, tax reform, manufacturing, energy efficiency, legal reform, public sector reform) and social competitiveness (education, health care, environment) in any convincing way.

Neither party, or candidate, offers a credible plan for funding their many promises.

Neither party addresses the paradigm shift in economic, political, demographic, social and technological trends that have been occurring since 1990, and will dominate the next 25-30 years.

As a result, they are basically offering Band-Aids in an Intensive Care Unit: some Band-Aids are blue, some are red.

What are the risks? These are legend. On the Republican side:

• I have doubts as to whether John McCain’s health will let him see out the campaign, let alone his term if he is elected. He appears increasingly frail. While the “wise grandfather” role suits him well, his public appeal is limited by his age.

• The lack of detail on the McCain website is extremely worrying. Many platforms are heavily ideological in nature, yet suitable Orwellian. For instance, the “Workplace Flexibility” promise could be construed to mean fewer job protections for employees. There is absolutely no way the “spending” promises can be paid for by the tax plan. Nonetheless, the section on tax competitiveness for companies and entrepreneurs is compelling: the US has lost tax competitiveness relative to its competitors in the past 10-15 years.

• Is he evangelical enough? Will the “religious right” rally around to provide the same turnout as they did in 2004?

• Is his campaign working? On multiple measures, from fund-raising to local organisation to use of the Internet, the McCain campaign appears to be trailing the Obama campaign. To some extent, this margin can be compensated for by negative campaigning, but a lot will depend on Voting Day turn-out. The Obama campaign has been extremely well-run, and is adding new voter registrations at an impressive rate.

• The Republican star may be on the wane. The last 8 years, including the corruption, the scandals and the mismanagement, have created a tremendous burden to overcome. Together with the current economic downturn – which may or may not be measured in economic statistics useful to the “average worker” – will extract a price.

On the Democratic side:

• Although Obama is a compelling candidate to certain voter groups, he tends to over-reach and come across as arrogant in some contexts. In others, he cannot give a simple answer to a complex question. For me, this is natural; for a US Presidential Candidate, this is anathema. The sound bite rules on Main Street.

• The lack of experience, the intellectual background and the issue of racial identity provide a powerful reason among many voters to mistrust Obama, to project their own stereotypes and fears on him.

• The policy background is much clearer and more specific, but it would take a miracle to pay for everything. The ambitious nature of some reforms, such as healthcare, will absorb tremendous energy and financial resources. Implementation will also depend on a clean sweep, assuring Democratic control of the legislative and executive branches of government.

• Proposed solutions for international military engagements are not convincing. A withdrawal from Iraq will certainly not happen according to the campaign promise of a full withdrawal within 16 months. I estimate that at least 40,000 US troops will maintain a permanent presence in Iraq or its immediate vicinity (Turkey, Kuwait) to maintain as much stability as possible. To leave Iraq to its fate, which almost certainly means Iranian domination, would be a foreign policy blunder to disastrous proportions. The idea of stabilising Afghanistan by stationing 2 US combat brigades will, regrettably, not be enough either: a far higher engagement will be needed.

• The Democratic party appears united, but is in fact heavily divided. Unlike the Republican party, which only includes 3-4 coherent ideological interest groups, the Democratic party is trying to do far too many things at the same time. This is leading to promises that can never be fulfilled. The campaign is fuelled by outrage expressed over internet-based fora, usually by people with no real experience or understanding of what they are supporting (and how it links to other issues), focussing on a single issue. The Democratic ideological firmament comprises many stars in a single sky, each one claiming to be the sun and the source of all truth. This is not a recipe for success. Obama’s main challenge upon taking power will be to assure party unity and prioritise those major and minor issues that can be solved. Can this be achieved in the current cacophony? How long will the honeymoon last before the various components of the Democratic party base splinter and turn sour? Can the skills learned in a political campaign translate into executive effectiveness? It’s a long shot, in my opinion.

I’ve read a number of posts postulating the threat of an assassination of Barack Obama, some claiming that this is a certainty. My feeling (and hope) is that his Secret Service detail is capable of protecting him, but certainly this is a risk. Another threat is his background, which may contain surprises ranging not only from campaign finance, personal housing loans, or drug use, but other factors as well. The full story is probably yet to be heard, and there is already enough to “Swift Boat” his campaign.

Despite these risks, my bet is on Barack Obama winning the election by a 2-3% margin of the electoral vote, and a slightly higher margin of the popular vote. I believe he will run a disciplined campaign and prevail over the negative attacks which are sure to increase. Everything will depend on ground operations in the 72 hours preceding Election Day, and the day itself. He understands this, and his campaign is based on it.

However, I would not at all be surprised if John McCain wins the election. He still has time to put a strong ground operation in place and fine-tune his message to the different interest groups. His tax plan will probably gain major funding for the Republican party. If he can get the right team on board and run the right campaign, he has a very strong chance to win.

And, we may have an “October surprise” which will swing things McCain’s way. Such an event may include

- An Iranian or Iranian-affiliated attack on US forces in the Persian Gulf (including Iraq or Bahrain, or possibly Afghanistan), with a robust US response probably involving a heavy aerial bombing campaign.

- Another Al Quaeda attack on US soil, or probably on US interests in Europe, North Africa, the Horn of Africa or the Middle East and Near East. This will probably result in minor casualties – perhaps on the order of 150-200 fatalities – but would be enough to rally popular opinion behind a very hawkish candidate.

- The collapse of Pakistan, necessitating US intervention to secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

- Major power actions, such as renewed Russian or Chinese actions in Central Asia or the Near East.

Of these four possibilities, I regard the first two as more likely, and having a greater impact, than the second two.

And now look at the bright side: two excellent campaigns, ideological coherent to specific supporter groups, with compelling candidates, fighting for the Presidency. The next two months promise to be extremely interesting, but how happy I am that this process occurs every four years, and not sooner.


  1. Thoughtful post, Dr. Atticus. You could be making the money they are paying to both David Brooks and Mark Shields.

  2. Hola Philip,

    Neat post, i appreciate reading your take on it all. I'm not sure i agree with the main undercurrent of it though, or the thought you sent me about how the change will be short-term with Obama. I have to say that i don't find any credible reason why Obama won't be able to bring about some long-term changes in health care, foreign policy, energy use, the overreach of special interests, or even the basic thing of civility and understanding in politics (he has already worked on each of those areas (and others) and had significant effects in most (and maybe all)). Financial viability is certainly a factor, but i think ending the war in Iraq, halting Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, and fighting for significant efficencies in govt can start to address this...though i have to admit that it seems like the campaigns could talk more forthrightly about this...but i do know that we of course are doing much of our country's work through the growing deficit, mostly from China from what i've heard, so that makes me think it may be fair to view some of the major issues at hand as ones that justify some upfront investment, accompanied by, but moreso followed by, more measured fiscal discipline in paying down our deficit. Obama is apparently pushing for a pay-go approach to governance though, so that will be interesting to see how he does that...

    But i have to really question the statement you made here: "There remains a total absence of real foreign policy strategy from both parties (not to mention the government) for dealing with global, regional and bilateral issues over the next 4 years."

    What do you base that on? I know i've watched a few speeches and at least two (of several available) Obama campaign discussions on some serious foreign policy issues--overall foreign policy (last avaialable as a primary campaign video panel with him and his foreign policy advisors); Iraq of course, with his speeches/discussions on that; and one i watched on nuclear, biological and cyber threats globally (also available somewhere on his website, and involving a sit-down panel discussion with him and four or five top advisors). He has also made a big deal about shutting Gitmo down, withdrawing from Iraq and bolstering up Afghanistan, etc., not to mention generally repairing relations around the world and pushing hard on diplomacy (which he also has a great speech somewhere on his website that he gave before the center for strategic and international studies (i believe that was the group) focusing on terrorism and diplomacy).

    I similarly am a bit uncertain about what to think abuot yours comments posted below, that don't seem to match my sense of things; however, even if true (though i again have to say i don't think they are), i think they would be most helpful to any readers if girded up by specifics that ARE out there from one candidate or another, and specific rebuttal of whatever piece of those specifics. Here's the section i was talking about:

    "Neither party offers a comprehensive policy platform that addresses both economic competitiveness (education, tax reform, manufacturing, energy efficiency, legal reform, public sector reform) and social competitiveness (education, health care, environment) in any convincing way.
    Neither party, or candidate, offers a credible plan for funding their many promises.
    Neither party addresses the paradigm shift in economic, political, demographic, social and technological trends that have been occurring since 1990, and will dominate the next 25-30 years. "

    Lastly, i'd just say that i think there is a lot more reason to think things could happen for the better w/an Obama admin. on a whole, and to think that an Obama adminn. is possible. We all know the polls are close, but if one or the other clearly seems the better option, then i think it is incumbent upon anyone who's out there to look for ways to volunteer and fight to push that candidate into office; it's like that great quote you had on here of Plato's, "The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” (I don't think that means not criticizing, not at all, i think critical views of both candidates allows one to come to an honest conclusion)

    Thanks again for the provocative thoughts though Philip, hope i didn't write too much or come across wrongly with my response!