Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Why minority lending wasn't the cause of the subprime mortgage meltdown

A fantastic article by Daniel Gross of Newsweek (http://www.newsweek.com/id/162789?tid=relatedcl) debunking the myth that the subprime mortgage mess was caused by requiring banks to make "risky" loans to minorities. As you can see detailed below, there's no truth to it. But the myth continues in part so the wealthy can continue to justify their own excesses, and in part to perpetuate the prejudice against poor (synonimous with minority, of course). It should be required reading for anyone who spends more than 15 minutes watching financial news or reading Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal.

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MONEY CULTURE | Daniel Gross
Subprime Suspects
The right blames the credit crisis on poor minority homeowners. This is not merely offensive, but entirely wrong.

We've now entered a new stage of the financial crisis: the ritual assigning of blame. It began in earnest with Monday's congressional roasting of Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld, and continued on Tuesday with Capitol Hill solons delving into the failure of AIG. On the Republican side of Congress, in the right-wing financial media (which is to say the financial media), and in certain parts of the op-ed-o-sphere, there's a consensus emerging that the whole mess should be laid at the feet of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the failed mortgage giants, and the Community Reinvestment Act, a law passed during the Carter administration. The CRA, which was amended in the 1990s and this decade, requires banks—which had a long, distinguished history of not making loans to minorities—to make more efforts to do so.

The thesis is laid out almost daily on The Wall Street Journal editorial page and in the National Review. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer provides an excellent example, writing that "much of this crisis was brought upon us by the good intentions of good people." He continues: "For decades, starting with Jimmy Carter's Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, there has been bipartisan agreement to use government power to expand homeownership to people who had been shut out for economic reasons or, sometimes, because of racial and ethnic discrimination. What could be a more worthy cause? But it led to tremendous pressure on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—which in turn pressured banks and other lenders—to extend mortgages to people who were borrowing over their heads. That's called subprime lending. It lies at the root of our current calamity." The subtext: if only Congress didn't force banks to lend money to poor minorities, the Dow would be well on its way to 36,000. Or, as Fox Business Channel's Neil Cavuto put it: "I don't remember a clarion call that said: Fannie and Freddie are a disaster. Loaning to minorities and risky folks is a disaster."

Let me get this straight. Investment banks and insurance companies run by centimillionaires blow up, and it's the fault of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and poor minorities?

These arguments are generally made by people who read the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, and ignore the rest of the paper—economic know-nothings whose opinions are informed mostly by ideology and, occasionally, by prejudice. Let's be honest. Fannie and Freddie, which didn't make subprime loans but did buy subprime loans made by others, were part of the problem. Poor congressional oversight was part of the problem. Banks that sought to meet CRA requirements by indiscriminately doling out loans to minorities may have been part of the problem. But none of these issues is the cause of the problem. Not by a long shot. From the beginning, subprime has been a symptom, not a cause. And the notion that the Community Reinvestment Act is somehow responsible for poor lending decisions is absurd.

Here's why.

The Community Reinvestment Act applies to depository banks. But many of the institutions that spurred the massive growth of the subprime market weren't regulated banks. They were outfits such as Argent and American Home Mortgage, which were generally not regulated by the Federal Reserve or other entities that monitored compliance with CRA. These institutions worked hand in glove with Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, entities to which the CRA likewise didn't apply. There's much more. As Barry Ritholtz notes in his fine rant, the CRA didn't force mortgage companies to offer loans for no-money down, or to throw underwriting standards out the window, or to encourage mortgage brokers to aggressively seek out new markets. Nor did the CRA force the credit-rating agencies to slap high-grade ratings on subprime debt.

Second, many of the biggest flameouts in real estate have had nothing to do with subprime lending. WCI Communities, builder of highly amenitized condos in Florida (no subprime purchasers welcome there), filed for bankruptcy in August. Very few of the tens of thousands of now-surplus condominiums in Miami were conceived to be marketed to subprime borrowers, or minorities—unless you count rich Venezuelans and Colombians as minorities. The multi-year plague that has been documented in brilliant detail at IrvineHousingBlog is playing out in one of the least subprime housing markets in the nation.

Third, lending money to poor people and minorities isn't inherently risky. There's plenty of evidence that in fact it's not that risky at all. That's what we've learned from several decades of microlending programs, at home and abroad, with their very high repayment rates. And as The New York Times recently reported, Nehemiah Homes, a long-running initiative to build homes and sell them to the working poor in subprime areas of New York's outer boroughs, has a repayment rate that lenders in Greenwich, Conn., would envy. In 27 years, there have been fewer than 10 defaults on the project's 3,900 homes. That's a rate of 0.25 percent.

On the other hand, lending money recklessly to obscenely rich white guys, such as Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers, or Jimmy Cayne of Bear Stearns, can be really risky. In fact, it's even more risky, since they have a lot more borrowing capacity. And, here, again, it's difficult to imagine how Jimmy Carter could be responsible for the supremely poor decision-making seen in the financial system. I await the Krauthammer column in which he points out the specific provision of the Community Reinvestment Act that forced Bear Stearns to run with an absurd leverage ratio of 33:1, that instructed Bear Stearns hedge-fund managers to blow up hundreds of millions of their clients money, and that required its septuagenarian CEO to play bridge while his company ran into trouble. Perhaps Neil Cavuto knows which CRA clause required Lehman Brothers to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars in short-term debt in the capital markets and then buy tens of billions of dollars of commercial real estate at the top of the market. I can't find it. Did AIG plunge into the credit-default swaps business with abandon because ACORN members picketed its offices? Please. How about the hundreds of billions of dollars of leveraged loans—loans banks committed to private equity firms that wanted to conduct leveraged buyouts of retailers, restaurant companies, and industrial firms? Many of those are going bad now, too. Is that Bill Clinton's fault?

Look. There was a culture of stupid, reckless lending, of which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the subprime lenders were an integral part. But the dumb lending virus originated in Greenwich, Ct., midtown Manhattan, and Southern California, not Eastchester, Brownsville, and Washington. Investment banks created a demand for subprime loans because they saw it as a new asset class that they could dominate. They made subprime loans for the same reason they made other loans: They could get paid for making the loans, for turning them into securities, and for trading them—frequently using borrowed capital.

At Monday's hearing, Republican Rep. John Mica of Florida gamely tried to pin Lehman's demise on Fannie and Freddie. After comparing Lehman's small political contributions to Fannie and Freddie's much larger ones, Mica asked Fuld what role Fannie and Freddie's failure played in Lehman's demise. Fuld's response: "de minimis."

Lending money to poor people doesn't make you poor. Lending money poorly to rich people does.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Obama's terrorism opportunity?

Interesting transcript from CNN of an interview of Deepak Chopra by Larry King (http://www.alternet.org/audits/108974/) discussing the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks.

OK, well, as interesting as Chopra talking to King could possibly be. Which isn't setting the bar very high.

But it does present an interesting point. One of the real tragedies of the current President's response to 9/11 was the complete wasting of the opportunity to claim the moral leadership of the world and truly create a global coalition to oppose extremism and actually make the world safer. He, of course, decided to get his cowboy on and turn the world against us with his adventure into Iraq.

But the attacks on Mumbai will be Obama's first opportunity to show how his America will be different from Bush's America. And Chopra is right, in that Obama can really use this as a time to encourage the vast majority of non-extremist Muslims to oppose the crazies, marginalize them further, and really make the world a better place.

Not that we would be at all interest in that, as opposed to chanting mindless jingoisting slogans and brainlessly blowing things up to make us feel better. Heaven forbid.

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The Indian city of Mumbai exploded into chaos early Thursday morning as gunmen launched a series of attacks across the country's commercial capital, killing scores of people and taking hostages in two luxury hotels frequented by Westerners.

CNN's Larry King spoke with author Deepak Chopra about the situation.

Larry King: Where were you born in India, Deepak?

Deepak Chopra: I was born in Delhi, but I have been in these hotels many, many times. I have stayed there, so I know the scene; I know the restaurants. I have been trying to get in touch with my friends and relatives, some of whom I have spoken to, some of whom I can't speak to. The lines are jammed. We're texting each other.

A friend of mine from Egypt was in the restaurant at the Taj hotel when the firing started, and somehow she managed to avoid the fray, hid in a basement and is now holed up in a room which is right next to the Taj hotel and is waiting to be told what to do.

The situation is complex, Larry, because it could inflame to proportions that we cannot even imagine. It has to be contained. We now recognize that this is a global problem, with only a global effort can solve this.

And you know, one of the things that I think is happening is that these militant terrorist groups are actually terrified that [President-elect Barack] Obama's gestures to the rest of the Muslim world may actually overturn the tables on them by alienating them from the rest of the Muslim world, so they're reacting to this.

You know, this is Obama's opportunity to actually harness the help of the Muslims.

You know, there's 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. That's 25 percent of the population of the world. It's the fastest-growing religion in the world. We cannot, if we do not appease and actually recruit the help of this Muslim world, we're going to have a problem on our hands.

And we cannot go after the wrong people, as we did after 9/11, because then the whole collateral damage that occurs actually aggravates the situation.

In India, this is particularly inflammatory, because there's a rise of Hindu fundamentalism. We saw what that did in Gujarat, where, you know, Muslims were scorched and they were killed, and there was almost a genocide of the Muslims.

India has 150 million Muslims. That's more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. So this is an opportunity right now for India and Pakistan to recognize this is their common problem. It's not a Muslim problem right now; it's a global problem.

King: Do you think that this is just the beginning, that there's a potential impact, or more?

Chopra: There is a potential impact of a lot more carnage. But it can be contained. And right now, one of the questions [is, given] that there are militant groups that cross international boundaries, is who is financing this? Where is the money coming from? We have to ask very serious, honest questions. What role do we have in this? Are our petrodollars funding both sides of this war on terrorism? Why are we not asking the Saudis where that money is going that we give them? Is it going through this supply chain to Pakistan?

It's not enough for Pakistan to condemn it. Pakistan should cooperate with India in uprooting this. They should be part of the surgery that is going to happen.

It's not enough for Indians to blame Pakistanis. Indians should actually ask the Pakistanis to help them.

And it's not enough for us to worry about Westerners being killed and Americans being killed. Every life is precious over there. We have got to get rid of this idea that this is an American problem or a Western problem. It's a global problem, and we need a global solution, and we need the help of all the Muslims, 25 percent of the world's population, to help us uproot this problem.

King: What does India immediately do?

Chopra: India at this moment has to contain any reactive violence from the fundamentalist Hindus, which is very likely and possible. So India has to condemn that by not blaming local Muslims. They have to identify the exact groups.

And the world has to be very careful that they don't go after the wrong people. Because if you go after the wrong people, you convert moderates into extremists. It happens every time, and retribution against innocent people just because they have the same religion actually aggravates and perpetuates the problem.

King: Are you pessimistic?

Chopra: I think Mr. Obama has a real opportunity here, but a challenging opportunity, a creative opportunity.

Get rid of the phrase "war on terrorism." Ask for a creative solution in which we all participate.

King: Is it because the war on terrorism really can never be won...?

Chopra: Because it's an oxymoron. It's an oxymoron, Larry, a war on war, a war on terrorism.

You know, terrorists call mechanized death from 35,000 feet above sea level with a press of a button also terror. We don't call it that, because our soldiers are wearing uniforms. They don't see what is happening, and innocent people are being killed. So, you know, terror is a term that you apply to the other.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Conservative myths about liberals

Very well done piece by Sara Robinson of Blog For Our Future (), taking many of the conservative myths about liberals and carving them like ... well, I'll avoid the obvious joke here.

But it's very thoughtful, with enough humor and snark to make it fun to read. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Oh, Lordy. It is that time again. Thursday is Thanksgiving -- the official kickoff event of the 2008 holiday season. For a lot of progressives, these festivities also mean that we're about to spend more quality time with our conservative relatives over the next six weeks than is strictly good for our blood pressure, stress levels, or continued sanity.

Personally, I'm not a wholehearted fan of turkey -- probably because the mere smell of it instantly slams me back into memories of several decades of Thanksgiving dinner arguments with conservative kin that took a turn for the ugly. We all know we're supposed to stick to "safe" topics like the kids, college football, and the weather; and avoid controversial issues like religion, politics and whether oysters belong in a proper bird stuffing. But the afternoon is long, and after the approved topics have been exhausted and that third bottle of Cabernet vanishes and the tryptophan torpor hits, decorum and discipline are at high risk of going all to hell. After that, things can and do get contentious, usually in ways that make everyone wish we could all just go back to fighting over oysters in the stuffing.

These family gatherings were hard enough to stomach through the appalling years of the Bush Adoration -- but this year, it's likely to be even worse. Our beloved family wingnuts were insufferable, in a grotesque Mayberry-on-acid surreal kind of way, while crowing into their succotash about the manly Godliness (or was it Godly manliness?) of Our Divinely Ordained Commander-in-Chief. But this year's different. This year, they're on the way out of power -- and they're scared witless about it. Which means big steaming heapin' helpings of liberal-bashing are likely to be featured prominently on the menu next to the mashed potatoes, as they put fresh vigor into every paranoid anti-liberal fantasy ever spouted by Rush, Reverend Pat, or their new darling, Sarah Palin.

The black guy won. Armageddon -- or, at the very least, socialism, atheism, gun control, and a national epidemic of erectile dysfunction -- must certainly be at hand.

As you prepare to head once again into the family fray, it might be useful to note that most of the right wing's favorite anti-liberal slanders are rooted in some deeply-held -- and deeply wrong -- assumptions about who liberals are, and what we believe. If your relatives, God bless 'em all, insist on going down that road, your best defense this year might be to listen closely for these underlying myths and fables at work -- and be prepared to challenge them head-on when they surface in the discussion.

Here's a basic set to get you started. Tuck it away in your bag with your Xanax and Maalox, and apply (liberally, of course) as needed.

1. Liberals hate America.

For the record: Liberals love America. In fact, what makes us liberals is that we actually read and believed all those pretty words in the Declaration of Independence about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and in the Bill of Rights about freedom of speech, religion, assembly, privacy, and all the rest of it.

We're idealists that way. We want to live in the country the Founders described. We believe that the nation's founding documents expressed a uniquely powerful moral contract between the people and their government, and an audaciously positive vision of people's ability and competence to shape their own future. When we get annoying and whiny, it's usually because we believe so much in America's astonishing promise -- and our own responsibility for realizing it -- that we're sorely disappointed when the country falls short of that standard. We really want to believe we can do better.

Conservatism, by contrast, tends to take a dim view of human nature, prefers hierarchy to liberty, and isn't completely convinced people can or should be trying to contravene the will of God or their betters by trying to arrange their own futures. This tends to lead to a selective reading of the Constitution (as well as the Bible), and -- as we've seen in the Bush years -- a far more flexible attitude toward its interpretation.

The proof, however, is in the history -- and it's pretty irrefutable. America's greatest moments of progress, generosity, and moral strength occurred when the country stuck most closely to its progressive ideals. We loved America so much that we freed the slaves, passed child labor laws, built schools and colleges, gave the vote to women, enacted civil rights laws, rebuilt Europe after a war we helped win, and put a man on the moon. All of these were progressive projects -- and all were fought tooth and nail by conservatives in their time, simply because they feared change and saw power as a zero-sum game. Yeah, we sometimes overshoot and miss -- but you can't argue with the daring scope of our dreams.

Conversely, most of our worst moments -- the Native American genocide, the continued justification of slavery and Jim Crow, the Japanese internment, Abu Ghraib -- were conservative projects that were driven by narrow-minded xenophobia and short-term greed, and are regretted by everyone (including most conservatives) when we look back now.

Rick Perlstein has called this out as a predictable pattern: conservatives will loudly obstruct social progress for decades before finally accepting it -- and then, they'll insist they were 100 percent for it all along.

Love us or hate us; but we're every bit as American as our conservative friends and relatives, and have been since the day the Declaration was written (by a liberal, in fact).

2. Liberals want to leave us defenseless in the face of evildoers around the world.

The big disconnect on security issues begins with the fact that we have a far more expansive definition of "security" than conservatives do. And, perhaps, a broader sense of what the actual threats are, and what can be done about them.

When conservatives discuss "security," they're usually thinking in terms of solving all our problems by sending in more guys and gals with guns. The flip side of this that they tend not to give much credence to real threats that can't be fixed by guys and gals with guns.

But as progressives, we know that the country's financial crisis is a security issue. And in a world of superbugs and epidemics, universal health care is a security issue. And global warming is, plain as day, a looming security issue (and the Pentagon agrees). We also know that sending in the Marines, hiring more cops, and taking off our shoes at the airport won't begin to address some of our most terrifying problems. Real-world security is far more complex, and requires a much wider range of solutions, than most conservatives are willing to consider.

3. Liberals hate the free market.

If that's so, why does everyone down at the Apple Store know my name?

The operative word here is "free." Liberals believe wholeheartedly in the amazing power of markets to deliver all kinds of important goods. But we've also noticed that some of the deepest human goods of all -- a strong family, a caring community, a healthy environment, safe food, clean water and air, and time to enjoy them all -- are assigned no economic value at all in unfettered markets. If we want to protect the value of things that money can't buy (and even conservatives will usually agree that such common goods exist, and deserve to be protected), then we need to put some restrictions on markets so they can't encroach into those areas.

Besides, any 10-year-old who's played Monopoly (or any adult who's been within reach of a TV or newspaper in the past two months) can tell you how free markets invariably end up. One person ends up owning the whole game board, and everybody else ends up broke. Game over. That's not an accident; it's just how capitalist systems work. Good regulation can go a long way toward preventing that, too.

It can also be argued that conservatives don't really believe in free markets, either. Truly free markets can only work if there's also a free market in labor -- which means open borders (it's fun to drop this suggestion with a broad wink on border-fence grognards) and unfettered collective bargaining -- neither of which are exactly pet conservative causes.

Because free-market theory also asserts that markets only work right when people can make rational, fully-informed choices, they break down if there's not a parallel free market in information, too. If conservatives really believed in free markets, they'd support efforts to preserve and maintain that market. Keeping good information flowing means putting tight regulations on media consolidation, and firm limits around how far advertising and PR firms can go to stretch the truth or bury negative information. It also means abolishing laws that deprive consumers of important purchasing information, like food-libel laws and federal bans on rGHB labeling. It's a rare conservative who's willing to go that far to protect the sanctity of the free market.

4. Liberals hate our troops.

We love our troops. We love them so much that we want them brought home safe and sound to their families, as soon as possible.

This one's almost depressingly easy. Who blocked the new GI Bill because it might encourage troops not to re-up? Who refused to increase VA funding? Who oversaw last year's debacle at Walter Reed? Who is making soldiers buy their own body armor?

News flash: it ain't the libruls. Putting a yellow ribbon decal on your car is not enough. Making sure our troops have everything they need to do their jobs -- and keeping our promises to them when they get home -- is putting our money where our mouth is. Liberals have been there doing the heavy lifting from the start, while the conservatives in government have been nowhere on the scene unless there was a photo op involved.

5. Liberals are a bunch of elitists who hate decent working- and middle-class Americans.

…as opposed to those sainted corporate men-of-the-people who fly around in private jets and pull down eight-figure salaries while closing plants and cutting 10,000 jobs at a time. That's what real populism looks like, you betcha.

Liberals are funny people. We think that sending well-paid American jobs overseas is a bad idea. We think the minimum wage should be big enough to cover life's necessities, with some left over. We think it's insane that over half the bankruptcies in the country are due to lack of adequate medical insurance. We think everybody who has the grades should have a shot at college. And we believe that middle-class prosperity is absolutely essential for maintaining a healthy democracy -- because history (via Kevin Phillips) has taught us that no democracy that's tolerated our current levels inequality has ever survived for long.

You'd be surprised (or maybe not) at how many conservatives making this accusation have never stopped and taken stock of the role government has played in making their own middle-class life possible. Their dad or granddad got through college on the GI Bill. They financed their own education with Pell Grants and federally-guaranteed loans. They grew up in FHA or VA-funded houses, and collected fat mortgage interest deductions -- which, right there, ensured their family's place in the middle class. They went to decent public schools -- and, perhaps, state universities. They're several thousand dollars richer every month because they're off the hook for Grandma's living expenses, thanks to Social Security and Medicare. They or their parents may have started businesses with help from the Small Business Administration, or relied on government advice and subsidies to keep the farm going. They work for businesses that depend on government contracts.

And then they'll sit there over the second helping of candied yams and loudly insist that they made everything they had, all by themselves, with no help from anybody and especially not from the government.

All you can do is laugh. And then, because they're family, go back to 1945 and start re-telling the family story -- this time with Uncle Sam's forgotten role in the drama front and center.

6. Liberals are against "family values."

This is one of the biggest disconnects between us. As George Lakoff has pointed out, conservatives and liberals have very different ideas about what families look like, how they function, and what rules they should run under. The problem is that liberals are quite willing to recognize the conservative model as a legitimate and valid way to do family, even if we don't always agree with it. But when conservatives look at liberal families and their patchwork of made-up arrangements, they see a chaotic free-for-all that doesn't follow any of their strictly mandated rules of family organization -- and thus doesn't qualify in their minds as any kind of "family" at all. We think it's creative and flexible. They think it's unstable and scary.

So it comes as a considerable shock to conservatives when you point out that progressive areas of the country have significantly stronger families, by almost any metric you can imagine. They have lower rates of divorce, teen pregnancy, infidelity, drug abuse, domestic violence, and juvenile delinquency than the more conservative areas do. Massachusetts -- the first state to offer gay marriage -- also has the lowest divorce rate in the country. They like marriage so much there they think everybody should have a shot at it.

Looking at the statistics, it's possible to conclude that the conservative obsession with "family values" may reflect the fact that families in Red America really are beset by devastating problems that aren't nearly as common in Blue America. Rather than admit that maybe we know something about creating healthy families that they don't, they'll usually try to fix the blame for their family chaos on us and our crazy anything-goes family arrangements. (If there are Bible readers at your table, you might suggest they re-read Luke 6:42 before holding forth.)

Liberals believe in family. We take our marriage vows just as seriously as conservatives do. We love our children just as much. Our families are at least as successful and happy as theirs. This shouldn't be a matter of debate; but it will continue to be one as long they refuse to believe that our families are just as healthy, valid, and sacred to us as theirs are to them.

7. Liberals want to raise our taxes.

It all depends on who is the "our" in this scenario.

If your dinner companions are well-off enough to be bringing in over $250K a year, there's no point in finessing this. Their taxes probably are going up. The only comeback is that between Clinton-era tax cuts, the housing bubble, and the hot stock market of the past 15 years, they've probably made so much money that it's time to start giving some back to the nation that made their boon possible. (Refer back to #5: they almost certainly didn't make that pile without at least some government help.)

If 's nobody at the table fits that happy description, then according to Obama's plan, they're going to get a tax cut. Sure, they're not going to believe it until they see it (and, quite possibly, not even then); but it's not an argument they even want to have until after an Obama tax plan is passed and the actual results are in.

Remind them also that there's just no way to pay for a $600 billion war and a $700 billion bailout (and that's just the current cost on both fronts -- they're likely to soar in the future) without somebody somewhere paying some more taxes. The bill for the war alone currently stands $5,000 per American household; the bailout may cost that much again, depending on how much of the money the government can recoup. The GOP went shopping on our credit card -- and now it's time to pay our share of the bill.

8. Liberals are Godless -- and therefore, amoral.

This often sounds odd coming from people who raised you, who generally like you, and who usually think you're a fairly sound citizen…well, apart from that weird liberal thing. One good comeback is to personalize that accusation: Do you really think I'm less moral than you are? Seriously? In what way? Hmm. (It's good if you can resist the temptation to say: Gee, it must have been the way I was raised.)

Another twist on this: I'm liberal because you made me that way. You dragged me to church, where they taught me to love my neighbor and care for the poor and sick -- and I became a progressive because I took the things you taught me to heart.

If personalizing the argument won't work with your crowd, go general. A lot of progressives are deeply religious -- and our politics are guided by our religious faith. Evangelical churches are getting involved with environmentalism, poverty, and human trafficking -- all issues where liberals have been active for decades. It's good to have the extra hands on board.

It's also true that a lot of progressives aren't religious. Unfortunately, many conservatives equate "secular" with "having no moral code whatsoever," since they honestly believe that nobody can possibly behave themselves unless there's some outside authority keeping a hairy eyeball on them. (It's tempting to speculate about what people who believe this might try to get away with when they think nobody's watching; personally, I think it's an incriminating admission that they can't be trusted behind closed doors.) Rejecting God means you refuse to follow His rules -- which, according to their logic, can only mean that you hold nothing sacred and don't recognize any rules at all.

Call this out for the wrongness that it is. All non-religious progressives have things they hold deeply sacred: family commitments, community obligations, professional responsibilities, the Constitution, social and economic justice, the earth and its systems, the idea of democracy, the dream of a peaceful future. Those things form the basis of a demanding internally-driven moral code; and it's not uncommon to find secular progressives who live more uncompromisingly moral lives than many overtly religious people.

9. Liberals don't believe in personal responsibility.

Again, there's a definitional disconnect at work here. Conservatives tend to use the rule of law to enforce traditional morality and social hierarchies, which usually means light treatment for those at the top, and harsh penalties for those at the bottom. Liberals tend to use the rule of law to maintain some semblance of fairness and equality, which means that those who have more should be given sentences proportional to their greater wealth and power; and those with less should be given a more gentle hand. Naturally, each side finds the other side's reasoning and criteria appalling.

But there is common ground. The bare fact -- which everybody at the table may agree on -- is that in present-day America, nobody is happy with the way justice is being doled out, and people all over are getting away with things no civilized nation should allow to slide by. Absurd leniency abounds on both sides. You can either argue over whose side is getting the worst of it; or you can simply agree that the system is broken all over, and move on to the pumpkin pie.

10. Liberals are wimps.

Conservatives like to caricaturize liberals as being soft in all the places our society values toughness. Our refusal to adhere to any dogma must mean that we're soft in our convictions. Our reflexive open-mindedness is often derided as evidence that we're soft in the head. Our persistent and gentle insistence on humane government is evidence of hearts too soft to set hard boundaries or do what must be done. And all of this together makes it easy for them to portray us as a mushy bunch of feckless, effeminate intellectuals lacking in cohesion, backbone, focus, or purpose.

But you can only believe this if you don't know anything about the history or reality of American liberalism. The Constitution is, itself, a liberal document -- the ultimate expression of Enlightenment principles. In every decade since the republic was founded, progressives have stepped up and put themselves on the line to further the purposes of government laid out in the Preamble. We're heirs to the people who fought and died to free slaves, organize unions, give the vote to women, end child labor, protect family farms, enact civil rights laws, and preserve our environment. Some of the boldest, bravest Americans in history -- Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Teddy Roosevelt, Cesar Chavez, and of course Dr. King -- have proudly called themselves "liberal" or "progressive."

Progressivism couldn't have survived and thrived if we were half as weak and indecisive as conservatives like to think we are. Our progressive forebears were not fearful people. Nor did any of them seem to be bedeviled by a lack of conviction. "Mushy" or "feckless" are about the last words I'd use to describe any of them. ("Stupid" isn't anywhere on the list, either.) When you sign up to become a progressive, this is the legacy you take on, and from then on attempt to live up to. It's not God's job to make the world a better place. It's yours. This has never been work for the faint of heart, mind, or spirit -- and in this era of conservatism gone rotten, it still isn't.

It's going to be a stranger season than most, in no small part because the changing political winds are going to put some fresh twists and turns into the same old holiday discussions. But holiday arguments over religion and politics are a tradition that's as old as the republic. For most of us, wouldn't be an American family holiday without a little hot conversation served up over a freshly roasted bird.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The end of the GOP?

A bit histrionic (or at least wishful thinking) from Nicholas Graham from AlterNet (http://www.alternet.org/blogs/peek/108484/), basically repeating the conservative talking point that the passage of universal health care would be the end of the Republican party. It's a little silly for a number of reasons:

- We're not going to get universal health care except in stages.
- The Republicans aren't going anywhere, they will just morph their philosophy to their needs at the time.

The article is interesting, however, in the premise that if the government takes a larger role in health care, then people will start to be more comfortable with government provided services. Or, put more accurately, the oft-repeated "government is the enemy" position of the GOP becomes less and less tenable. After the $700 billion we just spent on this now-farcical bailout, it's tough to say that we haven't gone through that looking glass already.

But a universal health care system would, in many ways, assault the conservative "you're on your own" principal. Given the amount of suffering adherence to that principal causes, that's probably a good thing.

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Barack Obama's selection of Tom Daschle as Health and Human Services Secretary, as well as "health reform czar," signals that the incoming president is serious about passing comprehensive healthcare reform. Over at the think tank Cato, Michael Cannon warns that blocking any such legislation is vital for the GOP's survival (h/t Kos):

Ditto Baucus' health plan. And Kennedy's. And Wyden's.

Why? Norman Markowitz, a contributing editor at PoliticalAffairs.net (motto: "Marxist Thought Online"), makes an interesting point about how making citizens dependent on the government for their medical care can change the fates of political parties:

A "single payer" national health system -- known as "socialized medicine" in the rest of the developed world -- should be an essential part of the change that the core constituencies which elected Obama desperately need. Britain serves as an important political lesson for strategists. After the Labor Party established the National Health Service after World War II, supposedly conservative workers and low-income people under religious and other influences who tended to support the Conservatives were much more likely to vote for the Labor Party...

James Pethokoukis, at U.S. News and World Report, draws the same conclusion as Cannon does from Markowitz's analysis of how universal healthcare changed the political dynamic in Britain:

The GOP strategist had been joking about the upcoming presidential election and giving his humorous assessments of the candidates. Then he suddenly cut out the schtick and got scary serious. "Let me tell you something, if Democrats take the White House and pass a big-government healthcare plan, that's it. Game over. Government will dominate the economy like it does in Europe. Conservatives will spend the rest of their lives trying to turn things around and they will fail..."

...Recently, I stumbled across this analysis of how nationalized healthcare in Great Britain affected the political environment there. As Norman Markowitz in Political Affairs, a journal of "Marxist thought," puts it: "After the Labor Party established the National Health Service after World War II, supposedly conservative workers and low-income people under religious and other influences who tended to support the Conservatives were much more likely to vote for the Labor Party when health care, social welfare, education and pro-working class policies were enacted by labor-supported governments."

Passing Obamacare would be like performing exactly the opposite function of turning people into investors. Whereas the Investor Class is more conservative than the rest of America, creating the Obamacare Class would pull America to the left. Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute, who first found that wonderful Markowitz quote, puts it succinctly in a recent blog post: "Blocking Obama's health plan is key to the GOP's survival."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What now in Iraq?

Really interesting article by Grenville Byford from Newsweek (http://www.newsweek.com/id/169715) discussing what happens now that the Status of Forces agreement has been reached between the United States and Iraqi government. The basic point of the article is that, during the limbo before the schedule departure of troops, there is really no good outcome for the U.S. military. That's not a lot different than how it is now, except that in 2009 the U.S. command will have even less authority to affect conditions on the ground than they do now.

The bottom line is that Iraq is still an incredibly dangerous and volatile situation, and the Status of Forces agreement may actually make things worse in the short term. President-Elect Obama is going to need a solid plan of attack as to how to address the new situation he faces. In the wake of the economic mess we are currently mired in, it is going to be important not to lose focus on how to get our troops safely out of Iraq while salvaging something other than a bloodbath there.

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Everyone knows it is foolish to give someone power without responsibility. It is even more foolish, however, to accept responsibility without power—and that is just what the Bush administration has done with the new Status of Forces agreement with Iraq. Don't get me wrong, it is good that there is an agreement. Letting the United Nations mandate expire with no clear idea of what would replace it was a recipe for a disaster. I am delighted too that the Iraqis, feel they are ready to take over day-to-day security from June 2009. It is the following two and a half years that worries me. Between mid-2009 and late 2011, a large number of American soldiers will remain in Iraq, essentially confined to barracks, unless the Iraqi government calls for their help.

This is not a problem if you believe that the Iraq of 2008 is essentially West Germany circa 1948: That everything is under control and the Iraqis only need logistical and training support to keep things that way. Obviously, this is what we would all like to believe. Our track record of predicting events in Iraq even six months out, however, is rotten. Things may very well fall apart once more. What then? After June 2009, the United States will not take military action without an Iraqi request for help, and Iraq will likely delay asking until long after a minor scratch on the body politic has escalated into a raging infection—they are a proud people after all. Furthermore, it is not even clear that we would wish to take the side of the Iraqi government in all cases.

Consider the ways Iraq might fall apart. Suppose al Qaeda in Iraq revives and the Iraqi army needs extra muscle. In this case, at least we would know whose side we are on, and al Qaeda alone would not likely be a huge problem. In Iraq, al Qaeda has never been that big, and it caused serious difficulty only when it had significant Sunni support. Removing this support through the Anbar awakening is the surge's greatest success. It has been achieved, however, essentially by bribing the Sunni tribal leadership. What happens when the money dries up—especially if the promised integration of young Sunni militiamen into the Iraqi army does not materialize? (It has not yet.) Then the Iraqi army might find itself an essentially Shia outfit fighting the Sunnis. Al Qaeda will seek to bring this about, but if Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his colleagues misjudge how far they must reach out to keep the Sunnis on board, this clash might well happen without Jihadist intervention. Which side, if any, would the United States want to be on if it does ?


Then again, the control of Kirkuk and its oil remains unresolved. The Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga came close to a firefight a few months back. What happens without an American referee? If we are not referee, do we want to be on the pitch at all? Finally, Iraq's Shias may come to blows. Suppose Maliki's Dawa party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (formerly SCIRI) decide to eliminate Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army; they send the Iraqi Army into Sadr City and a civilian bloodbath ensues. Do we just stand back and watch it on Al-Jazeera and CNN?

For as long as there are large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq, the world (and many Americans) will see the United States as being responsible for anything bad that happens there. Doing nothing would be deeply unappealing, but siding with the present Iraqi government might well be against U.S. interests, or morally indefensible, or both. Like it or not, we will have, at least, moral responsibility for the situation for as long as we have combat troops in Iraq. After June 2009, however, we will have little power to affect matters beyond mere persuasion. Maliki and his associates have shown themselves to be stubborn men. Two and a half years is simply too long to be in that situation.

President Barack Obama can rectify matters. All he has to do is tell the Iraqis that he was serious about getting out in 16 months and bring back the pullout date to early 2010. Chances are they will accept with alacrity. If not, some renegotiation will be in order. The principle the new administration must not compromise, however, is "we will not accept continued responsibility without power". As for suggestions from the Pentagon that we cannot pull out in less than three years, they are simply absurd. We do not have to recover every screw and nail.

Some people will respond that the Iraqi Army cannot survive without logistical support. Well, we will have over a year to fix that. In any case, it is not the Iraqi Army's lack of combat power, but rather the Iraqi leadership's lack of political will and judgment that is the real potential stumbling block. Regardless of how serious this problem proves to be, our troops cannot fix it as long as they hang around in their bases. With luck, it will not lead to disaster, but if we leave before it does, then it will be Iraq's problem, not America's. Which is as it should be.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Inside talk radio

Interesting article by Dan Shelley from the Milwaukee Magazine (http://www.milwaukeemagazine.com/currentIssue/full_feature_story.asp?NewMessageID=24046&pf=yes), a former news director and producer of conservative talk radio programming. While it does smack a little of disgruntled ex-employee, it's also a really interesting behind-the-scenes look at how conservatire talk radio works.

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Secrets of Talk Radio

The former news director of WTMJ reveals how talk show hosts like Charlie Sykes and Jeff Wagner work to get us angry.

by Dan Shelley

Thursday 11/13/2008

PRINT THIS ARTICLE
Illustration by David Vogin




I first got into journalism because I thought I could make a difference.

I wrote for the school newspaper and did “news” reports on a radio station a friend and I started at my high school in Springfield, Mo. I got my first professional job at age 20, while still in college, at a local radio station’s news department. Three years later, I became a news director, and 12 years after that, in 1995, I was recruited to move to Milwaukee to become news director at WTMJ, one of the largest and most successful news/talk radio stations in America.

That was where my real education occurred.

I worked for three years as news director, and then, in 1998, gained the additional title of assistant program director, a role I held until leaving the station in July 2006. From that position, I worked closely with our talk show hosts and became intimately familiar with how they appeal to listeners and shape their vision of the world. Let me tell you some of the lessons I learned.

To begin with, talk show hosts such as Charlie Sykes – one of the best in the business – are popular and powerful because they appeal to a segment of the population that feels disenfranchised and even victimized by the media. These people believe the media are predominantly staffed by and consistently reflect the views of social liberals. This view is by now so long-held and deep-rooted, it has evolved into part of virtually every conservative’s DNA.

To succeed, a talk show host must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims, and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered. The host frames virtually every issue in us-versus-them terms. There has to be a bad guy against whom the host will emphatically defend those loyal listeners.

This enemy can be a politician – either a Democratic officeholder or, in rare cases where no Democrat is convenient to blame, it can be a “RINO” (a “Republican In Name Only,” who is deemed not conservative enough). It can be the cold, cruel government bureaucracy. More often than not, however, the enemy is the “mainstream media” – local or national, print or broadcast.

Sometimes, it can even be their own station’s news director. One year, Charlie targeted me because I had instructed my midday news anchor to report the Wimbledon tennis results, even though the matches wouldn’t be telecast until much later in the day. Charlie gave out my phone number and e-mail address on the air. I was flooded with hate mail, nasty messages, and even one death threat from a federal law enforcement agent whom I knew to be a big Charlie fan.

In the talk radio business, this concept, which must be mastered to be successful, is called “differentiating” yourself from the rest of the media. It is a brilliant marketing tactic that has also helped Fox News Channel thrive. “We report, you decide” and “Fair and Balanced” are more than just savvy slogans. They are code words signaling that only Fox will report the news in a way conservatives see as objective and truthful.

Forget any notion, however, that radio talk shows are supposed to be fair, evenhanded discussions featuring a diversity of opinions. The Fairness Doctrine, which required this, was repealed 20 years ago. So talk shows can be, and are, all about the host’s opinions, analyses and general worldview. Programmers learned long ago that benign conversations led by hosts who present all sides of an issue don’t attract large audiences. That’s why Kathleen Dunn was forced out at WTMJ in the early ’90s and why Jim and Andee were replaced in the mid-’90s by Dr. Laura. Pointed and provocative are what win.

There is no way to win a disagreement with Charlie Sykes. Calls from listeners who disagree with him don’t get on the air if the show’s producer, who generally does the screening, fears they might make Charlie look bad. I witnessed several occasions when Sen. Russ Feingold, former Mayor John Norquist, Mayor Tom Barrett or others would call in, but wouldn’t be allowed on the air.

Opponents are far more likely to get through when the producer is confident Charlie can use the dissenting caller to reinforce his original point. Ask former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Publisher Keith Spore, or former Police Chief Arthur Jones. How can Charlie do that? By belittling the caller’s point of view. You can always tell, however, when the antagonist has gotten the better of Charlie. That’s when he starts attacking the caller personally.

But the worst fate comes for those who ignore Charlie when he asks on the air why they did or didn’t do something, and they never respond. That leaves him free to make his point unabated, day after day. The most frequent victims of this were Journal Sentinel Editor Marty Kaiser and Managing Editor George Stanley.

Charlie knew they would rarely call or e-mail to answer his criticism, so he could both criticize decisions they had made and blast them for not having the guts to come on his show and respond. What little credibility they had among Charlie’s audience would decline by a thousand cuts. It would have been far better for them to face Charlie head on and take their lumps so he would move on to the next victim – I mean, topic.

One entire group that rarely gets on the air are the elderly callers – unless they have something extraordinary to say. Sadly, that doesn’t happen often. The theory is that old-sounding callers help produce old-skewing audiences. The target demo is 25 to 54, not 65 and older.

Talk radio, after all, is in the entertainment business. But that doesn’t mean it has no impact on public policy. Quite the contrary.

The stereotyped liberal view of the talk radio audience is that it’s a lot of angry, uneducated white men. In fact, the audience is far more diverse. Many are businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, academics, clergy, or soccer moms and dads. Talk show fans are not stupid. They will detect an obvious phony. The best hosts sincerely believe everything they say. Their passion is real. Their arguments have been carefully crafted in a manner they know will be meaningful to the audience, and that validates the views these folks were already thinking.

Yet while talk show audiences aren’t being led like lemmings to a certain conclusion, they can be carefully prodded into agreement with the Republican views of the day.

Conservative talk show hosts would receive daily talking points e-mails from the Bush White House, the Republican National Committee and, during election years, GOP campaign operations. They’re not called talking points, but that’s what they are. I know, because I received them, too. During my time at WTMJ, Charlie would generally mine the e-mails, then couch the daily message in his own words. Midday talker Jeff Wagner would be more likely to rely on them verbatim. But neither used them in their entirety, or every single day.

Charlie and Jeff would also check what other conservative talk show hosts around the country were saying. Rush Limbaugh’s Web site was checked at least once daily. Atlanta-based nationally syndicated talker Neal Boortz was another popular choice. Select conservative blogs were also perused.

A smart talk show host will, from time to time, disagree publicly with a Republican president, the Republican Party, or some conservative doctrine. (President Bush’s disastrous choice of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court was one such example.) But these disagreements are strategically chosen to prove the host is an independent thinker, without appreciably harming the president or party. This is not to suggest that hosts don’t genuinely disagree with the conservative line at times. They do, more often than you might think. But they usually keep it to themselves.

One of the things that makes a talk show host good – especially hosts of the caliber of Sykes – is that his or her arguments seem so solid. You fundamentally disagree with the host, yet can’t refute the argument because it sounds so airtight. The host has built a strong case with lots of supporting facts.

Generally speaking, though, those facts have been selectively chosen because they support the host’s preconceived opinion, or can be interpreted to seem as if they do. In their frustration, some talk show critics accuse hosts of fabricating facts. Wrong. Hosts do gather evidence, but in a way that modifies the old Joe Friday maxim: “Just the facts that I can use to make my case, ma’am.”

Hint: The more talk show hosts squawk about something – the louder their voice, the greater their emotion, the more effusive their arguments – the more they’re worried about the issue. For example, talk show hosts eagerly participated in the 2004 Swift Boating of John Kerry because they really feared he was going to win. This is a common talk show tactic: If you lack compelling arguments in favor of your candidate or point of view, attack the other side. These attacks often rely on two key rhetorical devices, which I call You Know What Would Happen If and The Preemptive Strike.

Using the first strategy, a host will describe something a liberal has said or done that conservatives disagree with, but for which the liberal has not been widely criticized, and then say, “You know what would happen if a conservative had said (or done) that? He (or she) would have been filleted by the ‘liberal media.’ ” This is particularly effective because it’s a two-fer, simultaneously reinforcing the notion that conservatives are victims and that “liberals” are the enemy.

The second strategy, The Preemptive Strike, is used when a host knows that news reflecting poorly on conservative dogma is about to break or become more widespread. When news of the alleged massacre at Haditha first trickled out in the summer of 2006, not even Iraq War chest-thumper Charlie Sykes would defend the U.S. Marines accused of killing innocent civilians in the Iraqi village. So he spent lots of air time criticizing how the “mainstream media” was sure to sensationalize the story in the coming weeks. Charlie would kill the messengers before any message had even been delivered.

Good talk show hosts can get their listeners so lathered up that they truly can change public policy. They can inspire like-minded folks to flood the phone lines and e-mail inboxes of aldermen, county supervisors, legislators and federal lawmakers. They can inspire their followers to vote for candidates the hosts prefer. How? By pounding away on an issue or candidate, hour after hour, day after day. Hosts will extol the virtues of the favored candidate or, more likely, exploit whatever Achilles heel the other candidate might have. Influencing elections is more likely to occur at the local rather than national level, but that still gives talk radio power.

By the way, here’s a way to prognosticate elections just by listening to talk shows: Except in presidential elections, when they will always carry water for the Republican nominee, conservative hosts won’t hurt their credibility by backing candidates they think can’t win. So if they’re uncharacteristically tepid, or even silent, about a particular race, that means the Democrat has a good chance of winning. Nor will hosts spend their credibility on an issue where they know they disagree with listeners. Charlie, for example, told me just before I left TMJ that Wisconsin’s 2006 anti-gay marriage amendment was misguided. But he knew his followers would likely vote for it in droves. So he declined to speak out directly against it.

This brings us to perhaps the most ironic thing about most talk show hosts. Though they may savage politicians and others they oppose, they fear criticism or critiques of any kind. They can dish it out, but they can’t take it.

One day during a very bad snowstorm, I walked into the studio during a commercial break and suggested to Charlie that he start talking about it rather than whatever conservative topic he’d been discussing. Charlie assumed, as he usually did in such situations, that I was being critical of his topic. In reaction, he unplugged his head phones, stood up and told me that I might as well take over the show because he wasn’t going to change his topic. I was able to quickly strike a bargain before the end of the break. He agreed to take a few calls about the storm, but if it didn’t a strike a nerve with callers, he could return to his original topic.

The snowstorm was the topic of the rest of his show that day. And afterward, Charlie came to my office and admitted I’d been right. But we would go through scenarios such as this many times through the years.

Another tense moment arose when the Harley-Davidson 100th anniversary was captivating the community – and our on-air coverage – in 2003, but Charlie wanted to talk about school choice for seemingly the 100,000th time. He literally threw a fit, off the air and on, belittling other hosts, the news department and station management for devoting resources to Harley’s 100th coverage. “The Green House” newsman Phil Cianciola countered that afternoon with a joke about Charlie riding a Harley wearing loafers. Charlie complained to management about Phil and wouldn’t speak civilly about him in my presence again.

Hosts are most dangerous when someone they’ve targeted for criticism tries to return the fire. It is foolish to enter into a dispute with someone who has a 50,000-watt radio transmitter at his or her disposal and feels cornered. Oh, and calling a host names – “right-winger,” “fascist,” “radio squawker,” etc. – merely plays into his or her hands. This allows a host like Sykes to portray himself as a victim of the “left-wing spin machine,” and will leave his listeners, who also feel victimized, dying to support him. In essence, the host will mount a Hillary Rodham Clinton “vast right-wing conspiracy” attack in reverse.

A conservative emulating Hillary? Yep. A great talk show host is like a great college debater, capable of arguing either side of any issue in a logical, thorough and convincing manner. This skill ensures their continuing success regardless of which political party is in power. For example:

• In the talk show world, the line-item veto was the most effective way to control government spending when Ronald Reagan was president; it was a violation of the separation of powers after President Clinton took office.

• Perjury was a heinous crime when Clinton was accused of lying under oath about his extramarital activities. But when Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide, was charged with lying under oath, it was the prosecutor who had committed an egregious act by charging Libby with perjury.

• "Activist judges" are the scourge of the earth when they rule it is unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples the rights heterosexuals receive. But judicial activism is needed to stop the husband of a woman in a persistent vegetative state – say Terri Schiavo – from removing her feeding tube to end her suffering.

To amuse myself while listening to a talk show, I would ask myself what the host would say if the situation were reversed. What if alleged D.C. Madam client Sen. David Vitter had been a Democrat? Would the reaction of talk show hosts have been so quiet you could hear crickets chirping? Hardly.

Or what if former Rep. Mark Foley had been a Democrat? Would his pedophile-like tendencies have been excused as a “prank” or mere “overfriendly e-mails?” Not on the life of your teenage son.

Suppose Al Gore was president and ordered an invasion of Iraq without an exit strategy. Suppose this had led to the deaths of more than 4,000 U.S. troops and actually made that part of the world less stable. Would talk show hosts have dismissed criticism of that war as unpatriotic? No chance.

Or imagine that John Kerry had been president during Hurricane Katrina and that his administration’s rescue and rebuilding effort had been horribly botched. Would talk show hosts have branded him a great president? Of course not.

It was Katrina, finally, that made me truly see the light. Until then, 10 years into my time at TMJ, while I might have disagreed with some stands the hosts took, I did think there were grounds for their constant criticism of the media. I had convinced myself that the national media had an intrinsic bias that was, at the very least, geographical if not ideological, to which talk radio could provide an alternative.

Then along came the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Journalists risked their lives to save others as the storm hit the Gulf Coast. Afterward, journalists endured the stench and the filth to chronicle the events for a stunned world. Then they documented the monumental government incompetence for an outraged nation. These journalists became voices for the voiceless victims, pressing government officials to get help to those who needed it.

Yet, while New Orleans residents were still screaming for help from the rooftops of their flooded homes, journalists were targeted by talk show hosts, Charlie and Wagner among them. Not the government, but journalists. Stories detailing the federal government’s obvious slowness and inefficiency were part of an “angry left” conspiracy, they said. Talk show hosts who used e-mailed talking points from the conservative spin machine proclaimed the Katrina stories were part of a liberal “media template.” The irony would have been laughable if the story wasn’t so serious.

I went to Charlie and Jeff and told them my concerns. They waved me off. I went to Program Director Rick Belcher and told him I thought Charlie and Jeff had things terribly wrong. He disagreed. I was distraught. I felt I was actively participating in something so inconsistent with reality that even most conservative talk radio devotees would see this. But in a way, it was merely a more obvious example of how talk radio portrayed reality selectively.

I was a dedicated program manager. I helped the hosts at my station do show prep by finding stories I knew would pique their interest and fire up their constituencies. I met with Charlie Sykes daily, about a half-hour before show time, to help him talk through topics before going on the air. Charlie is one of the smartest people I know, but he performs at his best with that kind of preparation.

I often defended Jeff Wagner from upset moderates and liberals in the community. Jeff’s a very good talk show host whose brilliance is overshadowed only by his stubbornness.

I helped our program directors try to find the right role for Mark Reardon, who, in my opinion, was always miscast (he wasn’t as right-wing as Sykes or Wagner and his job was switched several times). Ultimately, that miscasting helped his career, because WTMJ laid him off, after which he became a talk show star in St. Louis, a much larger market.

I worked with news and sports hosts, too – Robb Edwards, Jon Belmont, Ken Herrera, Jonathan Green, Len Kasper, Bill Michaels – to help them craft ways to sound human and “real” behind the microphone without violating the separation of church and state that existed between the station’s talk and news programming. Sometimes I succeeded. Sometimes I didn’t.

And we were successful, consistently ranking No. 1 among persons 12 and older and in the top five in the advertiser-coveted 25 to 54 demo. Yet I was often angrily asked, once by then-Mayor John Norquist, why we just didn’t change our call letters to “WGOP.” The complaints were just another sign of our impact.

I left WTMJ with some regret, attracted by an offer to work in the cutting edge field of digital media at one of the nation’s largest news and entertainment conglomerates. By then, I had worked more than 26 years in radio news and more than 23 as a news director. In the constant push for ratings, I had seen and helped foster the transformation of AM radio and the rise of conservative hosts. They have a power that is unlikely to decline.

Their rise was also helped by liberals whose ideology, after all, emphasizes tolerance. Their friendly toleration of talk radio merely gave the hosts more credibility. Yet an attitude of intolerance was probably worse: It made the liberals look hypocritical, giving ammunition to talk show hosts who used it with great skill.

But the key reason talk radio succeeds is because its hosts can exploit the fears and perceived victimization of a large swath of conservative-leaning listeners. And they feel victimized because many liberals and moderates have ignored or trivialized their concerns and have stereotyped these Americans as uncaring curmudgeons.

Because of that, there will always be listeners who believe that Charlie Sykes, Jeff Wagner and their compatriots are the only members of the media who truly care about them.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The fall of John McCain

Excellent article by David Grann of The New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/11/17/081117fa_fact_grann) detailing how the John McCain of 2000 could change into the John McCain of 2008, and what those choices might mean for him going forward. I think this will be a fascinating line of study for historians going forward, as the McCain campaign was a unique confluence of all of the disparate coalitions that made up the Republican party up to that point. It also might be a microcosm of how all those coalitions fell apart.

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A defining moment of the “old” John McCain—as many Americans, even some of his friends, have begun to refer to him as he was before his run for the Presidency in 2008—took place in February, 2000, during his first bid for the White House, when he was challenging George W. Bush for the Republican nomination in the South Carolina primary. McCain had recently upset Bush in New Hampshire and was in a buoyant mood, vowing that, like “Luke Skywalker fighting the Death Star,” he would not only defeat Bush but reform a party corrupted by “big money” and, as he later put it, “agents of intolerance.”
Within days, sordid attacks began to appear: flyers on car windows claiming that McCain, who had adopted an orphan from Bangladesh, actually had fathered a black child; recorded phone messages, or robo-calls, spreading rumors that McCain’s wife, Cindy, who had once been addicted to prescription painkillers, was a junkie; and lies, propagated by an obscure group of Vietnam veterans, suggesting that McCain had become a traitor while serving in Vietnam.
McCain’s response was decisive: he pulled from television his negative advertisements, and announced to supporters, “If we don’t prevail, my friends, we know that we have taken the honorable way.” On the evening of the primary, McCain and his family watched the returns in a hotel suite in Charleston. As the polls came in, showing that he had lost by more than ten points, Cindy wept. “How could they believe all that about you?” she said of the public.
McCain, after embracing his wife and children, headed down to a ballroom to deliver his concession speech. “I will not take the low road to the highest office in this land,” he said. “I want the Presidency in the best way—not the worst way. The American people deserve to be treated with respect by those who seek to lead the nation. And I promise you: you will have my respect until my last day on earth. The greatest blessing of my life was to have been born an American, and I will never . . . dishonor the nation I love or myself by letting ambition overcome principle. Never. Never. Never.”
n the final weeks of the 2008 campaign, it became clear that John McCain might lose more than the Presidency. On October 6th, slipping steeply in the polls, he held a rally in Albuquerque. Rather than speak off the cuff, as he preferred, he kept his eyes on a teleprompter. During the 2000 race, McCain was known as the “happy warrior,” but now his tone was harsh. Angrily waving a finger, McCain portrayed his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, as a shadowy figure who never seemed to reveal his true identity. McCain noted that Obama’s campaign recently had to “return thirty-three thousand dollars in illegal foreign funds from Palestinian donors.” McCain urged the audience to wonder, “Who is the real Barack Obama?”
Before he even finished the speech, he and his aides had begun their now notorious campaign—sometimes in public, sometimes sub rosa—to supply insinuating answers to this question. Ads appeared accusing Obama, who had served on the boards of two charities with William Ayers, a founder of the Weather Underground, of being allied with a “terrorist.” Voters received flyers featuring a mug shot of Ayers and the words “Terrorist. Radical. Friend of Obama.” Then came the same kind of robo-calls that had savaged McCain in 2000, and that he had once denounced as messages of “hate.” McCain even hired one of the same firms that Bush used in 2000. The messages warned, among other things, that Obama had tried to stop doctors from caring “for babies born alive after surviving attempted abortions.” Meanwhile, McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, charged that Obama was “palling around with terrorists.” Other surrogates claimed that Obama was “anti-American,” a “guy of the street” who “used cocaine,” and had “friends that bombed the Pentagon.” According to Newsweek, Michelle Obama asked an aide, “Why would they try to make people hate us?”
Early on, McCain vowed that he wanted “the most positive kind of campaign.” But even though he sometimes seemed uncomfortable, shifting in his chair or looking away from the camera, he was at the heart of those personal attacks—demanding that Obama confess his relationship to a “washed-up terrorist,” and proclaiming that Obama would “lose a war in order to win a political campaign.”
As the rallies of McCain and Palin grew angrier—at the mention of Obama’s name, supporters yelled “Traitor!,” “Kill him!,” and “Off with his head!”—McCain seemed startled by what he had helped unleash. When, at one rally, a woman called Obama an untrustworthy “Arab,” McCain turned ashen and stammered, “No, Ma’am. He’s a decent family man.” Afterward, Ray LaHood, a Republican congressman from Illinois, who earlier had condemned the campaign’s inflammatory rhetoric, told me, “That’s the John McCain I know.”
Obama and his supporters decried McCain’s tactics. Yet some of the strongest criticism came from people whom McCain revered or who had long revered him. And it was not merely about strategy—the backbiting that always consumes losing campaigns. It was about the very nature of John McCain. In their eyes, at least, their hero was losing not only an election but his reputation—or, as one prominent backer put it, “his soul.”
illiam G. Milliken, a moderate three-term Republican governor of Michigan, was part of the unusual coalition that had made McCain an almost singular figure in American politics. Although for most of his career McCain’s voting record was consistently conservative, he was far more popular with centrist Republicans, independents, and many Democrats than he was with the Party’s base. His appeal was rooted less in ideology than in character: he presented himself as a figure who would never pander or betray his convictions. When he fell short of his principles, as in the 1989 Keating Five scandal—the Senate Ethics Committee found that he “exercised poor judgment” in helping a major donor—his willingness to lacerate himself in public only reinforced this impression for many.
Milliken, who served as governor from 1969 to 1983, had been a gunner in the Air Force during the Second World War, and he was amazed by the way McCain, after being shot down as a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, had stoically endured more than five years in captivity. He was also impressed that McCain had challenged his own party by embracing campaign-finance reform. Though the two men disagreed on social issues, Milliken felt that McCain did not exploit such issues as “wedges” to divide the electorate. In 2000, McCain—in a move that, seemingly, no self-preserving Republican politician would make—took on two of the most powerful leaders of the Christian right, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. As McCain put it, “Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics.”
Many of McCain’s supporters were equally struck by his refusal to use his status as a war hero to impugn others’ patriotism, particularly in the case of David Ifshin, a student radical who, in 1970, travelled to Hanoi and delivered a scathing radio address against the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese broadcast Ifshin’s words into the cells where McCain and other U.S. prisoners were being held. Sixteen years later, Ifshin met with McCain, who had once publicly criticized his actions, and apologized; McCain accepted the apology and later defended Ifshin on the Senate floor. Similarly, in 1994, McCain backed Bill Clinton’s efforts to normalize relations with Vietnam, offering cover to a President whom many conservatives had derided as a draft dodger. Clinton later called McCain “a great man.”
During the Michigan Republican primary in 2000, Milliken endorsed McCain, helping him carry the state. When McCain ran in 2008, Milliken again supported him in the state primary, even though McCain was up against Mitt Romney, whose father had been governor of Michigan in the nineteen-sixties; Milliken had served as his lieutenant governor. “I received criticism for not backing Mitt, but I thought McCain was the best person to be President,” Milliken said.
Yet, last month, Milliken expressed disbelief that McCain, after experiencing “the most disgusting aspects of politics” in South Carolina, had adopted the same methods against Obama. He said, “McCain keeps asking, ‘Who is the real Barack Obama?,’ but what I want to know is who is the real John McCain?”
In 2000, some prominent Republicans came to McCain’s defense, among them Frank Schaeffer, the son of Francis Schaeffer, an evangelist and anti-abortion crusader who is credited with helping to create the religious right. Schaeffer worked closely with his father, who died in 1984, but he felt that the movement had become extreme. In 2000, Schaeffer gave McCain his family’s imprimatur, vouching for him on Christian radio shows. Six years later, Schaeffer, who had a son in the Marines, co-wrote a book, “AWOL,” which spoke of the need for Americans to serve their country. McCain provided a blurb saying that the book illuminated “a more genuine and wiser patriotism.”
But, in October, Schaeffer, a lifelong Republican, wrote an open letter to McCain that said, “If your campaign does not stop equating Sen. Barack Obama with terrorism, questioning his patriotism and portraying Mr. Obama as ‘not one of us,’ I accuse you of deliberately feeding the most unhinged elements of our society the red meat of hate, and therefore of potentially instigating violence.” He went on, “You are unleashing the monster of American hatred and prejudice, to the peril of all of us. You are doing this in wartime. You are doing this as our economy collapses. You are doing this in a country with a history of assassinations.”
According to one of McCain’s longtime friends, the endorsement of Obama by General Colin Powell was “especially painful,” as there was no one whom McCain “admired more.” Equally devastating were criticisms made by John Lewis, the civil-rights leader and Democratic congressman from Georgia, whom McCain had idolized. In the 2004 book “Why Courage Matters,” which McCain wrote with his aide Mark Salter, a chapter was devoted to Lewis’s march against racism in Selma, Alabama, during which he was beaten nearly to death. Because of the actions of Lewis and his colleagues, McCain wrote, many Americans were “ashamed that they had not loved their country as much as the marchers; that they had not the courage to march into the force of such injustice.” McCain also praised Lewis for decrying incendiary black leaders, such as Louis Farrakhan, as “bigots.” McCain concluded, “I’ve seen courage in action on many occasions. I can’t say I’ve seen anyone possess more of it, and use it for any better purpose and to any greater effect, than John Lewis.” A month before the election, Lewis released a blistering statement accusing McCain and Palin of “sowing the seeds of hatred and division.” Though McCain publicly called the accusations “shocking and beyond the pale,” a campaign aide told me that when McCain first heard Lewis’s remarks he sat in silence inside the campaign’s official bus.
Even members of McCain’s inner circle expressed bewilderment and anger over his seeming transformation. One friend told me he thought that the man he had known for decades would never “take the low road to the highest office in this land.” Near the end of the campaign, a perception had set in, among the press and some of McCain’s former supporters, that the “old” John McCain was a fraud—a creation of consultants and a once fawning media. Reporters had often romanticized McCain and ignored evidence of his conservative ideology and his personal flaws—a fierce temper, impetuousness, and a tendency to demonize opponents. But the people who know McCain well, including many Democrats, believe—as the former Democratic Senator Tom Daschle put it—that McCain is a fundamentally “good man.” The friend of McCain said, “I would take issue with anyone who says that he was a sham. He was the real deal.” In this view, McCain’s fall in 2008 has an almost mythic cast—it is the story of a great man who, overcome by what he himself once called the “disease” of Presidential ambition, sacrificed all. “I don’t think he’ll ever recover,” another friend, who has been instrumental in his career, said. “My fear is that people who view the John McCain from the years ’96 to ’06 will think it was a political gimmick and what they’ve seen in the last five months is who he really is. If honor is your ideology, and you lose that, then what do you have left?”
fter 2000, few politicians in America held greater moral stature than McCain. Though he remained unpopular with the right, his unusual coalition of supporters was rapidly growing. “I say to independents, Democrats, libertarians, vegetarians—come on over,” he liked to say. His defeat in South Carolina had seemed to confirm his virtue, especially to Democrats who had long suffered at the hands of Republican operatives such as Lee Atwater.
His popularity was largely driven by a single belief: that he was more honorable than other politicians. Todd Harris, one of McCain’s strategists in 2000, told me that he has never worked on a campaign more closely focussed on a candidate’s biography, and on that candidate’s ability to project integrity. Accordingly, McCain’s advisers let him speak to reporters for hours, unfiltered, on the Straight Talk Express. “It was a completely character-driven campaign,” Harris said. “Other than the push for campaign-finance reform, many people would be hard pressed to recall any real policy initiatives that we campaigned on.”
McCain’s heroic reputation was centered on his experiences in Vietnam, but it had increased in Washington. Unlike most U.S. legislators—who spend hours a day picking over the minutiae of budget projections or health-care policy, and tending to the mundane needs of constituents—McCain waged gallant, and often futile, crusades against the corrupt and the powerful. He took on the tobacco industry and repeatedly lost, enhancing his stature in defeat. In the Senate, his signature concerns—including campaign-finance reform and opposition to secret “earmarks” for legislators’ pet projects—were primarily ethical ones. Ivan Schlager, a former Democratic counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee, who worked with McCain during the nineties, recently told Time, of McCain’s approach, “It’s not ideological. It’s good guys and bad guys.”
Starting in 1999, with the help of Mark Salter, McCain published a series of best-selling books that championed his character-based politics. In “Character Is Destiny,” McCain said, “It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy.” And in “Why Courage Matters” he wrote, “Without courage all virtue is fragile: admired, sought, professed, but held cheaply and surrendered without a fight. Courage is what Winston Churchill called ‘the first of human qualities . . . because it guarantees all the others.’ That’s what we mean by the courage of our convictions.”
McCain’s view of politics as a moral quest, and his seeming frankness, endeared him to the press. In 1997, David Nyhan, a columnist for the Boston Globe, wrote, “For a lot of people, the Senate is ninety-nine bozos and this guy.” Nyhan, who died in 2005, argued, “You cannot break McCain’s will. You cannot make him quit. You cannot coerce him with threats.” In 1996, Michael Lewis wrote in The New Republic, “I’m beginning to understand the war that must occur inside a fourteen-year-old boy who discovers he is more sexually attracted to boys than to girls. The longer I hang around McCain the harder it is to fight the feeling that just maybe I’m . . . Republican.” A headline in Esquire declared, “John McCain Walks on Water.”
McCain’s efforts to construct a personal narrative around ethics and sacrifice were no doubt aimed at helping him secure the White House. But Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska and another Vietnam veteran, who is close to McCain, told me that the only way to understand McCain—born into a military family, with a father and a grandfather who were admirals—is to grasp that he is driven less by ideas than by an almost chivalrous notion of honor. Under torture in Vietnam, McCain once gave a false confession, and afterward he contemplated suicide, fearing, as his biographer Robert Timberg wrote, that he had “dishonored his country, his family and himself.” In 1989, McCain said that enduring the Keating Five scandal was worse than being a prisoner of war, because “the Vietnamese didn’t question my honor.” Torie Clarke, who was McCain’s press secretary at the time, told me that what was most upsetting to him was not that others were accusing him of unethical behavior; it was that he had “looked into the abyss and saw that maybe he had done something dishonorable.” The experience propelled his backing, in the mid-nineties, of campaign-finance reform—one of his first major breaks with Republican orthodoxy.
Throughout his political career, McCain has seemed keenly aware of the internal tension between his ambition and his moral code. In his 2002 memoir, “Worth the Fighting For,” he acknowledged, “I didn’t decide to run for President to start a national crusade for the political reforms I believed in or to run a campaign as if it were some grand act of patriotism. In truth, I wanted to be President because it has become my ambition to be President. . . . In truth, I’d had the ambition for a long time.” Yet during his 2000 run many aides and reporters who travelled with him—including me—thought that he often seemed more at peace when he was losing. He constantly cited his literary hero, Robert Jordan, from Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” who, fighting the Fascists, awaits imminent death. As he put it to me at the time, “Hell of an ending.”
After the South Carolina primary, he delivered a speech on the one aspect of his campaign that he saw as a cynical tactic: his defense of the Confederate flag as a local “symbol of heritage.” He said, “I feared that if I answered honestly I could not win the South Carolina primary. So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth. . . . I do not intend for this apology to help me evade criticism for my failure. I will be criticized by all sides for my late act of contrition. I accept it, all of it. I deserve it. Honesty is easy after the fact, when my own interests are no longer involved. I don’t seek absolution. Like anyone else, I can only try to resist future temptations to abandon principle for expediency, and hope that in the end my character is judged from the totality of my life, and not by its flaws alone.”
After the 2000 campaign, McCain tilted farther away from his party. Though some of that distancing was motivated by his animus toward Bush, part of it seemed to reflect a feeling of liberation from the dictates of ideology. He joined Senator Ted Kennedy in pushing for a patients’ bill of rights, and worked with Democrats on far-reaching environmental legislation that would limit carbon emissions. In 2005, he was one of only seven Republicans to vote against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Most notably, he voted twice against Bush’s tax cuts, having declared that “sixty per cent of the benefits . . . go to the wealthiest ten per cent of Americans,” and that “Donald Trump doesn’t need a tax cut.”
Tom Daschle, who was then the Senate Minority Leader, told me that he and McCain spoke several times in the spring of 2001 about the possibility of McCain’s switching parties. The Democrats were one vote short of regaining a majority in the Senate, and were lobbying several potential candidates for conversion. Daschle said that McCain was “very close” to making a move. “We were almost at a point of thinking how we would roll it out,” Daschle said. “We talked about committee assignments, and staffing, and other considerations that would be part of the agreement.” Daschle said that he and McCain had made plans to meet at McCain’s ranch, in Sedona, Arizona. Then Jim Jeffords, the liberal Republican from Vermont, announced that he was becoming an Independent, which gave the Democrats the majority, and the courting of McCain ended. McCain and his aides insist that the Senator was never close to leaving the Party, though they do not deny that there were conversations about the matter.
As McCain continued edging toward a new center in American politics, a group of his advisers began to talk casually about trying to create an independent party—like the Bull Moose Party, established by McCain’s hero Theodore Roosevelt. The platform for such a party was never fully thought out, but participants told me that it included the following ideas: pushing campaign-finance reform and curtailing special interests in order to restore faith in government; affirming that the federal government had a limited but important role in public life and should not be dismantled, as Newt Gingrich’s wing of the Republican Party had attempted to do; a greater call for public service, either through the military or through programs like AmeriCorps; less emphasis on divisive social issues; promoting a progressive tax system that favored the middle class rather than the rich; and regulating the excesses of the capitalist system. (Around this time, McCain appeared on CBS’s “Face the Nation” and, echoing Roosevelt, said, “We have had regulatory agencies always to curb the abuses or potential abuses of the capitalist system. This is not a totally laissez-faire country.”)
One participant said of the platform, “It wasn’t so much conservative. It had elements of what the New Democrats were talking about.” He said that the belief was that, for years, the “center in American politics had never been tapped” and that there was a middle path “away from the polarizing base.” He added, “McCain was, by temperament and instinct, attracted to it.”
John Weaver, another member of the group, who was McCain’s top political strategist at the time, told me that he considered whether it would be possible for McCain to run for President on a third-party ticket. But he quickly concluded that the American political system made it all but impossible for such a party to win. As he put it, “This system, as it’s presently set up, automatically pulls good people to a darker side of politics.”
y 2004, McCain’s increasing heterodoxy had made him even more deeply detested by many hard-core conservatives. On a recent radio show, Rick Santorum, the former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, recalled that “almost at every turn, on domestic policy, John McCain was not only against us but leading the charge on the other side.” James Dobson, the leader of the religious group Focus on the Family, declared that McCain was “not a conservative and, in fact, has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are.” Meanwhile, McCain had become so well known for his increasingly bipartisan approach that John Kerry asked him to be his running mate that year. According to aides, McCain did not seriously consider the offer—he still saw himself as a Republican, and, as an adviser later told this magazine, he did not want his career to culminate in the Vice-Presidency.
Indeed, by then McCain and his inner circle had realized that he could emerge as the Republican front-runner in 2008. Shortly after Kerry’s failed overture, Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, sought Mc-Cain’s help in reëlecting President Bush. Suddenly, the interests of the two nemeses converged: Bush needed McCain to campaign for him; McCain needed Bush’s support if he was to court the conservative faithful. This pact led, in August, to their now infamous hug, in Pensacola, Florida.
Many of McCain’s strategists and allies concluded that he had to shift, at least somewhat, to the right. One of his early backers, Ray LaHood, the Illinois Republican congressman, told me bluntly, “To get the nomination, McCain had to appeal to the base of our party.” Presidential candidates always placate their bases during the primaries in order to win the nomination, but for McCain, with his reputation of unwavering principle, the task was treacherous. Still, Weaver told me, his strategic team was confident that McCain could do it: “Sometimes you can negotiate on details while maintaining true to your principles.”
During the 2004 race, McCain campaigned tirelessly—“worked his tail off,” in the words of Bush’s press secretary—for the President. The following year, he assured conservatives that he would support Bush’s tax cuts. More shocking, in the spring of 2006 he announced that he planned to give the commencement speech at Liberty University, which was run by Jerry Falwell—one of the so-called “agents of intolerance” and “forces of evil.” Several weeks before the address, McCain appeared on “The Daily Show.” Jon Stewart, who has said that he would have voted for McCain in 2000 had he won the Republican nomination, expressed consternation that McCain was paying tribute to the religious right. “It strikes me as something you wouldn’t ordinarily do,” Stewart said. When McCain insisted that he would speak at any university, Stewart asked, “Are you going into crazy base world?” McCain hesitated, then said, “I’m afraid so.”
According to his aides, McCain tried to find some balance. He gave the same speech at Liberty University as he did at the New School, in New York, and, in a clear reference to his charge against the “agents of intolerance,” he emphasized the need for “respect” whether “we think each other right or wrong in our views.” Nevertheless, McCain was clearly shape-shifting. Hoping both to placate the Republican establishment and to gain some of Rove’s organizational discipline and prowess, he recruited several of Bush’s top operatives, though Weaver told me that the campaign balked at hiring anyone involved in the attacks on McCain in 2000. McCain enlisted as his campaign manager Terry Nelson, who served as national political director for Bush in 2004. The campaign also brought on Steve Schmidt, a Rove acolyte known as the Bullet, and Mark McKinnon, Bush’s media guru. Around Christmas of 2006, one of McCain’s former Senate advisers told me that he attended a campaign event and was struck by how much the atmosphere had changed from 2000. “It was an establishment campaign,” he said, and was based on the calculus that if you wanted to get anything accomplished you first had to win the nomination.
The new campaign organization, however, was beset by internal squabbling and quickly burned through its funds. In July, 2007, McCain forced out Nelson; Weaver resigned over the change, and most of the Old Guard—save Mark Salter and a few others—either left or were effectively demoted. McKinnon, who remained with the campaign at the time, told me that McCain had “put a bullet in some of his best friends.” The campaign was now dominated by strategists and consultants who had little personal connection to McCain. “They have Bushies all in that operation,” the former Senate adviser told me. “This is the great irony. You have layers and layers of Bushies. They don’t understand what McCainism is.” Schmidt, known for his military discipline and strict message control, eventually assumed command. The campaign even hired one of the operatives at the center of Bush’s efforts against McCain in South Carolina in 2000: Tucker Eskew. One of McCain’s friends characterized Eskew as a master of “demonization.” Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina and one of McCain’s closest allies, summed up McCain’s new approach to the 2008 election: “This is not Luke Skywalker here.”
According to the Washington Post, when McCain’s top advisers told him that his only hope of winning the election was to adopt hard-right tactics, McCain agreed. Graham recalled McCain saying, “It is not my goal to run this race and be admired as the maverick that lost.” Schmidt told me that there was never any discussion about having McCain suddenly change into “a conservative conservative.” The campaign, however, began increasingly to exploit wedge issues, such as guns and abortion, and cast doubt on Obama’s patriotism. The campaign also terminated what was a cornerstone of McCain’s 2000 Presidential campaign: the Straight Talk Express. Over the years, McCain had grown so close to members of the media that he joked that they were his “base.” His new campaign airplane had been designed with a large couch to accommodate reporters and evoke the interior of the Straight Talk Express, but journalists were cordoned off.
McCain and his advisers also began attacking the “liberal media,” a classic Rove gambit that appealed to the conservative faithful. After the Times reported critically on a McCain aide’s lobbying ties, Schmidt exploded: “Whatever the New York Times once was, it is today not by any standard a journalistic organization. It is a pro-Obama advocacy organization that every day attacks the McCain campaign.”
At the same time, many pundits who had admired McCain were repelled by his policy shifts and his ruthless tactics. In July, 2008, Joe Klein, of Time, wrote that although he had once considered McCain “an honorable man” who would run an “honorable campaign,” he had been “wrong.” Richard Cohen, of the Washington Post, declared, “The John McCain of old is unrecognizable. He has become the sort of politician he once despised.” Elizabeth Drew, who, in 2002, published a glowing book titled “Citizen McCain,” lamented in Politico that, “in retrospect, other once-hailed McCain efforts—his cultivation of the press . . . and even his fight for campaign-finance reform (launched in the wake of his embarrassment over the Keating Five scandal)—now seem to have been simply maneuvers.”
In mid-October, McCain’s brother Joe—who had once said that it was his duty to “stay the hell out of the way”—sent out an e-mail pleading with the campaign to change its approach to the media:

Let those who know [McCain] talk to the people about him, through the press. This policy of trying to so tightly “control the message” by cutting off those who know him from the cacophony of national and local voices—the reporters and the editors—is counter-intuitive, counter-experiential, and counter-productive. It creates ligatures and tourniquets that are causing gangrene. It has gradually bled away all the good will that this great man had from the press, for he alone among politicians would talk to them openly, without finesse, without guile.

Those inside McCain’s campaign note, with some justification, that the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the media’s obsession with gaffes have made impromptu press conferences and unfettered access unrealistic. In a recent conversation, Salter told me that at one moment the press was criticizing McCain for lacking a central message and the next was castigating him for not being spontaneous. Salter was apoplectic over the “meta-narrative” suggesting that McCain had fundamentally changed. “There was no decision by McCain to say, ‘Let’s go to the dark side,’ ” he said. “That’s just bullshit.” He added, “Reporters loved the idea that he was challenging the Republican Party and the establishment, and they didn’t particularly care what he was talking about” in terms of policy. “He’s always been a Republican.” Salter expressed a genuine sense of betrayal—a feeling clearly shared by McCain—toward journalists who had turned on McCain. “I’ve spent many hours trying to figure out why the press has erected a double standard that clearly favors one candidate over another,” Salter said. “Maybe it started with his position on the war.” He shook his head. “I’m not a shrink. It just is what it is.” In the spring of 2008, he noted, McCain had embarked on a poverty tour of places like New Orleans and Selma, but virtually no one in the press paid attention. He had invited Obama to hold town-hall meetings across the country; his opponent rejected the idea. And, despite the urging of strategists, Salter said, McCain had refused to let the campaign release advertisements featuring Obama’s controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. “John is the same person,” Salter said. “He doesn’t know how to be any different.” He went on, “Everyone kept saying, ‘Where’s the old happy warrior?’ It was fucking crazy. The only way we could have gotten McCain to hold on to his brand, in the eyes of the media, was if McCain had bowed to the choice of the élite, which was Obama. McCain would have been crushed by twenty points, but everyone would have said what a great man he was and what a gracious loser. Anything short of that, he was going to be branded a ‘new’ John McCain.”
But many who hoped that McCain could modify his policies without sacrificing his identity felt that he had crossed the line. He surrounded himself with conservative economic advisers, such as Phil Gramm, a fanatical proponent of deregulation, and Jack Kemp, the apostle of supply-side economics. He called for making Bush’s tax cuts permanent. He declared that the estate tax, which he, like Teddy Roosevelt, had championed, was now “one of the most unfair tax laws on the books.” (Grover Norquist, the head of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, who once dismissed McCain as “the nut-job from Arizona,” and who says he wants to make the federal government so small that “we can drown it in the bathtub,” applauded McCain for adopting much of his organization’s agenda.) McCain reversed his position on offshore drilling and endorsed the teaching of “intelligent design.” He disowned his own bill on immigration reform. Whereas he had once decried the use of torture under any circumstances, he now voted against banning the same techniques of “enhanced interrogation” that had been practiced against him in Vietnam.
Bob Kerrey, who had generally defended McCain’s campaign tactics as the usual mudslinging, told me, “The lamb may lie down with the lion, but he won’t get a very good night’s sleep. And John McCain has not been sleeping very well since crawling in bed with Grover Norquist and James Dobson.”
The more McCain gave in to the base the more he seemed to need to demonize his opponent, as if to justify his own moral compromises. Friends say that other factors appeared to fuel his contempt. Daschle thought that McCain, coming out of a military tradition, felt that you must “earn your stripes,” and a young, inexperienced Illinois senator’s challenging him was comparable to “a lieutenant taking on an admiral.” The animus also seemed to come from McCain’s romantic conception of politics. To McCain, a politician truly proved his mettle by standing up to his party’s leaders—something that Obama had not done—and having “the scars” to show for it. Obama represents a different model of a politician: he is a policy-driven person who tries to pass legislation by uniting interest groups and by creating new majorities for these policies through inspiring rhetoric.
In the 2000 campaign, during a time of relative prosperity, McCain could focus on campaign-finance reform and earmarks—important but marginal issues that cast him as a rebel. Politics, though, is rarely a Manichaean battle. It is about taxes and health care and budgets and interest rates and regulations. Perhaps this is why McCain so often seemed hapless on the trail. He tried to present the Iraq war as a battle between good and evil—his refrain was that he had stood, virtually alone, for the surge—but to many Americans the conflict was far murkier. He made vows that were more appropriate for an action hero than for a Presidential candidate: “I’ll get Osama bin Laden, my friends. I’ll get him. I know how to get him. I’ll get him no matter what, and I know how to do it.” In his most dramatic gesture—widely interpreted as a cynical stunt but in fact a reflection of his heroic view of politics—he “suspended” his campaign to rush back to Washington during the financial crisis, as if he alone could solve it.
Near the end of the campaign, he repeatedly told his supporters, “I can inspire a generation of Americans.” But by then he had already abandoned the traits that had once galvanized so many: his courage to fight his own party on ethical issues; his support of progressive tax policies; his embrace of a limited but vigorous federal system that curbed the abuses of capitalism. “The irony is that this is the moment for the 2000 John McCain,” the former Senate adviser said. “The whole capitalist system is being questioned, as it was at the turn of the nineteenth century, when Roosevelt was dealing with the ‘malefactors of great wealth.’ ”
Just before the Republican Convention, McCain, who often seemed miserable in his new right-wing guise, tried to resurrect his former identity. He decided to choose as his running mate Joe Lieberman—a pro-choice Democrat who shared McCain’s views on foreign policy. The choice would have signalled both McCain’s independence and his return to a more bipartisan agenda. “He wanted Lieberman badly,” a McCain confidant said. But when leaders of the base threatened to challenge him at the Convention, McCain did the one thing that he believed a great politician never did. As the confidant put it, “John capitulated.”
wo days before the election, in Peterborough, New Hampshire, McCain repeated his old line welcoming “Republicans, independents, Democrats, libertarians, and vegetarians” to his cause. Yet most of his old coalition had already deserted him. Even the voters who turned out at his rallies were often not there to see him: they had come for Sarah Palin. During joint events, which drew thousands more people than his solo appearances, she usually received louder cheers than he did. In Hershey, Pennsylvania, a few weeks ago, many in the crowd filed out after Palin introduced McCain, while he was starting his stump speech. On the day before the election, she and McCain campaigned separately: about five hundred people attended McCain’s rally in Tampa, Florida; an estimated seventeen thousand came to see Palin in Jefferson City, Missouri. “She’s like the plant in ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ ” McCain’s friend Bob Kerrey said. “She’s devouring him.”
For all McCain’s attempts to shift rightward, the conservative base never “embraced” him, as LaHood put it. Grover Norquist called McCain’s relationship with conservatives a “loveless marriage.” As November 4th approached, McCain’s friends said, he seemed more and more irritable and angry. “He’s not enjoying himself,” a longtime friend who had played a key role in many of his campaigns said. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that.”
McCain seemed most upset when people began to question his sense of honor. When editors at the Des Moines Register pressed him about the veracity of his attacks on Obama—one suggested that there had been a “detour” of his Straight Talk Express—he began to rock in his chair and clench his jaw. He snapped that he had always told the “absolute truth, and that’s been my life of putting my country first.”
People in McCain’s circle wonder how he will cope not only with his defeat but with the perception that he has betrayed his ideals. The longtime friend said, “How does he get up in the morning? Is he at peace, or is it a horrible dark void that he carries with him forever?”
George McGovern, who lost to Richard Nixon in 1972, told me about the anguish he felt when he returned to the Senate—as McCain will soon do. “I thought everyone was either scorning me or pitying me,” McGovern recalled. In 1989, he said, he ran into Walter Mondale, who had lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan five years earlier. “He said, ‘George, how long does it take to get over it after you’ve lost?’ I said, ‘I’ll let you know when I get there.’ ” Ultimately, McGovern said, it was easier to stop brooding knowing that he had tried his “damnedest to win” but had never done anything that “wouldn’t let me sleep at night.”
In the final weekend of the campaign, when it was almost certain that McCain was going to lose, he actually seemed the happiest. He joked and bantered with aides. He appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” irreverently referring to his “strategy called the Reverse Maverick,” in which “I do whatever anyone tells me.”
On the night of his defeat, he gave a concession speech as memorable as the one he had delivered in South Carolina. Paying tribute to Obama and the historical importance of an African-American reaching the White House, he said, “Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country.” He continued, “Senator Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face. I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him but offering our next President our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences. . . . We are fellow-Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.”
Some of McCain’s friends and supporters believe that he has done “lasting damage,” as one put it, to his reputation, and that such magnanimous gestures came too late. Others are confident that the “old” McCain will return to the Senate and become a central figure, forging that elusive center. Bob Kerrey said that the bitterness of the campaign will soon fade, and McCain will again serve his country with dignity.
McCain has suggested that the public’s perception of his actions is not what matters most. Hours before voting began, he appeared on “Monday Night Football,” and recalled a football coach who had been one of his greatest inspirations. McCain said, “The most important lesson he taught me was that you’ve always got to do the honorable thing, even when nobody’s looking—because maybe nobody will know, but you’ll know.” ♦