Saturday, July 12, 2003

An American Diversion.. or.... meet President Howard Dean

I've often thought that the US presidential elections are like the world series of poker. No matter who you are, where in the world, how small or big time you are, part of you wants to play in that game if you love the great game. This probably explains why so many Brit Bloggers can't resist talking about 2004.

Now Gene at Harry's place has weighed in on Howard Dean, taking an essentially negative view, I thought I should place my chips on the table. Gene, and Stephen Pollard and, apparently, Karl Rove, see Howard Dean as the 2004 McGovern or Goldwater, a fringe radical who might luck it into the nomination but will get killed in the general election. It's a plausible scenario, and has many strong points. But there's always another side.

So here's why I think Howard Dean could be the Democrat's most credible candidate to be the next President of the United States. It's not a sure thing, or even close, but it's a scenario that the "Dean as McGovern" brigade should consider as they scoff.

First, let's take the man himself. He can credibly present himself as a fiscal conservative, anti-gun law centrist with a good story to tell on Health Care. If these were ordinary ties, he might be regarded as a pragmatic moderate Democrat. OK, people might think Vermont was a bit Ben and Jerry, but he could offset that with being a straight-talking tough guy doctor, not some hacky-sack player with a Grateful Dead habit to support.

So far, so unremarkable. But these are no ordinary times and Howard Dean MD has evidently decided not to be a normal candidate.

He's done three astounding things.

First, He's embraced the internet. His supporters generally (and especiall those of us, with umm a vested interest in the internet transforming politics) talk about this as his number one strong suit, and it has allowed him to raise money quick, create the outlines of an organisation early and create the kind of momentum that most outside candidates fantasise about during late nights in cheap motel rooms.

Let's get real though. The internet is a tool. It works for him not because he's embraced it, but because his candidacy brings it alive. Go over to his blog, read the comments, and see that these "Deaniacs" are motivated, excited and inspired. The medium helps this political constituency (white, middle class and wired though it may be) get excited and keep in touch, but it's the message that has them excited in the first place. That said, an early, massive on the ground organisation will be a huge advantage in the primaries. Count it as a big bonus for the primaries, but keep in the back of your mind that it's the message that really counts, the medium only makes success more possible.

Second, he's got mad as hell. Not for Howard Dean the messy business of equivocating about the policies of a politically dominant Republican President. Nope, Howard Dean thinks the President's foriegn policy is a disaster, his economic policy a train wreck and his health and education policies a con on the American people and is not afraid to say so. In fact he likes saying so. He;s passionate, fiery, angry and full of conviction. This is pretty unusual in a candidate who wants to be president. Remember, even Franklin Roosevely was called a very nice man, who with no particular principles, would very much like to be President (by Lippman, I think).

Third, and this is the obvious one, he came out early and hard against invading Iraq. At the time, and now, most political commentators regarded this as the political equivilent to playing russian roulette with all six bullets win the gun.

Lets grant all that Gene at al have said about what this means. The polling evidence and history is on Gene's side. So why do I insist on disagreeing?

First of all, remember that's there;s no prizes for coming second. A presidential candidate who loses 51-49 is just as beat as one who loses 65-35 (please- no Florida comments, let's keep this civil). To say that Dean is unelectable is only meaningful if you believe that someone else is electable.

Now, look at Kerrey, Edwards, Graham, Gephart and Lieberman. Do you see those guys really tanking Bush in 2004? The best this handicapper can say is that they are less likely to lose by a landslide. The polling says the same. Bush beats every Democrat by wide margins.

Looking at the history of US elections, any candidate who beats an incumbent who hasn't inherited from a sitting President is trying to do something special. The only one to do it in the twentieth century is Reagan beating Carter (all the other one term presidents inherited). Beating Bush is going to need some kind of earthquake.

So heres my take. The only way any Democrat can beat Bush in 2004 is if Iraq turns into an unwholly mess in the minds of the American public and if the economy is still a mess. If Iraq looks good and the economy's boom the Democrats could run FDR and would still get hammered.

But, hold on, I hear you cry, if the election is Bush's to lose, why not go for the candidate with the least controversial policy positions, the safest bet? At least them, if things go wrong for Bush, the waverers will feel comfortable.

Because if it become posible to beat Bush in '04, Deans positions and positioning suddenly become huge General Election assets, not liabilities.

Imagine it next year. Economy stuttering, Iraq a mess, Osama still not captured, resentment against the president growing. Who would you rather had as your candidate for President, a centrist moderate who agreed with Bush on Tax Cuts and the War or a guy who said that it would be a disaster and has consistently put forward other polices?

Put it another way, would you want a candidate hobbled by a record of supporting the same failed policies or one free to slash t the weak spots in the Presidents armoury? When you get into the debate on why Iraq was a terrible, terrible mistake, do you want the President to be able to turn around and say, "But Senator, You agreed with me. You voted with me. If I made a mistake, so did you." If things are gong well for Bush, he's unbeatable. If he's suddenly beatable, you want a candidate who is most free to tear him apart.

So here's my view. If things stay as they are, Bush is the prohibitive favourite against any Democrat, no matter how reasonable and centrist. But step into the mirror where Bush is failing, and Howard Dean's very weaknesses, the things that make him a possible McGovern right now, make him the best candidate to run against Bush. He becomes the voo-doo candidate who strridently rejected the policies of a sitting president who lost control of foriegn affairs and the economy and provides a credible confident alternative. Suddenly he's Reagan, not McGovern.

Backing Dean is a gamble for the Dems, but at least it's a gamble that could pay off.

Sometimes, in politics as well as in poker, playing safe isn't the best strategy.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2003

UK Government- We won't find WMD in Iraq

The BBC tonight reported that "sources at the very top" of the UK government, now believe that they are unlikely to find Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The report ran on the BBC Ten O;Clock news, and an brief online summary can be found here.

With some understatement BBC Political Editor Andrew Marr says that the development "is of important political significance".

Obviousl,y if this report stands up, it is a huge global story. It will call into question the purpose of the war to an extent we have never yet seen.

I supported the war, and still do. Let me put the case for the defence.

Let's assume that the reports conclusions are accurate and we are likely to find that "there were weapons programmes there, they believe that other stuff - interviews with Iraqi scientists, paperwork, dossiers - that will turn up", but no weapons in, to borrow a phrase, "the conventionally understood terms" will be found.

We went to war on the basis of our intelligence about Saddam Hussein, our knowledge of the Iraqi dictatorships past and of the evidence available.

We knew Saddam had used WMD, that he had attempted to develop nuclear weapons, had developed WMD that had to be destroyed after the 1991 Gulf war, that he obstructed those attempts to such an extent that they became impossible, that our intelligence said that he was still holding WMD, that he still obstructed inspections even when the threat of invasion was immediate and definite.

The aptest parallel is that of a call that goes to the police telling them that a hostage has been taken. The police discover that there is a hostage, that the suspect is a previously convicted murderer who has owned weapons in the recent past. The reports of escapees from the house, and from snipers positioned outside the house are that the kidnapper is armed.

The police commander tries to open negotiations with the kidnapper, but is met by threats and refusal to co-operate.

On that basis, the police commander decides to storm the house. When the house is stormed, the kidnapper is killed.

The search of the house after the storming discover only bullets, baseball bats and diagrams of sub-machine guns.

The question to ask if the right decision was made, is not "Was the kidnapper armed", but "Was it reasonable to assume he was armed and was every effort made to establish that he was?".

In both my example, and in the vastly more important real world, I believe that the right decision was made.

This, of course, completely ignores both the fact that a brutal violent dictatorship has been overthrown, and that a significant regional threat to stability has been removed.

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Oliver Kamm backs Bush

Oliver Kamm responds to my dismissal of his "leftists for Bush" post with a typically lucid reply- which is an example of why he now nestles in the links section opposite.

Oliver, like me, was disappointed by Bush's election. Unlike me, he now finds the administration admirable.

I am never a fan of longwinded inter-blog debates, so I shall try and restrict my response to some salient points.

First, Bush's inheritance. Oliver falls for the two great canards about Clinton. First that he was especially immoral. There have been Presidents with illegitimate children, mistresses, a reliance on speed, and even with unusual sex lives before Clinton.* Clinton was just the one to get caught. Let's not even talk about corrupt presidents, mendacious presidents and criminal presidents.

The second great canard is that the economic growth of the Clinton era was "easy". It wasn't. Ask Japan. Clinton went to extraordinary lengths to balance the budget. He defied his own party over NAFTA, he lent money to Mexico to stabilise their economy when to do so was extremely politically risky. He reformed welfare. These are not minor achievements.

Oliver concedes that economics is not Bush's strong point. It's quite a weak point to have. Lets look at Bush's record. Cut taxes and turned fiscal srplus into massive runaway defecit (and unlike Kennedy cut taxes in a way that is unlikely to cause a consumption spike), millions of jobs lost, Unfunded commitments made for the future. The republicans would have you believe that in some mysterious way, Bush is not respnsible for all this. I thought that concept had been killed off with Hoover.

Oliver's other points in favour of GWB appear to be
1. He is not a racist.
2. Doesn't persecute Muslims.
3. Understood that September the 11th was a big issue
4. Has sided with Democracy in the Arab world (Which I must have missed- He's sided with moderates in Palestine and students in Iran, but except in Palestine, not actually done anything. As for Iraq. When there's a democracy there, let me know)

This appears to be setting the bar for Presidential greatness a little low.

However, I am being unfair. Oliver has an impressive closing, which deserves to be quoted.

" the decision by President Bush, supported by Tony Blair, to overthrow rather than bargain with a genocidal dictatorship in Iraq has no parallel in American diplomacy for strategic far-sightedness and nobility, at least since Truman's commitment to the rebuilding and defence of western Europe. I cannot stomach, let alone comprehend, the absurdity of those who claim the mantle of progressivism and yet who regard the overthrow of tyranny as something to be sneered at and marched against. President Bush has embraced and effected the deepest humanitarian principles of the liberal Left, and we must recognise him for one of our own."

This is an important point. I supported the war on Iraq on the basis that given the choice between supporting Bush or Hussein, no progressive could fail to choose the liberation of Iraq and stay true to the principles of our cause.

However, I am dismayed to learn that this support means I should adopt Bush as one of my own and support him in all other fields.

I can see other, equally credible approaches to our common threat, all of which could have been as useful in qualifying the threat of Iraq and hunting out terror.

How about this, Just as an example? Increased military inspection of Iraq, with a longer term threat of war, thus bringing the French and Russians onside. Diplomatic and military campaigns against all failing states with WMD programmes, including bombing raids similar to that managed by israel on Iraq's nascent nuclear programme. Intensive on ground operations in Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa to root out AQ elements (using military currently committed in Iraq). Increased focus on North Korea, including targetted unattributed sinking of arms shipments. At the same time, use this military pressure to underscore diplomatic pressure to open up civil society.

You might even have enough troops left over to do something about the Congo, assuming anyone cared.

There would be risks in this course of action too. I doubt Iran, Pakistan and North Korea would be thrilled by the increased comparative emphasis on their activities and all those AQ cells that are apparently still there might be a little disturbed by this the greater number of troops on the ground in their hideouts. It's a different policy. It's as moral a policy. It's a policy I'd be delighted to support.

It's also pretty damn similar to the policy of Bush's Democratic critics.

I still see no reason to back Bush as a president. Each of the main Democratic presidential candidates. Kerry, Edwards, Gephart, Lieberman, Graham and my personal favourite Dean are far better candidates than Bush was, and would make better presidents for the US, and by extension , the world.

*to pick a few: Sexual: Harding, Kennedy, Jefferson, Financial: Johnson, Harding, Illegal: Nixon

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Monday, July 07, 2003

Progressivism considered

It’s well known (to me at least) that I unashamedly idolise Tony Blair. I know, it’s unfashionable to say so, but damn it, if Cuthbertson can hero worship Thatcher, and countless Bloggers slaver at the mouth whenever Dush does anything, at least one blogger should be out and proud as thinking Blair is tops.

However, despite this hero worship, something grates horribly about the Progressive Governance group, who are holding their conference this weekend.

Their mission?

“In July we shall bring together some 300 politicians, experts and intellectuals at the year’s largest meeting of progressive social democrats. Peter Mandelson, the Conference Chairman, has given this meeting a clear and ambitious target: to define a new bold and positive agenda for the centre-left, one that can ensure that the 21st century belongs to progressives in a way that the last century tragically did not.”

I wondered what it was that set my teeth on edge about such a worthy grouping. I mean, why should I be aggrieved that a bunch of decent people want to talk about improving the world?

Then it struck me, It’s because I wasn’t invited.

It’s not that I want to go to this conference, but what I realised is that there is absolutely no way I could go, even if it were my abiding passion in life. Peter Mandelson doesn’t have my phone number, I’m not on Schroeders rolodex. So I’m not in, and neither are you, matey.

There is a technocratic, self selecting elitism at work here which in some way seems to be fundamentally anti-progressive.

It says to the world, We are the leaders. We must be given time and space away from the hordes to divine the future. For example, read the article about the conference mission in more detail. Who could possibly imagine that this is aimed at anyone other than the policy elite? Note the frequency of the words expert, intellectual and decision-makers, and the total absence of, you know, the people.

I differ from this technocratic progressivism. My eyes roll after the third mention of interdependence. I hear the words and they wash over me like a warm bath. I can’t help but feel that secretly, they want me to go to sleep, to have the decisions taken for me, that my voice really isn’t required as long as the philosopher kings are wise. I don't think they really trust me.

In today’s Guardian, Peter Mandelson makes the case for this technocratic progressivism. He points out that “Being in touch is different from pressing the populist buttons of the moment. Over the past couple of years, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets against globalisation and the power of the US, but did that result in millions flocking to the polls in support of the left? “

It did not, and there is a great deal to be said for the policies that Mr Mandelson puts forward in his article.

But why does he distrust populism? Why does he assume that progressivism would be unpopular? It wasn’t unpopular for Theodore Roosevelt, or Wilson, or Roosevelt.

Yes tough battles had to be fought, but the basic principles of progressive centre left politics are popular. So why not talk about them in a populist way more often?

I think Progressivism should be populist because I believe progressivism is popular.

I’m proud to be a populist progressive. I think the power of progressivism doesn’t come from commissions investigating “which policies are capable of maintaining normative commitments to social justice while aspiring to be a truly competitive force in the evolving knowledge based economy”.

I believe in high quality education and healthcare for all free at the point of use. I don’t particularly care how these are achieved. I believe that trade rules should be written to the advantage of developing countries, I believe that every citizen has a right to be supported when sick, old or unemployed and a duty not to abuse that support. I believe in the responsible management of the economy so that people do not live in poverty, or are trapped in communities with no hope of change. I believe in state intervention, not to support dying industries, but to transform struggling communities.

I fundamentally believe that the majority of my fellow citizens agree with me. My duty therefore is not to talk to other progressives about social capital, but to them about education and healthcare.

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James Crabtree of VoxPolitics is organising a discussion of blogging and politics at the House of Commons:

Can Weblogs Change Politics?

A VoxPolitics Seminar
14th July, 5:30 - 7.00pm
Portcullis House, Houses of Parliament (room tbc)
Drinks and Food Provided

Steven Clift, e-democracy expert
Stephen Pollard, Blogging Journalist,
Pernille Rudlin, Mobile expert
Tom Watson MP, Blogging MP
James Crabtree , Chair


I can't make it (my disguise is at the cleaners) but I urge anyone who can go to do so- would be nice if they had to get a very big room- a first sign that blogs can actually have an impact.

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