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New Feature: Flushpoints

January 2, 2011 Leave a comment

As part of the site revamp, I am introducing some new features at TheNewTasman, including this one: Flushpoints.

The self-evident political opportunity open to President Obama and the Democrats in the coming twelve months is to identify issues that will drive a wedge between 70 percent of the public and the 30 percent represented by the so-called Tea Party.  In this way, he can build coalitions around specific policy areas, but most importantly flush the right-wing of the Republican into the uncomfortable spotlight and thereby drive moderates and independents into the President’s camp, not to mention trigger spectacular internal rifts in the GOP.  I call these opportunities for the Democrats flushpoints, and I will keep tabs on them as they play out, starting today.  I will keep them archived under Flushpoints above.

This is part and parcel of our mission at TheNewTasman.com to tell stories about US politics from my regular perch in New York, and to do so  in a way that contributes to its understanding and enjoyment among Aussies and Kiwis in particular  (I also blog about media and politics in NZ and Australia and visit both places regularly, as I am doing now).

Anyway, today’s Flushpoint is Energy from the NY Times, from an article about how Tea Party are already shitty with the GOP leadership even before they have been sworn in.  There is plenty to chew over in the piece, but this reference to an op-ed penned by Tea Party organisers Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler stood out as a fine way to kick off the segment.

In an opinion article on Politico, the two also criticized Republican leaders for choosing Representative Fred Upton of Michigan to lead the Energy and Commerce Committee, saying the choice “indicated they are not serious about expanding the nation’s energy-producing capability” through expanded oil drilling and a relaxation of regulations on nuclear power and coal.

I also spotted this nugget from an earlier Politico piece about this so-called moderate Republican, Fred Upton:

Conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck both called [Upton] a socialist because of his co-authorship of legislation banning the incandescent light bulb.

So how much of a pinkie-commo is this Upton character?  Well, over to today’s Boston Globe:

Representative Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan, who is set to become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he was not convinced greenhouse gases needed to be controlled or that the EPA had the authority to do so.

“This move represents an unconstitutional power grab that will kill millions of jobs — unless Congress steps in,’’ Upton wrote last week in a Wall Street Journal opinion essay.

His coauthor was Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group financed by Koch Industries and other oil companies that has spread skepticism about global warming and supported many of the Tea Party movement candidates who will take seats in the new Congress.

So a man who coauthors climate denial opinion pieces in the Wall St Journal with a Koch Industries-funded Tea Party organiser and oil lobbyist is too left-wing for the most powerful and well organised bloc of modern Republican Party?

This will be delicious.


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The Krugman Lantern

October 11, 2010 Leave a comment

The New York Times published an opinion piece by Paul Krugman today that veers close to greatness. The Nobel Prize winning economist has a twice-weekly column in the Times that allows him to flex his Keynsian muscles. While I am ideolgically predisposed to share Krugman’s leftish perspectives, my actual knowledge of economics, such that it would barely cover the back of a postage stamp with a calligraphy pen, doesn’t qualify me to comment on his work with anything resembling authority.

I do, however, know a thing or two about the art of the 700-900 word opinion piece, and Monday’s Krugman was a masterpiece of the form. I suggest you read if you haven’t already, but it stood out to me for its incredible clarity, rhythm and punch.

Krugman has been making this same argument for 18 months — despite conventional wisdom that it was excessive, the Obama stimulus wasn’t nearly big enough to counter the impact of the GFC — and always more effectively than most. But today”s piece is such a powerhouse of persuasion it is hard (but hardly impossible) to imagine how anyone, even the most dyed-in-the-wool tea-party activist, could remain unswayed by it. I could conduct a half-day seminar on advocacy writing using no more than this solitary column and still run out of time; as a matter of fact, I very probably will.

But I don’t plan to gush any further about the Krugman piece except to highlight one particular technique he uses. I have dubbed it the Krugman Lantern.

I began this blog as a kind of living draft for a book I have long wanted to write about bullshit in its many pernicious forms. The idea was to highlight the ways politicians, corporates, academia, the media etc. employ bullshit in the service of spin, evading or shifting blame, obfuscating the ugly truth, making a molehill of a mountain or vice versa, or for non-specific venal purposes.

I think it is an important topic for humankind, I genuinely do.

As it happened, the blog became more and more random as time went on but it retains its core mission: to explore the role of Mendacity in the Public Square. In discussing the Krugman Lantern today, I am returning Irredeemable to its tenuous roots.

    The Krugman Lantern is a technique whereby one simultaneously highlights and downplays one’s opponent’s strongest argument in order to deprive it of its potency.

The lantern reference comes from the early days of television when script-writers learned to “hang a lantern” on glaring continuity errors or plot holes in order to relieve viewers of the dissonance they otherwise cause. The idea is simple if you think about it. If you are watching a much-loved sitcom and a dog you have never seen before wanders on the set, it will throw your concentration. By explicitly addressing the matter — hanging a lantern on it — and having a character say “I wish you had told me that we were looking after the neighbour’s dog this weekend”, the viewer can breathe a sigh of relief and continue enjoying the show.

Krugman employs a variant in today’s column in the way he addressed the single most potent and persuasive rebuttal point to his general argument about the stimulus, which goes something like this:

Listen up, Krugman. It’s all well and good going on and on about how the stimulus bill wasn’t big enough but THERE IS NO WAY WHILE YOUR ARSE OR MINE IS POINTING TO THE GROUND THAT IT WOULD HAVE PASSED CONGRESS IF IT WERE A DOLLAR BIGGER. How’s the view from that Ivy Tower, Prof?

This is a killer argument, almost literally. If true — and most people think it is — then it kills Krugman’s thesis as a practical matter. While the theoretical proposition — the stimulus wasn’t big enough in the context of the US economy — stands, Krugman wants to be so much more than a theoretician. He wants to be a player, and so he knows he has to address and quash the political argument. Welcome to the Krugman Lantern :

Actually, the [Obama] administration has had a messaging problem on economic policy ever since its first months in office, when it went for a stimulus plan that many of us warned from the beginning was inadequate given the size of the economy’s troubles. You can argue that Mr. Obama got all he could — that a larger plan wouldn’t have made it through Congress (which is questionable), and that an inadequate stimulus was much better than none at all (which it was)

Are your (upper) cheeks burning with the brazenness of it all? Mine are.

He invites the argument in (“you can argue”) only to punch it in the face (“which is questionable”) and send it scurrying from the room. He introduces, acknowledges and dismisses the single greatest threat to his entire world-view in just 24 words. In this way, he hangs a lantern on this biggest problem and, in so doing, allows the reader to put it aside and get on with the business of being blown away by Krugman’s (now) unassailable assertions.

“Professor,” Blackadder would surely say, “I admire your balls.”

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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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