Daniel Larison

The Clueless Leading The Uninformed

It’s fundamental cluelessness about how the economy works, and a demonstrable inability to conceive of foreign policy in anything but the crudest terms. ~Julian Sanchez

No, he’s not talking about John McCain, but he very well could be.  As you might have guessed, he’s talking about Palin.  This takes us back to what I was saying below.  This fad of “let Palin be Palin” is, among other things, the last in a sorry line of attempts to paint her as the next Reagan.  As far as I can tell, the argument is that she would be a powerful extemporaneous speaker if she just weren’t so heavily scripted.  There is absolutely zero evidence for this view.  These people would apparently prefer for her to engage in some improvisation on the spot, a sort of Alaskan jazz solo, which would surely lead to more off-the-cuff answers about sending forces into Pakistan on those occasions when her remarks made sense.    

Coming back to the first point, the description Sanchez uses could easily be applied to McCain, and the second half of it could be applied to many of his advisors.  The thing that ought to concern voters is not so much that Palin is clueless in her ignorance about the rest of the world, but that McCain and his advisors are clueless despite being supposed experts.  It is embarrassing to watch Palin give meaningless answers about Hamas and democracy in the Near East, but it should be appalling that empowering Hamas through elections was the official policy of the Bush administration.  There is no real excuse for Palin to be clueless, but how much less of an excuse is there for the presidential candidate to understand the world in the same crude terms?  Palin actually does us a favor in that she conveys the boiled-down essentials of McCain’s worldview, and the thing that we should always remember is that there is not much more sophistication or understanding in that worldview when McCain states it.


Now It All Makes Sense

Governor Palin’s every comment was scrutinized by the media and judged against what Jefferson or Lincoln might have said. ~Fred Thompson

Yes, if not for the unfair Jefferson/Lincoln standard they imposed on her, she would be doing just fine.  Now we know why Palin has been doing so badly in those interviews–the standards we are using to judge her are just too high!  I don’t know how these sorts of arguments persuade anyone.  Perhaps they are not supposed to persuade, and are simply designed to fire up devoted followers.  That in a nutshell might describe the fatal flaw of Fred Thompson’s presidential campaign, except that his rhetoric always suffered from the serious flaw that it never fired anyone up.  What’s strangest about this sort of defense is that it presupposes a) the audience is really gullible and b) that Palin’s inability to handle mild, fair questioning on policy can only be explained by the media’s rigorous standards that set her up to fail.  At the Thursday night debate, this denial of reality or embarrassing apologetic will run head-on into a lopsided defeat.  Perhaps the purpose of commentary like this is to prepare the devotees for the inevitable humiliation.  They can then, like the Ma’min, reinterpret the abject failure of their idol as a cunning, mystical path to the salvation of the world.  Could we please stop all this?


Yes, McCain Was Wrong On Pakistan

I think that all of them would agree that, while there were a lot of things wrong in Pakistan during the years leading up to the 1999 military takeover, Pakistan was not a failed state as we normally define such states. I am on record as stating publicly that, having come to Pakistan from Liberia a year before the takeover, I had a pretty good idea of what failed states look like, and it was not one. ~William Milam, Fmr. U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan

There may be a charitable explanation for McCain’s blunder.  Just as he doesn’t understand what cap-and-trade, counterinsurgency, strategy and tactics are, he also doesn’t know what a failed state is, and so he labels Pakistan c. 1999 a “failed state” because he doesn’t really understand the concept, but he’s heard people use that phrase to describe countries that suffer from instability.  If there was a coup, it must be a failed state!  Yeah, that’s it.  The less charitable, but more likely explanation is that he has no idea what was happening in Pakistan at 1999 or at any other time.  What I find strange about this is that it has taken several days for anyone else to notice how utterly wrong McCain was on Pakistan, when it was pretty readily apparent.  Actually, it’s not that strange–most observers apparently don’t know all that much about Pakistan, either, and so when McCain engages in an arrogant bluff and pretends to understand something that Obama allegedly doesn’t they can’t call his bluff.  I’m pretty sure this is how McCain has maintained his inflated reputation as some kind of national security expert: he expects that his audience and the journalists covering him know even less than he does, and so he can get away with saying all manner of ridiculous things.  Sometimes his statements get a little too ridiculous, and journalists are obliged to notice, as they did when he went on about Iran sponsoring Al Qaeda in Iraq, but for the most part they defer to him and treat his pronouncements as if they were serious and informed.  If you look closer, you’ll find that they’re usually neither.

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Re-Branding Bailout Won't Help

The whole reason for the urgency is that people genuinely are concerned that a financial collapse will spark a deep recession that will cause a lot more pain in Muncie than in Manhattan. But you sure as hell wouldn’t have known that. ~Ezra Klein

It depends a great deal on who he means by “you.”  If he means that a lot of the constituents burning up the Capitol phone lines were not fully aware of the negative consequences for the broader economy, he might be right, but I have to say that I’m pretty skeptical.  While some outlets tried to avoid spreading panic by not describing things in the darkest terms, there seemed to be no shortage of pundits, reporters and bloggers who were quite pleased to talk about another Depression, which even the most historically illiterate would recognize as a very undesirable outcome.  I don’t think I have ever seen so many references to Hoovervilles in my life as I have in the last week, so I am finding it hard to believe that most Americans were unaware of the alarmist scenarios bailout advocates were promoting.  Perhaps it reassures supporters that the public turned against the plan because of poor marketing–this is, of course, a classic Bush administration response to the rejection of its bad policies.  “If only we could get the sales pitch right…” has been the lament of many an administration official over the years.     

Paulson and Bernanke never used language quite so outrageous, but they made it clear in their testimony that they believed this would hit everyone where they lived and hit them hard.  All of the news programs did interviews with the relevant committee chairmen, and they made the same points.  If so few people were aware of the worst-case scenario, how is it that Rasmussen found that 79% of respondents were somewhat or very concerned about a depression “like 1929”?  Where on earth would that come from if not from the daily bombardment of fearmongering from the administration and bailout supporters?  What the Rasmussen results seem to show is that the government and media have done a good job of working most of the country into a fit of tremendous anxiety and fear, and still only 45% support “taking action.”  The public is actually evenly-divided on whether the government should do anything–chew on that one when considering the politics of all this.  That 45% figure probably overstates support for this specific bailout, er, I mean Glorious People’s Victory Plan.  

Update: John Schwenkler critiques Klein’s interpretation of poll results on the bailout.


Beware The Responsible, Serious People

Some politicians and government officials are making reckless charges of greater financial turmoil in the absence of a bailout. These grossly irresponsible statements may cause short-term market losses as investors try to second-guess how other investors will respond, but the assertion that the stock market’s health – especially in the long run – depends on bigger government is belied by real-world evidence. Japanese politicians made many of the same mistakes in the 1990s that American politicians today are considering, and the Nikkei suffered a lengthy period of decline – and remains today far below its peak level.

Proponents of a bailout also are trying to rattle credit markets by arguing that inaction will cripple commercial and household lending. Fortunately, there is little evidence of a freeze in credit markets, though the Administration’s rash rhetoric and the specter of a bailout doubtlessly are causing needless uncertainty and temporarily higher interest rates. Once the issue is resolved, one way or the other, credit markets will resume normal operations. The only question is whether capital allocation will be distorted – and long-run growth hindered – by government intervention. ~Daniel Mitchell

The role the government and bailout supporters have played in exacerbating the real problems in credit markets and sapping market confidence with apocalyptic warnings will, I suspect, go down as one of the most dangerous episodes of hysterical overreaction in recent history.  Parallels with Iraq are obviously not exact and can be overdone, but we are once again being treated to the spectacle of manifestly reckless and irresponsible people damning everyone who opposes them as irresponsible in an attempt to ram through bad policy. 

Update: Jeffrey Miron makes all the right points:

Talk of Armageddon, however, is ridiculous scare-mongering. If financial institutions cannot make productive loans, a profit opportunity exists for someone else. This might not happen instantly, but it will happen.

Further, the current credit freeze is likely due to Wall Street’s hope of a bailout; bankers will not sell their lousy assets for 20 cents on the dollar if the government might pay 30, 50, or 80 cents.

The costs of the bailout, moreover, are almost certainly being understated. The administration’s claim is that many mortgage assets are merely illiquid, not truly worthless, implying taxpayers will recoup much of their $700 billion.

If these assets are worth something, however, private parties should want to buy them, and they would do so if the owners would accept fair market value. Far more likely is that current owners have brushed under the rug how little their assets are worth.


About The Debate

James paraphrases Ross on the presidential debate:

So but for the one thing he needed to do in the debate to win, McCain won.

Perhaps this is simply my bias against McCain, but I just don’t see it.  Why does Ross think that, all things being equal, McCain would have been considered the winner?  This is the main point:

I saw the debate as an evening in which the policy differences between the two men were muted, and McCain was able to steer the conversation around, again and again, to his experience and record, which on paper is easily his biggest advantage over Obama.

This is the odd thing about the debate–McCain did do that and I think that is a large part of why I and many other observers thought that he lost.  It wasn’t just that he came into the debate trailing in the polls with the baggage of the phony suspension weighing him down.  McCain succeeded in bringing the conversation around again and again (and again) to his experience, and mostly managed in the process to make himself seem obnoxious, ignorant and often wrong.  He not only failed to portray Obama as the naive radical he wanted to paint him as, but he singularly failed to offer any credible arguments on his own behalf.  It is difficult to frame your opponent as naive and ignorant when you backed an ideologically-driven war in a region about which you have demonstrated no real understanding, and it becomes even harder when your attempted put-downs show that you don’t know anything about Pakistan, either.  Saying that you’ve been part of every national security matter for the last two and a half decades is interesting, but what does that mean?  For all his experience, he backed the invasion of Iraq in what is largely regarded as the worst blunder of the last three decades.  In other words, on the most salient and relevant foreign policy issue of the day, McCain has been badly wrong, as Obama pointed out in one of his better moments.  McCain preached about the importance of knowledge, experience and judgement,  and yet it was clear by the end of the night that at least for the last decade he has had neither knowledge nor judgement.  In what universe could this be considered a political victory?  To my mind, he was scoring own goals with some regularity.   

If McCain’s endless litany of “Sen. Obama doesn’t understand” sounded more credible to some than Clinton’s “35 years of experience” line, it was one of the principal reasons why viewers tended to favor Obama and move away from McCain.  If the Obama campaign has sometimes been rightly criticized for responding to attacks as if it were staffed by writers from The Daily Show, McCain on Friday was debating as if the electorate consisted of The Wall Street Journal editorial board and Hugh Hewitt’s listening audience.  Each time he said that Obama didn’t understand, you can imagine that these people thought he had landed a killer blow, while for the rest of us he seemed a tired, angry and increasingly ridiculous figure who doesn’t even have a very good grasp on the subject that he is supposed to dominate.  Less-informed and undecided voters reacted badly to McCain’s contempt for his opponent, while those of us familiar with the subjects under discussion were either shaking our heads or laughing at him.  I have heard an anecdote from back home that an avowed McCain supporters who thinks Obama would be a disaster was angry at him for what she perceived to be McCain’s disrespect for Obama, and I don’t think that is an isolated episode.  Concerning both style and substance, McCain clearly did a worse job and a majority of the audience picked up on that.  The problem for McCain is that this really was the best debate he has had during the entire campaign, and he is never going to have another one where he will be perceived to be as effective as he was in this one.


Populism In A Crisis

My take on the potential and the flaws of populist backlash politics is up at Culture11.


Ve Belief In Nuthink?

Shortly after the bailout legislation was shot down in the House, someone Arnold Kling said, “David Brooks is not going to be happy.” “David Brooks must be horrified.”  He had no idea:

And let us recognize above all the 228 who voted no — the authors of this revolt of the nihilists [bold mine-DL]. They showed the world how much they detest their own leaders and the collected expertise of the Treasury and Fed.

This may seem pedantic, but nihilists are exactly what the opponents of the bill are not.  You may think that they have helped unleash destructive forces, but they did not do so out of some perverse desire to tear everything to the ground a la Bazarov.  Far from being nihilists, the opponents of the bill were persuaded, I think reasonably enough, that they were resisting a dangerous encroachment of government power and an abuse of taxpayers’ money; they believed that they were preserving a system and a part of the modern American way of life.  Perhaps they were wrong, but whatever else they were they definitely believed in preservation, not destruction.



Ross discusses possible scenarios following the failure of the bailout.  The idea that the House GOP can really be blamed (credited?) with the defeat of the bill seems strange to me.  No doubt many people will blame (or credit) the House GOP with defeating it, because far too many on the Democratic side were unwilling to back it without the cover of bipartisanship, but this must be one of the first times I have heard the argument that the minority party in a lower house of the legislature was able to stop a bill when almost a third of its members voted for it.  Obviously, if you think passage was imperative and disaster awaits, the majority of House Republicans would deserve severe criticism along with two-fifths of the Democrats, but this apportioning of blame gets something seriously wrong. 

Whatever Boehner promised to deliver (and if he promised 80, he was just making it up), anyone following the political news from the outside could have told you that he was going to get maybe 45-50.  As it was, he delivered 65, which was a lot more than expected just a day or two ago, and that’s not too bad considering that the Republican conference didn’t hear about the deal from their leaders first before the media were reporting it.  Knowing this, which she should have known, Pelosi should not have scheduled a vote for today.  The markets would have remained edgy, but nothing significant would have happened one way or the other. 

Bringing the bill to the floor when the result was seriously in doubt raised and then brutally dashed expectations, which I imagine contributed to the severity of the decline in the market today.  The Speaker determines what happens in the House, and she has to take the bulk of the responsibility for the success or failure of any legislation that she is promoting.  This is not the same thing as what the GOP leadership is now saying (“Pelosi was mean, so our members had to vote no!”), and that particular line of nonsense deserves to be mocked.  Of course, you can attack the House GOP on the grounds that the bill was actually a good bill and TARP was a good thing to do, but you’ll notice that no one is actually doing that, because even the people crying, “Irresponsible!” know that TARP is a terrible program.  Having called it a “terrible precedent” and “the worst possible course of action,” my Scene colleague Jim Manzi chides the House GOP for not going along with something that he cannot defend.  This is one of the worst cases of do-somethingism I have ever seen.  

I agree with Ezra Klein that we are seeing, in one sense, the “failure of politics” today, but it is not the failure he means.  The failure of politics that culminated in the defeat of the bill was the failure of the proponents of the legislation to make an argument that did not rely very heavily on prophecies of disaster.  There was no real attempt at persuasion, and the haste in which everything was done generated far more intense opposition than was necessary.  The supporters of the bill wanted to ram it through with as little deliberation and scrutiny as possible.  On any other issue, on any other bill, this would be seen as outrageous and you would hear about the wisdom of having a lower chamber that was more responsive to the people.  Now opposition to this hasty adoption of a bad plan is derided as irresponsible

Let me break it down for you: if things are indeed as bad as the proponents say, and if they are the responsible, sober voices of wisdom that they pretend to be, the truly irresponsible thing was to wait up until the last weeks before the recess, rush out a terrible plan, demand immediate adoption of this terrible plan (which they were happy to admit in public was a terrible plan) and then not even correctly gauge the level of support for the legislation before bringing it to a vote.  Calling the question when there likely wasn’t enough support (as opponents of the bill had said yesterday!), if you believe what these people claim to believe, was an act of brazen recklessness.  If they are wrong about the consequences of not adopting this plan, they are merely politically incompetent.

The most amusing reaction to this has come from Kudlow, as he says that he would now abandon his support for the bailout if a more liberal version of the bill were introduced to bring more Democrats along and he would opt instead for recapitalizing banks through the FDIC.  That means that there was another way, and one that very few would have balked at supporting.  So now Kudlow will switch to advocating one of the main, plausible alternatives to this horrible, awful, dreadful plan, but only if those nefarious Democrats try to change bankruptcy regulations.  That’s more than a little confusing, since it was just last week that the version proposed by Frank and Dodd already had those provisions and they were scrubbed in the (obviously futile) effort to get more Republican support, but at no point did those provisions push Kudlow into opposition.  Kudlow, of course, endorsed the original Paulson proposal, which was completely indefensible, but if the bill is cluttered up with some liberal vote-buying junk it must now be time for Plan B.  That makes you wonder, especially if the GOP leadership believed that Plan A was terrible, why the Kudlows of the world weren’t advocating some form of this Plan B last week.  Oh, that’s right–they were too busy pushing capital gains-tax cuts and complaining about ACORN.  Remind me again who the responsible people are?

Update: Kling adds:

I see free markets as very much the underdog going forward. But if there is no bailout, then at least markets have a fighting chance. I would want to defeat this particular revolt of the elites, realizing that larger battles probably lie ahead.


Palin And Hamas

The issue here is not that Palin didn’t know the answer. There are many possible answers to this question, some of which are right and some of which are wrong. The issue here is that she didn’t know the question. Because she was apparently ignorant of the subject, she endorsed Hamas’ victory, and, in essence, called for the U.S. to “protect” Islamists who seek to use democratic elections to lever themselves into power. And, of course, Ahmadinejad came to power in a more-or-less democratic election. Palin’s answer was truly remarkable. A person who could be President of the United States has shown herself to be completely ignorant of one of the most vexing and important foreign policy questions of the day. Freshman congressmen know how to answer this question. ~Jeffrey Goldberg

I would submit that there are more than a few freshmen in college who would know how to answer this question.  

Goldberg is responding to her answer on Hamas and democracy, which I had called pathetic last week.  In fairness to Palin, what she said was not exactly “endorsing” Hamas as Goldberg puts it, since it would require her to know what Hamas was for her to endorse it.  It’s true that she didn’t know the question, and so fell back on the old stand-bys of warning about mean ol’ Ahmadinejad and praising good ol’ democracy.  So she unknowingly blundered into holding the same position as…the Bush administration.  The relevant issue here is not that Palin blundered into unwitting support for Hamas, but that the Bush administration, fully aware of what Hamas represented, actively pushed for Palestinian elections.  Palin has the excuse that she doesn’t know anything about the situation–what was their excuse?

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