Sunday, August 31, 2008

Maybe Palin is just ordinary?

One of the odder things about John McCain's latest present to the electorate is that she apparently had no particular views on the Iraq war until pulled out of obscurity. From Salon's War Room:

In an interview with Alaska Business Monthly shortly after she took office in 2007, Palin was asked about the upcoming [Iraq] surge. She said she hadn't thought about it. "I've been so focused on state government, I haven't really focused much on the war in Iraq," she said. "I heard on the news about the new deployments, and while I support our president, Condoleezza Rice and the administration, I want to know that we have an exit plan in place; I want assurances that we are doing all we can to keep our troops safe."

Seven months into the surge, she still either had not formed any opinion on the surge or the war or just wasn't sharing. "I'm not here to judge the idea of withdrawing, or the timeline," she said in a teleconference interview with reporters during a July 2007 visit with Alaska National Guard troops stationed in Kuwait. "I'm not going to judge even the surge. I'm here to find out what Alaskans need of me as their governor."

That's a little weird, since Fort Richardson, near Anchorage, has dispatched countless soldiers to Iraq, including many who did not make it back. And Palin's own son, Track, is an infantry soldier who could go there any time.

Perhaps this lack of opinion is not really so odd -- except in a candidate who might suddenly find herself the President of the United States. Apparently her lack of views was really the default position for many people until U.S. soldiers started coming back from Iraq in body bags or maimed in body and mind.

David Moore, while working for the Gallup poll, designed an experiment in the run up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Conventional polling found substantial majorities of people in the U.S. in favor of the war -- something around 59 percent in favor, 38 percent against, and only 3 percent undecided. As a test, the pollster then asked each set a contrary question: for those in favor of an invasion, would you be upset if it didn't happen? For those against, would you be upset it the U.S. does attack Iraq?

The graphic shows the somewhat surprising result.

Only 29 percent of Americans supported the war and said they would be upset if it didn't come about, while 30 percent were opposed to the war and said they would be upset if it did occur. Another 38 percent, who had just expressed an opinion either for or against the proposed invasion, said they would not be upset if the government did the opposite of what they had just opined. Add to this number the 3 percent who initially expressed no opinion, and that makes 41 percent who didn't care one way or the other.

What this experiment revealed was that instead of a war-hungry public, Americans were evenly divided over whether to go to war — three in ten in favor, three in ten opposed, with a plurality willing to do whatever the political leaders thought best.

Moore concludes that the result shows the "the absurdity of much public opinion polling." And it does. In the interests of accommodating an interviewer, people express off-the-top-of-the-head opinions they have not seriously considered and which they only hold loosely.

I see a lot of lessons. This finding certainly reminds me that, because polls are taken seriously by the media and others who pay for them, I shouldn't horse around in answering them. (For unknown reasons, I get polled fairly frequently.) Even if I think the question is stupid, I should try to find a way to answer it so my response leans toward my actual opinion.

For the peace movement, we need to remember that when we're told public opinion is against us, we may really be seeing that people just hope that their leaders know what they are doing. Until they learned better from bitter experience, the public trusted the rulers enough to go to war. That trust having eroded, it will not be rebuilt easily. The peace movement didn't create the erosion, but we can built upon, encouraging skepticism about additional wars.

And for the pollsters, I throw back a question: if you knew that public support for the Iraq war was that soft -- why didn't you tell the world that most people really didn't have an opinion on going to war? War is irrevocable. When we figure out later that it was wrong, the dead are still dead. Pollsters' failure to put out their very lukewarm finding seems to verge on criminal when we contemplate the horrors this ill-considered war has unleashed.

Window shopping

I've known enough homeless women who carried their possessions around with them to be offended by the window display of this hip boutique. It's true, they didn't usually own such brightly colored bags.

Click on the picture to see a larger image.

Hurricane Gustav

I was supposed to be flying to New Orleans Tuesday morning for a week of meetings. Well that's not happening. And this disruption of my schedule is nothing on what's happening to the hundreds of thousands of people now evacuating who have to wonder, will they have homes to return to?

Some thoughts:
  • Yesterday Gustav pounded Cuba as a Category 4 storm, with winds in the 150 mph range. I've been in Cuba in torrential rains; it floods. What I saw of Cuba didn't make me love their society and government. But I've seen a little of how their practice at discipline and working together serves them in time of crisis. Jeff Masters, Hurricane watcher extraordinaire, had high hopes for how the island would do:

    Fortunately, Cuba has a top-notch hurricane civil defense operation, and I'm confident they have gotten all of the population at risk out of harm's way.

    I sure hope he was right.
  • Now Gustav is barreling across the Gulf of Mexico -- toward New Orleans -- and toward those drilling platforms that Senator McCain wants us to encourage more of. Uh, oh. Turns out that oil company practices ensure that an ill-winds blows their profits good.

    Afterward .. already painful gasoline prices could hit $5.00 a gallon quickly. Unlike the hurricane, it's a preventable event. The storm may well cut refining capacity along the Gulf, but if the U.S. had a decent supply of gasoline on hand, price spikes would also be muted. But refineries have cut back production to keep prices up even as gasoline consumption falls. So U.S. gasoline supplies now are lower than before Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

    Oil Watch

  • Grandmere Mimi, who has now successfully evacuated from the Louisiana Coast, wants to us to know that it's an oil advocates' myth that none of those same oil facilities leaked under Hurricanes Katrina and Rita:

    As a result of both storms, a total volume of 17,652 barrels (or roughly three-quarters of a million gallons) of total petroleum products, of which 13,137 barrels were crude oil and condensate, was spilled from platforms, rigs and pipelines. 4,514 barrels were refined products from platforms and rigs.

  • If I'd gone to New Orleans, I had meant to point readers to this extraordinary archive on the city, its people, and their struggles in the context of Hurricane Katrina and its human-induced aftermath. The Katrina Reader brings together online accounts and analysis of grassroots struggles led by African Americans in New Orleans for their communities and their way of life. Katrina tore the mask off systemic racism -- this is that story.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

What about the torture?

The Democratic National Convention provided a grand show of Democratic Party unity -- and a visual demonstration of what this country looks like when we see the people beyond the Washington gasbags and the make-believe glitter of our media. It certainly proved that if you want to see what is going on, rather than listen to puffed up pundits, you'll watch events on CSPAN or maybe PBS.

The Convention, for all its great merits, was also sadly light on a subject that needs to be at the core of turning this country around: respect for the rule of law and ending torture. The current Washington decision to adopt the latter requires destroying the former. The current administration has gone a long way in that direction.

Two speeches stood out on this topic. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (pictured above) was very clear and got a loud ovation from the crowd in Mile High Stadium:

We need a president who in his first day in office says I will uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States and then actually DOES it... We need a president who respects civil liberties, who will stop spying on Americans .... We need a president who respects the Bill of Rights ... We need a president who shuts down Guantanamo and stops torture.


Richardson also said bluntly what needs to repeated over and over: while recreating his image for the campaign, John McCain, that old POW, has even "even changed his mind on torture." See discussion of the McCain pander here.

The other speaker who forthrightly condemned the torture regime was the man who no longer has to pander to anyone, former Vice President Al Gore:

After [the Bush administration] abandoned the American principle first laid down by General George Washington when he prohibited the torture of captives because it would bring, in his words, “shame, disgrace and ruin” to our nation -- it’s time for a change.

Text and video.

A commenter at Open Left suggested that we heard condemnations of the torture from these two and not all those Democratic Congresscritters because almost all of the latter set at some time voted for measures -- Patriot Act, Iraq invasion, FISA -- that enabled the Bush regime. They are scared of being painted as "for it before they were against it." Richardson and Gore were outside that circle.

If we manage to elect Obama, we need to push him to fill his administration with many outsiders, people who aren't carrying the guilt and timidity that comes from having acquiesced in Bush attacks on the rule of law. It will be a fight to get them. Watch him.

Friday, August 29, 2008

McCain throws a "Hail Sarah" at the Veepstakes

If one of the elements in my Gay and Gray column today over at Time Goes By is correct -- and I wouldn't have included it if I didn't have sources -- John McCain's pick of Sarah Palin doesn't seem likely to play too well with the largest demographic group still undecided. Recently polling shows that voters over 65 represent something like 30 percent of those who remain persuadable in the presidential race. Somehow I don't think a bright young thing who is barely a governor and before that was the mayor of a town of 9000 is going to play all that well with this group.

The column looks at polling among elder voters, especially in regard to Prop. 8, the California constitutional ballot measure that would outlaw same-sex marriage.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Why this election campaign matters ...

The Arctic ice cap is melting faster than many scientists thought possible. The sea lanes, traditionally blocked by ice, would now allow passage around both sides of the ice mass. The images below are grabbed from the German newspaper Spiegel.

The ice cap wasn't looking so bad in 2003. NASA has visibly shrunk in this picture from 2008. NASA

After 8 years of government by profiteering oil barons, we sure don't need John McCain, another guy who shows no sign of understanding the science of climate change. There is a reason that younger people are jumping into the political arena so heavily this year. When some of us older ones are dead, they and their kids will still be here. They want a planet they can live on.

Al Gore said it far better from the podium at the Democratic Convention tonight.

Learn more about the challenge at

350 is the red line for human beings, the most important number on the planet. The most recent science tells us that unless we can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, we will cause huge and irreversible damage to the earth.

UPDATE: Here's a bit from Al Gore.

We are facing a planetary emergency which, if not solved, would exceed anything we've ever experienced in the history of humankind.

Full speech here.

Democratic Convention smorgasbord

Maybe no one needs this, but I can't resist a post on various campaign commentaries that have caught my eye during the Democratic Convention.

Is anyone paying attention?
After all, though political junkies like me and presumably most of the people who drop by here are fascinated, it seems very likely that most people scarcely are noticing this made-for-(sporadic)-TV extravaganza. Even I honestly can't remember a thing about most Dem conventions since 1968 -- except that Jesse Jackson was riveting in 1984. (Just looked at the text. Still riveting.) Apparently the answer is that lots of people are paying attention, but still only a small fraction of us. Ari Melber reports on attention through Tuesday:

About nine percent of the U.S. population is checking into convention coverage, according to Nielsen. The share is higher among African Americans -- about 12.7 percent are tuning in to see the first nomination of a black candidate by a major party in American history. Divided by age, the audience for this convention skews towards older Americans. One out of five Americans over age 55 caught some convention programming.

Apart from the hoopla, are any real conversations happening in Denver?
Perhaps yes. The way campaign finance law works, corporations and other interest groups are limited in how much money they can throw directly to candidates. But they can sponsor "educational" events around the edges of a gathering like the convention. And they do. So, naturally, the little fish imitate the big fish and out of that, some interesting panels are taking place. Rinku Sen from Colorlines reported on an event billed as "The Culture Wars: the role of Race, Gender, Ethnicity, Religion and values in the Fall Campaign" that featured a bunch of mid-level Dem pols and some media types. These semi-luminaries hacked away at questions about whether long Obama/Clinton contest had aroused or put to rest issues of race and gender. Rinku comments on how groups who all get hammered in the "mainstream" narrative get set against each other:

No marginalized group of people has been exempted from media stereotyping.

Because we don’t notice it when we’re not the target, it's easy to project our jealousy, based on no evidence, of another group’s supposed power to preempt racist crap. It’s going to be hard to build solidarity when you can't see your allies' real situation because you envy this perceived power.

So this is a nice show, but where's the campaign?
The organizer in me is in love with the Obama operation. I like the candidate fine; I love how they are approaching winning this thing through people to people organizing. This operation is an experienced field organizer's dream. They are mining the data, trusting that they can find the persuadable voters, training and equipping volunteers -- the voters' neighbors -- to talk with them, and trusting their results. Further, the campaign is allocating the resources, the money, needed to make this happen. That just has never been the case in any major campaign I've worked on. Never. But the Obama folks are out-organizing the Republicans across the board. More here.

Mark Blumenthal of reports that Obama campaign manager David Plouffe laid out how his campaign's use of polls is different from what media oriented campaigns do:

Plouffe also warned against "making too much" of focus groups when asked about the Frank Luntz group of undecided voters that received a fair amount of attention this week. "We certainly don't use [focus] groups to make assessments of swing voters," he said. They conduct focus groups, mostly "to hear people talk" about the issues and candidates, but when it comes to identifying "true undecided" voters, their emphasis is on quantitative data, including traditional surveys and data on registration and vote history collected from lists and supplemented with information gleaned through direct voter contact.

That's someone who trusts his organizing program, who is betting on organization to trump hype. We're about to see whether this can be done on a national scale.

Is the Obama campaign stumbling in its media messaging?
It certainly looked that way most of August until the convention and it has something to prove going forward. Can the themes developed in the convention get traction against McCain's slime campaign? David Kurtz of Talking Points Media made an insightful observation about what might be hobbling the Obama media operation (while the field chugs along.)

One thing I've come away from here in Denver, in talking to various people, is the sense that the Obama campaign has become consumed with its brand as an end in itself. They did such a good job of packaging hope, optimism, and change that they are now resistant to any campaign strategies or tactics that might, in the eyes of some people, damage the brand.

Can a jaded old leftist cynic like me still get inspired by the first ever African American to win a major nomination for the Presidency?
Maybe I just can. When Obama speaks tonight on the anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, I know I am going to be thrilled. There are not a lot of discouraged old cynics I think are wiser than Billmon and even he has caught the fever.

But there are loyalties that go deeper than policies, deeper than ideas, deeper, even, than folly and cowardice. When I turn on the TV and see the crowd at a Democratic National Convention -- black and white and every shade in between, Anglo and Hispanic, gay and straight, old and young, Jew and gentile, I know somewhere deep down in my gut that those are my people, the Americans that I want to be my fellow Americans.

We can worry later about making of a President Obama the kind of leader the country and the world need him to be. For today, I plan to simply enjoy him.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Credit where it is due

Digby writes from the Democratic Convention:

I also think this campaign may have been a crucible for [Hillary Clinton] in that she rediscovered her feminist roots. An awful lot of progressive women did. It wasn't so much because of a commitment or loyalty to Hillary Clinton herself but rather an unexpected and stunning realization that sexism still runs so close to the surface in our culture. Hillary didn't lose because of sexism but her campaign certainly exposed it. And it's had an effect on a lot of women. Certainly, last night, some of Michelle Obama's biggest applause lines had to do with women's equality (and it didn't just come from Hillary supporters.) Clinton's grandest achievement in this campaign may have been to raise that awareness --- and hopefully she will use her position as the most powerful woman in the US Senate to advance the cause.

That just about sums up the best of what Clinton did in this campaign for me. She was never my choice, but I came to like her better. I loved watching Bill glow with pride last night. He owed and it looks like he gave.

We have opinions, part 2

Part 1 here. In this political season, Pew Research has made available a massive Convention Backgrounder presenting findings about citizen attitudes on a huge array of issues and concerns. The project is designed to compare Republicans, Democrats and independents, but on many topics the aggregate figure strikes me as more interesting than the minor differences. I'll only break out party differences where they seem significant. Here are some of the more interesting items that I've put into categories (don't blame Pew for these).

Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.
Disagree: 68 percent
Hard work offers little guarantee of success.
Disagree: 69 percent
Now there are a couple of mutually incompatible beliefs. We know we don't control our successes; but we also think if we just try hard enough we can make it. Ever wonder why there's an undercurrent of rage in our civic life? If you believe both these things, and a majority do, you are committed to a set-up for frustration.

The strength of this country today is mostly based on the success of American business.
Agree: 73 percent
There is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies.
Agree: 77 percent
There's another painful double bind: business as source of well-being but also as oppressive, controlling monster.

The government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep.
Agree: 66 percent
This figure does conceal a partisan disagreement. Fifty-six percent of Republicans disagree.

Labor unions are necessary to protect the working person.
Agree: 67 percent
Even Republicans agree with this one. It will be interesting to see whether this sentiment has enough juice behind it so that if we get an Obama presidency, a Democratic Congress will pass laws that undo some of the obstacles forty years of right wing ascendancy have put in the way of workers trying to unionize.

The federal government should run ONLY those things that cannot be run at the local level.
Agree: 76 percent
There's a deep suspicion in that answer that the Feds are not on our side, that the federal government is not US -- not something we make that does our bidding. We apparently have more trust in local governments. There was not a question about whether state and local governments do a good job. This would be more meaningful to me if I had that comparative data.

It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves.
Agree: 68 percent
This is a pretty strong approval for a position that seems to have very little influence in the day to day workings of government. But it is good to know this is the default position.

We have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country.
Disagree: 54 percent
That seems to indicate pretty weak support for the opposing view -- that we should work to extend rights. The question didn't specify what rights for who. And the percent who disagree here masks the fact that 61 percent of Republicans do think we've "gone too far" with rights, whatever they mean by this.

Discrimination against blacks is rare today.
Disagree: 64 percent
We should make every possible effort to improve the position of blacks and other minorities.
Disagree: 67 percent
So we believe there is discrimination (and presumably we don't think that is okay) but by an even larger margin, we don't want to make an effort to do something to correct it. Schizophrenic, perhaps? And certainly crazy making for those living on the wrong end of that contradiction. (As far as I can figure out, the sample for this poll included people of color.)

We should restrict and control people coming into our country to live more than we do now.
Agree: 78 percent
Obviously, we're in a serious panic about newcomers. At this moment, we're a nation of immigrants who prize the country where we've climbed the ladder of success -- and we want to haul that ladder up after us right now. This sentiment is apparently fully bipartisan, but the way.

Occasional acts of terrorism in the US will be part of life in the future.
Agree: 72 percent
Seven years after 9/11, we're still very scared. This is probably rational. Though the U.S. has spread carnage through Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, we've probably done more to create an environment in which terrorism can grow in those places than to prevent it. Certainly the people of those countries would say that.

The police should be allowed to search the houses of people who might be sympathetic to terrorists without a court order.
Disagree: 63 percent
Our fear is not, however, so great that we are completely ready to give up our civil liberties. We just might consider giving up someone else's civil liberties though...

It's best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs.
Agree: 90 percent
We should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home.
Agree: 74 percent
I find the first of these statements stunning given our notorious indifference to and ignorance of the rest of the world. Evidently, we belief we ought to be more concerned. The second statement seems more like the U.S. attitudes that I see.

People like me do not have a say about what the government does.
Disagree: 51 percent
We're unsure, verging on doubtful, that our views make a difference, but ...
Voting gives people like me some say about how government runs things.
Agree: 76 percent
This later statement reads to me like an affirmation of a civic myth -- a formula people are schooled to recite, seldom checking it against their lived experience which is more reflected in the first one. But that also means they want it to be true.

I feel it is my duty as a citizen to always vote.
Agree: 96 percent
Hey, hat's off to grade school teachers everywhere. They are obviously doing a marvelous job of schooling children in the national civic myths. In a country where election turnout is frequently 50 percent of eligible voters, or well below, this is a remarkable result. Half or more of the respondents are saying they are not doing what they consider a duty.

This has practical implications. How does the discrepancy between what people think is right and what they do make people feel? When we canvass for an election, what demons are we poking when we try to activate unlikely voters? In East Lansing in 2006, a consultant ran an interesting experiment trying to increase turnout. He mailed 80,000 registered persons a letter explaining that their voting patterns (whether they turned out) were part of a study. On some of the letters, he rubbed in his ability to monitor their behavior from public records by reproducing their past record for several years.

"I'm studying the effect knowing that your voting is public has on participation," [Mark] Grebner says. "So the first step is to make it public. Maybe it will create rivalries over who has the best voter record on the block."

I bet this works. People want to think of themselves as voters.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Did Nancy Pelosi enable the Bush torture program?

According to Salon's War Room, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi met the same kind of welcome in Denver today that she ran into recently in her San Francisco home district. My Congressperson has stirred up some hornets.

DENVER -- Some very pink, very loud, very awkward protest drama erupted in an unexpected venue on Monday morning when more than a dozen members of antiwar group Code Pink hijacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's appearance at an event sponsored by a group called Unconventional Women. ...

At first, the crowd reacted warmly to the invasion of the now-ubiquitous peace protesters, and as the women amassed in front of the stage, unfurling a huge "Impeach" banner, Hunt stood up and gestured at them almost affectionately, exclaiming, "Code Pink! Welcome!"

But all politesse drained from the room as the protesters began to yell, "Liar, liar" at Pelosi, who remained smiling and composed in her chair. The mostly female audience began to stir uncomfortably, and started to rally to Pelosi's defense, chanting "Nancy, Nancy" over the disturbance. The protesters held their ground, though, and continued to yell: "Accountability for war crimes"; "You said you'd impeach Bush"; "You lied to my face"; "Explain yourself"; "It's in your hands, Nancy."

Security then started to round up the protesters and shoo them up the aisles as the audience booed, hissed and continued to chant Pelosi's name. But Code Pink had scattered so effectively that the process took more than five minutes.

What are so many so angry at the Speaker about?

Certainly she often serves as the focus for frustration that a Democratic Congress cannot seem to end the Iraq war. After all, that's what many of us elected them to do. She's the leader; we think the failure is her fault.

But there's more; as soon as Democrats took control of Congress, Pelosi famously announced that "impeachment is off the table." Since impeachment is the Constitutional remedy for illegal acts by committed by government officials, this amounted to saying that the Bush Administration could get away with operating above the law.

And there's more to the anger with Pelosi even than that. According to the Washington Post, the Bush Administration may have successfully made Pelosi an accessory to its torture policy.

In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.

Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said.

"The briefer was specifically asked if the methods were tough enough," said a U.S. official who witnessed the exchange.

Bet the CIA got that exchange on tape, if it really happened.

According to Robert Scheer writing in the Nation, Pelosi claims through aide Brendan Daly

that the Washington Post report on her CIA briefing was "overblown" because Pelosi, then the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, thought the techniques described, which the CIA insists included waterboarding, were merely planned and not yet in use. Pelosi claimed that "several months later" her successor as the ranking Democrat, Jane Harman, D-Calif., was advised that the techniques "had in fact been employed." Harman wrote a classified letter to the CIA in protest, and Pelosi "concurred." Neither went public with her concerns.

Harman told the Washington Post, "I was briefed, but the information was closely held to just the Gang of Four. I was not free to disclose anything."

It seems hard to believe that Pelosi didn't realize that U.S. interrogators were using or intending to use any interrogation methods they bothered to tell Congress about. There's more to this, but clearly we don't know the truth of who knew what, when. Without a legal inquiry, some kind of war crimes investigation, we're not likely to know the truth, at least very soon. That's what Pelosi and the Democratic Congress have denied us by refusing to take on the Bush Administration.

So Pelosi continually gets confronted by angry constituents and former women supporters. And this year she has an opponent. Antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan isn't likely to replace the Speaker, but neither does Pelosi get a free ride.

We the people have opinions

While doing some research on something else, I came across the Pew Research Convention Backgrounder.This survey explores attitudes that inform contemporary U.S. policies and controversies likely to be part of the national electoral campaign this fall. It's designed to tease out the differences on these matters between self-identified Republicans, Democrats and independents. But for today's purposes, I'm just going to share some of the aggregate data about how all of us, regardless of party, choose sides on various issues.

Which comes closer to your view about the tax cuts passed under President Bush over the past few years?
All tax cuts should remain in place: 30 percent
Tax cuts for wealthy should be repealed, while others stay in place: 38 percent
All of the tax cuts should be repealed: 22 percent

Looks like there is a pretty solid majority for increasing revenue to the government somehow. Good thing, as having wasted billions on losing wars, real national needs are pretty dire.

Which one of the following should be a more important priority for this country?
Protecting the environment: 34 percent
Developing new sources of energy: 60 percent

Do you favor or oppose promoting increasing taxes on gasoline to encourage carpooling and conservation?
Favor: 22 percent
Oppose: 75 percent

Would you favor or oppose oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska?
Favor: 50 percent
Oppose: 43 percent

That's a depressing trio of popular opinions. Clearly we very much want to be able to continue the individually-owned automobile lifestyle. That isn't very surprising; our society is built around the car. How could all those families who finally were able to buy houses by taking on a commute to and from outer ring suburbs manage to live without cheap gas? Thing is, there's no reason to believe that any set of elected officials can deliver what people seem to want. Just maybe technological innovation will provide alternative fuels for individual vehicles -- but some adjustments are going to hurt along the way.

Is there solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades, or not?
Yes: 71
No: 21

In your view is global warming a very serious problem, somewhat serious, not too serious or not a problem?
Very/Somewhat serious: 73
Not too/Not a problem: 24

In contrast to the previous three items, obviously it has gotten across to us that we have a problem. A big problem. On these topics the partisan difference is stark: Democrats and independents believe the science; Republicans still prefer denial.

Do you favor or oppose promoting spending more on subway, rail, and bus systems?
Favor: 72
Oppose: 23

So we do want to do something -- but somehow we think those desirable transit options are something that other people will have to use. At least, that's what our other answers seem to suggest. We want to preserve the planet, but we haven't come to grips with either the problem or possible solutions in any very deep way.

Right decision: 39
Wrong decision: 55

Stay or go?
Keep troops in Iraq: 43
Bring troops home: 52

We've reached a strong consensus that the war was a mistake; we're working on getting to an equally strong consensus that when you've dug yourself into a hole, the smart move is to stop digging.

Right decision: 65
Wrong decision: 24
Don't know/Refused: 11

The question about Afghanistan was the only one in the survey that evoked a double-digit percentage indicating that people's views haven't jelled. If the war in Afghanistan goes badly, as seems very likely, it would not be surprising if numbers on this question drifted in the direction of those for Iraq. Pity the poor Afghans.

Warrantless wiretaps ?
Generally right: 52
Generally wrong: 44

Often justified: 17
Sometimes justified: 31
Rarely justified: 20
Never justified: 30

Apparently majorities of us remain scared rabbits in the aftermath of 9/11 and our rulers' playing on our fears to gain unfettered power for themselves. I find this very depressing.

Ban sale of handguns?
Favor: 36
Oppose: 59

Gun ownership?
Protect right of Americans to own guns: 37
Control gun ownership: 58

These two responses strike me as completely contradictory. I think the issue of guns is the perfect example of a matter on which most of the public is pretty confused, but a small group (well-funded by gun makers and sellers) takes the issue as its sole political priority and consequently achieves influence exceeding its numbers. Few of the rest of us think very deeply about gun issues. But those who do care, care passionately, and are well organized to make themselves heard.

These topics barely scratch the surface of what can be learned from the Pew Research Convention Backgrounder. I may yet do another post on some of the other contradictory attitudes revealed there. Lots to think about.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A community whose support no candidate quite wants

Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times

That's where the U.S. Muslim community feels itself mired in this year's election. Matthai Kuruvila in the San Francisco Chronicle reports similar understandings of their position from Republican and Democratic Muslims.

[A Republican notes] the community holds a number of demographics that make them desirable. There are an estimated 2 million to 5 million Muslims in America, including large concentrations in swing states like Florida, Ohio and Michigan. A survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 77 percent are U.S. citizens. "In a very tight, neck-and-neck race, you'd think that there would be some serious competition for this community," the official said on condition of anonymity because he hasn't been given permission to speak by the McCain campaign. "But there isn't."

[A Democrat,] Shahed Amanullah registered the domain name for more than a year ago. But he has waited to develop it as he saw Muslim identity being smeared, his belief system used for political attack. ... Now, the UC Berkeley grad has decided that the site cannot indicate that Barack Obama supports issues important to Muslims specifically because it might boomerang. Instead, the site will be devoted to encouraging voter registration and turnout at the polls.

"Yes, it's insulting, and yes, it hurts, but at this point, we have to look at the bigger picture," said Amanullah, who ran in 2004.

As another community leader told Kuruvila, the U.S. Muslim community is treated as "radioactive" these days.

Like other younger voters, young Muslims tend to be excited by Barack Obama's candidacy. But they also get their feelings hurt as post-9/11 bigotry gets played out in the campaign according to an Associated Press story carried by the Chicago Tribune.

Tarek El-Messidi, 27, of Cincinnati, went door-to-door in South Carolina campaigning for Democratic candidate Barack Obama. But he had an unusual mission for a Muslim: the volunteer had to assure voters that Obama isn't Muslim. ...

El-Messidi's campaign-trail experience underscores young Muslim voters' dilemma. They felt an immediate connection with him -- partly because of his background -- that led to increased political involvement.

"He has a funny name like we do," El-Messidi said. "He has Arabic in his actual name."

"If he can do it, we can. We can reach very high goals. ... For many Muslims, especially after 9/11, have felt discriminated against. He has given us a lot of hope and inspiration."

But it also has led to disappointment.

The first-term Illinois senator, while a Christian, is the child of a Kenyan immigrant. He has Muslim forebears and his middle name is Hussein, but has aggressively debunked rumors that he's Muslim -- even labeling the claim a "smear" on a campaign Web site.

Like other outsider communities seeking to get into the political arena, -- urban gay communities come to mind in the intensity of the bigotry and repulsion they faced -- Muslims are doggedly registering and aiming to increase turnout so the politicians have to take notice.

The only Californian Muslim office holder, Omar Ahmad, a San Carlos City council member made a smart suggestion to Muslim communities that want in, as reported in the Chronicle article:

[He] believes Muslims need to ignore national politics. Instead, he believes Muslims need to get involved at the grassroots, like running for school board and county commissions. It is only then that neighbors and fellow leaders will begin to trust Muslims, an experience Ahmad said he's had.

"We have not effectively integrated into community life in the towns we live in," he said. "We are going to enjoy a change when we work shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors on local issues and start to have a dialogue."

Civic engagement at the grassroots level, Ahmad said, is the example of the prophet Muhammad in Medina, Saudi Arabia: "It's a very Islamic thing to do."

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Got this [7:13] via James Fallows who had the misfortune to cover all the Democratic primary debates -- and who then ran away to continue living in China and covering our future global peer nation rather interestingly. The video gives an interesting sense of why Obama might have chosen Biden.

If some of your criteria in a new Administration are articulateness and brains, the guy certainly qualifies. There's no suggestion that he stands for anything but smarter empire, but then there's no suggestion that Obama does either. Biden was wrong on the Iraq war vote and now knows it.

Interestingly, Biden has the lowest net worth of any Senator -- so he must not be conventionally corrupt, either, since he's certainly had time in office to make out like a bandit.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Iraq: first they tied the U.S. down, now they throw U.S. out

BAGHDAD — The Bush administration and Iraqi government are close to completing a security agreement that Iraqi officials said tentatively calls for U.S. combat troops to be withdrawn from Baghdad and other cities by next summer.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who made an unannounced visit Thursday to Baghdad to push the deal forward, said an agreement was near although some details need to be worked out. ...
Iraq initially wanted all combat troops out by the end of 2009, but agreed to push the date to 2011 after the U.S. agreed to protect Iraqi funds in U.S. banks from being seized by creditors, Adeeb said.

USA Today,
August 22. 2008

This is not how it was supposed to be, back in the days of "mission accomplished."

They came as all-conquering imperial overlords, sweeping away an enemy dictator and trashing all before them. They will leave after painstakingly negotiating how they get out, buying as much acquiescence as they can, leaving a destroyed country, more than a million more people dead than if they hadn't come, and some five million people displaced from their homes.

At least in part, they will leave because they can't afford, forever, to ignore the international law they tried to sweep aside with their pre-emptive invasion (usually called "aggressive war" by those on the other side of the guns.)

Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government demanded a withdrawal timetable as the price of legalizing the American military presence in the country after the expiration of the United Nations mandate at the end of this year

New York Times,
August 22, 2008

They will leave because they can't afford to stamp out the natives' resistance. They will leave because the Lilliputians have out waited them and tied them down.

And there is no sign they'll even get the oil.

They probably won't keep their word according the "timetable," but everyone knows that. They will weasel and "reinterpret." But they will leave Iraq.
The U.S. peace movement has had a minimal role in all this. On the one hand, that means we the people and our democracy are very weak in this season of empire. On the other hand, that means we're right in there with the rest of the global Lilliputians, doing our little best to constrain the most arrogant of powers.

Friday critter blogging: Preparing to clean up after elephants

A friend writes from St. Paul:

The Minnesota state fair has a grand tradition of crop art, i.e. pictures made out of seeds and beans. Lately it has become a hotbed of political satire. This year we had three using the opportunity of the upcoming GOP convention in MN to focus on the problems related to elephant poop.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Beltway LGBT lobby wrong again

A few weeks ago, I took offense at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) when its private security guards roughed up a friend of mine who tried to leaflet their dinner in San Francisco. She was objecting to the willingness of the beltway gay lobby to cut deals with Congresspeople at the expense of advocating for those -- transgendered and others -- whose gender presentation might get them fired. While my friend tried unsuccessfully to question HRC inside the dinner, hundreds picketed outside. The original keynote speaker, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, cancelled at the last minute.

Response in the blog comments was lively and somewhat hostile. Lots of folks really like HRC and they say so. Good for them.

But the vehemence of this exchange made me take notice of a development today.

EqualityMaine, Maine's largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender organization, announced this week that it will endorse Congressman Tom Allen for United States Senate. Allen is challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, who last Spring received an unusually early endorsement for the seat from the Human Rights Campaign.

New England Blade

That is, the local state gay lobby, the folks on the ground who've fought off a series of anti-gay initiatives, have given their endorsement to a challenger -- while HRC long ago gave the nod to a Republican who is a Washington fixture.

The article goes on to point out the discrepancy between Allen's record in Congress on LGBT issues (he ranks as a 100 percent supporter according to HRC's own stats) versus Collins' (78 percent in 2004 and 88 in 2006.) But she has been a supporter of HRC's watered down employment legislation, so she got their nod against an opponent who has a much clearer record of support for LGBT rights.

For progressives in Maine and nationwide, the key fact about Collins is that she's a Republican -- that is, she has been part of enabling the Bush regime over the last 8 years. She has voted with the Bushites 77 percent of the time -- low for a Republican, but a Democratic replacement could be counted on to do better.

No Republican administration is ever going to advance full equality in employment or other rights for LGBT people. It is that simple. The Republican political base is full of religious reactionaries and other bigots, however nice some Maine Republicans may be. But the HRC is mesmerized by Washington priorities -- by needing to claim some Republican "friends" -- so it locks itself into candidates and policies that don't do the job for their LGBT constituency. There's a pattern here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

No longer looking so good

For the first time since the end of the Democratic primary season, Senator Obama seems awfully close to slipping into a dead heat with John McCain. Check any of these sites: 538,, or Electoral This is depressing. Though 80 percent of us think the U.S. is in deep doodoo, apparently nearly half of us think John McCain, mister bluster and jive, would make a better president than the guy we don't know very well and wonder about.

It's depressing. The Obama campaign is smart; the ground game seems unprecedented -- Obama should pull it out.

But just as I feel about football games, give me a landslide. I hate "good games."

Can Obama win with field?

Years of working on and sometimes running field operations for political campaigns have given me some repeated experiences which anyone who has done this work will recognize:
  • The supply of lawn signs and bumperstickers is almost all gone, again; the campaign manager is worried about money and says field can't have any more for a week.
  • The data manager was supposed to print new walk lists for the Saturday mobilization, but someone in communications pulled the techies away to install video equipment in the conference room.
  • You've been recruiting all week for the big walking mobilization on Saturday. You've figured out how to train your volunteers efficiently so they'll really have time to hit a lot of doors. Then the campaign manager comes in to tell you that an important Party Big Shot will be there to speak to your crowd ... and you realize that once again, your volunteers will be bored and wander away before much work gets done. Besides the Big Shot wants 20 of your people to go along with him when he does a merchant meet and greet.
That's field, as it has been, in those relatively rare instantces in which a campaign even bothers to try to run a field program: under-resourced, brushed aside for the flash and glitter, slighted and poorly utilized.

Many of us are feeling queasy about Senator Obama's chances, watching him be defined negatively by McCain this August. TPM reports that McCain is outspending Obama on TV ads. But Sean at 538 says we're are missing the true picture:

While millions may be spent on advertising, so too is one campaign spending millions on ground game while the other is spending virtually nothing. Obama is investing more massively than any campaign in the history of American politics on the ground game. McCain is essentially not investing in ground. His early summer numbers of 20,000 phone calls nationwide for a whole month would be those of a single, low-budget House campaign. That's the equivalent of one person working ten hours a day for a month. For the entire nation. It's basically the equivalent of zero contacts. ...

While we don't have enough hard numbers to compose a fancy pie chart, rest assured that McCain's would show a much, much higher percentage of his pie on television ads whereas Obama's would show an unprecedentedly large slice on his thousands of paid organizers and hundreds of field offices.

... people are also failing to appreciate [the] dollars spent on the dramatic all-in move that Obama has made in organizing and neighbor-to-neighbor persuasion.

Sean thinks that field can do it for Obama in this amazing year when people desperately want something other than what they've had for the last 8 years. As someone who teaches campaigns to do field, to organize people to people contacts, I should be the first to believe. And I want to.

But I wonder. I routinely teach that good field organizing can win a campaign 2-4 percent more vote than it would have otherwise. Obama is throwing money and brainpower at field in an unprecedented way. Can it give him enough in the right states to win this election? We're all going to find out.

Here's a nitty-gritty volunteer recruitment video [3:54] that Democrats are using in Michigan. It should make you believe they are serious about field. And to wonder and hope that all these ordinary citizens talking with their neighbors can do the job. That would be very, very good for democracy. And even the Democrats admit its not over in November.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Why is she on the no-fly list?

Wow -- someone has finally won a court order that she should be able to find out why she was put on the Transportation Security Administration's no-fly list.

Critics of the government's secret no-fly list scored a potentially important victory Monday when a federal appeals court ruled that would-be passengers can ask a judge and jury to decide whether their inclusion on the list violates their rights. ...

Monday's ruling involves Rahinah Ibrahim, a Stanford doctoral student in architecture who was stopped at a United Airlines counter in San Francisco in January 2005 when an employee spotted her name on the no-fly list, the court said. A phone call to police was relayed to the TSA, which told officers to detain Ibrahim and stop her from flying. She was handcuffed in front of her 14-year-old daughter, held in custody for two hours and then released by orders of the FBI.

San Francisco Chronicle,
August 19, 2008

What happened to Ibrahim is a carbon copy of what happened to yours truly in August, 2002 at San Francisco Airport, except we didn't get the handcuffs. Guess that was because we are white.

Back in 2005, a judge of the Ninth Circuit declined to order the government to tell us why we were on the list, but apparently the documented escalation of the list to one million names and its chronic errors have moved judges to dig deeper. I imagine the government will appeal.

The TSA may have some reason to keep its determinations secret to preserve "security." It undoubtedly needs to keep its procedures secret to hide its incompetence.

Good luck to Ms. Ibrahim as her case moves forward.

Monday, August 18, 2008

350: international solidarity

Both our presidential candidates believe they must pretend to the U.S. people that the carbon emitting, oil-based economy can be goosed along indefinitely. Maybe young Chinese can lead the way against suicide by global warming.

350. Global Warming. Global Action. Global Future. suggests we show our solidarity with Chinese environmental activists during the Olympics by snapping and uploading a picture of our sports activities, especially our teams, while holding a sign saying "350."

Want to know why "350"? Check out this explanation.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Obama plays Clinton's race card ... and his own

Pastor Rick Warren and Senator Obama.

From the Presidential candidate forum at Saddleback megachurch last night according to AP:

Obama, asked his most significant policy shift in the last 10 years, cited welfare reform. As an Illinois state senator, he worked to mitigate what he thought could be "disastrous" effects of President Clinton's welfare reform effort. But over time he said he came to embrace Clinton's approach.

"We have to have work as a centerpiece of any social policy," Obama said.

So there we have it.

The so-called "welfare reform", actually welfare destruction, was Bill Clinton's ticket to his 1996 re-election. This Republican legislation, which Clinton had previously opposed, was also unequivocally a race issue. Oh, welfare advocates argued endlessly and for practical purposes inaudibly, that white women were the majority of recipients of Aid for Dependent Children. But in the public mind, "welfare" was about lazy Black mothers who lived off the taxpayers.

Ronald Reagan had played race card to the so-called "Reagan Democrats," campaigning against "welfare queens." He posed himself as the solution to what many U.S. whites really thought was the crime of the 1960s: extending government programs, under the impetus of that African American civil rights movement, to both Blacks and whites. The New Deal had been loved by the white working class, especially in the South, because, despite rhetoric to the contrary, its programs mostly supported poor whites. Tom Schaller, author of Whistling Past Dixie, explains bluntly what changed by the 1970s:

...the economic populism that worked before the Great Society was successful precisely because the beneficiaries of New Deal distributive and regulatory policies were almost exclusively white. This fact just cannot be massaged or punted or covered with a nice coat of blue paint. Post-civil rights and Great Society, redistribution took on new meaning because it had to be inclusive.

And many working class whites jumped ship from the Democrats to the Republicans rather than be in the same boat with Black Americans.

So "welfare reform" was Clinton's bone to white defectors from his own party. And this piece of triangulation served him well. He even won some quasi-Southern states in 1996: Tennessee, Louisiana, Kentucky and Florida. His "race card" served him well.

Welfare reform didn't serve poor women well, of course. Put 'em to work and cut 'em off the dole only works if:
  • jobs are plentiful,
  • pay a living wage,
  • are available to folks with little education or training,
  • and provide childcare or flexibility for parents.
Not too many jobs that fit those criteria. Reform did however serve employers of low wage workers well as they acquired a large new pool of desperate poor women to cycle through dead end jobs as the economy rose and fell. When the economy is strong, cutting public assistance to the bone doesn't show up much. As when stumbles, that is now, the pain shows more. In any case fully 39 percent of U.S. children live in poverty these days

Since trashing poor women on welfare is such an important symbolic way to announce that government will not go out of its way to be do right by both Blacks and whites, it was probably a given that Obama would have to swear allegiance to the punitive welfare-to-work gospel. He's got to do anything necessary to show white people he's not the scary kind of Black man. (And that will be an achievement if he pulls it off, since many of us think all Black men are scary.) In his willingness to do this by trashing poor Black women and kids he is not alone among African Americans; Michael Eric Dyson writes thoughtfully about this strain in bourgeois African American life in his book on Dr. King about which I wrote recently.

So yes, by disavowing welfare, Obama is playing his "race card" -- at the expense of poor women and children.
And yes, though I criticize Obama harshly here, I do think we need to try to elect the guy. He's a politician doing what he thinks he needs to do. It's amoral -- and electing a Black man would still be a progressive advance.

But we need to understand that Obama is giving lots of notice that he'll be exactly as good a president as we make him, and no better. The truism is still true: if the people lead, maybe the politicians will follow.
Meanwhile, according to the Los Angeles Times, John McCain had a hard time at Saddleback when Warren ask him to name an income figure that meant someone was rich.

McCain, whose wife's wealth has been estimated at more than $100 million, tried to dodge the question. But with a chuckle, he finally gave a figure: "I think if you're just talking about income, how about $5 million?"

Worth remembering when Obama disgusts us...

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Things I wish I'd said

During campaign seasons, I work with community groups that are trying to ensure that the people they organize find a way to make their concerns heard in elections. They aim to leverage the fact they have organized memberships, people, to make sure the politicians listen; and they take advantage of the opportunity elections offer to talk with people who might want to join them in working for community friendly policies.

Trouble is, too often, folks who work in these groups have struggled very hard to learn how to deal with policy wonks, government bureaucrats, and funders -- and in the process they've forgotten how to talk the language of the people they want to mobilize. So they use language like:
  • "single payer health care"
  • "affordable housing set-asides"
  • or even the fuzzy notion of "high quality jobs".
The targets of their persuasion too often just scratch their heads. What was it that nice young girl who came to the door was talking about?

Theda Skocpol, in a review of an economics book I probably will never get around to reading, says the same problem afflicts national Democratic policy makers who aim to use government to advance economic equality.

But since the 1960s, working-aged, working-class voters have not had the benefit of ... visible, easy-to-grasp support from the U.S. federal government. When it occurs at all, redistribution for them often takes the form of opaque budgetary or tax measures such as the Earned Income Tax Credit or subsidized bank loans to college students.

Arguably, the U.S. federal government has done little in recent times for average non-elderly Americans, and what little it has done is often hard to decipher without advice from a tax attorney. The problem, in short, may not be as much citizen myopia as timid and opaque government, not to mention wimpy Democrats.

No wonder we don't think government will do anything for us. Even the good politicians, the ones whose programs really might help, have not managed to make their programs visible, felt, and understandable. So folks don't even know they exist.

EITC, wassat?