A historian's comments on current events, foreign and domestic.
Monday, September 29, 2008
Into the Wild
One era died today, but the shape of the new one remains completely unknown. The House's failure to pass the bail-out signals the utter bankruptcy of our political system--a drama in which two generations have certainly acted entirely in character. Boomer Henry Paulsen, a former Wall Street titan, took charge of the situation--as Donald Rumsfeld had taken charge of foreign policy for George W. Bush after 9/11--and announced he needed total powers. The Silent Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives, led by Nancy Pelosi and my old friend Barney Frank, felt it essential to try to keep some cooperative spirit alive and give the Administration some version of what it wanted to avoid an economic class. But the Republican Boomers who dominated the House of Representatives from 1994 until last year, riding roughshod over all opposition in pursuit of their agenda, would not be stampeded. Lurking behind them were the American people, who probably have no idea what is in store for them--any more than northerners and southerners in late 1860 knew what the Civil War would be like--but who see no reason to reward irresponsibility and greed on Wall Street with $700 billion of their money. The plan failed, the market fell 600 points, and no one has the slightest idea what might happen next.
We shall probably never know, but in the long run the plan's failure might not be a bad thing. I strongly suspect Wall Street would have used the money to try to hang on to as much of their gains over the last 16 years as they could, without addressing many underlying problems. We were certain to have a major recession in any event, and the problem now is to find another engine--something very unlike subprime mortgages or new derivatives--to fuel a recovery. Hundreds of billions may well be needed, but they should in my judgment go into a new institution that can lend directly to the businesses and regular banks who need liquidity--and, perhaps, buy up and renegotiate some subprimes. Meanwhile, the recession may lead to a New Deal type of public works program to rebuild infrastructure, while greener power may play the role of TVA. All that, however, is at least a year away, and probably more, and the country will suffer economically for some time..
The old order is, for the moment, played out. Market idolatry has failed catastrophically but no new ideas have emerged to take its place. While Democrats (including Barack Obama) understand that Wall Street's days of running wild must come to an end, I don't think any of them have many ideas about restructuring our economy. That is both frightening and challenging. Many new politicians, economists, writers, and even journalists will make their names over the next ten years--largely by focusing on real events, rather than spin. That is the beauty, in every sense, of the crisis, the Fourth Turning, that the late Bill Strauss and Neil Howe first predicted 15 years ago. Their ideas have never won mainstream acceptance, but it is becoming more and more difficult to pooh-pooh them now--even though some posters here continue to try. The crisis is both death and rebirth, and thus a time to look forward more than back.
John McCain is in every sense quite an old face; Barack Obama is a new one. That alone has proven a big advantage this year, but Obama also has shown the kind of curious, flexible, clear-headed intelligence that we are going to need.
A colleague yesterday reminded me of another vote at another moment of national crisis, the extension (after only one year) of the draft in the late summer of 1941 that passed the House of Representatives by a single vote. I have suspected for a long time that that vote--like the Senate vote for war with Iraq in 1991--reflected political realities more than sincere opinions. A significant majority of the House knew the draft had to continue in 1941, but they also knew that it was unpopular, and the Democratic leadership (which predicted the outcome exactly) probably arranged things to allow the maximum possible number of popular "no" votes while doing what the country needed. That, for various reasons--including the weaknesses of the plan--was what the House leadership--and especially the Republican House leadership--could not do yesterday. That's an interesting sign of where we are.
I spent the weekend in New York, watching Act II of another drama in Shea Stadium with my son (a devoted Mets fan) on Saturday. On Sunday he returned and I had a few hours to kill. Scanning the movies, I discovered one dealing with the subject of one of my books: Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy had Lived. I had no idea what to expect, but as it turned out, the movie, narrated by political scientist James Blight, used archival footage and tapes to show JFK at his level-headed best, refusing again and again to lose his cool when reporters baited him with argumentative questions, and facing down the Joint Chiefs in October 1962 when they bluntly told him that war was his only alternative. The movie, which acknowledged no specific secondary sources, actually seemed to draw on American Tragedy while discussing the Laotian and Vietnamese crises of 1961, in which Kennedy twice rejected the near-unanimous recommendations of his advisers and refused to begin large-scale war in Southeast Asia then and there. I am very glad that it was made and I hope it gets some good television exposure. Few viewers, I think, could watch the film without being reminded of Barack Obama--and those of us over 60 can remember how Kennedy, too,was frequently criticized for being too cool, too unemotional, and too cautious during his Presidency. Those were in fact the qualities we needed then, and those we have now been lacking for so long. Obama looks like he can provide them.
p.s. From time to time those posting comments ask me questions. I don't think some people realize that comments do not reveal your email address and that I have no way to respond privately unless you give it. Please do.
In the midst of the worst economic crisis since 1929 and the worst political crisis since Watergate, an astonishing news story has come out in Britain (as usual), stating that President Bush, in May of this year while in Israel for the celebration of its independence—the same trip in which he gave the speech endorsing Bible-based Zionism which I commented on here—told Ehud Olmert that he would not approve an Israeli attack on Iran. This is quite extraordinary news, for at least three reasons. This has been reported in the Guardian.
To begin with, Sarah Palin, just yesterday, told Katie Couric that we should not “second-guess” anything Israel finds it necessary to do in its own defense. That is evidently what President Bush did, according to European diplomatic sources who have heard about it from Israeli sources, and it would interesting to ask her about this in the vice-presidential debate next week.
Secondly, it was only two months after this meeting that Benny Morris wrote his notorious op-ed in the New York Times, on which I commented at length, attempting in effect to blackmail the United States into joining an Israeli attack on Iran on the grounds that an attack that did not finish the job would lead to a nuclear war. One can reasonably infer that President Bush’s words to Olmert had something to do with Morris’s piece.
But most interestingly of all, this statement came a bare two months after Admiral Fox Fallon had to resign as CENTCOM commander, reportedly because he had expressed his opposition to war with Iran too forcefully. George F. Kennan, whose memoirs I was re-reading this week, commented that Secretary of State Dulles had to fire him from the State Department in 1953 because Dulles had no alternative but to follow the containment policy associated with Kennan’s name. In the same way, apparently, Fallon had to go because he was right, perhaps as a sop to neoconservative elements and to Vice President Cheney, who have favored war with Iran all along. (Bob Woodward's book, which I have now finished and will be discussing at length within a few days, suggests another explanation: that Fallon was let go because he did not agree with his subordinate Petraeus or his superiors about the absolute military priority of Iraq.)
Last night's debate was on the whole encouraging with respect to Obama's performance and prospects, I thought, but discouraging for anyone looking for a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy. Obama agreed that Ukraine and Georgia should be in NATO as soon as possible and agreed on the need for missile defense (which remains useless against a real threat.) While he spoke in his closing statement about the decline of our prestige, he did not dare suggest that Russia was emboldened against Georgia by our own unilateral actions. I was shocked last week when a good friend suggested that Richard Holbrooke might be his Secretary of State, because I thought that we had dodged that bullet when Hillary Clinton lost. Clearly Obama is running as what passes for a centrist today on foreign policy and we will have to wait until when (and if) he is in office to find out whether he can restore some sanity in that realm.
Because of travel, this may be the last post this weekend, but I will make up for that Monday evening if necessary.
It is very difficult, obviously, to tell what the Administration's rescue plan actually means, but I was appalled by one quote in the lead story of the Sunday Times, from Alan Blinder, a Princeton economist and one-time member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. "If the plan works," the Times writes, "it will attack the central cause of American economic distress: the continued plunge in housing prices. If banks resumed lending more liberally, mortgages would become more readily available. That would give more people the wherewithal to buy homes, lifting housing prices or at least preventing them from falling further. This would prevent more mortgage-linked investments from going bad, further easing the strain on banks. As a result, the current downward spiral would end and start heading up.
“'It’s easy to forget amid all the fancy stuff — credit derivatives, swaps — that the root cause of all this is declining house prices,” Mr. Blinder said. “If you can reverse that, then people start coming out of their foxholes and start putting their money in places they have been too afraid to put it.'”
Prof. Blinder, let me suggest an alternative explanation. Subprime mortgages were the only way to create the housing boom, because the American economy has not distributed greater benefits to enough people (or built enough new houses) to allow people to pay for them legitimately. I don't see how what the federal government is doing can possibly re-invigorate the housing market, which needed a drastic correction anyway. I don't know how widely these views are held, but actually, the amazing rally on Wall Street late last week suggests that a lot of people think we'll be back doing business as usual within a couple of weeks. NOT.
On another front, I just discovered the following letter written by a physician. (Frank Rich confirms the story about the "release" of McCain's medical records today.)
Dear Colleagues and Friends,
John McCain is a 72 year old man with recurrent melanoma, hyperlipidemia, degenerative joint disease, and recurrent difficulty with certain efforts at recall. These are the limited facts the American people have had access to. Over 1000 pages of medical records were shown to selected journalists for 3 hours with less than 48 hours of notice. The only medically trained journalist was Sanjay Gupta, MD from CNN. This is the extent to which the American people have been informed.
While I am certainly sensitive to the confidential nature of medical records given the anxiety expressed by many of my patients regarding the risk of lost coverage or lost jobs in this current health economic climate, there are certain exceptions for disclosure regarding public safety. As John McCain knows, a pilot’s records are comprehensively available for review by a certifying agency (the FAA, I believe) to insure the fitness of the pilot and the safety of passengers and the public at-large. In the election of the President of the United States of America, that certifying body is the American electorate.
A recurrence of metastatic malignant melanoma would essentially destroy John McCain’s capacity as the Chief Executive and the American people have yet to receive a full accounting of the facts regarding his actuarial risk. If he has had regional metastasis, his risk could be 30% or greater for distant metastasis to the brain, bone, and lung. As you all know, melanoma is one of the most insidious, pernicious, and aggressive malignancies our patients must deal with and that we attempt somewhat pathetically to control with interferon, interleukins, and dismally active and terribly toxic chemotherapeutic regimens. In addition, we lack the simple data to sensibly evaluate his cardiovascular risk as we would any septuagenerian in our exam rooms.
John McCain should be held accountable by the American people and its agents, the free press, to release without restriction the entirety of his medical records. Any hesitation to do so would clearly imply that there are significant medical concerns about his ability to fulfill the duties of the President.
Michael D. Fratkin, MD Internal Medicine Hospice and Palliative Medicine Eureka, California
About 12 years ago, when I discovered Bill Strauss’s and Neil Howe’s book, I began a sustained campaign of evangelism among my friends, family, and students.Some of them (such as my son Tom, who was only 14 at the time) got the point immediately.Others have remained profoundly skeptical.As I have already mentioned, my review of The Fourth Turning in the Boston Globe in 1996 remains the only really favorable review that they got from any mainstream media outlet. I tried in the late 1990s to present their ideas to the American Historical Association in a panel, but that august body turned the proposal down.Several years later we did have such a panel at the Historical Society.I think that this week, even the most skeptical of my friends and family will have to admit that yes, they did have a point.The United States (and other nations) are destined to have a profound crisis every 80 years or so—and this is it.The subject of its nature, likely course, and possible results could, and will, fill many books over the next 30 years or more—that is, for the rest of my life—and will undoubtedly fill up a lot of posts in this space. As I have already suggested, the crisis—brought about, over several decades, by my own Boom generation—has resulted from fundamental aspects of our generational personality, including both an extreme feeling of entitlement and a contempt for our parents’ achievements.Its effects are visible in academia, industry, and government, as well as on Wall Street—and I personally know a lot more about their role in academia and government than in the financial world, where I lack real expertise.Still,.I remember a good deal of the economics I learned in college, and the news this week, combined with numerous revelations about contemporary financial practices over at least the last ten years, allows me to speculate, I think, about what has happened.I suspect that, as Joseph Nocera writes in today’s Times, things are actually quite a bit worse than they seem.I shall try to outline the story as I see it.
I have been reviewing four years of posts in preparation for publishing a collection, and I am astonished by how much of this I managed to anticipate at one time or another.First of all, in my review of Kevin Phillips’ book, American Theocracy, I stressed one of his main points—that the financial sector of the American economy had increased its share of our GDP to totally unprecedented proportions.In the 1920s Wall Street lived off of American industry, and the heads of giant manufacturing and transportation corporations rivaled, if they did not surpass, the financial titans of New York in influence and power.That has not been the case for many years.While Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and the rest of them handed out multi-million dollar bonuses and hired a large proportion of the graduates of our best colleges every year, Ford, GM, US Steel, our textile sector, and even our transportation industries have been shrinking, cutting their work force, and fighting off bankruptcy. The new products that have fueled economic growth haven’t been automobiles or durable household goods (more and more of which are produced overseas), but derivatives and sub-prime mortgages. Phillips noted, too, that this trend has gone much, much further in the United States than in other major industrialized countries.All of this, of course, was celebrated as proof that we were on the cutting edge.It also enabled us to run huge trade deficits, because foreign countries were only too eager to take advantage of the supposed new financial bonanzas on Wall Street, too.
I strongly suspect that within twenty years the collapse of Enron will loom as the harbinger of the much larger disaster that is now overtaking us.The Enron managers were touted as geniuses because they created new assets to trade—various kinds of energy futures and derivatives.They succeeded brilliantly for years because they convinced financial managers with money to invest that they were worth buying. They turned out to be completely worthless.And that, I am sorry to say, seems to be the drama that is playing itself out now on Wall Street.Here, as far as I can tell, is what has happened.
With interest rates so low for the last four presidential terms, the country has apparently been awash in capital.(In the old days, of course, a country with balance of payments problems like ours would have had to raise its rates to attract foreign capital and reduce borrowing somewhat, but in the age of globalization, such restrictions have been held to be obsolete.) The problem for astute Wall Street investment bankers has been to find new assets in which people—and, more importantly, institutions—could invest.The great discovery of the last five years or so, of course, was subprime mortgages, which allowed Americans to borrow trillions of dollars that they could not afford to pay back, based upon the idea that the value of the houses they were financing would constantly increase.What I suspect—and I would welcome any information from those on the inside—is that, for investment bankers, the long-term prospects of such loans were much less important than the process of closing the initial deal, because that is where they make their money.They are essentially brokers on a large scale, whose income comes from transactions more than from profit and loss. And of course, the mortgage loans themselves were only the beginning of the story—those loans were then bundled and then sold as securities, generating more commissions, higher stock prices for their firms, and—critically I suspect—higher bonuses for the top people in the firm.(Earlier in this decade, I participated in a largely successful campaign to reduce the compensation of the men and women who managed the Harvard endowment, and who were receiving multi-million dollar bonuses every year based on the appreciation of the assets they managed.Such deals have become the norm among money managers—and without specifically accusing those at Harvard, I think they must inevitably lead to the overvaluation of assets.They are, in short, one reason why no one knows how much the assets of financial institutions are worth as I write this morning.)
The other massive problem—an echo of 1929—is leverage, or, as it used to be called on the stock market, margin.In 1929 one could buy $100 worth of stock for $10, borrowing the rest and listing the stock (which, of course, everyone knew would rise) as collateral.When stocks crashed the collateral vanished, and bankruptcies and suicides resulted.I well remember my Economics 1 section man in 1965-6 explaining that margin was now at 50%.But the new financial sector represented by the investment banks (not to mention totally unregulated hedge funds) has not had to face such tough restrictions, and in the last four years—for reasons that will eventually come out—they have been allowed to leverage on an unprecedented scale.Nocera writes today that in that period the allowable debt ratio has risen from 12 to 1 to 30 to 1.Using my historical analogy, that means that the situation was about as unstable in 2004 as it was in 1929, and that it is three times more unstable now.The results of a crash may be correspondingly worse.
This morning Joseph Nocera identifies the heart of the problem as the billions or trillions of dollars in mortgage-backed securities held by our major financial institutions—the assets whose value is now in question, and which the new Bush Administration rescue plan intends to buy.(I need clarification on this point. A lawyer involved in finance told me yesterday that the rescue money actually will go to buy up the bonds issued by the financial institutions to borrow the money they needed for 30 to 1 leverage—a plan that would not reward the firms. But that isn’t what Nocera thinks—he thinks the government is going to buy the assets from the investment banks.In fact, it may well be that no one knows the true answer yet.)
Nocera gets to the bottom line late in his piece.Everyone knows that the mortgage-backed bonds held by financial institutions here and elsewhere are overvalued—but by how much?He suggests, in effect, that they are overvalued by at least 50%, and maybe by 80%.If the government decides upon the latter figure, firms may go bankrupt even if the government buys them.But he is shying away from the worst case—what if, like shares on Enron, they are actually worth nothing? That is a possibility that I don’t think we can exclude—and if it is true, I don’t see how we are going to avoid a real financial collapse.(Nocera himself, without going as far as I just did, is skeptical that the current plan can work.)
And then, as if this were not enough, we have further hundreds of billions of credit default swaps lying around in financial institutions—perhaps the most mindless evidence of eternal optimism at all. No one will admit to understanding exactly what these are, but they seem to be insurance against the failure of investments.Now insurance works, I believe, when it pays off on catastrophic outcomes which, in the nature of things, only happen to a small number of policy-holders every year.The credit-default swaps, on the other hand, seem essentially to have been insurance against a financial downturn—something which by its very nature affects everyone at the same time, and which is bound to happen sooner or later.It’s rather like starting a life insurance agency for people who smoke, weigh too much, and practice extreme sports. This was one brilliant financial instrument no one in 1929 even dreamed of.
Globalization may be another casualty of the crisis—as it was in 1929-32. Preliminary reports this morning suggest that the Treasury Department has no plans to buy up worthless assets in foreign hands—and they must be at least as numerous as those here in the US.If we stick to that plan we are very likely to face some form of economic retaliation.And, in contrast to every economic crisis of the second half of the twentieth century, the leading powers of the world are not going to feel it necessary to give the U.S. a break because we defend and promote world stability.We have become the main threat to world stability in the last seven years.
All this feels so much like the great depression that I wish I could talk to someone who lived through it, at least as a young adult.But I can’t—that generation has passed away.That, of course, is part of the generational dynamic that makes these catastrophes take place.Those who had lived through one depression were determined to prevent another—and they did.Their children, like front line soldiers going into battle for the first time, assume it can’t happen to them—so it does.
The illusion that financial manipulation can actually create new wealth will eventually emerge, I think, as the great failing of the late twentieth century.We will have to relearn that real wealth comes from actual production of goods and services, and redesign our economy and our educational system so as to draw more of our best and brightest into endeavors that involve real products.That will be the great task of today’s younger generation, and they will enjoy it.Meanwhile, hard times are ahead—but so is, perhaps, our eventual rebirth.Having squandered our inheritance, the Boom now has to do what we can to bequeath to our sons, daughters and grandchildren a world with some of the safety, stability, and common sense of the one in which we grew up—so that the whole cycle can begin over again.
Inevitably, this blog will now regain the focus with which it began exactly four years ago: the election. Having returned yesterday, I am more and more firmly convinced that it will be the critical election of the first half of the century--and that indeed, the shape of American politics and much of American life for a long time will be determined by the outcome. What is at stake, indeed, is nothing less than the role of rational thought in American life--a theme which I have had many occasions to discuss during the last four years. I have just watched Sarah Palin's interview with Charlie Gibson. Although the frequent changes of scenery and background shots disrupted the flow far too much, the message was clear. Governor Palin is innocent of any real knowledge about the workings of the American government or the economy, and has a very intermittent relationship with the truth. She uses language flexibly: "earmarks" are of course bad and will disappear under McCain/Palin, but "asking for infrastructure" is perfectly all right. She is, however, extremely determined and very good at that leading Republican virtue, "staying on message." I do not think that in the long run she will add many votes, but she is in her own way a formidable addition to the race. What her choice did, clearly, was to divert attention from the very real issues that, in a rational world, would dominate the race. Eight years of Republican stewardship have produced disaster on every front. Lehman Brothers is now on the brink of collapse, and the government, this time, seems determined not to step, signalling another more serious round of economic turmoil. A new cold or even hot war threatens in the Caucasus or the far reaches of Eastern Europe. In Iraq, although no one is talking about it, the talks on a new status of forces agreement seem to have collapsed, indicating that the Iraqi government and ours cannot agree on how long we should stay. Energy prices are about to jump up again. In 1932 the economic situation was much worse (although I am beginning to think that we might come much closer to catching up than I ever dreamed before), and the foreign situation, at least in the short and medium term, less serious. In those days the candidates--both of them--gave long and detailed speeches going in considerable detail into key issues. Those days, however, are gone. Politics has become entirely a matter of propaganda and strategy. Sound bites, not policies, win elections, and maintain poll numbers in office. "Defining" oneself and one's opponent, not doing anything in particular, is key to success, as a local Republican has recently explained to me. The Republicans are leading the way down this path because their policies have never been ones they could openly avow, and because they have now failed. The Palin nomination was designed (rather brilliantly) to generate enormous ink and airtime about Sarah Palin--ink and time that might otherwise be devoted to health care, mortgages, or a new policy in the Middle East. It was also designed to re-energize the Republican faith-based right, which cares far more about a candidate's position on abortion than about the economic effects of anything a candidate might do in office. It was designed, in short, to reduce the opportunity for voters to make decisions with the help of their brains, and so far it has worked very well. All of this is the climax of a process that has been going on for decades, and which can be viewed in almost every area of American life. Television news, which lasted 15 minutes until 1963 and 30 minutes after that, was delivered by sober, middle-aged men who had to give us a lot of information in a very short space and who gave the world's events the gravitas they deserved. Now it is a 24/7 extravaganza of emotional opinion, rarely if ever marred by sustained analysis, and delivered by ever-smiling blow-dried airheads (of both sexes) who have been hired for their looks and delivery. Newspapers are in a severe, and perhaps terminal, decline. The web could replace them, but I am not aware of a single national web site that does systematic reporting--much less muckraking--rather than simply recycling emotional opinions. Publishing (whose history is the subject of an interesting new book by Al Silverman, whom I knew fifty years ago as an editor of Sport magazine) has essentially given up its educational function and focuses solely on reaching the largest possible market. Academia no longer provides systematic training in research and analysis, certainly not in the humanities. And yet, remarkably, we have a real struggle between the old and the new, with the old represented, oddly, by the younger candidate, Barack Obama. From the beginning he has attempted to focus on real problems and to move beyond the sound-bite culture of mindless attacks--but is it working? For the moment he has lost the lead not only in national polls, but in electoral votes. Because the most recent polls give McCain a lead of 2 percentage points in each of five key states--Ohio, Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, and Virginia--he would, based on the most recent state polls, defeat Obama today by 270 electoral votes to 268. (Obama's leads are greater in every state but one, Minnesota--a hopeful sign--but that is the story, according to electoral-vote.com .) Living as I do in a state that is not in doubt, I am not, as usual, seeing any campaign ads, but ads by their very nature favor the sound-bite, emotional approach. Obama in my view would be well-advised to give at least three more nationally televised speeches of at least a half an hour in length, events that would play to his proven strengths. The debates will be critical and should also show him off to good advantage--but to say that right now, things are too close for comfort, is putting it mildly. The extraordinary impact of McCain's choice of Sarah Palin, in my opinion, can also be explained by these dynamics. Republicans were depressed because their eight years of rule had obviously been disastrous at home and abroad, and the media seemed to care about that more than anything else. In one stroke McCain let the "base" know that that didn't matter at all--that he could still put the most culturally conservative candidate in history on the ticket. Don't worry, he seemed to say, you don't have to start getting interested in what your government does--I know you are wonderful. We are going to find out how many Americans will take a more reasoned view. Every eighty years, nations tend to polarize around certain issues. How this affects them in the long run depends in large measure upon whether those issues can be attacked rationally, and successfully, or whether they are largely destructive ideological conflicts whose resolution leaves little or nothing behind. Two of the great crises in American life had extraordinary outcomes--that of the Revolution and the Constitution, which created the first modern democracy, and that of 1929-45, which created the modern welfare state and middle class and saved western civilization in Europe. The civil war on the other hand solved very few problems and did little to create a more just society. The danger now is that another Republican victory will close out the era in which we expected the government to provide economic justice and economic security for a long time, while also condemning us to endless conflict in the Middle East, in Eastern Europe, and perhaps in Latin America. Foreign policy, indeed, is playing almost no role at all in the election at the moment--even though the Bush Administration's series of disasters continues. Having completely alienated Russia, which called our bluff in Georgia and threatens to do the same in Eastern Europe, and having encouraged extremism in the Middle East on many fronts, it now finds itself close to open military conflict with our supposed ally Pakistan. Meanwhile in Latin America we face the worst crisis since the 1980s, as two major energy producers--Venezuela and Bolivia--have seen fit to expel their American ambassadors. All this will be the subject of future posts, but it illustrates just how hard the task of the next President will be. Yet even to suggest that we need a radical change of course will probably seem too risky to Barack Obama--and John McCain wants if anything to go more quickly down the same disastrous route. The readership of this blog fell during August but has recovered impressively in the last few weeks, amounting to close to a thousand hits a week. Almost all of them come from bookmarks and web searches--it has been some time since any well-known site referred to historyunfolding. I very much appreciate my regular readers. They may be interested to know that I plan to publish a collection of posts spanning the last four years after the election--hopefully in time for Christmas. I hope that it will have a happy ending.
Keeping up fragmentarily with the election from over here in beautiful Paris, something has occurred to me. Since one moment late last winter, Michelle Obama has taken a lot of press heat for her statement that after her husband's primary victories, she felt proud of America for the first time in her adult life. That was not such a remarkable statement to make; millions of Democrats born in the early 1960s, I suspect, could easily say the same. But it has been cited again and again by the right-wing media to suggest that she, a candidate's spouse, is not patriotic. Meanwhile, it turns out that Sarah Palin's husband Todd has been (during his adult life) a member of the Alaskan Independence Party, which wants a vote on whether Alaska should remain a member of the union! This is a rather farcical as well as a quixotic quest; Alaska, as Michael Kinsley just pointed out in Time, is rather like a member of OPEC, with the additional advantage of receiving more net funds from the federal government in most years than any other state in the Union. Nonetheless, Todd Palin was apparently among those who thought Alaska might get a better deal on its own. That strikes me as prima facie evidence that this candidate's spouse has not loved the United States very much--but I haven't seen anyone point that out. Meanwhile, as I write this post, Palin is preparing for her first interview with the press, with Charlie Gibson of ABC. Let me predict, on the record, that she will give a standard Karl Rove answer if she is asked about her attempts to get her brother-in-law fired from the State Troopers and the removal of the Commissioner who refused to go along: that she can't comment because the matter is under investigation. Now back to enjoying myself. . .
Polarization has become the most distinctive aspect of early 21st-century American politics. At no time in our history--with the possible exception of Reconstruction--have the two parties been so monolithic in their views. Before the civil war the new Republican Party presented a fairly united front on the critical issue of keeping slavery out of new territories, but the Democrats were split between southerners determined to maintain and extend a slavery empire and northerners led by Stephen Douglas who wanted to find a compromise. (The split, indeed, made Lincoln's election possible in 1860.) The Democratic Party in the North split again after the war broke out, and War Democrats played a key political role during the conflict. 70 years later the New Deal enjoyed considerable support from progressive Republicans like George Norris, William Borah, and Hiram Johnson, and aroused considerable opposition from southern Democrats. The parties were at their broadest from the end of the Second World War until the 1980s. The Democratic Party still has more liberal and more conservative elements, and has been much less confrontational, even during the last two years, because of its Silent Generation leadership in Congress. But the Republican Party is dominated by extreme factions as never before, including neoconservatives in foreign policy, tax-cutters who want to drown the federal government in a bathtub, and the religious right. Liberal Republican Senators used to hold a monthly Tuesday lunch in Washington, and when Senator John Chafee was elected in the mid-1970s it drew more than 20 members. By the time his son replaced him early in this decade the number was down to 6, and it continues to shrink. Northeastern Republicans in Congress have become a very endangered species. The domination of extreme views within the Republican Party has been quite apparent throughout 2008. Despite John McCain's former status as a moderate, he, along with every other Republican candidate, kowtowed to the major lobbies on every single wedge issue--and eventually, in the choice of his vice president. Yes, McCain in his acceptance speech accused his own party (and the Bush Administration) of having lost the trust of the American people over the last eight years, but his foreign policy is as confrontational as any neoconservative's, he now supports further tax cuts and embraces supply-side economics, and he promises to appoint more conservative judges. That was the price of nomination, and he paid it. McCain is benefiting, however, from an odd constellation of factors in the meida. First of all, reporters still like him, even though the freewheeling exchanges he used to have with them are now apparently a thing of the past. Secondly, liberal reporters are still bending over backwards to avoid sounding partisan (a problem their conservative counterparts do not share.) But most of all,. a cadre of Republican intellectuals who should know better are not willing to forego the emotional satisfactions and practical advantages of standing with the winning side--and thus refuse to face the truth about what has happened to their party. In today's New York Times David Brooks actually argues that Sarah Palin, as well as John McCain, is determined fundamentally to reform Washington. Meanwhile, neoconservatives like William Kristol have long ago swallowed any doubts they might have had about their alliance with Evangelicals, and will not be disturbed even by Governor Palin's minister's statements--readily available on the web--suggesting that terrorism in Israel is God's judgment on the Jews for failing to turn to Christ. (Footnote--in his September 8 column, Kristol argues that an inexperienced VP is no problem and embraces the resentments that might lead some Americans to vote for Palin/McCain. He doesn't mention, of course, that he worked for Vice President Dan Quayle himself.) In fact, the Republican punditry--taking their cues, undoubtedly, from McCain's campaign--is even employing the tactic of turning every obvious weakness of Sarah Palin into a strength--her attempt to fire her brother-in-law from the state troopers has become an admirable defense of her family. Certain analogies have to be used with care, but frankly, the behavior of these conservatives reminds me of the established German conservatives' alliance with the Nazis in 1932-3. They viewed them as useful vote-getters who were not serious enough actually to govern Germany. John McCain has just turned 72, and some of these people might do well to ask themselves what a Palin presidency might actually be like. (They should also ponder that were McCain to step down after one term, Palin would enjoy the unanimous and enthusiastic support of "the base"--something that no conservative candidate had this year.) Barack Obama, meanwhile, wants to win by behaving more like a grown-up--a laudable strategy, but one that would be more likely to succeed twenty years from today than now. I think that he, like Lincoln in 1860 and FDR in 1932, will have to leaven his nonpartisanship with a clearer definition of what American politics needs to reject. Sad to say, I doubt very much that he will dare to make a sensible foreign policy--one that does not, for instance, actively court an armed confrontation with Russia over Georgia and the Ukraine--a key theme of his campaign. Although the Bush foreign policy of violent unilateralism has produced nothing but one disaster after another, there is no clearly articulated alternative before the American people. He is also unlikely to run on a platform of fiscal responsibility--it would be easier not to provide an opening to Republican attacks on him as a tax-raiser, and wait until some of the Bush cuts simply expired after he was in office. Health care may become his major issue, and I think he could improve his position considerably by adopting Hillary Clinton's plan for universal coverage. It is too risky, however, in my opinion, simply to run agaginst the last eight years, catastrophic as they have been, and pledge better government while the Republican base whips up its troops. He needs a positive goal with substantial emotional content, because we still live in a highly emotional age.
For the past 37 years I have been a historian of international and domestic politics, as well as an authority on some of the more famous criminal cases in American history. For the past eight years I have been using this space to comment on current events. Links to my books, including, The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy (2008), appear below. Simply click to learn more about them or to order them. A collection of History Unfolding from 2004 through 2008 is also available as a book below.
The email circulating widely attributed to me comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler is a forgery: see snopes.com/politics/soapbox/proportions.asp.
Comments are welcome, but comments that are both abusive and anonymous will be deleted.