Thursday, February 13, 2003

Advice to the Democratic Party
Here's something that has been clear to me since the election of 2000: the Democratic party is as unhinged about Bill Clinton as the Republicans are.

Not the rank and file; we're ok with the guy, warts and all. A little nostalgic sometimes, maybe; what the hell, he might have been a tad sleazy, but he wasn't a megalomaniac. But the party machine seems to have learned all the wrong lessons from the impeachment, and they don't seem to have learned ANY from the 2000 election. In their flight from "being associated with Clinton", they have turned the Democratic party into "republican lite", neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring. They have alienated the core faithful and given independents and undecideds no reason to vote for Democratic candidates. The message from the DNC is either "me too!" or "not me!". The ongoing scramble for position by those who would be president augurs another season of the merry slimeball fight the party engages in every four years; by the time the survivor gets to the actual election he looks like he's been trampled by slugs. And the poor bastard gets there just in time to be eaten alive by the Republican attack machine, while his own party squeals in fright and runs in the other direction (Sorry, Al!).

At this rate, the Democrats are going to be the opposition party until the Second Coming. If you want you change your luck, guys, here's some advice, free of charge:

1. Stop trying to aim for the middle of the road. In Hightower's famous phrase, ain't nothin' there but yellow lines and dead armadillos. There are good solid reasons to vote Democrat; remind folk of them. Ditch the silly-ass we-are-everything-to-everybody platform and get something people can get behind and push. Short and sweet. Surely you can find 10 ideas all Democrats hold in common, especially in the Dubya era. Spell them out: WHY the current situation is bad: WHAT you are planning to do about it; WHY your idea is better than the other guy's.

2. Use the primaries to introduce candidates, not as a winner-take-all battle. Focus the primaries on issues. Do not let the candidates use personal attack. Make sure they know whoever does is cut off from the party coffers and the party support structure. Don't you realize that by the time the primaries are over, the impression the voting public has left of the candidate is a negative one? "If her own party says things like that about her..."

3. Try a little discipline. I know, I know, all Democrats shudder at the idea of returning to the old back-room style of politics. But if you want to get somewhere, you can't have people veering off message, because you can be damn sure that your opponents ain't gonna. All this defecting in Congress to vote Republican only gives the impression of a bunch of people who are just looking out for their own advantage, and not serious about what they believe in. It's acceptable for marginal issues, but not big ones. If a politician cannot support the Democratic issues why the hell are you making believe he is a Democrat?

4. Do a little tough talking. The ground is being cut out from under Democratic feet constantly by the conservative shock troops in the media and in government. When are you going to start talking back? Take back the language: "liberal" is not a dirty word, and you shouldn't sound like you're apologizing for being one! Draw up a plan. Go after deep liberal pockets. Go after every cent. Get some decent PR campaigns going that bypass the national press. These people are NOT your friends.
Get the best people you can working on this, because it is important and it has to start NOW.

5. Realize that old-fashioned politics still work. In the past two election cycles you have been taken to the cleaners by well-organized campaigns appealing to the rage and frustration of a certain segment of the voting public. Start mobilizing your own groups. Build up local connections. Listen to people; tell them why you need their help. Ask for input. Build up the state support structures. Have them ready to go at a moment's notice. They are your ground troops. Commanders that ignore their ground troops are often shot in the back.

6. Set up a response task force. In the past two election cycles you have been clobbered by really well organized underhanded maneuvering. You need to start thinking about response. As I said to the candidates, you must keep your hands clean but be ready to clobber whoever attacks you. Actively discourage personal attacks on any candidate, but rebut EVERYTHING coming out of the other side's propaganda machine. If the press won't carry it, hire billboards: THIS IS WHAT THE [LOCAL NEWSPAPER] WON'T TELL YOU!

On the other hand, if you can't see your way out of your present rut, take heart: according to the fundies, the Second Coming is closer than you think.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

An Open Rant to Our Future Candidates
One of the things I find most amazing about the discussions going on in many blogs is how much emphasis is being placed on strategizing future elections. How can Candidate X position himself to attract the masses? Will Candidate Y 's newly-discovered great-grandfather create problems in the Midwest? Can Candidate Z's opposition to the President's anti-terrorist laws make him persona non grata?

Who gives a rat's ass?

Let me spell it out for you. The Republican party--the grand old party of Lincoln--has allied himself with the craziest fundamentalist segments in our society. Their multibillionaire backers fund pseudo-intellectual think tanks whose job is to sugar coat the poison pills they are bent on feeding our society. They own the voting machines their candidates win on; they own the media that reports the news to the American people. The airwaves are full of their shock troops: obscene, tasteless, small-minded bigots whose role is to keep the faithful riled up. They do not care about truth and justice. They care about winning, about instituting their Christian version of Sharia on the country, and keep the "rest of us" in our place.

We are not going to win with strategy. We have got to win the old fashioned way: grass-roots politicking, bared-knuckle fighting over the issues. And if that makes us seem less than polite (gasp!) so be it.

Moderates and liberals in this country believe that discussion will get them somewhere. It will not. The opposition does not speak; they spout, they preach, they revile, they attack. We spend a lot of time on the defensive: "but Bill Clinton didn't..."; "no, I didn't say that..."; "but that is not what happened..." By forcing us to defend ourselves, they make us repeat their lies until they are the only thing people hear. When did we forget the simple sentence: "you are lying?" Why do we have to be mealymouthed about it, and look for euphemisms? Why can't a Democratic politician look one of those blowhards on tv straight in the eye and say: you, sir, are a liar?

I'll tell you why. Because they are afraid to alienate viewers. And as long as their primary reason for their existence as senators or representatives or governors or whatever is to protect their electibility, the Democratic party, and by extension the nation, is screwed.

So, gentlemen and ladies of the Democratic party, here's what you have to do:

1. Forget the primary battle crap. Primaries are like preaching to the choir. If you beat each other bloody you will be like bait to sharks. Agree to disagree on issues: discuss those issues. Do not mention a candidate's age, sexual orientation, family, ancestry, illnesses, or whatever the hell. Whenever the press starts veering off into the forbidden zone, counter with: "Chris (or George, or whoever) we can sit here until hell freezes over and we are not going to discuss Ms. Candidate's personal life. There are issues to discuss here. Let's get to them or let's play Scrabble for the rest of the show." Any democrat veering off script is fair game at every level.

2. Realize that your personal life is going under the microscope, so if you have any skeleton in your closet, out yourself. Supply any records necessary. Then refuse to discuss it, except in settings where the press cannot try to get you off-balance, i.e., in direct discussion with voters, if they ask. If you have a sense the question is asked with the intention to undermine you (for example, during a debate), start the answer with: "I fail to see what it is about .................. that makes the Republican party so upset; surely, having ............... is neither a crime or a reason for disqualification for office. Or are you saying it should be? If so, we are going to depopulate most of Washington and several state houses."

3. Be honest about your stand on issues. If you are for or against something, say so and say why. There's nothing more obvious than somebody trying to tack to the wind (hear me, Hillary?). If you don't know, say so; if it's not an interest of yours, say so: "you know, because I'm from ......... it's never been an issue for my constituents. Tell me about it. What should I know?"

4. Realize that the press is against you. Do not assume that because Peter Jennings is friendly he is any less the employee of a major corporation. Gather as much pre-interview intelligence as you can. Be prepared for the most unfair attacks, overt and covert. Be prepared to attack back, if necessary. I'll tell you a truth: most people think the press pundits are assholes anyway. Facing up to them firmly might get you brownie points.

5. Speak directly to the people as often as possible. Use the lessons of the Paul Wellstone School of Getting Elected. Make sure you are carried on local stations. Do not assume "everyday" people are stupid sheep; they know when they are being condescended to. Ask as many questions as make speeches. Listen. Be polite; you are interviewing for a job, for God's sake! If you disagree, say so and say why. Ask about alternative solutions. Be ready to counteract hecklers. You are not going to convince the fundies, or hard-core Republicans who would rather live under a theocracy than vote Democrat. But you might catch yourselves some independents. For honesty, if nothing else.

6. During general elections, be prepared for dirty tricks. Clinton's response machine was a wonder to behold. Get yourself some mojo from the big guy. Do not play "above it all"; do not try to spin it. Response must be immediate and hard enough to make the bastards' heads ring. If the attack is on your family, let it fly. There's no percentage in trying to be nice!

7. Stay away from your opponent's personal life. If something gets out there, and you are asked about it, answer, for example: "unless you tell me that Mr. Candidate's personal life poses a threat to the security and stability of the nation, I'd rather not discuss it". If the media pest persists, be ruder: "let me be clear here; I don't give a flying trapeze about his personal life. I think he's wrongheaded on policy and that's where I'm staying." Also, no dirty tricks yourself; you do not want to be branded as another one of those guys who'll do anything to get elected.

8. Keep hammering on the issues. Do not softpedal them, do not try to save your ass just in case you have to go back to the House of Representatives or the Senate and deal with the bastards. Realize that as part of what they see as "the enemy" you are dead meat either way.

I can just hear the panicked gasps of the strategists among us. All I have to say to them is: face the facts. Playing by the old rules has gotten us a government dominated by fundamentalists and corporations. I believe there is a vast sea of moderate folk out there that would vote for a man of conviction, if such a mythical beast were to come on the scene.

We have tried politics as usual; maybe some cojones will get us somewhere. At the very least we will go down fighting rather than whimpering.

Next up: the Democratic party, or, the well known Circular Firing Squad.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

An Update on China
From The Times Online: The Chinese abducted an US-based dissident from Vietnam and have condemned him to life in prison on charges of terrorism. Wang Bingzhang, 55 years old, has lived in Canada and the United States since 1979. In the 1980s he published China Spring, a pro-democracy journal. He slipped back into China without permission in 1998 to organize an opposition party but was caught and deported. The charges have drawn derision from human rights groups.

From Time Asia, an article about the difficulties experienced by small, non-government affiliated businesses in getting loans and other assistance. The privations of entepreneurs like Mao have alarming consequences for the entire country. As China shifts from a state-controlled economy to a free-market system, the nation health hinges in large part on the success of gritty local companies producing pedestrian good and services. The biggest problem? China's banking system still lends mainly to state-owned enterprises. China's four biggest banks are technically insolvent because they are owed an estimated $400 billion in nonperforming state-enterprise loans.

In January the government enacted a new law to help small businesses, creating a massive fund to expand a network of loan-guarantee offices. However, more than half of the loans are going to government enterprises. What makes it so difficult to cut off outmoded state ventures in favor of private firms is the government's dread of a grassroots social uprising. The number of jobs created in China barely keeps up with the armies of workers laid off by failing enterprises--and angry, laid-off workers are the biggest threats to the country's stability.

The assumption that the Chinese are irrevocably on the way to a Western-style economy with the attendant social freedoms seems at best uncertain and at worst naive to me. If the Chinese oligarchs feel threatened by the masses, they will certainly revert to their old ways. They have the manpower, and, as demonstrated by the story about Wang Bingzhang, no compulsion to respect either the individual or another country's sovereignty. It's a long way to democracy; the Chinese have a good chance of never getting there.

My Hero
Via the The New York Times: Meet Kim Kang Ja, Chief of Police of Seoul, South Korea.

If it were not for her uniform (yes, her!), she would look like any well-preserved 57-year-old matron, rather severe and elegant. She is, however, a woman whose life has been made up of "firsts". First woman to head a police task force, first female inspector, first female precinct captain, first female chief. In the deeply conservative Korean culture, she was distrusted and disliked by her coworkers and superiors: during her probationary period as inspector, two undercover agents were assigned to follow her, hoping to catch her in a mistake.

Today, she is a national heroine. After being made chief, Ms. Kim undertook to clean up the notorious brothel district, Miari Texas (popular with American servicemen at one time, thence the name). She crushed the child prostitution trade by the clever tactic of collecting the names of the wealthy, respectable, invisible actual owners and threatening to publish them, then sending hundreds of military police through the zone to raid any remaining brothel that had not knuckled under. She has also forced the owners to provide vacations and bank accounts to all the women.

My favorite quote: When I was recruited as a policewoman, in 1971, the only things they would let women do were menial jobs and paper shuffling. They thought women were weak, and just gave us gentle work, and this really got me thinking. All of the things people do to overprotect women are really just ways of looking down on them.

Monday, February 10, 2003

Meanwhile, Back in Afghanistan
An article in Time Asia reminds us that there is still a war going on in Afghanistan. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are regrouping in large numbers and planning "to pour heavy fire" on the Americans.

The Financial Times says that the Bush adminnistration remains more focused on prosecuting its war on terror than on its reluctant nation-building in Afghanistan. Spending on military operations has averaged more than $1bn a month, while humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to that war-ravaged country was less than $530m in 2002. Even some in the Pentagon have begun to wonder whether US interests would not be better served by shifting more resources to reconstruction.

Iraq After Saddam
I'm taking it for granted that we are going to invade Iraq--or that a high 90% probability exists that we will. I've been reading some papers written by different organizations ont he problems and challenges implicit in the post-Saddam period. Today I 'd like to concentrate on a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, jointly with the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University.

Titled Guiding Principles for U.S. Post-Conflict Policy in Iraq, it is worth quoting a bit:

If Washington does not clearly define its goals for Iraq and build support for them domestically and with its allies and partners, future difficulties are bound to quickly overshadow any initial military success. Put simply, the United States may lose the peace, even if it wins the war.

Considering the administration's current record of communication with their allies, this one is questionable.

From the beginning the United States and its allies should begin laying the groundwork for a short-term, international- and UN-supervised Iraqi administration that includes strong international participation (perhaps along the lines of the relationship between Lakhdar Brahimi and the Afghan Interim Authority), with an eye towards the earliest possible reintroduction of fully indigenous Iraqi rule.

Latest reports indicate the US and its allies are deadlocked on the choice of an administrator for Iraq. Americans want an American; the rest want a moderate Arab. There are also problems with setting up an administration, as the US government seems to have bought Turkey's compliance by giving them a chance at the northern Iraqi Kurds (New York times, Feb. 7th). If the Kurds are forced back into gerrilla warfare in order to protect themselves, there is little chance at coalition building.

The United States will want to set up a political context that reassures Iraqis and the international community about the limited nature of its intentions and offers a viable and credible strategy for Persian Gulf security. One of the most important issues to address is the widely held view that the campaign against Iraq is driven by and American wish to "steal" or at least control Iraqi oil.

Good luck on this one. The last two PR drives "unleashed" by the administration had all the success of the last Madonna movie. And when the American undersecretary of commerce tells a business forum that a war with Iraq would open up this spigot on Iraqi oil", the rest of the world may be pardoned for believing that the administration's goals are not all that pure.

The report has a large addendum dealing in detail with the issues of oil and oil revenues. Here, one of their recommendations is that the UN oversee a reevaluation of the foreign contracts Saddam has negotiated during the period of sanctions. How well this plays in Washington is yet to be seen. Both France and Russia have billions of dollars at stake in Iraq; American intimations that that Iraq's oil will be up for bid after the war is not likely to make them inclined to be cooperative in other reconstruction matters.

One last thought: the report estimates that, apart from humanitarian needs and servicing the foreign debt the cost of reconstruction will be betwen $25 and $100 billion. Iraq's current annual oil revenues, about 90% of its exports, is in the neighborhood of $10 billion, and will probably have to be earmarked for food and medicine. If we go at it with a "coalition of the willing", we better hope they are willing to pay some of the cost.

After the burst of tin-foil hat paranoia, we return you to your regular programming