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Duds and Demons: Which Attacks Work, Which Don’t & Why, Part One

October 12, 2010 1 comment

For the first time in my blogging career, I am changing names to protect the innocent. And by innocent, it goes without saying, I mean guilty. (I am also evading self-Googlers — Fran Wilde, I’m looking at you). To help readers, I will place an asterisk  next to any piece of information that has been altered. Beyond that, I will leave it to the reader’s imagination.

The year was 1998* and I was helping out on the campaign of Dan Parker* in the middle suburban seat of Pineleigh* in Melbourne’s northwest*.

The incumbent Liberal (which means conservative in Australia, true story) was a talented* man* by the name Bruce MacHill*. The swing required to unseat MacHill* was around 4 percent from my hazy recollection. In the wider context of the ’98 election*, Pineleigh* was both a must-win and bloody-hard-to-win seat for Labor. Anyway, I was flicking through MacHill’s* files at the Parliamentary Library one lazy afternoon when I stumbled upon a report from an official overseas trip he* had taken during the previous term.  Accompanied by his wife*, MacHill* had embarked on a whirlwind tour of Rome, Paris, LA and the like, reporting breathlessly on each location as if he* were writing for Lonely Planet’s Junkets edition. No doubt MacHill’s trip took in a couple of official meetings to provide some skimpy justification for this stupendous rort, but MacHill* was too dumb or entitled to bother mentioning them beyond a perfunctory sentence or two.

I sat in the library frowning, not at all punching the air*, thinking to to myself “I can’t possibly use this. This isn’t gold”*.

A few hours later, I had produced a three panel leaflet made up simply of photos of the cities where MacGill* and his wife* had gallivanted, along with direct excerpts from the Parliamentary report itself.  The tagline read simply:

Hey MacHill!  Pay your own travel bill!

A day or so later, the leaflet had found its way into the letterboxes of Pineleigh, and MacHill’s outdoor signs were plastered with stickers that similarly requested that he take care of his own holiday expenses in future.

A week or so later, MacHill* was bleating at election night TV cameras  that his much-worse-than-expected loss was the result of dirty tricks and Labor Party hacks.

I had no idea about what or whom he spoke*.

___________________________

A current flap in the US midterm election campaign has brought this old war story back to life.  Pundits in the US are currently in a tizzy over the Democrats’ decision to target the US Chamber of Commerce over using foreign money to fund attack ads.  Obama spoke at length on the topic at the Philadelphia rally I attended on the weekend, and the issue was debated endlessly on the Sunday talkshows, including by the President’s chief strategist and grumpybum-in-chief, David Axelrod.

It is inevitable that the political gabbery in the US, who all live and work within a few blocks of each other, tend of coalesce around a singular point of view.  In the case of the Chamber and foreign donors story, it has taken the form of self flagellation.  Let me sum it up for you:

This is a non-story out there in real America, where real Americans live, work and raise their real American families.  This is a process story from inside the beltway that only assholes like us give a damn about.  Honest, decent folk don’t care about these inside-baseball stories.  Obama and the Democrats have dropped the ball on this one. They should be talking about jobs, jobs, jobs.

Right, left or centre, this is the overwhelming consensus among talking heads of this latest Democratic campaign ploy.

To quote Colonel Sherman T Potter, “Horse Hockey!”

Sure, the pundit assessment seems like a clever argument – and, in fact, it has the benefit of often being true.  The media and political elite often misread what interests the public in favour of what interests them, a sizable gulf.  Take the Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson/Niger uranium/Scooter Libby story.  While this intriguing DC scandal is such that it warrants a movie treatment (starring Sean Penn and Noami Watts), it is unlikely to have shifted a single vote among punters in the great American midriff.

But the same cannot be said of the foreign donors story and this brings me full loop back to MacHill and his travel bill.

The Chamber of Commerce taking money from foreign corporations and using that money to try and influence the election is precisely the kind of inside-story that resonates beyond the elites for the same reasons MacHill’s silly parliamentary travel report did:

  • It fits and amplifies an existing negative preconception among voters, i.e. MP’s are corrupt nest-featherers and travel rorters, and the perfidious business lobby favours foreigners and destroys US jobs.
  • It aligns with existing narratives:  MP travel rorts had dominated the headlines in Australia in the late nineties, and the political influence of the super-rich has  been in the spotlight since the US Supreme opened the floodgates with the Citizens United ruling.
  • It is gettable in a breath or less.  MP rorts travel.  Foreigners Corrupt Elections.  Easy, compelling, viral.

The Chamber of Commerce yarn works precisely because, to American voters, it is about jobs, jobs, jobs.  Jobs lost to outsourcing and sacrificed at the altar of corporate profits.  It is not much of a leap for a jittery populace to make the connection Obama wants them to make.

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Live-blogging Obama Rally, Philadelphia, PA, 10/10/10

October 10, 2010 1 comment

Live blogging fell over due to battery failure and a debacle with Greyhound which meant I had no wifi access for the remainder of the afternoon.

Quick observations:

1. Obama’s stump speech works far better in person than on TV. He is, simply put, an awesome orator up close. Also, the key metaphor at the climax of the speech — I have heard numerous versions before — only packs a punch in its full telling.

    Joe (Biden) and I arrived to find that the Republicans had driven the car into the ditch. We have spent the past 20 months pushing the car out of the ditch while our Republican opponents looked on, telling us to try harder. Now that we have finally got the car out of the ditch and on to even ground, they want the keys back.

Obama tell this beautifully, and suffuses it with great humor and memorable detail: the ditch is dusty and hot, the Republicans are drinking slurpees as they watch on, etc. It frames the set-up very well, but it suffers from requiring too much telling for telly.

2. There is no longer even a nod in the direction of bipartisanship. The best part of Obama’s speech was when he assailed the GOP’s Pledge for America by highlighting the tax cuts for the very rich in contrast with cuts to college loans. This works bloody well.

3. Joe Biden is a force of nature, a shining light, and he didn’t say “literally” once.

4. The Mayor of Philadelphia, who screamed his remarks at breakneck speed into the microphone, is loathed even by a partisan Democratic audience.

5. The resilience of black support for Obama is not a mystery. The African Americans in the crowd love the President and First Lady with an irrational exuberance that needs to be seen to believe.

4.15PM, Obama Rally, PA
Battery dead, despite buying a brand new replacement from T-Mobile. Lying bastards. Anyway, will update when I find some wifi.

3.55PM, Obama Rally, PA

Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world, but Moving America Forward remains a shiteous slogan.

A local field organizer, Alice Rhys (sp?) is revving up the crowd with some pretty impressive campaign oratory. A name to watch.

Biden is here. Bonus. Woot.

3.40PM, Obama Rally, PA

False alarm! Got in, but only after security kindly determined my bag was not enough like a backpack to warrant my eviction. The man in front of me was not so lucky, and I left him looking very sullen at the perimeter. Hard to feel too sorry for him. He cut in front of me right moments before we reached the front of the line.

There is a DJ razzing up the crowd — Michael Jackson and Prince feature prominently — but the throng seems quite fired up on its own. When the DJ cut the music out at one point, I was stunned that the entire crowd seemed to be singing along. Except for me.
Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling takes it up another notch again. Awesome atmosphere. Hamilton West this is not.

3.10PM, Suburban street, Germantown, PA

The line is moving but not convincingly. I am still worried that I may miss out on the rally because I wasted 30 critical minutes sitting in McDonalds blogging about how I am going to a rally.

2.20PM, Suburban street, Germantown, PA

The weather is spectacular, a boost for turnout no doubt. So
now I’m worried I won’t get in. I have joined the back of a line that goes for a very, very long way, snaking through the modestly appointed streets of Germantown, a suburb notable for the almost complete absence of Germans.

There is an added element of confusion brought about by the converging of two opposite oriented queues: one group facing up the street, another down. Gates open at 3PM, so my hope is that there is a definitive move on way or the other.

1.30PM, McDonalds Germantown, PA

In one of his rare slips of the 2008 election, Obama was caught on tape saying what he really thought about the white working class voters of Pennsylvania and elsewhere who were supporting Hilary Clinton in huge numbers at his expense. He told a bunch of wealthy donors on the West Coast that such voters are averse to the change he offered and instead “cling to guns and religion”. This gaffe — defined for the ages by Michael Kinsley as a politician getting caught saying what they actually thinks — forever torpedoed whatever hope the Obama camp may have had against Clinton in states with large concentrations of blue-collar, non-College educated white voters. The fear that this demographic problem would put the Presidency out of reach for Obama — by losing Pennsylvania as well as the key swing state of Ohio — did not come to pass. While Obama prevailed in both states in 2008 — remember McCain’s comically bad handling of the emerging financial crisis — antipathy towards Obama from this segment of the population remains a clear and present threat to the Democratic Parties fortunes in the mid-term elections (Nov 2).

The perception that Obama fails to ‘get’ the economic angst of the “middle class” (the American term for “working class”) is ubiquitous. The bank rescue package (which Bush initiated but Obama owns politically) and the stimulus plan, while fairly obviously successful in policy terms, has forever damned Obama among voters who regard both policies as anathema. The dogged application of reason to this debate has failed to date; indeed, both policies have provided extraordinary impetus to the tea party nonsense that pollutes the political well so completely today. How Obama frames this problem today will be interesting. Will he move beyond the lame “you would be a lot worse off without me” message that Gillard and Brown tried to no obvious benefit in Australia or the UK respectively? It doesn’t augur well that the Democrats seem determined to mimic Australian Labor’s widely derided “moving forward” slogan. Will he actually offer a plan for the future, or instead frame it as a contest between a bad reality and a hypothetical much worse case scenario? To me, this is the central communications challenge today, and for the remainder of the election campaign. Watch this space.

10.30AM, Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia, PA
For US Presidential candidates, pandering to voters in Philadelphia most often takes the form of wolfing down a ‘Philly cheese steak’, a sandwich consisting of a thin slice of grilled beef drizzled with what Americans insist is cheese. I can see a notorious purveyor of said “delicacy”, complete with pictures of then candidate Obama pretending to enjoy it, from where I sit with my surprisingly passable latte. I stumbled on the Reading Terminal Market after arriving by bus in Philadelphia just moments ago.

Organizing for America, Obama’s permanent campaign machine, has been pestering me for days about a rally for (by?) the President in Philadelphia in the swing-state of Pennsylvania. Since I am based in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the most overwhelmingly Democratic corner of a heavily Democratic city, it takes two hours by bus to find a competitive election. In this case, it is the Senate race between Pat Toomey (R) and Joe Sestak (D) where the Republican has been consistently leading in the polls. Sestak defeated the incumbent Senator from his own Party, Arlen Specter, in a nasty Primary fight. Specter, who had been a moderate Republican, jumped parties in 2009 after realizing that the far-right Toomey was about to clean his clock in the GOP primary, so his defeat from the Left was both ironic and delicious. Specter is a nasty and venal old coot (he is 80), but joy at his demise is tempered by the fact that (a) the seat is likely to fall to the Republicans and (b) Sestak is, well, a bit of a tosser.

A retired Navy admiral, Sestak’s campaign fuses political communication with military discipline to chilling effect. He is always, relentlessly, on-message. His sound-bites are finely calibrated and delivered with machine-gun efficiency. More disturbing still, there is the sense about Sestak that he is fulfilling a destiny he wrote for himself, aged eleven, under the heading “The Sestak Ascendancy”. He is the type whose focus and determination are less personality traits than pathological symptoms. He doesn’t blink often enough. He heart beats too slowly. He wouldn’t even wince under torture.

I prefer more humanity in my politicians, more improv. Sure, Obama is disciplined and focussed, too — often to his detriment — but I am drawn to him for another reason altogether: the remarkable boldness of his political strategy. His success, after all, relied on down-trouing conventional wisdom at every juncture. There was no room for error as his campaign laid bet after ballsy bet, raising the stakes each time: his unlikely coalition of blacks and college-educated whites; the grass-roots fund-raising and Internet strategy; the early focus on the caucus states; the electoral college wizardry.

Ambivalence about Obama’s Presidency, justified or not (mainly not, if you ask me) diminishes my awe at his 2008 victory not a jot. It’s why I’m here. I came for the hope, but I stayed for the audacity.

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Do We Even Care? Y-Axis Trickery, GOP Style

September 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Remember my mythical Wanganui crime wave, whereupon I played silly buggers with a bar-graph’s Y-Axis to create the misleading impression, for political purposes, that violent crime had shot up in a provincial NZ town that may or may not have been Wanganui? In about 1991, aged 20?

Juvenile shenanigans, right?

Think again.  The fat, fifty and bald Republican Party here in the US has taken a leaf from the same playbook with this shameless effort depicting federal spending as a percentage of GDP.  It was produced as part of the their “pledge” to voters in the lead up to the mid-term elections in November — elections they appear set to win in a thumping fashion.

Source: Jonathon Cohn’s excellent blog at the New Republic

The graph as presented:

The actual graph should look like this:

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A Small Step Back in a Relentless March Forward

September 21, 2010 Leave a comment

New York, NY, 2:14PM….Just as the most valuable gifts often come in small packages, most great legislative achievements arrive in surprisingly banal ways.

In the United States Senate, this usually takes the form of a vote to end a filibuster.  Like ‘haberdashery’ and ‘snorkel’, filibuster is far too glorious a word to be wasted on the narrow definition with which it is stuck.  A filibuster is a parliamentary maneuver employed by a minority of legislators to extend debate on a matter before the Senate ad infinitum.   In the past, this meant that Senators read from telephone directories or, less grippingly still, the Old Testament for days on end until their colleagues would finally relent and move on to less controversial terrain.  There is method to this madness, however: the filibuster was designed to prevent tyranny by the majority — a noble objective before politicians began defiling it. These days, the threat of a filibuster is enough to force the Senate to move on to other matters.  A 60-40 vote is required to override a filibuster, a tough ask when you consider how difficult it is to get just two Senators to agree on anything beyond this sentence:

“I should be President”.

This is why Obama finds it difficult to pass his agenda through the US Senate, despite the Democratic Party’s apparently comfortable 59-41 majority.

Just 30 minutes from now, the US Senate will vote to end a filibuster on the Defence Appropriation Bill which includes provision to end the ban on openly gays and lesbians from serving in the US military.  The policy this vote aims to bring to a merciful end is widely known as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or by it’s tricky acronym, DADT.

DADT is a  Clinton-era compromise which states that gay and lesbian soldiers can serve in the military as long as they lie about their sexual orientation when asked. In return, military commanders are forbidden from asking direct questions about a soldier’s sexual orientation, but presumably were free to enquire after musical theater recommendations, seek decorating tips or, in the case of suspected lesbians, request help to assemble Ikea furniture.

Even by the low standards of modern politics, especially in the US, DADT is astonishingly morally bankrupt.  An outright ban on gays and lesbians, while wrong, is at least forthright in it’s bigotry.  The enforced deception at the heart of DADT is despicable beyond mere discrimination; it is cynical, knowing and vile. According to opinion polls, most Americans have turned against the policy, but Obama and the Congress have delayed action.  They clearly want to avoid the anti-gay with military command who — there’s no point beating about the bush –frighten the shit out of them.  There are many reasonable-sounding political explanations for this, but it seems obvious to me that the  kind of person who forges a successful military career is very much like the kind of person who deals out wedgies to, and steals  lunch money from, the sortvof person who runs for School Council, and later Congress and the Presidency on the Democratic ticket.  (Republican politicians, on other hand, arise from the ranks of those more aroused by, than scared of, schoolyard bullies for whom they gladly surrender lunch).

……………..

New York, NY, 4:31PM…The vote to end the filibuster went down 53-47.  Not a single Republican —  not even the two Senators from ultra-liberal Maine — voted to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.  Hardly a shock, really.  There is an election in a few weeks and the gay lobby is hardly at the front of the queue when it comes to political pandering (I think we are just behind cycling enthusiasts and ahead of Scientologists).

The pair I encountered yesterday will be toasting today’s defeat for gay rights.  But it is slim pickings these days for conservatives who yearn for a return to homophobic days of yore when gay-bashing was not merely legal but compulsory.  Americans, even those who live in the shopping mall car-park that occupies that country’s giant midriff, have worked out that the failure to discriminate against gay people has not materially made them worse off and is unlikely to do so in the future.

This distinguishes the gay lobby from the other civil rights movements to emerge from the 1960’s.  While gay men may pose a threat to masculine identity, we have no interest per se in the systematic overthrow of white male power (in fact, it turns many of us on).  Instead, our collective aspiration can be captured in a single word: acceptance.   For blacks and women, acceptance alone is a necessary but insufficient precondition to social and economic equality; for us, it is the magic ingredient from which flows openness, pride, freedom and the possibility of happiness.   And — bonus! –acceptance grows exponentially as more and more people know more and more gay and lesbian people, because old prejudices can never withstand reality.  A big fat gay virtuous cycle that no filibuster can possibly stall —  let alone reverse.

*I wouldn’t dare speak for our lesbian sisters

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The Pastor and the Glam: DC Eavesdropping

September 20, 2010 2 comments

N.B. Wikipedia does a good job of describing the Tea Party movement here if some references below don’t resonate with non-American readers.

I feel nauseous — and this Starbucks latte is only partly to blame.

Since I moved to New York about a year ago, I have operated under the happy delusion that conservative Christians and tea-party supporters exist in a parallel universe that will never intersect with my own. After all, the only Republicans I have encountered in twelve months are the tourists from flyover country I swerve to avoid on those rare occasions I venture into Times Square.

That’s all changed. As I write these words, I am at a Starbucks in DC, and two far-right Christianist lunatics have just brought to an end a meeting they conducted, at full volume, well within ear-shot. They had interrupted some very unchristian daydreaming when they sat down across from my table in the corner.

She is an extremely glamorous woman in her mid-30’s or so, with a lilting Southern accent she may or may not have acquired only after she adopted theocratic fascism as her life’s mission. He is a white-sounding African American reverend with a meticulous hairdo, a million-dollar wardrobe and a watch that screams “embezzler!”. The pastor and the glam.

I took it from their conversation (it was obviously their first encounter) that she was an ultra-conservative political activist who wanted to know how to persuade more black voters that homophobia is sufficient common ground for them to abandon Obama and the Democrats. It was also a strategy discussion about how to recruit more black faces to the tea-party, the populist movement that is in the process of sending the Republican Party, hurtling, to the fanatical fringe. Even though the ideological dialect couldn’t be further removed from my own, the language is the same: campaigns and elections, numbers and electoral districts; the bad-mouthing of factional enemies, the self-serving anecdotes, the subtle and not-so-subtle one-upmanship. I understand this better than English.

The duo opened with a familiar tune, castigating Obama for trying to lift the ban on homosexuals from serving in the US military and praising John McCain, once a moderate, for leading opposition on the issue. Having established that they hate the same people with more or less the same degree of animus, their courtship entered the next phase.

Glam was interested to find ways to help the conservative Jesus freak running against the Democratic Congressman from Virginia’s 2nd District, Glenn Nye. As they were talking, I googled Nye and it was soon apparent why they would have him in their sights; he is their least favorite kind of Democrat. Nye spent 10 years in the intelligence services and served in Iraq as a reservist. He is good-looking, Christian and clean-cut — and therefore near-impossible to vilify as a godless Nancy-boy, their preferred characterization of liberal opponents. The district Nye represents includes large African-American pockets, and this was the nub of the discussion: how the GOP could peel away some “minority” support by playing up social issues that they believe should send more black votes in their direction (but never does): aka gays and abortion, in either order.

The pastor then took a call, which he announced was from “Bishop Jackson”. Google soon informed me that Jackson is this region’s leading black conservative, a tea-party apologist and fire-breathing, gay-baiting bigot. Take this report from Daily Caller from last week:

Last December, shortly after the D.C. City Council passed a bill extending marriage rights to same-sex couples in Washington, D.C., Bishop Harry Jackson, the Maryland-based religious leader fighting marriage equality in the District, promised a “bloodletting.”

“In future races, religious people are going to start going after people’s political careers,” Jackson, the head of Stand4MarriageDC, told U.S. News and World Report. “You’re going to see a bloodletting that is going to mark a new style of engagement for people who are against same-sex marriage.”

Luckily, it turns out that Bishop Jackson is more hat than cattle on the “blood-letting” front: despite all his best efforts, the only gay-friendly DC politicians who lost in recent primary elections were defeated by candidates who are just as gay-friendly, if not more so. A bad day for the Old Testament.

Glam was clearly impressed by the sudden arrival by phone of this notorious gay-basher. The Bishop is, according to my typically thorough research, the most vocal African-American leader anywhere in the US to defend the tea-party against fairly self-evident charges of racism. Jackson is, therefore, a priceless asset — the race-traitor-in-chief.

The pastor made short work of the phone-call, and the couple soon turned their attention to Christine O’Donnell, the tea-party favourite and masturbation-is-adultery advocate, who just rocked the Republican Party establishment by winning its Senate Primary in Delaware. Glam and Pastor clearly approved of her victory in theory (O’Donnell defeated the kind of middle-of-the-road Republican disdained by the Christian Right) but were both concerned about the practical implications.

Quick, and relatively accurate, radio play:

Starbucks ambience: soft-rocky folk, subdued chatter, machines pretending to make espresso, sporadic retching.

Glam: There was panic at the Values Voter Summit about her going on the Sunday shows. But luckily, so-and-so managed to convince her to pull out in time.
Pastor: Good on so-and-so. It would’ve been ugly.
Glam: You know what, Reverend? O’Donnell doesn’t even have a scheduler!
Pastor: (very caucasianishly) Oh dear. So her campaign really is a…?
Glam: Yes, it really is a….”.

Fictional detour

PQ: I think the phrase you’re looking for is ‘cluster fuck’.

They left soon after this exchange. The Pastor reassured Glam that African-Americans are coming around to conservatism, and Glam was either dumb or polite enough to either believe or pretend to believe him. Pastor then received another call as she left. “You know it!” he said, ending a brief but delirious conversation about the coming tea-party revolution and the end of Obama, “we’re gonna drain this swamp.”

How very holy, I thought.

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