Wednesday, April 30, 2008

(Not) Angry White Males

Those guys that Obama says “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” — aren’t they the same as the “angry white males” of nearly 15 years ago?

Back then, angry white males were lionized by the hard right, after their votes in the 1994 midterm elections supposedly helped Republicans gain control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1946.

It was the year of Proposition 187, when immigration — legal and illegal — was as big an issue as it was in 2007. Paleoconservatives, like Pat Buchanan, thought they were fighting a culture war (ah, for the pre-neocon days of pretend wars). And two years of Bill and Hillary in the White House seemed more than red-blooded Americans could bear.

So, people wore T-shirts that bragged they were angry, white and male. AWMs claimed they were simply taking back their country (“this once great country,” they loved to say) from liberals who wanted to ban guns, teach evolution in classrooms and flood America with foreigners.

Like someone put it recently, they clung to guns, religion and antipathy to people who weren’t like them.

Except that angry white maleness was, and still can be, a boast. In contrast, Obama had to apologize.

Is that wrong? Obama and the 1994 Republicans were talking about the same group of people: working-class, white, non-Hispanic Americans who felt threatened by changes that made this society more liberal and more ethnically diverse.

One difference is what each meant about that group. Republicans of the Newt Gingrich era believed AWMs were correct to feel threatened. Obama feels Ivy League contempt for the same crowd: small-minded small-towners.

Another difference is born of political necessity. Gingrich Republicans had no need to differentiate between truly angry blue-collar whites and blue-collar whites who did not feel very threatened — Republicans had the former group all to themselves, and there was little they could have done to drive away the latter, who, in that election, would have voted Republican no matter what.

Meanwhile, Obama needs to work harder at not driving away working-class Americans who are not black, and who do not walk around in a rage. He gives the impression that he thinks blue-collar white equals racist white.

And blue-collar whites don’t like it.

In the Pennsylvania primary, Hillary Clinton won 64 percent of high-school graduates who did not go to college; 62 percent of gun owners; 59 percent of voters in union households; 57 percent of voters earning $50,000-75,000 annually.

Bowling gutter balls and drinking beer did not help.

And look who his opponent was. In what other election could Hillary Clinton win the gun-owners’ vote?

It will be a major weakness in the general election, assuming Obama wins the Democratic nomination.

If Obama cannot hold on to a reasonable number of white, working-class voters in a race against Clinton, he will do much worse against a Republican. It’s not a matter of expecting Obama to win a majority of that electorate, it’s a matter of Obama not letting McCain squash him.

Likewise, Obama has been having trouble with Hispanic voters, while McCain is the Republican less likely to drive Hispanics away. McCain himself surely knows he won’t win the Hispanic vote outright. But the way things are now, an Obama candidacy is McCainbest shot at coming close to the 40 percent of the Hispanic vote that Bush got in 2004.

Hispanics, and those non-angry white males, may be the key to the 2008 election.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Cuban Economic Changes Not Enough

Admiral James Stavridis, head of the U.S. Southern Command, told a congressional committee this week that we need to watch if the changes in Raúl Castro’s Cuba are “sincere” or just “cosmetic.”

Admiral, you bet that the changes are sincere — as far as the economy.

With Fidel Castro bedridden and apparently reduced to venting in a newspaper column, Raúl and his people have been able to lift their heads, look at the world around them and realize that absurd laws like not letting people buy cell phones make Cuba the laughingstock of the world.

Without the heavy weight of Fidel right on top of them, these guys came to the realization (or, more likely, were finally able to act on the realization) that Cuba will be forever condemned to backwardness — unless some of the extreme economic prohibitions are abolished.

That explains the fast pace of economic reforms in the two months after Fidel Castro officially ceded power to his younger brother.

Cubans can now freely buy not only cell phones, but also computers and domestic appliances like air conditioners and toasters; they can get title to their homes, once held by the state; on vacation, they can stay at hotels and resorts previously reserved for foreigners; at work, they may now practice that quaint capitalist ritual known as asking the boss for something called a “raise.”

These changes are a reminder of how bad things had gotten.

“You mean Cubans couldn’t just walk into a store and buy a radio?” No, they could not — they had to wait their turn until the government assigned them one.

“You mean Cubans couldn’t stay in the best hotels in their own country?” No, they could not, except that if they brought a foreigner, they were allowed in.

In some ways, the reforms are meaningless. Few Cubans can afford a cell phone, to say nothing of an air conditioner or a $600 weekend (and that’s just for the room) at the Melia Varadero hotel. Few employers can afford to pay workers more, even if it’s now legal to do so. And as for holding title to your property — well, it’s nice to have that piece of paper, but you are not allowed to sell the house you own.

Still, the mere fact that more economic liberalization has taken place in the last two months than in the past 50 years is significant, even if such reform is on the books and not so much in practice.

Cuba’s new rulers are undoubtedly “sincere” about moving the country’s economy into the 20th century, now that we are eight years into the 21st. They cannot hide from five decades of disastrously dogmatic communism that made the Cuban economy into a ruin. Maybe they can start catching up to Haiti — most people there can’t afford a cell phone either, but at least it isn’t illegal to buy one. Well, at least Cuba’s economy is moving in the right direction.

That is not something you can say about Cuba’s politics. Raúl’s Havana has not moved one inch in the direction of democratic pluralism.

There is nothing resembling an independent judiciary or free elections. Only one political party is permitted to take part in elections — or even exist.

Neither is there freedom of expression — all media are owned and operated by the government, which will harass or imprison people who print unauthorized publications, run a Web site or merely speak up in public to protest the absence of freedoms. Nineteen journalists are still imprisoned for committing free expression, five years after the “Black Spring” crackdown. Criticizing the system is considered an act of subversion.

And lest anyone think Raúl is a closet Democrat, an editorial this week in Granma, “Official Organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba,” said that “there will be no room for subversion in Cuba.”

It was an attack on exiles in Miami who support Cuba’s always-harassed, in-and-out-of-jail dissidents. In Havana last week, some of the best-known ones announced an “Agenda for the Transition,” and called for national reconciliation.

If the Raúl crowd is sincere in modernizing the economy, it is just as sincere in avoiding democracy. Instead of praising the regime for reform that is merely economic, the international community must ratchet up the pressure for political change. It can unleash a demand for freedom from inside Cuba that the regime cannot control.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

After “Enforcement First,” What Comes Second?

“Enforcement first.”

It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? I mean, with all those illegal immigrants running around, the last thing we want is enforcement last ... right?

The phrase sounds so forcefully no-nonsense that 10 Republican senators last month formed something called the “Border Security and Enforcement First Caucus.”

The group wants to “let Americans know that some in the U.S. Senate are continuing to make sure that the laws already on the books will be enforced ... push for stronger border security and interior enforcement legislation, and work together in the U.S. Senate to defeat future legislation that offers amnesty.”

That’s not “enforcement first,” which even in its law-’n’-orderish bluntness implies there’s something that comes second. No, what these guys want is enforcement only.

And that is going to fail. Significantly, none of the founding members is from a border state.
That’s because a lot of people near the border know that building fences and raiding restaurant kitchens are not going to solve the problem. Only comprehensive immigration reform, combined with sensible enforcement, can significantly lower the number of illegal entries or even begin to do anything about the more than 12 million people living and working in the United States illegally.

The fence, in particular, is a colossal waste of money. Like New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has said, “If you’re going to build a 12-foot wall, you know what’s going to happen? A lot of 13-foot ladders.” That is what people do when they can earn far more money to feed their families on the other side of the fence.

Yet the Bush administration, which supported comprehensive reform before going weak in the knees after too many punches from the right, insists on spending nobody-really-knows-how-much on a border wall. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office last year estimated it would cost $2.1 billion for 700 miles, and more recently the Congressional Research Service (which works under the Library of Congress and also is nonpartisan) said maintenance over a projected 25-year life span of the fence could run as much as $49 billion. And that’s for 700 miles, remember, out of a border that’s nearly 2,000 miles long.

The rush to squander that money has reached such a frenetic pace that last week Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary, waived any and all laws that might slow “the expeditious construction of barriers,” claiming that Congress gave him the authority to ignore any regulation he doesn’t like, including those that protect the environment as well as those that protect private property.
So, the United States government will disrupt wildlife, trample landowners’ property rights, and make itself look like an East Germany in reverse, all to spend untold billions on a border wall most would-be illegal immigrants will get past anyway. And that’s to say nothing of people who entered through legal means then overstayed their visas — border fences will have zero effect on the 40 percent of illegal immigrants expected to come in like that.

If somebody can point to a domestic policy that is more fraudulent, please let me know. At least it’s a good time to invest in companies that make 13-foot ladders.

This monument to politicians’ desperation to look like they’re doing something about illegals is a result of last year’s failure to pass a comprehensive immigration-reform bill. The legislation, a version of a bill originally co-sponsored by John McCain and Ted Kennedy, called for almost 14,000 new Border Patrol agents during the next five years, more electronic surveillance, tougher sanctions for employers who hire the undocumented and a requirement for tamper-resistant, biometric green cards.

But it was not enforcement-only: The bill allowed people here illegally to become citizens if they had no criminal record, paid a fine and went to the back of the line. An earlier version also increased the number of people permitted to come, raising legal immigration to a level more in tune with the demands of the economy.

After reform went down in Congress even McCain started talking about enforcement first. Nearly a year later, all we have is plans for a wall.
Well, doesn’t that look like “enforcement first” already won? And if we already got it, will the Senator from Arizona speak to what comes second?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What Does McCain Know, and When did he Know It?

One of my first thoughts after the shock of seeing the World Trade Center come down was, “I’m glad there is a Republican in the White House.”

You remember how it went. Everybody wanted military action. And national security was a Republican specialty. So the whole country and pretty much the entire world got behind George W. Bush.

One year later, I was already sorry there was a Republican in the White House.

“[After the attacks] the international community grieved with the horrified citizens of the United States ... Washington had a historic opportunity to enlist the world in a campaign against terror, an exceptional moment in history,” I wrote on Sept. 11, 2002, a time when the Republican in the White House, and the one in the Pentagon, were blustering their way into the Iraq disaster

“[M]uch of that good will and cooperation is gone overseas, thanks in no small part to the Bush administration’s inability to see the United States in a global context -- as the only superpower, yes, but still as a part of the international community, part of the larger world beyond America’s borders.”

It’s been downhill from there. A BBC poll said this week that in 34 nations surveyed, 35 percent of respondents said the United States had a positive influence on world affairs, and 47 percent said it had a negative influence. We did not do as well as Russia and China. But hey, we beat North Korea and Iran.

And it was an improvement. The year before, the negative rating was five points higher and the positive four points lower. Why the change? Steven Kull, of the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (which helped conduct the survey) told the BBC that “as the U.S. approaches a new presidential election, views of the U.S. are being mitigated by hope that a new administration will move away from the foreign policies that have been so unpopular in the world.”

The move away from those policies is a given if a Democrat wins. But what if it’s John McCain this November?

McCain has, in more than one prepared speech, acknowledged that over-reliance in the unilateral use of American military strength has grievously damaged American interests.

“[T]he United States cannot lead by virtue of its power alone,” he said in a speech last week in Los Angeles “We must be strong politically, economically, and militarily. But we must also lead by attracting others to our cause, by demonstrating once again the virtues of freedom and democracy, by defending the rules of international civilized society and by creating the new international institutions necessary to advance the peace and freedoms we cherish.”

The speech has been seen as a repudiation of what the Bush team did for the past eight years, but McCain has been saying this kind of thing for a while. A year ago he said at VMI, “The many complex challenges we face require more than a military response. This is a contest of ideas and values as much as it is one of bullets and bombs.”

Yet when McCain speaks extemporaneously, the insightfully nuanced view of his prepared speeches sometimes gives way to something that looks and sounds like Bush. There was the puerile Beach Boys humor of “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” And there was that puzzling moment in Jordan, a few days before the Los Angeles speech, when he charged that Iranian intelligence was “taking al-Qaida into Iran, training them and sending them back.”

Of course, al-Qaida and Iran are not only enemies of the United States -- they also are enemies of each other. Yet McCain’s mistake appears to be more than merely a slip of the tongue, because he went on to insist it was “common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaida is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that’s well known.” It wasn’t until Sen. Joe Lieberman leaned in to whisper something that McCain said, “I’m sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaida.”

It was shocking to hear such a mistake from a presidential candidate supposed to be an expert on foreign policy. Is the best hope of Republicans to gain back credibility on national security just another George W. Bush but with better advisers?