Archive for the ‘Palin? You’ve got to be kidding’ Category

Keller and Krugman

February 11, 2013

In “The Conscience of a Corporation” Mr. Keller discusses stretching religious freedom to the breaking point.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Ignorance Caucus,” says the G.O.P. refuses to live in an evidence-based world.  Here’s Mr. Keller:

David Green, who built a family picture-framing business into a 42-state chain of arts and crafts stores, prides himself on being the model of a conscientious Christian capitalist. His 525 Hobby Lobby stores forsake Sunday profits to give employees their biblical day of rest. The company donates to Christian counseling services and buys holiday ads that promote the faith in all its markets. Hobby Lobby has been known to stick decals over Botticelli’s naked Venus in art books it sells.

And the company’s in-house health insurance does not cover morning-after contraceptives, which Green, like many of his fellow evangelical Christians, regards as chemical abortions.

“We’re Christians,” he says, “and we run our business on Christian principles.”

This has put Hobby Lobby at the leading edge of a legal battle that poses the intriguing question: Can a corporation have a conscience? And if so, is it protected by the First Amendment.

The Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare, requires that companies with more than 50 full-time employees offer health insurance, including coverage for birth control. Churches and other purely religious organizations are exempt. The Obama administration, in an unrequited search for compromise, has also proposed to excuse nonprofit organizations such as hospitals and universities if they are affiliated with religions that preach the evil of contraception. You might ask why a clerk at Notre Dame or an orderly at a Catholic hospital should be denied the same birth control coverage provided to employees of secular institutions. You might ask why institutions that insist they are like everyone else when it comes to applying for federal grants get away with being special when it comes to federal health law. Good questions. You will find the unsatisfying answers in the Obama handbook of political expediency.

But these concessions are not enough to satisfy the religious lobbies. Evangelicals and Catholics, cheered on by anti-abortion groups and conservative Obamacare-haters, now want the First Amendment freedom of religion to be stretched to cover an array of for-profit commercial ventures, Hobby Lobby being the largest litigant. They are suing to be exempted on the grounds that corporations sometimes embody the faith of the individuals who own them.

“The legal case” for the religious freedom of corporations “does not start with, ‘Does the corporation pray?’ or ‘Does the corporation go to heaven?’ ” said Kyle Duncan, general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Hobby Lobby. “It starts with the owner.” For owners who have woven religious practice into their operations, he told me, “an exercise of religion in the context of a business” is still an exercise of religion, and thus constitutionally protected.

The issue is almost certain to end up in the Supreme Court, where the betting is made a little more interesting by a couple of factors: six of the nine justices are Catholic, and this court has already ruled, in the Citizens United case, that corporations are protected by the First Amendment, at least when it comes to freedom of speech. Also, we know that at least four members of the court don’t think much of Obamacare.

In lower courts, advocates of the corporate religious exemption have won a few and lost a few. (Hobby Lobby has lost so far, and could eventually face fines of more than $1 million a day for defying the law. The company’s case is now before the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.)

You can feel some sympathy for David Green’s moral dilemma, and even admire him for practicing what he preaches, without buying the idea that la corporation, c’est moi. Despite the Supreme Court’s expansive view of the First Amendment, Hobby Lobby has a high bar to get over — as it should.

For one thing, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act — which was enacted at the behest of religious groups — companies cannot impose religious tests on their employees. They can’t hire only Catholics, or refuse to hire Catholics. They cannot oblige you to practice the same faith their owners do. Companies are, by legal design, zones of theological diversity and tolerance. So Green, whose company is privately held, can spend his own money to promote his faith, but it would be an act of legal overreach to say that he can impose his faith on his employees by denying them benefits the government has widely required.

“If an employer can craft a benefits system around his religious beliefs, that’s a slippery slope,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a critic of religious exemptions. “Can you deny treatment of AIDS victims because your religion disapproves of homosexuals? What if your for-profit employer is a Jehovah’s Witness, who doesn’t believe in blood transfusions?”

Also, courts tend to distinguish between laws that make you do something and laws that merely require a financial payment. In the days of the draft, conscientious objectors were exempted from conscription. A sincere pacifist could not be obliged to kill. But a pacifist is not excused from paying taxes just because he or she objects to the money being spent on war. Doctors who find abortions morally abhorrent are not obliged to perform them. But you cannot withhold taxes because some of the money goes to Medicaid-financed abortion.

“Anybody who pays taxes can find something deeply offensive in what the government does,” said Robert Post, a First Amendment expert at Yale Law School. “ ‘I’m not paying my taxes because of torture at Guantánamo.’ ‘I’m not paying my taxes because of drones.’

“People can’t pick and choose their taxes, because you couldn’t have a functioning tax system.”

I don’t know what the courts will say, but common sense says the contraception dispute is more like taxation than conscription. Nothing in the Obamacare mandate obliges anyone to use contraception if, for example, she is in the tiny minority of American Catholics who take the church’s doctrine on birth control seriously. And Hobby Lobby’s policy doesn’t prevent the use of morning-after pills: it just assures that if an employee does use emergency contraception, she pays for it out of her Hobby Lobby paycheck rather than her Hobby Lobby insurance.

Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia who often sides with proponents of broader religious liberty, has taken to warning his friends that their aggressive positions on abortion, gay rights and now contraception are undermining the longstanding American respect for free exercise of religion.

“The religious community cannot take religious liberty for granted,” he said in a speech before the contraceptive issue blew up. “It needs to expend a lot more energy defending the right to religious liberty, and it would help to spend a lot less energy attacking the liberty of others.”

Cases like Hobby Lobby, he told me, have compounded his worry.

“Interfering with someone else’s sex life is a pretty unpopular thing to do,” he said. “These disputes are putting the conservative churches on the losing side of the sexual revolution. I think they are taking a risk of turning large chunks of the population against the idea of religious exemptions altogether.”

But Laycock’s is a lonely voice among advocates of religious exemptions. More typical is Rick Warren, the evangelical megachurch pastor, who says the battle to preserve religious liberty “in all areas of life” may be “the civil rights movement of this decade.” Warren goes on to say — I am not making this up — that “Hobby Lobby’s courageous stand, in the face of enormous pressure and fines,” is the equivalent of the Birmingham bus boycott.

When I read that kind of rhetoric from our country’s loftier pulpits, I understand why the fastest-growing religious affiliation in America is “none.”

Rick Warren is an infected pustule on the posterior of humanity.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Last week Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, gave what his office told us would be a major policy speech. And we should be grateful for the heads-up about the speech’s majorness. Otherwise, a read of the speech might have suggested that he was offering nothing more than a meager, warmed-over selection of stale ideas.

To be sure, Mr. Cantor tried to sound interested in serious policy discussion. But he didn’t succeed — and that was no accident. For these days his party dislikes the whole idea of applying critical thinking and evidence to policy questions. And no, that’s not a caricature: Last year the Texas G.O.P. explicitly condemned efforts to teach “critical thinking skills,” because, it said, such efforts “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

And such is the influence of what we might call the ignorance caucus that even when giving a speech intended to demonstrate his openness to new ideas, Mr. Cantor felt obliged to give that caucus a shout-out, calling for a complete end to federal funding of social science research. Because it’s surely a waste of money seeking to understand the society we’re trying to change.

Want other examples of the ignorance caucus at work? Start with health care, an area in which Mr. Cantor tried not to sound anti-intellectual; he lavished praise on medical research just before attacking federal support for social science. (By the way, how much money are we talking about? Well, the entire National Science Foundation budget for social and economic sciences amounts to a whopping 0.01 percent of the budget deficit.)

But Mr. Cantor’s support for medical research is curiously limited. He’s all for developing new treatments, but he and his colleagues have adamantly opposed “comparative effectiveness research,” which seeks to determine how well such treatments work.

What they fear, of course, is that the people running Medicare and other government programs might use the results of such research to determine what they’re willing to pay for. Instead, they want to turn Medicare into a voucher system and let individuals make decisions about treatment. But even if you think that’s a good idea (it isn’t), how are individuals supposed to make good medical choices if we ensure that they have no idea what health benefits, if any, to expect from their choices?

Still, the desire to perpetuate ignorance on matters medical is nothing compared with the desire to kill climate research, where Mr. Cantor’s colleagues — particularly, as it happens, in his home state of Virginia — have engaged in furious witch hunts against scientists who find evidence they don’t like. True, the state has finally agreed to study the growing risk of coastal flooding; Norfolk is among the American cities most vulnerable to climate change. But Republicans in the State Legislature have specifically prohibited the use of the words “sea-level rise.

And there are many other examples, like the way House Republicans tried to suppress a Congressional Research Service report casting doubt on claims about the magical growth effects of tax cuts for the wealthy.

Do actions like this have important effects? Well, consider the agonized discussions of gun policy that followed the Newtown massacre. It would be helpful to these discussions if we had a good grasp of the facts about firearms and violence. But we don’t, because back in the 1990s conservative politicians, acting on behalf of the National Rifle Association, bullied federal agencies into ceasing just about all research into the issue. Willful ignorance matters.

O.K., at this point the conventions of punditry call for saying something to demonstrate my evenhandedness, something along the lines of “Democrats do it too.” But while Democrats, being human, often read evidence selectively and choose to believe things that make them comfortable, there really isn’t anything equivalent to Republicans’ active hostility to collecting evidence in the first place.

The truth is that America’s partisan divide runs much deeper than even pessimists are usually willing to admit; the parties aren’t just divided on values and policy views, they’re divided over epistemology. One side believes, at least in principle, in letting its policy views be shaped by facts; the other believes in suppressing the facts if they contradict its fixed beliefs.

In her parting shot on leaving the State Department, Hillary Clinton said of her Republican critics, “They just will not live in an evidence-based world.” She was referring specifically to the Benghazi controversy, but her point applies much more generally. And for all the talk of reforming and reinventing the G.O.P., the ignorance caucus retains a firm grip on the party’s heart and mind.

Dowd and Friedman

November 12, 2008

MoDo, in “Boxers, Briefs or Silks?” says Sarah Palin is now trying to unmake her McCain campaign makeover and morph from uptown cloistered girl back to down-home accessible girl.  Mr. Friedman, in “How to Fix a Flat,” suggests that somebody ought to call Steve Jobs and ask him if he’d like to run a car company for a year. It wouldn’t take him long to come up with the G.M. iCar.  Here’s MoDo:

Sarah Palin represents a huge historic leap forward for women.

When Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton ran, their fates were inextricably linked with their gender. If they failed, many women felt, there was an X through the whole X chromosome. A blot on the female copybook.

If not this woman now, Hillary’s supporters would ardently ask me, what woman ever?

But Sarah Palin can come across as utterly unready to lead the world — or even find the world on a map — and that doesn’t reflect poorly on the rest of us.

It only means that she doesn’t have enough mind grapes or thoughtsicles, as Tracy Morgan refers to brain droppings on “30 Rock,” to be president soon.

(It’s W., Cheney and Edward Liddy, the C.E.O. of A.I.G. — who can’t seem to stop the conga line of bailout beneficiaries from going on luxury retreats, even though taxpayers have to keep ponying up — who may have clinched the case that overprivileged white men are biologically or cognitively unsuited to hold higher office.)

Palin told Greta Van Susteren Monday on Fox News that her faith will guide her on a 2012 run. “I’m like, O.K., God, if there is an open door for me somewhere — this is what I always pray — don’t let me miss the open door,” she said. “Show me where the open door is, even if it’s cracked open a little bit, maybe I’ll plow right on through that and maybe prematurely plow through it.”

The Alaska governor, who now thinks she is even bigger than her vast state, has certainly not missed an opportunity to throw open the door to the national press this week, letting them hang in her Wasilla kitchen as she makes moose chili and cake and baby formula and hefty servings of spin.

After her brutal transformation by the McCain campaign into a shopaholic, whack-job diva — “Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast,” as one angry McCain aide characterized it to Newsweek — Palin is now trying to unmake that makeover and morph from uptown cloistered girl back to down-home accessible girl.

Just hanging in the kitchen with her family and a bunch of camera crews, washing lettuce and washing John McCain and his tattling, gossiping sewing circle of aides right out of her fluffed-up hair. The same McCain aides who blasted the press as sexist for wondering if Palin was hopelessly over her head swiveled around and blasted Palin to the press as hopelessly over her head. The snippy McCain snipers once loved Palin’s sassy ability to burn Barack Obama and Joe Biden with snide little remarks.

So let’s see how they like the burn turned on them? She said that the anonymous aides scapegoating her were “cowardly” “mean-spirited,” “immature,” “unprofessional” and “jerks.”

She’s right. And where was the usually gallant John McCain during all this? Usually Republicans protect their own. There was plenty W. didn’t know during his coaching sessions when he was running for president, but it never leaked out from staffers.

And yet, Palin still seems disturbingly unconcerned about how much she does not know.

Calling Tina Fey. Here’s Palin defending herself on the contention that she got confused about Africa:

“My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska’s investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars.”

And, she concluded, “never, ever did I talk about, well, gee, is it a country or a continent, I just don’t know about this issue.”

Palin’s father, Chuck Heath, told The Associated Press over the weekend that his daughter was “frantically” trying to sort out the clothes she got as Eliza Knowlittle so she could send them back.

“You know,” Heath said, “the kids lose underwear, and everything has to be accounted for.”

As Michael Shear reported in The Washington Post, on top of the $150,000 first cited in F.E.C. filings, Palin spent “tens of thousands of dollars” on more clothes, makeup and jewelry for herself and her family, including $40,000 in luxury goods for the First Dude. The campaign was charged for silk boxers, spray tanners and 13 suitcases to carry the designer duds, Shear reported, adding that one source said, “She was still receiving shipments of custom-designed underpinnings up to her ‘Saturday Night Live’ performance” in October. Silk boxers and custom-designed underpinnings? Sounds like Sarah and Todd were treating the vice presidential run as a second honeymoon.

Palin should follow her own reformer precedent and put the borrowed underpinnings on eBay. The windfall would undergird her new presidential bid.

Sarah really is a gift that keeps on giving…  Here’s Mr. Friedman:

Last September, I was in a hotel room watching CNBC early one morning. They were interviewing Bob Nardelli, the C.E.O. of Chrysler, and he was explaining why the auto industry, at that time, needed $25 billion in loan guarantees. It wasn’t a bailout, he said. It was a way to enable the car companies to retool for innovation. I could not help but shout back at the TV screen: “We have to subsidize Detroit so that it will innovate? What business were you people in other than innovation?” If we give you another $25 billion, will you also do accounting?

How could these companies be so bad for so long? Clearly the combination of a very un-innovative business culture, visionless management and overly generous labor contracts explains a lot of it. It led to a situation whereby General Motors could make money only by selling big, gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s and trucks. Therefore, instead of focusing on making money by innovating around fuel efficiency, productivity and design, G.M. threw way too much energy into lobbying and maneuvering to protect its gas guzzlers.

This included striking special deals with Congress that allowed the Detroit automakers to count the mileage of gas guzzlers as being less than they really were — provided they made some cars flex-fuel capable for ethanol. It included special offers of $1.99-a-gallon gasoline for a year to any customer who purchased a gas guzzler. And it included endless lobbying to block Congress from raising the miles-per-gallon requirements. The result was an industry that became brain dead.

Nothing typified this more than statements like those of Bob Lutz, G.M.’s vice chairman. He has been quoted as saying that hybrids like the Toyota Prius “make no economic sense.” And, in February, D Magazine of Dallas quoted him as saying that global warming “is a total crock of [expletive].”

These are the guys taxpayers are being asked to bail out.

And please, spare me the alligator tears about G.M.’s health care costs. Sure, they are outrageous. “But then why did G.M. refuse to lift a finger to support a national health care program when Hillary Clinton was pushing for it?” asks Dan Becker, a top environmental lobbyist.

Not every automaker is at death’s door. Look at this article that ran two weeks ago on autochannel.com: “ALLISTON, Ontario, Canada — Honda of Canada Mfg. officially opened its newest investment in Canada — a state-of-the art $154 million engine plant. The new facility will produce 200,000 fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines annually for Civic production in response to growing North American demand for vehicles that provide excellent fuel economy.”

The blame for this travesty not only belongs to the auto executives, but must be shared equally with the entire Michigan delegation in the House and Senate, virtually all of whom, year after year, voted however the Detroit automakers and unions instructed them to vote. That shielded General Motors, Ford and Chrysler from environmental concerns, mileage concerns and the full impact of global competition that could have forced Detroit to adapt long ago.

Indeed, if and when they do have to bury Detroit, I hope that all the current and past representatives and senators from Michigan have to serve as pallbearers. And no one has earned the “honor” of chief pallbearer more than the Michigan Representative John Dingell, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who is more responsible for protecting Detroit to death than any single legislator.

O.K., now that I have all that off my chest, what do we do? I am as terrified as anyone of the domino effect on industry and workers if G.M. were to collapse. But if we are going to use taxpayer money to rescue Detroit, then it should be done along the lines proposed in The Wall Street Journal on Monday by Paul Ingrassia, a former Detroit bureau chief for that paper.

“In return for any direct government aid,” he wrote, “the board and the management [of G.M.] should go. Shareholders should lose their paltry remaining equity. And a government-appointed receiver — someone hard-nosed and nonpolitical — should have broad power to revamp G.M. with a viable business plan and return it to a private operation as soon as possible. That will mean tearing up existing contracts with unions, dealers and suppliers, closing some operations and selling others and downsizing the company … Giving G.M. a blank check — which the company and the United Auto Workers union badly want, and which Washington will be tempted to grant — would be an enormous mistake.”

I would add other conditions: Any car company that gets taxpayer money must demonstrate a plan for transforming every vehicle in its fleet to a hybrid-electric engine with flex-fuel capability, so its entire fleet can also run on next generation cellulosic ethanol.

Lastly, somebody ought to call Steve Jobs, who doesn’t need to be bribed to do innovation, and ask him if he’d like to do national service and run a car company for a year. I’d bet it wouldn’t take him much longer than that to come up with the G.M. iCar.

Brooks and Herbert

November 4, 2008

Today Bobo is being a real horse’s patoot.  He typed out a whine called “A Date With Scarcity,” in which he gravely warns us that we’re probably entering a period in which smart young liberals meet a stone-cold scarcity that they do not seem to recognize or have a plan for.  Bobo, STFU please.  Mr. Herbert is looking “Beyond Election Day,” and says that as Americans go to the polls in what is probably the most important presidential election since World War II, what they really have to decide is what kind of country they want.  Here’s that inexpressibly dull tool Bobo:

Nov. 4, 2008, is a historic day because it marks the end of an economic era, a political era and a generational era all at once.

Economically, it marks the end of the Long Boom, which began in 1983. Politically, it probably marks the end of conservative dominance, which began in 1980. Generationally, it marks the end of baby boomer supremacy, which began in 1968. For the past 16 years, baby boomers, who were formed by the tumult of the 1960s, occupied the White House. By Tuesday night, if the polls are to be believed, a member of a new generation will become president-elect.

So today is not only a pivot, but a confluence of pivots.

When historians look back at the era that is now closing, they will see a time of private achievement and public disappointment. In the past two decades, the United States has become a much more interesting place. Companies like Starbucks, Apple, Crate & Barrel, Microsoft and many others enlivened daily life. Private citizens, especially young people, repaired the social fabric, dedicated themselves to community service and lowered drug addiction and teenage pregnancy.

Yet, at the same time, the public sphere has not flourished. Despite decades of affluence, longstanding issues like health care, education, energy and entitlement debt have not been adequately addressed. The baby boomers, who entered adulthood promising a lifetime of activism, have been a politically undistinguished generation. They produced two presidents, neither of whom lived up to his potential. They remained consumed by the culture war that divided their generation. They pass their political supremacy today having squandered the fat years and the golden opportunities.

Month by month, frustration has mounted. Americans are anxious about their private lives but absolutely disgusted by public leaders. So change is demanded.

Republicans nominated an old warrior with a record of making hard decisions and absorbing the blows that ensue. Many of us regard him — and always will — as one of the heroes of our time. But the public demand for change was total, and if the polls are right, voters will elect the man who breaks from the recent past in almost every way.

Barack Obama is a child of the 1960s. His mother was born only five years earlier than Hillary Clinton. For people in Obama’s generation, the great disruption had already occurred by the time they hit adulthood. Theirs is a generation of consolidation and neo-traditionalism — a generation of sunscreen and bicycle helmets, more anxious about parenthood than anything else.

Obama is not only a member of this temperate generation, but of its most educated segment. He has lived nearly his entire adult life within a few miles of one or another of the country’s top 10 universities.

His upscale, post-boomer cohort has rallied behind him with unalloyed fervor. Major college newspapers have endorsed him at a rate of 63 to 1. The upscale educated class — from the universities, the media, the law and the financial centers — has financed his $600 million campaign (which relied on big-dollar donations even more heavily than George W. Bush’s 2004 effort). This cohort will soon become the ruling class.

And the irony is that they will be confronted by the problem for which they have the least experience and for which they are the least prepared: the problem of scarcity.

Raised in prosperity, favored by genetics, these young meritocrats will have to govern in a period when the demands on the nation’s wealth outstrip the supply. They will grapple with the growing burdens of an aging society, rising health care costs and high energy prices. They will have to make up for the trillion-plus dollars the government will spend to avoid a deep recession. They will have to struggle to keep their promises to cut taxes, create an energy revolution, pass an expensive health care plan and all the rest.

As Robert J. Samuelson writes in his forthcoming book, “The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath,” “Already, Americans face far more claims on their incomes than can be easily met.”

In the next few years, the nation’s wealth will either stagnate or shrink. The fiscal squeeze will grow severe. There will be fiercer struggles over scarce resources, starker divisions along factional lines. The challenge for the next president will be to cushion the pain of the current recession while at the same time trying to build a solid fiscal foundation so the country can thrive at some point in the future.

We’re probably entering a period, in other words, in which smart young liberals meet a stone-cold scarcity that they do not seem to recognize or have a plan for.

In an age of transition, the children are left to grapple with the burdens of their elders.

Asshole.  Here’s Mr. Herbert:

Conservative commentators had a lot of fun mocking Barack Obama’s use of the phrase, “the fierce urgency of now.”

Noting that it had originated with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Senator Obama made it a cornerstone of his early campaign speeches.

Conservatives kicked the phrase around like a soccer ball. “The fierce urgency of now,” they would say, giggling. What does it mean?

Well, if your house is on fire and your family is still inside, that’s an example of the fierce urgency of now.

Something like that is the case in the United States right now as Americans go to the polls in what is probably the most important presidential election since World War II. A mind-boggling series of crises is threatening not just the short-term future but the very viability of the nation.

The economy is sinking into quicksand. The financial sector, guardian of the nation’s wealth, is leaning on the crutch of a trillion-dollar taxpayer bailout. The giant auto companies — for decades the high-powered, gas-guzzling, exhaust-spewing pride of American industry — are on life support.

As the holiday shopping season approaches, the nation is hemorrhaging jobs, the value of the family home has plunged, retirement plans are shrinking like ice cubes on a hot stove and economists are telling us the recession has only just begun.

It’s in that atmosphere that voters today will be choosing between the crisis-management skills of Senator Obama, who has enlisted Joe Biden as aide-de-camp, and those of Senator John McCain, who is riding to the rescue with Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber in tow.

As important as this choice has become, the election is just a small first step. What Americans really have to decide is what kind of country they want.

Right now the United States is a country in which wealth is funneled, absurdly, from the bottom to the top. The richest 1 percent of Americans now holds close to 40 percent of all the wealth in the nation and maintains an iron grip on the levers of government power.

This is not only unfair, but self-defeating. The U.S. cannot thrive with its fabulous wealth concentrated at the top and the middle class on its knees. (No one even bothers to talk about the poor anymore.) How to correct this imbalance is one of the biggest questions facing the country.

The U.S. is also a country in which blissful ignorance is celebrated, and intellectual excellence (the key to 21st century advancement) is not just given short shrift, but is ridiculed. Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are cultural icons. The average American watches television a mind-numbing 4 1/2 hours a day.

At the same time, our public school system is plagued with some of the highest dropout rates in the industrialized world. Math and science? Forget about it. Too tough for these TV watchers, or too boring, or whatever.

“When I compare our high schools with what I see when I’m traveling abroad,” said Bill Gates, “I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow.”

The point here is that as we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the United States is in deep, deep trouble. Yet instead of looking for creative, 21st-century solutions to these enormous problems, too many of our so-called leaders are behaving like clowns, or worse — spouting garbage in the pubic sphere that hearkens back to the 1940s and ’50s.

Thoughtful, well-educated men and women are denounced as elites, and thus the enemies of ordinary Americans. Attempts to restore a semblance of fiscal sanity to a government that has been looted with an efficiency that would have been envied by the mob, are derided as subversive — the work of socialists, Marxists, Communists.

In 2008!

In North Carolina, Senator Elizabeth Dole, a conservative Republican, is in a tough fight for re-election against a Democratic state senator, Kay Hagan. So Ms. Dole ran a television ad that showed a close-up of Ms. Hagan’s face while the voice of a different woman asserts, “There is no God!”

Americans have to decide if they want a country that tolerates this kind of debased, backward behavior. Or if they want a country that aspires to true greatness — a country that stands for more than the mere rhetoric of equality, freedom, opportunity and justice.

That decision will require more than casting a vote in one presidential election. It will require a great deal of reflective thought and hard work by a committed citizenry. The great promise of America hinges on a government that works, openly and honestly, for the broad interests of the American people, as opposed to the narrow benefit of the favored, wealthy few.

By all means, vote today. But that is just the first step toward meaningful change.

Vote.  Vote.  Vote.  Don’t let anything deter you.  Vote.

Kristol, Cohen and Krugman

November 3, 2008

That delusional neocon legacy Wrong Way Billy says “Hey Liberals, Don’t Worry.”  He excreted a little turd in which he says the bad news for liberals is that John McCain could still win the election. The good news? That wouldn’t be so terrible for them.  It’s beneath comment.  Mr. Cohen, a more rational columnist, writes about the “Republican Blues,” and says Republicans are hard-headed but not to the point they want hope banished from the national vocabulary.  Mr. Krugman, in “The Republican Rump,” says the Republicans’ long transformation into the party of the unreasonable right seems likely to accelerate as a result of the impending defeat.  Here’s that buffoon Kristol:

Barack Obama will probably win the 2008 presidential election. If he does, we conservatives will greet the news with our usual resolute stoicism or cheerful fatalism. Being conservative means never being too surprised by disappointment.

But what if John McCain pulls off an upset?

I’m worried about my compatriots on the left. Michael Powell reports in Saturday’s New York Times that even the possibility of an Obama defeat has driven many liberals into in a state of high anxiety. And then there’s a young woman from Denver who “told her boyfriend that their love life was on hold while she sweated out Mr. Obama’s performance in Colorado.” Well, what if Obama loses Colorado? Or the presidency? As a compassionate conservative, I’m concerned about the well-being of that boyfriend — and of others who might be similarly situated. I feel an obligation to help.

So let me tell liberals why they should be cheerful if McCain happens to win.

1. It would be a victory for an underdog. Liberals are supposed to like underdogs. McCain is a lonely guy standing up against an unprecedentedly well-financed, superorganized, ExxonMobil-like Obama juggernaut. A McCain upset victory would be a classic liberal happy ending.

2. It would be a defeat for the establishment. Obama’s most recent high-profile Republican endorser was D.C. insider Kenneth Duberstein. Liberals should be on the side of hard-working plumbers, not big-shot lobbyists — oops, sorry, big-shot strategic advisers and consultants. And Duberstein said that Colin Powell’s endorsement was “the Good Housekeeping seal of approval on Barack Obama.” Doesn’t that comment embody everything that liberals (and many conservatives, including me) find creepy about smug establishment back-scratching and gatekeeping in America?

3. It would be a victory for the future. With President Bush’s approval rating at about 25 percent, a McCain triumph would mean Americans were making a judgment on two future alternatives, not merely voting on the basis of their resentment at the past performance of George W. Bush. It would mean voters were looking ahead, not back. Liberals should therefore welcome a McCain win as a triumph of hope over fear, of the future over the past.

4. It would be a victory for freedom. Obama supporter Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic writes that “tyrants and génocidaires would sleep less soundly during a McCain presidency.” Liberals should be opposed to tyranny and genocide. Wieseltier also acknowledges that McCain “was splendidly right about the surge, which is not a small thing; and the grudging way Obama treats the reversal in Iraq, when he treats it at all, is disgraceful.” The surge advanced not only our national security but the cause of freedom in the world. Liberals should be votaries of freedom.

5. A McCain victory would be good for liberalism. Look at recent history. Jimmy Carter and a Democratic Congress begat Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton and a Democratic Congress produced Newt Gingrich. Who knows what would follow a President Obama and a Democratic Congress? Here’s one possibility: President Sarah Palin.

So liberals shouldn’t be too upset at the idea of McCain winning. Could it happen?

It’s possible. What if the polls, for various reasons, are overstating Obama’s support by a couple points? And what if the late deciders break overwhelmingly against Obama, as they did in the Democratic primaries? McCain could then thread the Electoral College needle.

McCain would have to win every state where he now leads or is effectively even in the polls (including North Carolina, Indiana and Missouri). He’d have to take Florida and Ohio, where he’s about four points down but where operatives on the ground give him a pretty good shot. That gets him to 247 of the 270 votes needed.

McCain’s path to victory is then to snatch Pennsylvania (which gets him to 268), and win either Virginia, Colorado, Nevada or New Mexico (states where he trails by about four to seven points) — or New Hampshire, where he’s 10 points behind but twice won dramatic primary victories.

As for Pennsylvania, two recent polls have McCain closing to within four points. Pennsylvania is the state whose small-town residents were famously patronized by Obama as “bitter.” One of Pennsylvania’s Democratic congressmen, John Murtha, recently accused many of his western Pennsylvania constituents of being racist. Perhaps Pennsylvanians will want to send a little message to the Democratic Party. And that could tip the election to McCain.

It’s an inside straight. But I’ve seen gamblers draw them.

If McCain wins, think of this column as a modest contribution to cheering up distraught liberals. If Obama prevails, I’m confident there are some compassionate liberals out there who will do the same for hapless conservatives as they hobble out to the wilderness.

It’s time for someone to adjust his medication…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Fazal Fazlin has an American story. Raised in Karachi, Pakistan, he came to the United States in 1969 with an engineering degree and little else. Now he lives on a five-acre estate in the waterfront mansion that once belonged to Nelson Poynter, luminary of the newspaper business.

Poynter, who died in 1978, was the owner of The St. Petersburg Times, a bastion of journalistic excellence and liberal tradition.

Liberalism was never Fazlin’s thing. For most of his rags-to-riches American life, he was a Nixon Republican.

“I felt Nixon was a great President,” Fazlin, a dapper 58, told me. “He opened relations with China, and that’s what kept inflation down. He had a really good command of the world.”

So perhaps it’s surprising to see “Obama for President” signs outside the Poynter-Fazlin mansion and learn that Fazlin, joining long lines of early-voting Florida residents, has already cast his ballot for the Democratic candidate after twice voting for Bush.

But I’m not surprised. Lifelong Republicans turning to Obama has been one of the themes I’ve picked up in this campaign, ever since, back in January, I ran into Bryant Jones, an Idaho-raised Republican who’d volunteered for Obama in South Carolina.

For Jones, it was disenchantment with “my-way-or-the-highway politics and the same old faces.” For Fazlin, the Republican Party has “forgotten itself.”

That phrase resonated. This election has also been about the ideological exhaustion of a party. What was John McCain’s vice-presidential pick but a Hail Sarah pass reflecting the desperation of a Republican trying to succeed Bush?

Fazlin’s Republican Party, he told me over lunch, “was for less government and it was fiscally conservative. But look at the spending under Bush. We are trillions in debt. My granddaughter will pay for that.”

His Republican Party believed in a link between hard work and reward rather than between securitized toxic mortgage loans and instant fortunes. His Republican Party believed in transactions based on reality. “I had to jump through hoops for my first mortgage,” Fazlin said.

The party’s cultural shift also troubles him. In the party he joined, the Christian Right was insignificant. He sees a link between its rise and “an attitude toward Muslims that I really don’t like. Muslim cannot mean terrorist, but some of the emails I get suggest Republicans don’t see the difference.”

A Muslim himself, Fazlin was pleased to hear another Republican-to-Obama convert, Gen. Colin Powell, say: “Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she could be president?”

American openness allowed Fazlin to make his way. He worked for Zenith in Chicago, then Control Data in Minneapolis, where he came up with “a process to change the surface energy of Teflon.”

I associate Teflon with easy-to-flip eggs, but apparently I missed something, which is probably why I’m a hack and he’s rich.

Fazlin’s breakthrough was important for circuit boards of high-speed computers. He moved on to plasma technology, founding Advanced Plasma in St. Petersburg in 1980.

Nineteen years later, he sold the company “for a few bucks,” enough to buy the Poynter estate. It was here that his far-flung family (from Pakistan, Canada and Australia) gathered for his birthday in June — and gave him the decisive prod into the Obama camp.

They asked: What’s happened to America? Why is it so heavy-handed? Why won’t it sit down, eyeball to eyeball, with its enemies and try to work things out? Fazlin considered those good questions.

He switched allegiance, helping to organize a fundraiser for Obama in Orlando. There, he met Obama and liked “the way he looked me in the eye, the way he wasn’t on a pedestal, but one of us.” He also liked Obama’s efficiency (and believes it could save the government money). They talked politics and Pakistani cuisine.

The Fazlin conversion is significant. Among Republicans flipping to Obama I’ve detected three core feelings: we have to do something different; we cannot be the party of fiscal irresponsibility; we cannot be the angry party of an “America-first” jingoism that alienates the world.

There’s something more, something unspoken. Reagan’s line was, “It’s morning again in America.” Bush has been about American dusk. Republicans are hard-headed but not to the point they want hope banished from the national vocabulary.

Enter Obama.

In Miami, I found more of the Fazlin phenomenon. Andy Gomez, an assistant professor at the University of Miami and a Cuban-American, told me his immediate family is made up of five registered Republicans and one Democrat.

Of that heavily Republican band, five, including Gomez himself, are voting Obama.

“Cuba’s not the issue,” he said. “It’s education, health care, the economy.”

Florida’s still a toss-up, but there’s Obama movement.

As Fazlin swept his Mercedes up the drive, I suggested the colonnaded mansion with its cascading bougainvillea was a Spanish colonial.

“What? I just think of it as Fazal style,” he said.

This is a great country. Hispano-Pakistani is fine. The past is prelude. Only the future counts. It looms tomorrow.

And now here’s Mr. Krugman:

Maybe the polls are wrong, and John McCain is about to pull off the biggest election upset in American history. But right now the Democrats seem poised both to win the White House and to greatly expand their majorities in both houses of Congress.

Most of the post-election discussion will presumably be about what the Democrats should and will do with their mandate. But let me ask a different question that will also be important for the nation’s future: What will defeat do to the Republicans?

You might think, perhaps hope, that Republicans will engage in some soul-searching, that they’ll ask themselves whether and how they lost touch with the national mainstream. But my prediction is that this won’t happen any time soon.

Instead, the Republican rump, the party that’s left after the election, will be the party that attends Sarah Palin’s rallies, where crowds chant “Vote McCain, not Hussein!” It will be the party of Saxby Chambliss, the senator from Georgia, who, observing large-scale early voting by African-Americans, warns his supporters that “the other folks are voting.” It will be the party that harbors menacing fantasies about Barack Obama’s Marxist — or was that Islamic? — roots.

Why will the G.O.P. become more, not less, extreme? For one thing, projections suggest that this election will drive many of the remaining Republican moderates out of Congress, while leaving the hard right in place.

For example, Larry Sabato, the election forecaster, predicts that seven Senate seats currently held by Republicans will go Democratic on Tuesday. According to the liberal-conservative rankings of the political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, five of the soon-to-be-gone senators are more moderate than the median Republican senator — so the rump, the G.O.P. caucus that remains, will have shifted further to the right. The same thing seems set to happen in the House.

Also, the Republican base already seems to be gearing up to regard defeat not as a verdict on conservative policies, but as the result of an evil conspiracy. A recent Democracy Corps poll found that Republicans, by a margin of more than two to one, believe that Mr. McCain is losing “because the mainstream media is biased” rather than “because Americans are tired of George Bush.”

And Mr. McCain has laid the groundwork for feverish claims that the election was stolen, declaring that the community activist group Acorn — which, as Factcheck.org points out, has never “been found guilty of, or even charged with” causing fraudulent votes to be cast — “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.” Needless to say, the potential voters Acorn tries to register are disproportionately “other folks,” as Mr. Chambliss might put it.

Anyway, the Republican base, egged on by the McCain-Palin campaign, thinks that elections should reflect the views of “real Americans” — and most of the people reading this column probably don’t qualify.

Thus, in the face of polls suggesting that Mr. Obama will win Virginia, a top McCain aide declared that the “real Virginia” — the southern part of the state, excluding the Washington, D.C., suburbs — favors Mr. McCain. A majority of Americans now live in big metropolitan areas, but while visiting a small town in North Carolina, Ms. Palin described it as “what I call the real America,” one of the “pro-America” parts of the nation. The real America, it seems, is small-town, mainly southern and, above all, white.

I’m not saying that the G.O.P. is about to become irrelevant. Republicans will still be in a position to block some Democratic initiatives, especially if the Democrats fail to achieve a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

And that blocking ability will ensure that the G.O.P. continues to receive plenty of corporate dollars: this year the U.S. Chamber of Congress has poured money into the campaigns of Senate Republicans like Minnesota’s Norm Coleman, precisely in the hope of denying Democrats a majority large enough to pass pro-labor legislation.

But the G.O.P.’s long transformation into the party of the unreasonable right, a haven for racists and reactionaries, seems likely to accelerate as a result of the impending defeat.

This will pose a dilemma for moderate conservatives. Many of them spent the Bush years in denial, closing their eyes to the administration’s dishonesty and contempt for the rule of law. Some of them have tried to maintain that denial through this year’s election season, even as the McCain-Palin campaign’s tactics have grown ever uglier. But one of these days they’re going to have to realize that the G.O.P. has become the party of intolerance.

Dowd, Kristof, Friedman and Rich

November 2, 2008

Ms. Dowd asks “Who’s the Question Mark?”  She says John McCain was a man of candor. But ever since Steve Schmidt became Mr. McCain’s campaign manager, the candidate has become a question mark.  Mr. Kristof thinks it’s time for the United States to “Rejoin the World.”  He says as president, George W. Bush’s cowboy diplomacy wrenched the United States out of the international community. We must rejoin the world.  Mr. Friedman, in “Vote for (  )” says that the presidential candidates have broad ideas about how to restore the nation’s financial health. But what they are not saying is that we are all going to have to pay for it.  Mr. Rich, in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” says forty-one years after Sidney Poitier’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” racial politics in America have changed, but not completely.  Here’s MoDo:

In the final moments of the most gripping campaign in modern history, John McCain is still trying to costume Barack Obama as a dangerous enigma.

But, in an odd and remarkable reversal, it is McCain who is the enigma, even though he entered the race with one of the best brands in American politics.

And it is Obama, who sashayed onto the trail two years ago as an aloof and exotic mystery man with a slim record and a strange name, now coming across as the steadier brand.

The McCain campaign specializes in erratica, while the Obama campaign continues to avoid any dramatica.

McCain pals around with Joe the Plumber and leaves Tito the Builder to Sarah Palin, exactly the kind of inane campaign silliness that the McCain formerly known as Maverick would have mocked mercilessly.

He’s getting a little traction on taxes, as he latches on to every possible scary image about Obama — except the suggestion that the Democrat’s gray Hart Schaffner Marx suits are red.

Before he was bubbled by Bushies, McCain was one of the most known and knowable quantities in American politics. For most of his long public career, he prided himself on his openness with the press — he even allowed some reporters to watch the results of January’s New Hampshire primary in his hotel suite in Nashua. He relished spending all day being challenged by voters and reporters.

Last summer, tapped out and unable to afford a paid staff of political professionals, he talked freely, telling reporters he would have a White House that would be the polar opposite of the secretive and dismissive Bush-Cheney operation. He imagined weekly press conferences and talked of subjecting himself to a version of British question time in Congress. While acknowledging he was a tech tyro, he promised to try “a Google,” as he called searching the Web, to put government spending online so citizens could bird-dog it.

He even went so far as to spin a dream of a West Wing in which he would cut back on his Secret Service so he wouldn’t feel so constrained.

In the end, “The Bullet,” or “Sarge,” as McCain calls his replacement campaign manager Steve Schmidt, was the one who did the shackling, turning the vibrant and respected McCain into a shell of his former self.

Schmidt abruptly cut off the oxygen supply to McCain’s brain. No more of the oldest established, permanent floating crap game of press confabs. No more audiences that weren’t vetted for friendliness. No more of McCain’s trademark insouciant mocking the process even as he participated in it.

Whether it was the five years he spent in a hole in Hanoi or just his gregarious makeup, McCain seemed to feed off of the company of people who interested him, be it reporters, voters or the pols in his posse, like Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham.

Unlike Obama, He Who Walks Alone, McCain always rejected the solitary in favor of the social. But ever since Sergeant Schmidt put Captain McCain into a sterile brig on the trail, the candidate has become a question mark.

Why would he repeat that oblivious line about the fundamentals of the economy being strong, saying it once in August and again in September?

Why would he threaten to not show up for a debate (after denouncing Obama for not rising to the challenge of joint town halls) so that he could go to Washington and play the shining knight if he had no plan and no prospect for success?

Why did he allow his campaign to become a host body for a Bush virus looking for someplace to infect? After working so hard to erase the image of what Senate aides called “the Bush hug,” McCain inexplicably hugged Bushies, surrounding himself with mercenaries trained in the same Rovian tactics that tore up his family — and tore apart his campaign — in 2000.

Why did a politician who once knew how to play the game so well, who was once so beloved by people of very different political stripes, allow his campaign to get whiny, angry, vengeful and bitter?

Why Palin?

(Her latest instant classics came Friday, when she entered a rally in York, Pa., to the tune of “Thriller” and when a conservative radio station broadcast an interview in which she accused reporters of threatening her First Amendment rights by attacking her for negative campaigning that she feels justifiably calls out Obama “on his associations.”)

Why did he allow his staff to put Palin on a couture catwalk in a tin-cup economy and then, when the price tags were exposed, trash her as a “diva” and “whack job,” thus becoming the rare Republican campaign devoured by Democratic-style vicious infighting?

The ultimate riddle is this: Why doesn’t McCain question why he has become a question mark?

Here’s Mr. Kristof:

An unscientific poll of 109 professional historians this year found that 61 percent rated President Bush as the worst president in American history.

A couple of others judged him second-worst, after James Buchanan, whose incompetence set the stage for the Civil War. More than 98 percent of the historians in the poll, conducted through the History News Network, viewed Mr. Bush’s presidency as a failure.

Mr. Bush’s presidency imploded not because of any personal corruption or venality, but largely because he wrenched the United States out of the international community. His cowboy diplomacy “defriended” the United States. He turned a superpower into a rogue country. Instead of isolating North Korea and Iran, he isolated us — and undermined his own ability to achieve his aims.

So here’s the top priority for President Barack Obama or President John McCain: We must rejoin the world.

There are three general ways in which we can signal a new beginning and “refriend” our allies:

• We should not only close the Guantánamo prison but also turn it into an international center for research on tropical diseases that afflict poor countries. It could thus become an example of multilateral humanitarianism.

The new president should also start a Truth Commission to investigate torture and other abuses during the “war on terror.” This should not be a bipartisan panel but a nonpartisan one, dominated by retired generals and intelligence figures like Brent Scowcroft or Colin Powell.

Such a panel would be respected as fair and authoritative in a way that one composed of bickering Democrats and Republicans would not, and it would underscore that we are eager to return to the norms of the civilized world.

• The new president also should signal that we will no longer confront problems just by blowing them up. The military toolbox is essential, but it shouldn’t be the first option for 21st-century challenges. You can’t bomb climate change.

We also have to pay far more attention to public diplomacy and outreach. Our Afghanistan and Pakistan policy is a mess in part because Osama bin Laden’s approval rating in Pakistan (34 percent) is almost double America’s (19 percent). You know we need a new approach when we lose a public relations competition to a fugitive mass murderer.

A new approach means a vigorous effort for peace in the Middle East. We also need to commit to negotiating with odious countries. President Clinton’s engagement policy toward North Korea was a constant headache, for Kim Jong Il was brutally repressive and tried to start a secret uranium program. But North Korea didn’t produce nuclear materials for a single weapon during Mr. Clinton’s years in office; under Mr. Bush, it has produced enough for a half dozen.

So here’s the score: Clinton diplomacy, 0 weapons; Bush fulmination, 6 weapons.

• We must cooperate with other countries on humanitarian efforts, including family planning. One of the Bush follies that has bewildered and antagonized our allies has been the vacuous refusal to support family planning through the United Nations Population Fund.

The upshot of the failure to support contraception has been millions of unwanted pregnancies and abortions. It’s difficult to think of any person alive today whose policies have led to more unnecessary abortions worldwide than Mr. Bush.

For all my criticisms, though, I would rank Mr. Bush more gently than those historians: I would peg him as second worst, after Buchanan. That’s because Mr. Bush has begun effective foreign-aid programs against AIDS and malaria that are saving millions of lives. His AIDS programs have transformed areas of southern Africa, but he so antagonized the world that America never gets adequate credit for this huge achievement.

Look, a friendlier, more multilateral policy will not solve the world’s problems. Iran isn’t going to give up its nuclear program because it likes us, and brawn is necessary to back up brains.

But without global political capital, we don’t have the leverage to organize more muscular persuasion. Without diplomatic heavy lifting, we can’t credibly threaten military heavy smashing.

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States led the international effort to construct global institutions to promote peace and prosperity. These included the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and they served our interests. Now, in the aftermath of the cold war, we need to rethink and refurbish this architecture for the next half century or more.

The United States needs to be a part of the International Criminal Court and should lead the push for a new climate change treaty, for example. The new president should be an architect of this emerging order, rather than AWOL as the Bush administration has been.

For eight years, the United States has been in self-imposed exile, and that is one reason Mr. Bush’s presidency has failed on so many levels. After Tuesday, let’s rejoin the world.

Mr. Kristof, we can rejoin the world in 79 days.  The current occupant has that long to continue to destroy the country.  Here’s Mr. Friedman:

Here’s what strikes me this election eve: I can’t remember a presidential campaign that was so disconnected from the actual challenges of governing that will confront the winner the morning after. When this election campaign began two years ago, the big issue was how and for how long do we continue nation-building in Iraq. As the campaign comes to a close, the big issue is how and at what sacrifice do we do nation-building in America.

Unfortunately, you’d barely know that from the presidential debates. Watching them in the context of the meltdown of the financial system was like watching a game show where the two contestants were kept off-stage in a soundproof booth and brought out to address the audience without knowing the context.

Since the last debate, John McCain and Barack Obama have unveiled broad ideas about how to restore the nation’s financial health. But they continue to suggest that this will be largely pain-free. McCain says giving everyone a tax cut will save the day; Obama tells us only the rich will have to pay to help us out of this hole. Neither is true.

We are all going to have to pay, because this meltdown comes in the context of what has been “perhaps the greatest wealth transfer since the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917,” says Michael Mandelbaum, author of “Democracy’s Good Name.” “It is not a wealth transfer from rich to poor that the Bush administration will be remembered for. It is a wealth transfer from the future to the present.”

Never has one generation spent so much of its children’s wealth in such a short period of time with so little to show for it as in the Bush years. Under George W. Bush, America has foisted onto future generations a huge financial burden to finance our current tax cuts, wars and now bailouts. Just paying off those debts will require significant sacrifices. But when you add the destruction of wealth that has taken place in the last two months in the markets, and the need for more bailouts, you understand why this is not going to be a painless recovery.

The Bush team leaves us with another debt — one to Mother Nature. We have added tons more CO2 into the atmosphere these last eight years, without any mitigation effort. As a result, slowing down climate change in the next eight years is going to require even bigger changes and investments in how we use energy.

Given that Times columnists are not allowed to “formally” endorse candidates and given that the context of this election has changed so much from the policy positions the candidates started with, all I can suggest is that you vote for the candidate with these character traits:

First, we need a president who can speak English and deconstruct and navigate complex issues so Americans can make informed choices. We have paid an enormous price for having a president who could not explain and reassure us during this financial meltdown. We wasted a huge amount of time pretending that we could punish Wall Street without punishing Main Street — when, in fact, they are intricately intertwined.

A major money market fund — Reserve Primary — failed in September because the extra interest it offered customers derived, in part, from the $785 million in high-yielding Lehman Brothers commercial paper and notes it was holding. Depositors who told their congressmen to just let that greedy Lehman Brothers fail were shocked to discover this meant that their own money market would be frozen. No, we don’t need a president defending greed on Wall Street, but we do need one who can explain that we are all in the same boat, that a leak at one end can sink everyone and that while we must regulate, we don’t want to kill risk-taking and the rewards that go with that — which are essential to growing our economy.

Second, we need a president who can energize, inspire and hold the country together during what will be a very stressful recovery. We have to climb out of this financial crisis at a time when the baby boomers are about to retire and going to need their Social Security and eventually Medicare. We are all going to be paying the government more and getting less until we grow out of this hole.

Third, we need a president who can rally the world to our side. We cannot get out of this crisis unless China starts consuming more and unless Europe keeps lowering interest rates. Everyone is interconnected, and everyone is still looking to America to lead.

So, bottom line: Please do not vote for the candidate you most want to have a beer with (unless it’s to get stone cold drunk so you don’t have to think about this mess we’re in). Vote for the person you’d most like at your side when you ask your bank manager for an extension on your mortgage.

Vote for the candidate you think has the smarts, temperament and inspirational capacity to unify the country and steer our ship through what could be the rockiest shoals our generation has ever known. Your kids will thank you.

Here’s Mr. Rich:

And so: just how far have we come?

As a rough gauge last week, I watched a movie I hadn’t seen since it came out when I was a teenager in 1967. Back then “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was Hollywood’s idea of a stirring call for racial justice. The premise: A young white woman falls madly in love with a black man while visiting the University of Hawaii and brings him home to San Francisco to get her parents’ blessing. Dad, a crusading newspaper publisher, and Mom, a modern art dealer, are wealthy white liberals — Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, no less — so surely there can be no problem. Complications ensue before everyone does the right thing.

Though the film was a box-office smash and received 10 Oscar nominations, even four decades ago it was widely ridiculed as dated by liberal critics. The hero, played by the first black Hollywood superstar, Sidney Poitier, was seen as too perfect and too “white” — an impossibly handsome doctor with Johns Hopkins and Yale on his résumé and a Nobel-worthy career fighting tropical diseases in Africa for the World Health Organization. What couple would not want him as a son-in-law? “He’s so calm and sure of everything,” says his fiancée. “He doesn’t have any tensions in him.” She is confident that every single one of their biracial children will grow up to “be president of the United States and they’ll all have colorful administrations.”

What a strange movie to confront in 2008. As the world knows, Barack Obama’s own white mother and African father met at the University of Hawaii. In “Dreams From My Father,” he even imagines the awkward dinner where his mother introduced her liberal-ish parents to her intended in 1959. But what’s most startling about this archaic film is the sole element in it that proves inadvertently contemporary. Faced with a black man in the mold of the Poitier character — one who appears “so calm” and without “tensions” — white liberals can make utter fools of themselves. When Joe Biden spoke of Obama being “clean” and “articulate,” he might have been recycling Spencer Tracy’s lines of 41 years ago.

Biden’s gaffe, though particularly naked, prefigured a larger pattern in the extraordinary election campaign that has brought an African-American to the brink of the presidency. Our political and news media establishments — fixated for months on tracking down every unreconstructed bigot in blue-collar America — have their own conspicuous racial myopia, with its own set of stereotypes and clichés. They consistently underestimated Obama’s candidacy because they often saw him as a stand-in for the two-dimensional character Poitier had to shoulder in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It’s why so many got this election wrong so often.

There were countless ruminations, in print and on television, asking the same two rhetorical questions: “Is He Black Enough?” and “Is He Tough Enough?” The implied answer to both was usually, “No.” The brown-skinned child of biracial parents wasn’t really “black” and wouldn’t appeal to black voters who were overwhelmingly loyal to the wife of America’s first “black” president. And as a former constitutional law professor, Obama was undoubtedly too lofty an intellectual to be a political street fighter, too much of a wuss to land a punch in a debate, too ethereal to connect to “real” Americans. He was Adlai Stevenson, Michael Dukakis or Bill Bradley in dark face — no populist pugilist like John Edwards.

The list of mistaken prognostications that grew from these flawed premises is long. As primary season began, we were repeatedly told that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was the most battle-tested and disciplined, with an invincible organization and an unbeatable donors’ network. Poor Obama had to settle for the ineffectual passion of the starry-eyed, Internet-fixated college kids who failed to elect Howard Dean in 2004. When Clinton lost in Iowa, no matter; Obama could never breach the “firewalls” that would wrap up her nomination by Super Tuesday. Neither the Clinton campaign nor the many who bought its spin noticed the take-no-prisoners political insurgency that Obama had built throughout the caucus states and that serves him to this day.

Once Obama wrested the nomination from Clinton by surpassing her in organization, cash and black votes, he was still often seen as too wimpy to take on the Republicans. This prognosis was codified by Karl Rove, whose punditry for The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek has been second only to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as a reliable source of laughs this year. Rove called Obama “lazy,” and over the summer he predicted that his fund-raising had peaked in February and that he’d have a “serious problem” winning over Hispanics. Well, Obama was lazy like a fox, and is leading John McCain among Hispanics by 2 to 1. Obama has also pulled ahead among white women despite the widespread predictions that he’d never bring furious Hillary supporters into the fold.

But certainly the single most revelatory moment of the campaign — about the political establishment, not Obama — arrived in June when he reversed his position on taking public financing. This was a huge flip-flop (if no bigger than McCain’s on the Bush tax cuts). But the reaction was priceless. Suddenly the political world discovered that far from being some exotic hothouse flower, Obama was a pol from Chicago. Up until then it rarely occurred to anyone that he had to be a ruthless competitor, not merely a sweet-talking orator, to reach the top of a political machine even rougher than the Clinton machine he had brought down. Whether that makes him more black or more white remains unresolved.

Early in the campaign, the black commentator Tavis Smiley took a lot of heat when he questioned all the rhetoric, much of it from white liberals, about Obama being “post-racial.” Smiley pointed out that there is “no such thing in America as race transcendence.” He is right of course. America can no sooner disown its racial legacy, starting with the original sin of slavery, than it can disown its flag; it’s built into our DNA. Obama acknowledged as much in his landmark speech on race in Philadelphia in March.

Yet much has changed for the better since the era of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” thanks to the epic battles of the civil-rights movement that have made the Obama phenomenon possible. As Mark Harris reminds us in his recent book about late 1960s Hollywood, “Pictures at a Revolution,” it was not until the year of the movie’s release that the Warren Court handed down the Loving decision overturning laws that forbade interracial marriage in 16 states; in the film’s final cut there’s still an outdated line referring to the possibility that the young couple’s nuptials could be illegal (as Obama’s parents’ marriage would have been in, say, Virginia). In that same year of 1967, L.B.J.’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, offered his resignation when his daughter, a Stanford student, announced her engagement to a black Georgetown grad working at NASA. (Johnson didn’t accept it.)

Obama’s message and genealogy alike embody what has changed in the decades since. When he speaks of red and blue America being seamlessly woven into the United States of America, it is always shorthand for the reconciliation of black and white and brown and yellow America as well. Demographically, that’s where America is heading in the new century, and that will be its destiny no matter who wins the election this year.

Still, the country isn’t there yet, and should Obama be elected, America will not be cleansed of its racial history or conflicts. It will still have a virtually all-white party as one of its two most powerful political organizations. There will still be white liberals who look at Obama and can’t quite figure out what to make of his complex mixture of idealism and hard-knuckled political cunning, of his twin identities of international sojourner and conventional middle-class overachiever.

After some 20 months, we’re all still getting used to Obama and still, for that matter, trying to read his sometimes ambiguous takes on both economic and foreign affairs. What we have learned definitively about him so far — and what may most account for his victory, should he achieve it — is that he had both the brains and the muscle to outsmart, outmaneuver and outlast some of the smartest people in the country, starting with the Clintons. We know that he ran a brilliant campaign that remained sane and kept to its initial plan even when his Republican opponent and his own allies were panicking all around him. We know that that plan was based on the premise that Americans actually are sick of the divisive wedge issues that have defined the past couple of decades, of which race is the most divisive of all.

Obama doesn’t transcend race. He isn’t post-race. He is the latest chapter in the ever-unfurling American racial saga. It is an astonishing chapter. For most Americans, it seems as if Obama first came to dinner only yesterday. Should he win the White House on Tuesday, many will cheer and more than a few will cry as history moves inexorably forward.

But we are a people as practical as we are dreamy. We’ll soon remember that the country is in a deep ditch, and that we turned to the black guy not only because we hoped he would lift us up but because he looked like the strongest leader to dig us out.

Collins, Blow and Herbert

November 1, 2008

Ms. Collins on “Our Election Whopper:” Omigosh, it’s almost here. The one and only Election Day! The best approach at this point is probably to ignore all polls. Take a deep breath. Do a little meditation.  Mr. Blow looks at “An October Demise,” and says for John McCain to have a chance, everything needed to go his way in October. It didn’t.  Mr. Herbert considers “The Known Unknowns,” and says on Tuesday the question will be answered whether economic anxiety trumps the concern that many voters might have about Barack Obama’s race.  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Omigosh! It’s almost here. The one and only Election Day! Except, of course, in the 30-odd states where voting has been going on for some time. Nov. 4 is not quite as much of an event there, although it’s still a big date, what with watching the returns and celebrating Laura Bush’s birthday, along with the increasingly popular feast of Half a Week After Halloween.

Our two-year presidential campaign now ends with a monthlong vote, followed by weeks of litigation over provisional ballots. After that, the new president is sworn in and given 100 days to accomplish his legislative agenda, after which everyone will start plotting for 2012.

It is a grand system in that great American tradition that has given us the seven-month baseball season and the half-gallon cup of soda. We have supersized the election. And why not? Barack Obama’s campaign budget is now supporting half the national economy. I don’t know how we’re going to get along without it, unless we can convince Mitt Romney to start gearing up instantly for his comeback.

Although the polls have consistently shown Obama ahead, Democrats are all afraid of the infamous Bradley effect, in which people falsely claim to be voting for a black candidate so pollsters don’t think they’re racist. In the case of this campaign, you’d have to be paranoid enough to believe the canny closet racists were also falsely assuring the pollsters that they thought Obama would do better with the economy, health insurance and bringing change to Washington, and would appoint better people to his administration than McCain. Which does seem like a lot of effort to impress a stranger on the other end of a telephone line.

The polls also suggest that Sarah Palin has, in two short months, managed to scare the pants off large portions of the population. Confidence seems to be plummeting not only in her own qualifications but in McCain’s overall ability to pick good assistants. These concerns were probably not allayed by the candidate’s promise to take Joe the Plumber to Washington with him.

It also didn’t help when former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, a McCain supporter, was asked on NPR whether Palin would be ready on day one to step in if a crisis occurred.

“Of course not,” Eagleburger responded.

This was a particularly cruel blow since Eagleburger is not just one of the five former secretaries of state that the McCain campaign constantly cites as having endorsed the ticket. He is one of the four who McCain was actually able to remember during a recent interview on “Meet the Press.”

To be fair, Eagleburger went on to qualify his statement and said that given some time in office, he thought Palin would be “adequate.” These days in the McCain camp, this may be what passes as a ringing endorsement.

Obama is going to be racing around from rally to rally over the final 96 hours — eight states in three time zones. This sort of last-minute dash around the nation is another American political tradition, which serves the dual purpose of setting a good example for the campaign workers and torturing the campaign press corps in retribution for all those months of writing down the things the candidate said.

Obama’s target audience is the 10 percent of voters who told this week’s New York Times/CBS News poll that they did not feel as if they had received enough information to make an informed decision on the presidential race. I believe we have met them before. They are the men and women who get up at a town hall meeting after the candidate had just made a 20-minute opening speech about his/her plans for health care reform, and say: “What I want to know is, what are you going to do about medical costs?” My theory is that whenever they hear someone start to discuss the issues, they cover their ears and make humming noises, the way my husband does when I say it is time to take a look at our 401(k)s.

In The Times’s poll, the percentage of respondents who said that they weren’t totally sure who they were going to vote for was almost identical to the percentage who said that they think the economy is doing well. Are they the same people? If so, perhaps they are still undecided because they are waiting to get their marching orders from well-informed friends like Abraham Lincoln, St. Catherine of Siena or Seabiscuit.

The best approach at this point is probably to ignore all polls and just wait to see what happens. Take a deep breath. Do a little meditation. Make a list of all the things you’re going to do once you no longer have to spend time worrying about who’s going to be the next president.

I personally am planning to read the Russian classics.

If it came to a choice I’d probably rather do a root canal on myself rather than read Russian classics…  Here’s Mr. Blow:

John the Contender and Sarah the Subverter limped into these last days hoping against hope. All else had failed, even McCain’s complete apostasy. Their flagging ticket had fallen in the polls, and they were praying for an upset for which there was no precedent.

According to a Gallup report released Monday, there have been only two upsets since 1952: Reagan vs. Carter in 1980 and Bush vs. Gore in 2000. Neither is particularly analogous to the current race.

In 1980, the candidates’ one and only debate was a week before Election Day. Reagan won the debate, and that turned the election. This year, McCain was drubbed in all three presidential debates. In 2000, the lead in the polls flip-flopped constantly. Gore eked out a popular vote win, but didn’t win the Electoral College. This year, McCain hasn’t held the lead in the polls since mid-September. And Obama already has enough states leaning his way to handily win the Electoral College, plus he’s either tied or leading in the toss-up states.

So McCain’s final volley was to brand Barack Obama a socialist, assail his associations and rile up the rurals. For that to work, everything else would have to fall in McCain’s favor. To say that it hasn’t is a gross understatement.

Oct. 19: Colin Powell endorses Obama.

Oct. 20: Al Qaeda endorses McCain.

Oct. 22: Sarah Palin gets smacked down for dressing up. (You know it’s hard out here when you primp.)

Oct. 23: The candidates personally reach out to a campaign volunteer who claimed that a black man had carved a backward “B” on her face during a mugging to punish her for not supporting Obama. The volunteer later confesses to fabricating the story. Scars all around.

Oct. 24: $22,800 for makeup. Wow.

Oct. 25: McCain’s people begin to turn on Palin, making her sound like the title character of a bad movie: “Whack job,” “diva,” “gone rogue.”

Oct. 28: The Pew Center reports that Obama leads among early voters by a margin of 19 percent.

Oct. 29: Obama buys a chunk of prime-time and broadcasts a love-in to himself, then he has a late-night rally with his former grudge budd Bill Clinton. It looks like a coronation. McCain responds on Larry King in a room that looks like the lobby of a funeral parlor.

Throughout October: The Republican Egghead Revolt: the party’s highbrows huff that the appeal of the Grand Old Party needs to be broader than the audience of the Grand Ole Opry. Many defect to Obama.

And there you have it — a calamity of missteps and misfortunes.

Of course, anything could happen. There are three days left. McCain could still win. And, a drunk man wearing a blindfold could get a puck past Marc-André Fleury.

Yeah, unlikely. It’s a wrap. Fade to black.

I remain cautiously optimistic.  Here’s Mr. Herbert:

All the signs are pointing to an enormous turnout.

Already, in early voting, the numbers have been huge. In Charlotte, N.C., an elderly black woman showed up at a community college eager to cast a ballot for Barack Obama. The line ahead of her was daunting — at least two hours long. She knew she could not stand for two hours, so she went home.

The next day she came back with a folding chair. She sat down at the end of the line, which was even longer than the day before. Every few minutes, as the line inched forward, the woman would get up, move her chair ahead a little bit and sit back down.

The polls show Senator Obama ahead, but there is no reliable precedent for this election. There are too many “known unknowns,” as Donald Rumsfeld might have said.

The eagerness to vote is being driven to a great extent by anxiety. The financial sector, with hundreds of billions of bailout dollars from taxpayers, is trying to emerge from a state of shock. The auto industry, a house of cards for years, is in danger of collapsing. The economy is shrinking, joblessness is soaring and financial security for all but the very rich is going the way of the video cassette recorder.

An auto worker in Michigan told me, “I’m voting for my economic life, man.”

The most significant factor vying with the economy in this election is also the greatest unknown: the race issue. The election would likely be a runaway if not for Senator Obama’s race. He’s leading, but the question is whether the poll numbers accurately reflect what is going on with the electorate.

Of all the issues thrashed about in this interminable election season, the twin towers are still the economy and race.

“I am a strong nonsubscriber to the Bradley effect,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. He was talking about the frequently mentioned phenomenon in which some percentage of white respondents supposedly tell pollsters that they are voting for a black candidate and then go into the voting booth and do otherwise.

The race issue has hurt many black candidates. But there is very little evidence to support the existence of a Bradley effect, named for Tom Bradley, a black mayor of Los Angeles who, in 1982, lost an election for governor of California that he had been expected to win.

Mr. Miringoff does not believe that significant numbers of respondents are lying to pollsters because they are fearful of being seen as racist, or for any other reason. “If you actually listen to the interview process, you would see that people are extremely eager to have their views correctly recorded,” he said.

He recalled the David Dinkins-Rudolph Giuliani race for mayor of New York in 1989 in which Mr. Dinkins, who is black, only narrowly won. “We polled on the eve of that election, Monday night,” said Mr. Miringoff, “and we saw a big shift in the numbers. The race had gotten closer. Most of the polling had stopped two or three days earlier.”

There are many reasons why Senator Obama, or any other candidate, might do better or worse on Election Day than polls suggest. Respondents lying to pollsters is probably the least likely among them.

Turnout is the big wild card this year. Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll said that trying to gauge the size of the turnout and decipher its meaning “is probably the No. 1 challenge we’re looking at.”

An exceptionally high turnout probably plays to Mr. Obama’s advantage. It would indicate that large numbers of newly registered Democratic voters, including blacks and younger voters, were showing up in droves. With a better-organized ground operation than the McCain campaign, and with lots more money to spend, the Obama forces should have an easier time getting their voters to the polls.

A huge overall turnout could also be a sign that economic anxiety has become so great across the electorate that it trumps the concern that many voters might have about Mr. Obama’s race.

A potential pitfall for Mr. Obama is the danger that voters who have not expressed a preference to pollsters end up voting heavily for John McCain. Those voters could shift the balance in potential swing states, especially those states where Mr. Obama is ahead but is not polling above 50 percent.

There is some evidence that lower-educated, less affluent white voters — a group that tends to favor Senator McCain — may be somewhat more reluctant than other groups to respond to pollsters.

The Bradley effect may not be real, but race in this election looms large. The question that will be answered Tuesday is whether a bad economy looms even larger.

I remain hopeful.  It’s a feeling I had almost forgotten about, and I’m enjoying it.

Collins, Cohen and Kristof

October 30, 2008

Ms. Collins has “The Last Week Quiz,” and says this presidential race has been a great ride, but we need to take a break. She dares us to answer her end-of-the-endless-election quiz.  Mr. Cohen considers “American Stories” and says in no other country could Barack Obama have risen so far and so fast. Such boundless possibility is what America once stood for and can stand for again.  Mr. Kristof asks “What?  Me Biased?” and says this 2008 election is a milestone and may put a black man in the White House. That creates an opportunity for an adult conversation about the complexities of race.  Here’s Ms. Collins and her quiz:

We are so ready to wrap up this presidential race. It’s been a great ride, but once you realize you’ve got the Barack Obama TV special on your to-do list next to recaulking the bathtub, you know the magic’s gone. Time to stop talking and start worrying about whether the voting machines have all their working parts.

Sarah Palin almost got me back in the ring when she suddenly attacked federal funding for scientific research that uses fruit flies. Is she a member of a fruit-fly rights group? Opposed to basic research? Or does she want to limit federal funding to labs that do all their testing on puppies?

No, I’m not going there. We need a break. Dare you to answer this end-of-the-endless-election quiz:

1. Speaking about the campaign, John McCain said: “It’s not an easy business. It’s not …

A) Mumblety-peg.

B) Beanbag.

C) Tiddledy Winks.

D) Table Skittles.

******

2. Which one of these statements did Barack Obama make while campaigning?

A) “I’ve now been in 57 states. I think one left to go.”

B) “Most of all, I believe in you, Nebraska. Or South Dakota. Or wherever I am.”

C) “We’ve come so far since we began this campaign 21 years ago.”

******

3. When Tom Brokaw asked McCain to compare himself to a movie character, McCain’s first response was to mention:

A) The entire cast of “Hoosiers.”

B) Knute Rockne, urging his team to win one for the dead Gipper.

C) The dead Gipper.

D) Leonardo DiCaprio in “Titanic,” saving the girl before going down for the third time.

E) Rocky, Rocky, Rocky, Rocky, Rocky.

******

4. Levi Johnston, Bristol Palin’s fiancé, gave an interview to The Associated Press in which he revealed that, at first, he was nervous about appearing with the Palin family at the Republican convention, but later:

A) Was excited by the chance to meet Mitt Romney.

B) “… was like, ‘Whatever.’ ”

C) Prepared by reading up on the party platform.

******

5. Which of the following did Joe Biden NOT say while he was campaigning for vice president?

A) That he hated one of Obama’s anti-McCain commercials, then retracted his criticism since he hadn’t actually seen it.

B) That Hillary Clinton “might have been a better pick than me.”

C) That to find out what Americans think, you had to walk “down Union Street with me in Wilmington and go to Katie’s Restaurant,” an eatery that has been closed for nearly 20 years. And was never on Union Street.

D) That even though he takes the Amtrak home to Delaware every night, he’s never once sat in the quiet car.

E) Asked a Missouri state senator to stand up and be recognized, apparently forgetting that the man was wheelchair-bound.

******

6. Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, struggling in the polls, released an ad that appears to have her opponent saying …:

A) “Deep in my heart, I know Elizabeth is the better choice.”

B) “There is no God.”

C) “We need to concentrate on Wall Street instead of Main Street.”

D) “The Tar Heels stink.”

******

7. Democrat Tim Mahoney of Florida, who was elected to replace the Congressional-page-obsessed Mark Foley, has now admitted to “multiple affairs” and is being investigated for allegedly paying one former lover/staff member $121,000. His campaign slogan when he ran against Foley was:

A) “Keeping Our Philandering Heterosexual.”

B) “Restoring America’s Values Begins at Home.”

C) “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”

******

8. Which of the following did Representative Charles Rangel, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, NOT do during the current campaign season?

A) Announce he was giving up a rent-stabilized apartment that he used as an office while keeping three others.

B) Explain his failure to pay taxes on rental income from a Dominican Republic vacation home by saying he got confused because his business partners kept speaking Spanish.

C) Call out to some New Yorkers who were coughing from pepper spray in the lobby of a hotel in Denver during the Democratic convention: “I’m outta here! I’ll send you cigarettes!”

D) Say of Sarah Palin’s wardrobe: “For $150,000, you’d think she’d get better shoes.”

******

9. At his final appearance before the United Nations, President George W. Bush assured world leaders that his administration was responding to the economic crisis by taking:

A) Bold steps.

B) Baby steps.

C) Another look at invading Iran.

You can find the answers after Mr. Kristof’s column.  Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

Of the countless words Barack Obama has uttered since he opened his campaign for president on an icy Illinois morning in February 2007, a handful have kept reverberating in my mind:

“For as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”

Perhaps the words echo because I’m a naturalized American, and I came here, like many others, seeking relief from Britain’s subtle barriers of religion and class, and possibility broader than in Europe’s confines.

Perhaps they resonate because, having South African parents, I spent part of my childhood in the land of apartheid, and so absorbed as an infant the humiliation of racial segregation, the fear and anger that are the harvest of hurt — just as they are, in Obama’s words, “the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.”

Perhaps they speak to me because I live in New York and watch every day a miracle of civility emerge from the struggles and fatigue of people drawn from every corner of the globe to the glimmer of possibility at the tapering edge of the city’s ruler-straight canyons.

Perhaps they move me because the possibility of stories has animated my life; and no nation offers a blanker page on which to write than America.

Or perhaps it’s simply because those 22 words cleave the air with the sharp blade of truth.

Nowhere else could a 47-year-old man, born, as he has written, of a father “black as pitch” and a mother “white as milk,” a generation distant from the mud shacks of western Kenya, raised for a time as Barry Soetoro (his stepfather’s family name) in Muslim Indonesia, then entrusted to his grandparents in Hawaii — nowhere else could this Barack Hussein Obama rise so far and so fast.

It’s for this sense of possibility, and not for grim-faced dread, that people look to America, which is why the Obama campaign has stirred such global passions.

Americans are decent people. They’re not interested in where you came from. They’re interested in who you are. That has not changed.

But much has in the last eight years. This is a moment of anguish. The Bush presidency has engineered the unlikely double whammy of undermining free-market capitalism and essential freedoms, the nation’s twin badges.

American luster is gone. The American idea has, in Joyce Carol Oates’s words, become a “cruel joke.” Americans are worrying and hurting.

So it is important to step back, from the last machinations of this endless campaign, and think again about what America is.

It is renewal, the place where impossible stories get written.

It is the overcoming of history, the leaving behind of war and barriers, in the name of a future freed from the cruel gyre of memory.

It is reinvention, the absorption of one identity in something larger — the notion that “out of many, we are truly one.”

It is a place better than Bush’s land of shadows where a leader entrusted with the hopes of the earth cannot find within himself a solitary phrase to uplift the soul.

Multiple polls now show Obama with a clear lead. But nobody can know the outcome and nobody should underestimate the immense psychological leap that sending a black couple to the White House would represent.

What I am sure of is this: an ever more interconnected world, where financial chain reactions spread with the virulence of plagues, thirsts for American renewal and a form of American leadership sensitive to humanity’s tied fate.

I also know that this biracial politician, the Harvard graduate who gets whites because he was raised by them, the Kenyan’s son who gets blacks because it was among them that mixed race placed him, is an emblematic figure of the border-hopping 21st century. He is the providential mestizo whose name — O-Ba-Ma — has the three-syllable universality of some child’s lullaby.

And what has he done? What does his experience amount to? Does his record not demonstrate he’s a radical? The interrogation continues. It’s true that his experience is limited.

But Americans seem to be trusting what their eyes tell them: temperament trumps experience and every instinct of this man, whose very identity represents an act of reconciliation, hones toward building change from the center.

Earlier this year, at the end of a road of reddish earth in western Kenya, I found Obama’s half-sister Auma. “He can be trusted,” she said, “to be in dialogue with the world.”

Dialogue, between Americans and beyond America, has been a constant theme. Last year, I spoke to Obama, who told me: “Part of our capacity to lead is linked to our capacity to show restraint.”

Watching the way he has allowed his opponents’ weaknesses to reveal themselves, the way he has enticed them into self-defeating exhaustion pounding against the wall of his equanimity, I have come to understand better what he meant.

Stories require restraint, too. Restraint engages the imagination, which has always been stirred by the American idea, and can be once again.

Here’s Mr. Kristof:

For the last year and a half, a team of psychology professors has been conducting remarkable experiments on how Americans view Barack Obama through the prism of race.

The scholars used a common research technique, the implicit association test, to measure whether people regarded Mr. Obama and other candidates as more foreign or more American. They found that research subjects — particularly when primed to think of Mr. Obama as a black candidate — subconsciously considered him less American than either Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

Indeed, the study found that the research subjects — Californian college students, many of them Democrats supportive of Mr. Obama — unconsciously perceived him as less American even than the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

It’s not that any of them actually believed Mr. Obama to be foreign. But the implicit association test measured the way the unconscious mind works, and in following instructions to sort images rapidly, the mind balked at accepting a black candidate as fully American. This result mattered: The more difficulty a person had in classifying Mr. Obama as American, the less likely that person was to support Mr. Obama.

It’s easy to be skeptical of such research, so test for your own unconscious biases at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo or at http://backhand.uchicago.edu/Center/ShooterEffect.

Race is a controversial, emotional subject in America, particularly in the context of this campaign. Many Obama supporters believe that their candidate would be further ahead if it were not for racism, while many McCain supporters resent the insinuations and believe that if Mr. Obama were white, he wouldn’t even be considered for the presidency.

Yet with race an undercurrent in the national debate, that also makes this a teachable moment. Partly that’s because of new findings both in neurology, using brain scans to understand how we respond to people of different races, and social psychology, examining the gulf between our conscious ideals of equality and our unconscious proclivity to discriminate.

Incidentally, such discrimination is not only racial. We also have unconscious biases against the elderly and against women seeking powerful positions — biases that affect the Republican ticket.

Some scholars link racial attitudes to a benefit in evolutionary times from an ability to form snap judgments about who is a likely friend and foe. There may have been an evolutionary advantage in recognizing instantaneously whether a stranger was from one’s own tribe or from an enemy tribe. There’s some evidence that the amygdala, a center in the brain for emotions, flashes a threat warning when it perceives people who look “different.”

Yet our biases are probably largely cultural. One reason to think that is that many African-Americans themselves have an unconscious pro-white bias. All told, considerable evidence suggests that while the vast majority of Americans truly believe in equality and aspire to equal opportunity for all, our minds aren’t as egalitarian as we think they are.

“To me, this study really reveals this gap between our minds and our ideals,” said Thierry Devos, a professor at San Diego State University who conducted the research on Mr. Obama, along with Debbie Ma of the University of Chicago. “Equality is very much linked to ideas of American identity, but it’s hard to live up to these ideas. Even somebody like Barack Obama, who may be about to become president — we have a hard time seeing him as American.”

A flood of recent research has shown that most Americans, including Latinos and Asian-Americans, associate the idea of “American” with white skin. One study found that although people realize that Lucy Liu is American and that Kate Winslet is British, their minds automatically process an Asian face as foreign and a white face as American — hence this title in an academic journal: “Is Kate Winslet More American Than Lucy Liu?”

One might argue that Mr. Obama registers as foreign in our minds because he does have overseas family connections, such as his father’s Kenyan ancestry. But similar experiments have found the same outcome with famous African-American sports figures.

Moreover, Professor Devos found that when participants in the latest study were told to focus on the age of each candidate, or on the political party of each candidate, then Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain were perceived as equally American. It was only when people were prompted to focus on skin color and to see Mr. Obama as black that he was perceived as foreign.

This 2008 election is a milestone and may put a black man in the White House. That creates an opportunity for an adult conversation about the murky complexities of race, in part because there’s evidence that when people become aware of their unconscious biases, they can overcome them.

And now here are the answers to Ms. Collins’ quiz:

ANSWERS: 1-B, 2-A, 3-C, 4-B, 5-D, 6-B, 7-B, 8-D, 9-A

Dowd and Friedman

October 29, 2008

MoDo’s writing fiction again.  I really wish someone at the Times would tell her that they’ll refuse to pay for her overheated fantasizing.  Today she gives us “For Your Consideration,” and has produced a “screenplay” about how in an Ohio hotel suite, two McCain aides ponder how Sarah Palin got away.  Mr. Friedman thinks they’re “Sleepless in Tehran,” and that the collapse of oil prices should give the United States leverage with Iran, but it should be used smartly.  Here’s MoDo:

THE MAVERICK WEARS PRADA
Screenplay by
Maureen Dowd
Revised third draft
© Oct. 29, 2008

FADE IN:

INT. A HOTEL SUITE — in the middle of the day in the middle of Ohio.

NICOLLE WALLACE, a slender, preppie-looking blonde wearing a string of pearls is pacing and frantically thumbing her BlackBerry. She is a top McCain adviser under STEVE SCHMIDT who has been seconded to SARAH PALIN. On the TV, MSNBC’s DAVID SHUSTER is asking ANNE KORNBLUT about rumors that PALIN has gone AWOL after McCain advisers anonymously labeled her a rogue “diva” and a “whack job.”

NICOLLE

(hissing)

How’d she get away?

TRACEY SCHMITT, another blonde sorority type in pearls, also a Bush person who became a McCain person who was then sent over to manage PALIN as her press secretary, sits slumped in a chair, dejectedly checking her BlackBerry messages.

How the heck should I know? She told me she was going to the bathroom to change out of the Jimmy Choos into something more Target for the Joe the Plumber “They’re Not Smears, They’re Just Facts” Bus Tour. She never came back. I called Todd. He’s not picking up.

NICOLLE

Steve’s freaking out. You know how he is about message discipline, much less completely losing a candidate. He’s got enough on his plate scaring the nursing-home Jews in Florida and painting Obama as a Palestinian Marxist Madrassa Child. Maybe all of those dudes painting their chests for Sarah and screaming “2012!” have her looking past the old man. Steve says he will annihilate her if she sabotages this campaign to get started on the next one, or if she plants negative stories about me — I mean McCain — with the base. Are the clothes gone from the belly of the plane?

TRACEY

It’s not like we were ever gonna return them anyway.

NICOLLE

Think like a diva. Where would you go rogue?

TRACEY

Sean Hannity’s pocket. Could he pant over her more? Or maybe she’s hiding in Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s dressing room at “The View.”

NICOLLE

She’s probably at The Weekly Standard, plotting her shining city on the tundra with Fred Barnes and Bill Kristol. I can’t believe Barnes called me a coward because I tried to update that $30 Wasilla beehive that made her look like the girlfriend in an Elvis movie and upgrade her from pleather to leather. And besides, she’s not going to find real Americans at Saks and Neiman’s. She’s got to go to Barneys and Armani for that.

TRACEY

Between us, Nicolle, she doesn’t look $150,000 different. Maybe we should have spent that money on getting Henry Kissinger to put on his snowshoes and best leer and tutor her.

NICOLLE

Look, Tracey, maybe Sarah doesn’t know who Berlusconi is, but she does know who Valentino is. She saw those labels. She knew we were being sartorial socialists and spreading the wealth to Neiman’s and Saks. She liked being pampered like a movie star. We should have learned from W. If you can keep a war off budget, why can’t you keep a wardrobe off budget? I told the press if someone wants to throw me under the bus, my personal belief is that the most graceful thing to do is lie there.

TRACEY

That’ll be the day.

NICOLLE

I’ll be glad when this blind date from hell is over and I can get away from the dysfunctional Palin clan and back to walking my dog, Lily, in Central Park with my pinko liberal friends. I knew Katie would be brutal, but thank God I arranged that interview because now I can go back to my gig as a political analyst at CBS.

TRACEY

I’m gonna miss Todd. He’s hot.

NICOLLE

I won’t miss him or his 20 calls a day playing stage dad. He’s probably the one who masterminded her breakout.

(Her BlackBerry rings to the tune of “Eye of the Tiger.”)

Uh-oh, it’s Steve.

(She listens and then hangs up.)

TRACEY

(sardonically)

Does McCain know the maverick’s maverick has gone all mavericky on him?

NICOLLE

McCain is calling off the search.

TRACEY

(shocked)

Huh?

NICOLLE

He’s fed up with her getting bigger crowds and contradicting his message. He’s fed up with her interrupting him on TV interviews and taking them over. He’s fed up with her drilling him on drilling. He’s fed up with never being able to discuss anything with her, like the latest violence in the Congo. He’s weirded out by the way she keeps trying to explain the Rapture to him. His exact words to Steve were: “For my End of Days, I’d prefer to finish the race with Lieberman.” So forget Sarah. Let’s find Joe.

TRACEY

You betcha!

(Don’t blame me for the spacing.  Just be grateful I couldn’t figure out how to change the font to match what she had…)  Here’s Mr. Friedman:

I’ve always been dubious about Barack Obama’s offer to negotiate with Iran — not because I didn’t believe that it was the right strategy, but because I didn’t believe we had enough leverage to succeed. And negotiating in the Middle East without leverage is like playing baseball without a bat.

Well, if Obama does win the presidency, my gut tells me that he’s going to get a chance to negotiate with the Iranians — with a bat in his hand.

Have you seen the reports that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is suffering from exhaustion? It’s probably because he is not sleeping at night. I know why. Watching oil prices fall from $147 a barrel to $57 is not like counting sheep. It’s the kind of thing that gives an Iranian autocrat bad dreams.

After all, it was the collapse of global oil prices in the early 1990s that brought down the Soviet Union. And Iran today is looking very Soviet to me.

As Vladimir Mau, president of Russia’s Academy of National Economy, pointed out to me, it was the long period of high oil prices followed by sharply lower oil prices that killed the Soviet Union. The spike in oil prices in the 1970s deluded the Kremlin into overextending subsidies at home and invading Afghanistan abroad — and then the collapse in prices in the ‘80s helped bring down that overextended empire.

(Incidentally, this was exactly what happened to the shah of Iran: 1) Sudden surge in oil prices. 2) Delusions of grandeur. 3) Sudden contraction of oil prices. 4) Dramatic downfall. 5) You’re toast.)

Under Ahmadinejad, Iran’s mullahs have gone on a domestic subsidy binge — using oil money to cushion the prices of food, gasoline, mortgages and to create jobs — to buy off the Iranian people. But the one thing Ahmadinejad couldn’t buy was real economic growth. Iran today has 30 percent inflation, 11 percent unemployment and huge underemployment with thousands of young college grads, engineers and architects selling pizzas and driving taxis. And now with oil prices falling, Iran — just like the Soviet Union — is going to have to pull back spending across the board. Fasten your seat belts.

The U.N. has imposed three rounds of sanctions against Iran since Ahmadinejad took office in 2005 because of Iran’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment. But high oil prices minimized those sanctions; collapsing oil prices will now magnify those sanctions. If prices stay low, there is a good chance Iran will be open to negotiating over its nuclear program with the next U.S. president.

That is a good thing because Iran also funds Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and the anti-U.S. Shiites in Iraq. If America wants to get out of Iraq and leave behind a decent outcome, plus break the deadlocks in Lebanon and Israel-Palestine, it needs to end the cold war with Iran. Possible? I don’t know, but the collapse of oil prices should give us a shot.

But let’s use our leverage smartly and not exaggerate Iran’s strength. Just as I believe that we should drop the reward for the capture of Osama bin Laden — from $50 million to one penny, plus an autographed picture of Dick Cheney — we need to deflate the Iranian mullahs as well. Let them chase us.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, compares it to bargaining for a Persian carpet in Tehran. “When you go inside the carpet shop, the first thing you are supposed to do is feign disinterest,” he explains. “The last thing you want to suggest is ‘We are not leaving without that carpet.’ ‘Well,’ the dealer will say, ‘if you feel so strongly about it …’ ”

The other lesson from the carpet bazaar, says Sadjadpour, “is that there is never a price tag on any carpet. The dealer is not looking for a fixed price, but the highest price he can get — and the Iran price is constantly fluctuating depending on the price of oil.” Let’s now use that to our advantage.

Barack Hussein Obama would present another challenge for Iran’s mullahs. Their whole rationale for being is that they are resisting a hegemonic American power that wants to keep everyone down. Suddenly, next week, Iranians may look up and see that the country their leaders call “The Great Satan” has just elected “a guy whose middle name is the central figure in Shiite Islam — Hussein — and whose last name — Obama — when transliterated into Farsi, means ‘He is with us,’ ” said Sadjadpour.

Iran is ripe for deflating. Its power was inflated by the price of oil and the popularity of its leader, who was cheered simply because he was willing to poke America with a stick. But as a real nation-building enterprise, the Islamic Revolution in Iran has been an abject failure.

“When you ask young Arabs which leaders in the region they most admire,” said Sadjadpour, they will usually answer the leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. “When you ask them where in the Middle East would you most like to live,” he added, “the answer is usually socially open places like Dubai or Beirut. The Islamic Republic of Iran is never in the top 10.”

Brooks and Herbert

October 28, 2008

Bobo is wearing his little sociologist and economist hats again today, and seeks to instruct us about “The Behavioral Revolution.”  He opines that the financial crisis may be a coming-out party for behavioral economists to the realm of public policy.  Bobo, sweetie, you’re telegraphing something by talking about a “coming-out party.”  Even in the chi-chi private school I went to back when you were still in diapers only 2 of the girls had debutante parties…  You’re much, much too young to remember the good old days my mother used to talk about.  On a saner note Mr. Herbert talks about “A Choice and an Echo,” and says the heyday of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove is over. Yet Senator John McCain handed the reins of his campaign to Mr. Rove’s worshipful acolytes.  Here’s Bobo:

Roughly speaking, there are four steps to every decision. First, you perceive a situation. Then you think of possible courses of action. Then you calculate which course is in your best interest. Then you take the action.

Over the past few centuries, public policy analysts have assumed that step three is the most important. Economic models and entire social science disciplines are premised on the assumption that people are mostly engaged in rationally calculating and maximizing their self-interest.

But during this financial crisis, that way of thinking has failed spectacularly. As Alan Greenspan noted in his Congressional testimony last week, he was “shocked” that markets did not work as anticipated. “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.”

So perhaps this will be the moment when we alter our view of decision-making. Perhaps this will be the moment when we shift our focus from step three, rational calculation, to step one, perception.

Perceiving a situation seems, at first glimpse, like a remarkably simple operation. You just look and see what’s around. But the operation that seems most simple is actually the most complex, it’s just that most of the action takes place below the level of awareness. Looking at and perceiving the world is an active process of meaning-making that shapes and biases the rest of the decision-making chain.

Economists and psychologists have been exploring our perceptual biases for four decades now, with the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, and also with work by people like Richard Thaler, Robert Shiller, John Bargh and Dan Ariely.

My sense is that this financial crisis is going to amount to a coming-out party for behavioral economists and others who are bringing sophisticated psychology to the realm of public policy. At least these folks have plausible explanations for why so many people could have been so gigantically wrong about the risks they were taking.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has been deeply influenced by this stream of research. Taleb not only has an explanation for what’s happening, he saw it coming. His popular books “Fooled by Randomness” and “The Back Swan” were broadsides at the risk-management models used in the financial world and beyond.

In “The Black Swan,” Taleb wrote, “The government-sponsored institution Fannie Mae, when I look at its risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup.” Globalization, he noted, “creates interlocking fragility.” He warned that while the growth of giant banks gives the appearance of stability, in reality, it raises the risk of a systemic collapse — “when one fails, they all fail.”

Taleb believes that our brains evolved to suit a world much simpler than the one we now face. His writing is idiosyncratic, but he does touch on many of the perceptual biases that distort our thinking: our tendency to see data that confirm our prejudices more vividly than data that contradict them; our tendency to overvalue recent events when anticipating future possibilities; our tendency to spin concurring facts into a single causal narrative; our tendency to applaud our own supposed skill in circumstances when we’ve actually benefited from dumb luck.

And looking at the financial crisis, it is easy to see dozens of errors of perception. Traders misperceived the possibility of rare events. They got caught in social contagions and reinforced each other’s risk assessments. They failed to perceive how tightly linked global networks can transform small events into big disasters.

Taleb is characteristically vituperative about the quantitative risk models, which try to model something that defies modelization. He subscribes to what he calls the tragic vision of humankind, which “believes in the existence of inherent limitations and flaws in the way we think and act and requires an acknowledgement of this fact as a basis for any individual and collective action.” If recent events don’t underline this worldview, nothing will.

If you start thinking about our faulty perceptions, the first thing you realize is that markets are not perfectly efficient, people are not always good guardians of their own self-interest and there might be limited circumstances when government could usefully slant the decision-making architecture (see “Nudge” by Thaler and Cass Sunstein for proposals). But the second thing you realize is that government officials are probably going to be even worse perceivers of reality than private business types. Their information feedback mechanism is more limited, and, being deeply politicized, they’re even more likely to filter inconvenient facts.

This meltdown is not just a financial event, but also a cultural one. It’s a big, whopping reminder that the human mind is continually trying to perceive things that aren’t true, and not perceiving them takes enormous effort.

Here’s Mr. Herbert:

It seems to have taken forever (the seasons have changed, and changed and changed again), but this long presidential campaign is finally coming to an end. In January, with snow blanketing the trail in Iowa and New Hampshire, I wrote of the Barack Obama phenomenon: “Shake hands with tomorrow. It’s here.”

I didn’t mean that Senator Obama would win the election. He still seemed like a long shot to me. But it was clear that the message, style and strategy of his campaign pointed to a new direction for American politics, and that a new generation of voters — younger, smarter, more diverse, more open-minded — was anxious to follow his lead.

I remember talking with a voter named Debra Gable, who had driven from central Vermont to attend an Obama rally in Derry, N.H. “I dislike politics,” she told me, “because we focus on our differences even though we have so many more commonalities. That’s what I think I’m hearing from Obama, so I want to see how he is in person.”

Ms. Gable had not made up her mind, and the other candidate she was seriously considering — in a Republican field that was still wide open — was John McCain.

This election is hardly over, despite the impulse of the pundits to write the McCain campaign’s obituary. But Senator McCain has diminished his chances of winning the presidency in many ways, the most important of which was his failure to grasp the most significant new trend in American politics.

With the country facing enormous problems (even before the meltdown of the credit and financial markets in recent months), the voters wanted more substance from their candidates. They wanted a greater sense of maturity and a more civil approach to campaigning. They were tired of the politics of personal destruction and the playbook that counseled “attack, attack, attack.”

Senator Obama was perfectly suited to this new approach. He told the crowd that trekked through the cold and snow to hear his victory speech at the Iowa caucuses:

“You said the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that’s consumed Washington. To end the political strategy that’s been all about division, and instead make it about addition. To build a coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states.”

John McCain didn’t get it. He seemed as baffled by the new politics as an Al Jolson aficionado trying to make sense of the Beatles.

He answered the desire for a higher tone in politics with ads that likened Senator Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and with attacks that questioned Mr. Obama’s patriotism, blamed him for high gasoline prices and all-but-accused him of being a socialist.

Mr. Obama, said Mr. McCain, would convert the Internal Revenue Service into “a giant welfare agency.”

Get it?

Whether this is admirable or honorable is not the question here. In the current political and economic atmosphere, it seems very much like a roadmap to defeat.

The heyday of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove is over. Yet Senator McCain handed the reins of his campaign to Rove’s worshipful acolytes. With the nation in a high state of anxiety over the conflagration in the credit and financial markets, Senator McCain traveled the country ranting Rovelike about Bill Ayers, trying to instill a bogus belief that the onetime ’60s radical and Senator Obama were good buddies and perhaps involved in some nefarious doings together. Senator Obama was about 8 years old when Mr. Ayers was engaged in his nefarious doings.

It was the classic fear card that the Republicans have played to such brilliant effect for years. But times have changed. (Lately Senator McCain has been obsessively invoking the name of “Joe the Plumber” at his campaign appearances, as if that might be the phrase that finally sways the electorate in a way that the Bill Ayers mantra did not.)

Senator Hillary Clinton helped define the new political atmosphere with her own historic run for the White House. Senator McCain, demonstrating again his tone-deafness to the new reality, tried to capitalize on Mrs. Clinton’s remarkable achievement by cynically selecting Sarah Palin, the anti-Hillary, as his running mate.

Mr. McCain must never have noticed that the public turned overwhelmingly against the Bush administration because of its repeatedly demonstrated incompetence. Now here is Senator McCain, in the midst of a national crisis, with a running mate who is demonstrably incompetent to serve the nation as its president.

Ms. Palin is a walking affront to the many Republican women (not to mention women in general) who are, in fact, qualified to hold the highest office in the land.

John McCain could have traveled a higher road. He chose not to. He bet instead on one last gasping triumph of the politics of the past.

Warner, Friedman, Egan and Kristof

October 26, 2008

Today the Times has opened the floodgates and we have 9 columnists, so I’m breaking them down into 2 sections.  Judith Warner writes about “No Ordinary Woman,” and says Sarah Palin is a woman who is able to be promoted on the kinds of attributes that were once the exclusive province of unremarkable white men.  I think by “unremarkable” she’s being polite and not saying “ignorant.”  She does have lovely manners.  Mr. Friedman ponders “If Larry and Sergey Asked for a Loan….” and suggests we can only grow our way out of this crisis — with more innovation and entrepreneurship, which create new businesses and better jobs.  Mr. Egan writes about “The Party of Yesterday,” and says Republicans have been insinuating for years that some of the brightest, most productive communities in the United States are fake American.  Mr. Kristof, in “The Endorsement From Hell,” says the endorsement of John McCain by a Web site linked to Al Qaeda isn’t a surprise. Four more years of blindness to nuance in the Muslim world is an excellent recruiting tool.  Here’s Ms. Warner:

In 1977, Bella Abzug, the former congresswoman and outspoken feminist, said, “Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.”

In other words: women will truly have arrived when the most mediocre among us will be able to do just as well as the most mediocre of men.

By this standard, the watershed event for women this year was not Hillary Clinton’s near ascendancy to the top of the Democratic ticket, but Sarah Palin’s nomination as the Republicans’ No. 2.

For Clinton was a lifelong overachiever, a star in a generational vanguard who clearly took to heart the maxim that women “must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good,” and in so doing divorced herself from the world of the merely average. In that, she was not unlike Barack Obama — taxed by his race to be twice as reassuring, twice as un-angry, twice as presidential as any white candidate.

Mediocrity, after all, is the privilege of those who have arrived.

Palin is a woman who has risen to national prominence without, apparently, even remotely being twice as good as her male competitors. On the contrary, her claim to fame lies in her repudiation of Clinton-type exceptionalism.

She speaks no better — and no worse — than many of her crowd-pleasing male peers, dropping her g’s, banishing “who” in favor of “that,” issuing verbal blunders that linger just long enough to make their mark in the public mind before they’re winked away in staged apologies.

She is a woman who is able to not only get by but also be quickly promoted on the kinds of attributes that were once the exclusive province of unremarkable white men: rapport, the right looks or connections, an easy sort of familiarity.

In the days leading up to Palin’s pick as vice-presidential nominee, according to an article in The New York Times Magazine today, Rick Davis, who is John McCain’s campaign manager, said a friend had told him how best to choose a running mate: “You get a frame of Time magazine, and you put the pictures of the people in that frame. You look at who fits that frame best — that’s your V.P.”

Donny Deutsch, the ad executive turned talk show host, put it less elegantly on CNBC right after the Republican convention. “Women want to be her, men want to mate with her,” he said, describing Palin as a “new creation that the feminist movement has not figured out in 40 years.”

And this was the crux of the Palin Phenomenon: she was a breakthrough woman who threatened no one.

The McCain crowd would have you believe that Palin is the perfect representation of the post-feminist woman, a candidate whose very existence marks the end of feminism — of the old “liberal feminist agenda,” as McCain himself has put it — and the start of a more global kind of triumph for the great mass of women.

Just as some young women in recent years have argued that appearing topless on “Girls Gone Wild” is an act of sexual liberation, putting an untested Alaskan governor on the road to the White House was spun as a sign of the arrival of real, hot-blooded women into the mainstream of power.

But the finer points of what it takes for real women to make progress in seizing power don’t seem much to trouble Palin.

“Someone called me a ‘redneck woman’ once, and you know what I said back? ‘Why, thank you,’” she told the country singer Gretchen Wilson at a recent Republican rally.

I guess Palin has never seen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” music video, which, in addition to images of an attractive Wilson driving a variety of fuel-inefficient vehicles, features a couple of stripper-styled babes dancing in cages, one of which is made of chains.

With her five children, successful political career, $1.2 million net worth and beauty pageant looks, Sarah Palin is really not an average woman, much less the worthy schlemiel envisioned by Abzug. She’s actually, as Colin Powell carefully said, quite “distinguished” — for her looks, her grace and charm, her ability to connect with an audience, her ambition and her drive. Those are admirable, even enviable qualities. But the American public, defecting from the McCain ticket in a slow bleed, is clearly not convinced that they amount to vice-presidential qualifications.

Seems like “real America” wants something more than a wife, mother or girlfriend in a female political leader.

Maybe we’ve come a long way after all.

But, but, but Wee Billy Kristol thinks she’s da bomb…  Here’s Mr. Friedman:

The hardest thing about analyzing the Bush administration is this: Some things are true even if George Bush believes them.

Therefore, sifting through all his steps and missteps, at home and abroad, and trying to sort out what is crazy and what might actually be true — even though George Bush believes it — presents an enormous challenge, particularly amid this economic crisis.

I felt that very strongly when listening to President Bush and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson announce that the government was going to become a significant shareholder in the country’s major banks. Both Bush and Paulson were visibly reluctant to be taking this step. It would be easy to scoff at them and say: “What do you expect from a couple of capitalists who hate any kind of government intervention in the market?”

But we should reflect on their reluctance. There may be an important message in their grimaces. The government had to step in and shore up the balance sheets of our major banks. But the question I am asking myself, and I think Paulson and Bush were asking themselves, is this: “What will this government intervention do to the risk-taking that is at the heart of capitalism?”

There is a fine line between risk-taking and recklessness. Risk-taking drives innovation; recklessness drives over a cliff. In recent years, we had way too much of the latter. We are paying a huge price for that, and we need a correction. But how do we do that without becoming so risk-averse that start-ups and emerging economies can’t get capital because banks with the government as a shareholder become exceedingly cautious.

Let’s imagine this scene: You are the president of one of these banks in which the government has taken a position. One day two young Stanford grads walk in your door. One is named Larry, and the other is named Sergey. They each are wearing jeans and a T-shirt. They tell you that they have this thing called a “search engine,” and they are naming it — get this — “Google.” They tell you to type in any word in this box on a computer screen and — get this — hit a button labeled “I’m Feeling Lucky.” Up comes a bunch of Web sites related to that word. Their start-up, which they are operating out of their dorm room, has exhausted its venture capital. They need a loan.

What are you going to say to Larry and Sergey as the president of the bank? “Boys, this is very interesting. But I have the U.S. Treasury as my biggest shareholder today, and if you think I’m going to put money into something called ‘Google,’ with a key called ‘I’m Feeling Lucky,’ you’re fresh outta luck. Can you imagine me explaining that to a Congressional committee if you guys go bust?”

And then what happens if the next day the congressman from Palo Alto, who happens to be on the House banking committee, calls you, the bank president, and says: “I understand you turned down my boys, Larry and Sergey. Maybe you haven’t been told, but I am one of your shareholders — and right now, I’m not feeling very lucky. You get my drift?”

Maybe nothing like this will ever happen. Maybe it’s just my imagination. But maybe not …

“Government bailouts and guarantees, while at times needed, always come with unintended consequences,” notes the financial strategist David Smick. “The winners: the strong, the big, the established, the domestic and the safe — the folks who, relatively speaking, don’t need the money. The losers: the new, the small, the foreign and the risky — emerging markets, entrepreneurs and small businesses not politically connected. After all, what banker in a Capitol Hill hearing now would want to defend a loan to an emerging market? Yet emerging economies are the big markets for American exports.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am not criticizing the decision to shore up the banks. And we must prevent a repeat of the reckless bundling and securitizing of mortgages, and excessive leveraging, that started this mess. We need better regulation. But most of all, we need better management.

The banks that are surviving the best today, the ones that are buying others and not being bought — like JPMorgan Chase or Banco Santander, based in Spain — are not surviving because they were better regulated than the banks across the street but because they were better run. Their leaders were more vigilant about their risk exposure than any regulator required them to be.

Bottom line: We must not overshoot in regulating the markets just because they overshot in their risk-taking. That’s what markets do. We need to fix capitalism, not install socialism. Because, ultimately, we can’t bail our way out of this crisis. We can only grow our way out — with more innovation and entrepreneurship, which create new businesses and better jobs.

So let’s keep our eyes on the prize. Save the system, install smart regulations and get the government out of the banking business as soon as possible so that the surviving banks can freely and unabashedly get back into their business: risk-taking without recklessness.

Here’s Mr. Egan, writing from Seattle:

Two years ago, a list of the nation’s brainiest cities was put together from Census Bureau reports — that is, cities with the highest percentage of college graduates, which is not the same as smart, of course.

These are vibrant, prosperous places where a knowledge economy and cool things to do after hours attract people from all over the country. Among the top 10, only two of those metro areas — Raleigh, N.C., and Lexington, Ky. — voted Republican in the 2004 presidential election.

This year, all 10 are likely to go Democratic. What’s more, with Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia now trending blue, Republicans stand to lose the nation’s 10 best-educated states as well.

It would be easy to say these places are not the real America, in the peculiar us-and-them parlance of Sarah Palin. It’s easy to say because Republicans have been insinuating for years now that some of the brightest, most productive communities in the United States are fake American — a tactic that dates to Newt Gingrich’s reign in the capitol.

Brainy cities have low divorce rates, low crime, high job creation, ethnic diversity and creative capitalism. They’re places like Pittsburgh, with its top-notch universities; Albuquerque, with its surging Latino middle class; and Denver, with its outdoor-loving young people. They grow good people in the smart cities.

But in the politically suicidal greenhouse that Republicans have constructed for themselves, these cities are not welcome. They are disparaged as nests of latte-sipping weenies, alt-lifestyle types and “other” Americans, somehow inauthentic.

If that’s what Republicans want, they are doomed to be the party of yesterday.

Not only are we becoming more urban as a nation, but we’re headed for an ethnic muddle that could further shrink the party of small-mindedness. By 2023, more than half of all American children will be minority, the Census Bureau projects.

Ronald Reagan was lashed by liberals for running a “Morning in America” campaign, but he knew this country, at heart, was always tomorrow-looking — and he fared very well in educated cities as well as small towns. “Whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone,” said Reagan, “I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears.” Barack Obama, who brings that music to the stage, leads by 30 points on the “hope and optimism” question in polls.

Spurning the Reagan lesson, John McCain made a fatal error in turning his campaign over to the audience of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. In so doing, he chose the unbearable lightness of being Sarah Palin, trotted out Paris Hilton and labeled Obama a socialist who associates with terrorists.

At a recent Palin rally, the crowd started chanting, “We want Fox!” McCain has given them just that. But how isolated and out-of-touch is this audience? At the end of each debate, a sure-fire way to decide who won was to look at the Fox viewers poll — typically showing a landslide for McCain. Within a day, scientific surveys found big wins for Obama.

Whether Americans are real or fake, they can see through Palin, a woman who couldn’t correctly answer a third grader a few days ago when asked to explain the duties of vice president. Somewhere, between the shuffling to costume and accessorize Palin with a $150,000 wardrobe, her handlers never handed her a copy of the Constitution.

Republicans blow off the smart cities with the counterargument that they win the exurbs — the frontier of new homes, young families and the fresh middle class. And it’s true, in 2004, George Bush won 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in America.

That will not happen this year. Polls show McCain is losing 20 percent of self-described moderate Republicans. And new registration figures and other polls indicate that Obama will likely win such iconic exurban centers as Washoe County, Nev., Loudoun County, Va., and Wake County, N.C.

But in the kind of pattern that has held true since McCain went over to the stupid side, his brother recently referred to suburban northern Virginia as “communist country” and a top adviser, Nancy Pfotenhauer, said it was not “real Virginia.”

Here in Seattle, it’s become a one-party city, with a congressman for life and nodding-head liberals who seldom challenge a tax-loving city government. It would be nice, just to keep the philosophical debate sharp, if there were a few thoughtful Republicans around.

That won’t happen so long as Republicans continue to be the party of yesterday. They’ve written the cities off. Fake Americans don’t count, but this Election Day, for once, they will not feel left out.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

John McCain isn’t boasting about a new endorsement, one of the very, very few he has received from overseas. It came a few days ago:

“Al Qaeda will have to support McCain in the coming election,” read a commentary on a password-protected Islamist Web site that is closely linked to Al Qaeda and often disseminates the group’s propaganda.

The endorsement left the McCain campaign sputtering, and noting helplessly that Hamas appears to prefer Barack Obama. Al Qaeda’s apparent enthusiasm for Mr. McCain is manifestly not reciprocated.

“The transcendent challenge of our time [is] the threat of radical Islamic terrorism,” Senator McCain said in a major foreign policy speech this year, adding, “Any president who does not regard this threat as transcending all others does not deserve to sit in the White House.”

That’s a widespread conservative belief. Mitt Romney compared the threat of militant Islam to that from Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Some conservative groups even marked “Islamofascism Awareness Week” earlier this month.

Yet the endorsement of Mr. McCain by a Qaeda-affiliated Web site isn’t a surprise to security specialists. Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism director, and Joseph Nye, the former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, have both suggested that Al Qaeda prefers Mr. McCain and might even try to use terror attacks in the coming days to tip the election to him.

“From their perspective, a continuation of Bush policies is best for recruiting,” said Professor Nye, adding that Mr. McCain is far more likely to continue those policies.

An American president who keeps troops in Iraq indefinitely, fulminates about Islamic terrorism, inclines toward military solutions and antagonizes other nations is an excellent recruiting tool. In contrast, an African-American president with a Muslim grandfather and a penchant for building bridges rather than blowing them up would give Al Qaeda recruiters fits.

During the cold war, the American ideological fear of communism led us to mistake every muddle-headed leftist for a Soviet pawn. Our myopia helped lead to catastrophe in Vietnam.

In the same way today, an exaggerated fear of “Islamofascism” elides a complex reality and leads us to overreact and damage our own interests. Perhaps the best example is one of the least-known failures in Bush administration foreign policy: Somalia.

Today, Somalia is the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster, worse even than Darfur or Congo. The crisis has complex roots, and Somali warlords bear primary blame. But Bush administration paranoia about Islamic radicals contributed to the disaster.

Somalia has been in chaos for many years, but in 2006 an umbrella movement called the Islamic Courts Union seemed close to uniting the country. The movement included both moderates and extremists, but it constituted the best hope for putting Somalia together again. Somalis were ecstatic at the prospect of having a functional government again.

Bush administration officials, however, were aghast at the rise of an Islamist movement that they feared would be uncooperative in the war on terror. So they gave Ethiopia, a longtime rival in the region, the green light to invade, and Somalia’s best hope for peace collapsed.

“A movement that looked as if it might end this long national nightmare was derailed, in part because of American and Ethiopian actions,” said Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College. As a result, Islamic militancy and anti-Americanism have surged, partly because Somalis blame Washington for the brutality of the Ethiopian occupiers.

“There’s a level of anti-Americanism in Somalia today like nothing I’ve seen over the last 20 years,” Professor Menkhaus said. “Somalis are furious with us for backing the Ethiopian intervention and occupation, provoking this huge humanitarian crisis.”

Patrick Duplat, an expert on Somalia at Refugees International, the Washington-based advocacy group, says that during his last visit to Somalia, earlier this year, a local mosque was calling for jihad against America — something he had never heard when he lived peacefully in Somalia during the rise of the Islamic Courts Union.

“The situation has dramatically taken a turn for the worse,” he said. “The U.S. chose a very confrontational route early on. Who knows what would have happened if the U.S. had reached out to moderates? But that might have averted the disaster we’re in today.”

The greatest catastrophe is the one endured by ordinary Somalis who now must watch their children starve. But America’s own strategic interests have also been gravely damaged.

The only winner has been Islamic militancy. That’s probably the core reason why Al Qaeda militants prefer a McCain presidency: four more years of blindness to nuance in the Muslim world would be a tragedy for Americans and virtually everyone else, but a boon for radical groups trying to recruit suicide bombers.

Here endeth Part I of the day’s columnists.