Thursday, October 11, 2012

Vice Presidential Debate Primer

What to Watch For: Biden

1. He's solid: Biden is actually a pretty good debater. In 2008, he was essentially coached just not to screw up, with the thought being that there was no way his debate against Sarah Palin could be a positive given the extraordinarily low expectations. Moreover, the expectations for Biden are quite low, as Republicans and satirical news outlets like The Onion make Biden a routine target of jokes and ridicule. The expectations game is poisonous for democracy, but I expect it to serve Biden well this time around.

2. Foreign policy: Did you watch the Democratic primary debates in 2008? Biden was really, really good on major fopo questions. Shockingly so. Ryan, on the other hand, hangs his hat on domestic policy issues related to tax and finance policy. Foreign policy is not one of his strengths. That said, what might normally be "Advantage: Biden" may be nulled as the Obama administration is coming off a tough few days of Libya in the news cycle. If Biden can come up with the administration's salesworthy explanation of why information has been slow to seep out (and I suspect there is one, what with the not wanting to compromise an ongoing terrorist investigation) then its a win, but if Ryan can pounce with some Libya lines, its a danger spot.

3. "Ordinary People" (not the Oscar winning film): Biden's got his blue-collar Scranton-man schtick down. He'll definitely have opportunities in this debate to turn Ryan's abstract haymakers about the deficit and budget into real policies with real consequences for ordinary Americans. Will Biden strike swiftly on this question a couple times, or will it be a reprise of his DNC performance, in which he informed the American people in about 327 different ways that Osama bin Laden was dead, Obama had done it, and that an American flag had been planted in his corpse?

What to Watch For: Ryan

1. Its the Bigtime: while Ryan has a national profile, this VP debate is certainly the biggest moment of his political life so far. Ryan has also mostly dealt with chumps in his electoral campaigns, and does not have Biden's record of seeking national office. Look for signs that Ryan is flustered or confused as indicators of the uniqueness of this stage. I expect him to do well if he confines his interventions to relatively abstract pushes on government spending and taxation, which would be an intelligent course of action.

2. Correct Biden, but Don't Be Mean: This is where expectations matter: Biden has a reputation as the Democratic Party's cranky old uncle or grandfather. On the one hand, this causes folks to not listen to him all that much. On the other, this means that taking unnecessary potshots at Biden could come off extra bad, especially given his personal history of tragedy. Ryan will want to hammer Biden when he gets into one of his riffs about "everyday Americans" but Ryan has to be very careful not to come off like a responsibility minded middle manager when correcting him. Americans don't like deficits, but they also don't like bureaucrats.

3. Women's rights: The "legitimate rape" flap has created an opening for some discussion of reproductive and gender rights. Biden can throw haymakers on this issue, while Ryan has in the past sponsored some quite right of center political approaches to the issue. Women really came out strong for the Obama campaign in 2008. If Ryan gets cornered into talking about gender issues it can only come at an opportunity cost with other news items (Libya, the economy, deficits) that are far more beneificial to the GOP.

What to Watch For: Both

Any references to Paul Ryan's ridiculous workout spread. Also, a giant eagle armed with a laser the annihilates budget deficits when it bursts through the auditorium ceiling.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Retrospective On the Tea Party

Its important to distinguish between agonism and antagonism in a democracy. The former mode is a form of political and argumentative contestation which understands there to be a shared space between interlocutors. In the latter, the drive to win an argument outweighs the necessity of preserving a shared argumentative space: conflict happens but without recourse to any kind of shared space. For argumentation theorists, what anchors agonistic conflict are "facts:" a set of agreed-upon propositions that make possible the exchange of disagreement between different points of view, as distinguished from disagreements between different places, thought of in terms of political space as a discursively instituted and performatively calcified zone.

America has to do away with the permanent campaign if it wants to promote a politics of agonism rather than a politics of antagonism. As I begin to finish up my research project on new American conservatism, I was drawn again to the events of February 2009. Remember when Rick Santelli freaked out on CNBC's Morning "Sqwawk Box" with the rant that launched the Tea Party?  Commentators at The Weekly Standard and National Review fell all over themselves to praise Santelli's defense of productive and active Americans a "new Silent Majority" that was a "pretty good cross-section of America." The seemingly spontaneous nature of Santelli's rant captured the conservative imagination, something I have written about elsewhere.

But I also want to note something else: Santelli's rant happened less than a month after Barack Obama was officially inaugurated. And it seems Santelli's speech was an effort coordinated by right wing organizing groups (I apologize for the unfortunate title of the linked article). Once the Tea Party exploded, there were droves of articles calling the movement a grassroots, organic expression of disenchantment with the presidency of Barack Obama. Now, I admit to having an awful lot of faith in the power of democratic protest. But the idea of a mass, spontaneous movement emerging almost overnight (before the president had hardly done anything) strains credulity. That said, once started, the Tea Party did draw in a lot of people who were legitimate and sincerely concerned about the direction of the country. Whether or not their reasons for concern were based on good arguments will be the subject for another post, but suffice it to say I take their world that they believed it.

Making a populist argument is a version of blackmail. "The American people believe this..." is a loaded argument, because disagreement from it creates a presumption that one is NOT a member of the American people. One can of course make a counterargument: "Actually, the American people believe this and that..." but what this overlooks is that there is no single sovereign judge or jury to pass comment on the "Americanness" of certain arguments.

A quick glance at the current party platforms is revealing: the Democratic platform references the "American people" around nine times. The GOP platform refers to the American people that many times in its first two pages, and includes innumerable more mentions throughout. The Democratic platform shows a persistent unwillingness to beat up their opponents with what Jeremy Engels has called a "demophilic" argumentative strategy, preferring instead to assemble their political coalition through particularized rhetoric which inductively proves their status as the political party of the American people (or we might say "persons.") The incentive to promote a permanent campaign led the GOP to begin a massive campaign on a populist basis less than 30 days after the new president had been inaugurated. Now there was a good deal of bellyaching on the left following Bush v. Gore, but it would be a stretch to say that it produced the kind of political resistance engendered by the current Republican leadership: and that was after someone won the popular vote but lost the election.

Party of the people? Methinks the GOP doth protest too much.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Expectations for Tonight's Debate



1. Class warfare: its revisionist history to recall the Barack Obama of 2008 as a class warrior. That Obama talked in almost equal turns about the necessity for individuals to be responsible as he did of punishing white collar Wall Streeters. But following the visibility of the Occupy movement last Fall, a funny thing happened on the way to the neoliberal forum: discussions about wealth inequality picked up steam. While most search trackers find that explicit discussion of inequality has returned to pre-Occupy levels, the Obama campaign has certainly capitalized effectively on the population's sensitivity to economic disparities effectively arguing (or demagoguing depending on your perspective) about the impact of wealth stratification on the middle class. Romney's 47% comments caught on tape at a fundraiser have been grist for the mill. Obama has to have one wealth-related haymaker prepared: look for when and how effectively he lands it.

2. Romney's entitlement: Americans tend to have little issue with wealth. Indeed, polling numbers reveal that many Americans still remain skeptical of heavy taxation and regulation of the wealthy because they project forward an idea of themselves as one day belonging to the upper class. Americans do, however, have a negative reaction to the combination of an affect of entitlement and excessive wealth. Any defensiveness regarding wealth on Romney's part has to come off as a calm and reasoned response that highlights his giving to charity and the necessity of providing appropriate incentives to those capable of exercising good financial and economic judgment.

3. Shooting the gap: Obama has a tricky task in that he has to admit that the economy is still in a bad place, but also that he has earned the trust of the people to continue to try and fix it. Obama of course cannot come right out and say what he is probably thinking: "If I had looked at the American people in 2008 and had said that we had little hope of returning to a halyconic economic era during my presidency, I would probably not be elected." Of course an alternate theory, pushed in a recent spate of articles, is that Obama and his advisors simply did not grasp the depth of the economic crisis. Obama would do well to have America remember its anxieties during autumn 2008; a return to this feeling makes it feasible to IMAGINE that Obama shared the depth of fear about the economy of most Americans, while allowing them to conveniently overlook how his administration may not have responded aggressively enough to the crisis.

On the Right

1. Any Libya questions: while this debate is ostensibly about domestic policy, this will not stop Mitt Romney from bringing up the assassination of Amb. Chris Stevens in Benghazi. If the debate runs off the domestic rails and into foreign policy territory, its a dangerous spot for Obama for two reasons. A) When an American representative is murdered, simply crying "Wrong Forum!" will not do as an appropriate response, and B) emerging facts indicate that the embassy attack might have been predictable. While we are nowhere near "Bin Laden to Strike U.S." territory, the administration's spin on how security was being handled at the embassy has yet to coalesce into any kind of cohesive narrative, leaving some meaningful questions about the administration's handling of the incident and its aftermath.

2. Diminishment of the office of the presidency: the challenger has inherent difficulties when attacking the incumbent president in a debate. Specifically, the challenger must prove capable of undermining their opponent without being seen as diminishing the dignity of the office of the presidency itself. Many common conservative complaints about the president fail to generate an audience outside of the negative feedback loop of conservative political commentary because when it comes to the presidency audiences reason deductively from the status of the office rather than inductively from the character of the person without it: i.e. the American people wouldn't elect a communist president, the presidency is a part of the nation, etc. Romney should return to his prior campaign theme that the president is a well meaning but overmatched and underskilled manager. Such arguments can diminish Obama the man without diminishing the office of the presidency, to which Americans have strong symbolic and mental fealty.

3. Connecting with the middle class: Romney certainly has policy arguments that he thinks will capture the hearts and minds of middle class voters. In the abstract, the issue is not connecting the policies themselves: calls for lower tax cuts and smaller government often prove persuasive, and the more complicated policy canards related to how long term budget shortfalls might necessitate raising taxes on the middle class are (sadly) probably going to be too far out to be discussed in detail in the debate. But as far as personas go, Romney has yet to connect his persona with an audience. It's not that people don't respect competent managers, its that they aren't all that fond of bosses, and Romney's discourse of necessity and management comes perilously close to triggering an American imagination suffused with skepticism towards one's professional overlords.

What Not To Watch For

1. Gaffes: these are entertaining and the cause of much chortling, but short of Ford-in-76 style errors, its difficult to imagine a gaffe really swinging things. Moreover, their immediate mega-circulation through social networks is cause for insanity and fury. So please, don't watch for them.

2. Talk about the poor: because it won't happen. Both parties talk longingly of the middle class while penning them the most effervescent of love letters, at the expense of the poor. Don't get your hopes up.

3. Mentions of the Daily Caller "bombshell" video last night: what a dud.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The "Bombshell" Obama Video

The process of constructing Barack Obama as fundamentally un-American has now come almost full circle, into the naked and explicit realm of race baiting. But first, some backstory:

Barack Obama ran for president in 2008. On the campaign trail, his opponent had to actively defend Obama from questioners in the audience who openly wondered about whether Barack Obama was a Muslim. John McCain had the decency to say that he was a good man, with whom he had disagreements, and was a Christian. And yet, rumors of Obama Islamic faith (preying effectively on a populace sensitized to the supposed Otherness of Islam to America in a post 9/11 world) continued to circulate.

Then Obama was a Communist. He told Joe the Plumber he wanted to share the wealth. He favored "redistribution." Taking from the workers, giving to the parasites. While this argument proved to be unpersuasive during the 2008 campaign cycle (radically so) it did not stop this theme from insisting upon itself, as the Randian tenor of the Tea Party and the "53% Tumblr" cried out, that the makers would not be befuddled by the takers. Now there are 47% of the American people who do not contribute to America. Real Americans earn. Real Americans produce. Obama wants to take from those who produce. The Cold War might be over politically, but the Cold War of our mental colonization is dogged and determined, indeed.

Obama might not even be a citizen! Some people held out that Obama was born in Kenya, not America. At least one article argued that the birtherism was a "screen for partisanship." This dismissal is of course terrifying: what sort of mere "screen" make thinkable the possibility that the president was not born in America, even with prior official documentation available? Even after Obama revealed his birth certificate, fizzling out the "controversy," Dinesh D'Szoua's Obama 2016 continues to advance a separate theory of Obama's "citizenship" based not on his formal membership in the polity but on his civic committment to strains of anti-colonialism. He may be formally of this nation, but not politically of it.

And now we have this "bombshell" video from Sean Hannity. On his show tonight, Sean Hannity brought up three major attacks against the speech:

1) It was raced on the basis of content, as Obama accused the federal government of racial discrimination against New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

2) It was raced in a purely basic manner, that it was not colorblind, and spoke of the existence of black communities.

3) It was tonally raced, as Obama capitalized on a particular black dialectic. In Tucker Carlson's worlds "This is not how he talks...its a put on, a phony."

A curious tension is at work. On one hand, Obama is not truly black: he is putting on a dialectical show for his particular audience, showing "them" that he knows how to walk the walk and talk the talk. On the other hand, we are to take seriously Obama's statements about the government's treatment of Katrina victims in the storm's aftermath. Happily, Hannity has on a guest (a black gentleman named David Webb) willing to say "this is the REAL Obama." Obama's true persona is the "Derrick Bell" influenced and racially charged one.

Hannity and Carlson go way out of their way to make clear: real Americans are not race conscious. Real Americans do not see race. There are two America's, the colorblind America of Fox News and the color conscious America of Barack Obama and his black audience. The real Obama is angry about Katrina. The real Obama expresses his fury. The real Obama knows that racial injustice exists. The real Obama knows that America still has many bullets to remove.

He speaks tonally like an angry black man. He wants to take away our wealth. He wants Kenya to rise up against colonial capture. He secretly worships Allah. He does not know what it means to be an American citizen. Even though in the speech several times Obama goes well out of his way to mention that the aftermath of Katrina "is not about race" this does not go far enough for Hannity and Co. Everything must be raced. Real America does not tolerate or acknowledge difference. Real America is the abolition of difference. Real America is the absence of dissent. Real America is red America packaged and understood as THE America. Debates over what America means are beyond the pale.

Antagonism without agonism? Just ask the crypto-Marxist Muslim Kenyan Anti-Colonialist who'll turn on whitey whenever possible.