Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Ryan Choice

Once JFK decided he would name his brother Robert as Attorney-General, clearly the most controversial appointment he would make, he joked that he'd better announce it by appearing on the porch of his house in the middle of the night and whispering, "It's Bobby."

In the middle of a Friday night, the news was leaked that Romney would announce Paul Ryan as his running mate on Saturday morning.  The late Friday leak might mean that the Rabid Right will get a few hours to go crazy with joy before the reporters and the Obama campaign has much to say, since most of the East Coast and Midwest are asleep at this point.  But it's in time for the Sunday shows.

What Dems are paying attention--mostly over at the West Coast-based Daily Kos--are also going crazy with joy.  The chance to definitively pin the Ryan budget and its provisions that would end Medicare on Romney seem to them a magical gift.  I'm not so sure.  The sports press was similarly of one mind about the Dwight Howard trade to the Lakers, which was the week's big personnel move until this.  But Howard--or the other Laker trades of this off-season-- don't seem to address the Lakers' greatest weakness against young teams like the Thunder: speed, that is, the Lakers lack of it.  Howard may be a great defender and an offensive monster down low, but he has to get under the basket first, before the other guys.

That the Ryan pick ensures them victory may be an early Dem chorus, but that outcome alas may not be a guaranteed championship either.  Romney's choice of Ryan addresses two key weaknesses, and maybe three, that are clearly hurting him.  The first, most glaring and most obvious this week is his weakness with the Rabid Right Republican base.  They will be ecstatic, and highly motivated to vote and to seek every partisan advantage until then, including active voter suppression.  It could get--probably will get--very ugly.

Second, Romney has a big problem with specifics--that is, he has no specific proposals, and is incapable of explaining anything.  He's likely to let Ryan explain his "vision for America" and to talk policy details, especially on health care and the deficit.  Ryan will likely offer a healthcare plan that sounds good but isn't Romneycare/Obamacare.  Similarly, he will explain his Medicare proposals in a way that sounds responsible and reassuring.  Or at least he will try. 

He will try to make the deficit a major issue.  It's the one issue that Rs have gotten traction on with Independents in the past.  Implicit in this second weakness is Romey's inability to express policy ideas, which by contrast Ryan does have.

Third, he's likeable, young, and on the national stage he's new.  Dems won't have the same time and money to define him as they did to define Romney.  This is where the Romney money machine goes into overdrive, to control the airwaves.

It is true that this pick shows that Romney is not operating from a position of strength.  But this could be that "game changer," and Dems should not be so confident that this is a gift.  They will have to handle this right.  And they'll have to weather what is likely now to be a bump in the polls for Romney--if not immediately, then after the R convention--which was not likely before this pick.

"Romney-Ryan" has an adman's music to it, as does the sight of the trim darkhaired and totally white twosome, animatronic Batman and Robin-like, on the stage together. Still, Romney may essentially cede the campaign stage to Ryan, much as McCain did to Palin.  And experience has shown that the farther Romney is from the stage, the better it is for him.  The only audience he's been comfortable and successful with is other very rich people.

 But hiding behind Ryan doesn't change his strategy really.  Before this, he was trying to back into the presidency by being the mostly blank alternative to the dread pirate Obama.  Now he's doubled down on that strategy by trying to back into the presidency behind his v.p.

It is true that if the Dems handle this right, they can reach Independents and older voters that may have seemed a stretch before.  And it's also true as some are saying at Kos that this is the clear choice election that the Obama campaign says it is--and that it is the Showdown of the parties.  If Dems are successful, they could be very successful up and down the ticket--and this will mean in particular than congressional Dems and the presidential campaign are tied together as never before. 

In terms of early media response, some of it is apparently going overboard the other way.  I don't see the Ryan pick meaning anything at this point for the states in play--his presence on the ticket means nothing for Wisconsin or Ohio or anywhere.  Its effect won't be known for months.  So I am not by any means saying that this makes Romney the favorite.
It probably does mean that what was shaping up to be a very bitter and contentious campaign is going to be even more bitter and contentious.  The Rabid Right knows no bounds, and this is only going to make them more reckless.  My worry is that it ups the possibility of serious violence.  In any case it's going to be a very bumpy ride to November.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Romney Quandary

Update Friday pm PST: According to NBC News and now the AP, Romney's vp pick is Paul Ryan.  So the answer is, yes, the Romney campaign is in panic mode about getting out the Rabid Right base.

Is the Romney campaign in panic mode? Update Thurs aft.: If so, with good reason.  Three new polls say he's down by 7 to 9 points, and in one only a third believe he'll win.  They seem to be unleashing their random attack ads sooner than expected, although they are fully in character with the Romney campaign so far, being composed of lies and racism.  They are now trying to counter the Obama ad fingering Romney for paying a lower tax rate than most Americans and proposing tax policies to give himself an even bigger break--an ad that got the unusual Washington Post rating of being completely true--with an ad supposedly on Obama's policy on welfare that "takes a shameless distortion and turns it into an outright falsehood"--in other words is a complete lie.   And it is the most overt play yet of the race card--the "food stamp president" dog whistle linking Obama to "his base" (Romney's words) of shiftless black people who he is favoring with free government money.

Romney's next political play is his v.p. pick, and as far away as I'd like to stay from this moronic topic, it almost got interesting this week.  Last week the media Conventional Wisdom was that Romney was going to pick somebody bland and safe, Tim Polenta or more likely Rob Portman, a budget director under Bush (drawback) who is now a Senator from Ohio (a plus supposedly.)  But early in the week there was a flurry of speculation and winger wish fulfillment about bolder if crazier choices.  And the C.W. makes a strong argument for why.

Romney has probably two chances left to reverse the image that the Obama campaign has given him.  The v.p. pick is first, his convention acceptance speech is second.  If he doesn't do something to change the narrative with those, the debates may not matter (and since he can't talk substantively about anything, it's hard to see how he impresses anyone in the debates.)  In his convention speech he has to open up, i.e. create a Romney character, and maybe even make some actual specific proposals.  But his v.p. pick is also a statement.  There are two ways he can possibly help himself, though both are risky.

He could go bold.  On Tuesday at least there was something going on in GOPer circles either to promote Chris Christie or to reflect the possibility that he's actually being considered at this point.  I happened to see Morning Joe on msnbc and somebody on Fox talking about Christie and the very same speech and signal achievement of his term in New Jersey--at virtually the same moment.  It could be coincidence.  But anything to do with GOPers suggests there's a real if invisible hand monkeying with the puppet strings.

But is this just Beltway GOPer desperation?  Drudge floated Gen. David Petraeus, who himself quickly shot down the "rumor."  The suggestion though is that Romney needs somebody with establishment foreign policy/military policy cred.  Unfortunately for them, this country is not in a warmongering mood.

If not bold, he could go harder right.  The theory here is that he's doing so badly that he absolutely needs to be able to depend on the Rabid Right base, a group that doesn't really trust him.  That would mean Paul Ryan.  And the boomlet on Wednesday was for Ryan. Update Thurs aft.: The Ryan boomlet continues, bolstered by a Wall St. Journal editorial. Meanwhile Portman depresses speculation that he'll be the v.p. nominee. Romney says his v.p. will have 'a vision for the country,' which sounds like Ryan but could be budget hawk Portman. What makes this more of a temptation for Romney was the violent and dare we say rapidly rabid response by Rabid Right leaders (Ann Coulter prominently among them) over a single comment by the Romney spokesperson who cited Romneycare in MA in a positive way.  There's some question whether this was "misspoken" (it certainly was awkward in terms of Romney's past position and disdain for Obamacare as it implied that the MA system ought to be available elsewhere, which is the effect of Obamacare) or an Etch-a-Sketch moment as Romney tacks towards the Independent center.  Update Thurs.: the campaign goes silent as attacks continue on this.

And this is Romney's political quandary at the moment. As evidenced by this furor, Romney does not have the loyalty of the Rabid Right base, who appear to be on hair-trigger response for abandoning him.  He can't win without this base voting in great number. But he can't win without Independents and disillusioned Dems either.  Ryan helps with the base, but Ryan cements Romney to the kill Medicare budget, which is not attractive beyond the base.  That's worse than Portman nailing him to Bush.

Does the v.p. matter?  Nate Silver crunches the numbers and says the only possible positive of any of these is Portman perhaps--and it's a big perhaps--getting Romney another 1% in Ohio.  There are few if any ways Romney wins without winning Ohio.  If Romney is confident about his strategy he'd most likely go with Portman for the boring white guys ticket of the century. If he goes bold or hard right, he's gambling for a "game changer" as McCain did in 2008.

So the real effect of the v.p. pick--which is the main reason to pay attention to it--is in what it says about the presidential candidate.  In 2008 Obama impressed people by picking Biden, and McCain picking Palin, eventually not so much.  In 2012 we get some insight into Romney's thinking, though perhaps only of his thinking about this campaign and what his strategy is.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

3 Stories of Today and the Future

Three important news stories of today illustrate likely features of the future as well as the present.

Two of these stories were widely reported.  The one that wasn't will likely be the most important, at least for what it portends.

That story was the release of a new study conducted by James Hansen, the most respected scientist in the world on the subject of the climate crisis.  It is a statistical study of recent summer heat waves.  Hansen previewed the findings in a Washington Post oped on Sunday: "Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change."

"Our new peer-reviewed study, published by the National Academy of Sciences, makes clear that while average global temperature has been steadily rising due to a warming climate (up about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century), the extremes are actually becoming much more frequent and more intense worldwide. When we plotted the world’s changing temperatures on a bell curve, the extremes of unusually cool and, even more, the extremes of unusually hot are being altered so they are becoming both more common and more severe."

Hansen begins the oped with a confession: "When I testified before the Senate in the hot summer of 1988 , I warned of the kind of future that climate change would bring to us and our planet. I painted a grim picture of the consequences of steadily increasing temperatures, driven by mankind’s use of fossil fuels. But I have a confession to make: I was too optimistic." 

"My projections about increasing global temperature have been proved true. But I failed to fully explore how quickly that average rise would drive an increase in extreme weather."

Other climate scientists responded to the study Monday.  According to the AP story: The science in Hansen's study is excellent "and reframes the question," said Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia who was a member of the Nobel Prize-winning international panel of climate scientists that issued a series of reports on global warming.
"Rather than say, 'Is this because of climate change?' That's the wrong question. What you can say is, 'How likely is this to have occurred with the absence of global warming?' It's so extraordinarily unlikely that it has to be due to global warming," Weaver said. 

Hansen ended his oped discussing the new present his research suggests, and the future:

 "This is the world we have changed, and now we have to live in it — the world that caused the 2003 heat wave in Europe that killed more than 50,000 people and the 2011 drought in Texas that caused more than $5 billion in damage. Such events, our data show, will become even more frequent and more severe.
There is still time to act and avoid a worsening climate, but we are wasting precious time. We can solve the challenge of climate change with a gradually rising fee on carbon collected from fossil-fuel companies, with 100 percent of the money rebated to all legal residents on a per capita basis. This would stimulate innovations and create a robust clean-energy economy with millions of new jobs. It is a simple, honest and effective solution."

So this is the story that was ignored: a story about how a new reality has begun and human civilization is threatened.  It got more attention in 1988 when it was a dire warning that it does in 2012 when it is a dire description of the future's leading edge cutting into the present. This new normal of climate cataclysm will mean that life is going to change as it takes hold, and eventually change almost completely.  So it is too big, too complicated and in some ways too familiar to take in, even though a lot of  thoughtful action is required.

Instead the news media paid attention to other stories, because there are always other stories.  There's the latest outrages of the presidential campaign, and the latest Olympic winners, both surprises and coronations.  But mostly there were these two stories, and in their own way, they bear upon the climate crisis future.

The first was the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars.  Ironically, Hansen is a scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and it was this amazing triumph of NASA that competed successfully with his study for media attention.  NASA has borne the brunt of criticism lately, for a lack of innovation, for an obsolete Shuttle fleet and nothing to replace it.  But this mission, in the works for a decade, engineered and deployed cutting edge technology in creatively designed and very daring combination to do something that has never been done--send a complex spacecraft to Mars and land a complex piece of engineering the size of a car on the Martian surface, exactly where it was supposed to land.  It is the greatest space achievement of the decade, perhaps longer.  No private corporation could have afforded to devote the manpower, the expertise and the time as well as the resources to such a feat.

As the climate crisis worsens and deepens, technology to fix the effects and stop the causes from wreaking fatal damage will become vital, essential.  And by sometime in the next century, even that may not be enough.  It may be then, or sooner, that humans look a great deal harder at the possibilities of survival in space.

But long before that, the climate crisis is likely to cause disruptions of a frequency and magnitude to challenge the social fabric, even in the U.S. which may well not bear the brunt of the physical changes, at least at first.  That's where the third story comes in.

The story about the attack of (apparently) a lone gunman on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, where he killed 6 people and then died himself in an exchange of gun fire with police.  The apparent shooter was a white separatist, and the FBI is treating the attack as domestic terrorism.

This act of violence would be more shocking had it not been preceded by a lot of racist and xenophobic talk in the political world, including by candidates and elected officials.  Indeed, the very little made of this connection in the aftermath testifies to its pervasiveness in establishment politics.

 This dark trend in America right now is happening when the economy is weak and when a lot of society is changing, including demographically.  Even this level of disquiet is roiling up violence, and there are plenty of guns and bullets out there to create havoc.  Yet today's dislocations--and today's tragedies-- may be minor compared to what is ahead due to the climate crisis.

So this is not a happy trend.  It suggests the apocalyptic visions of the future all too common in movies and novels these days--of social breakdown, violent gangs, a blasted landscape ruled by medieval warlords.  But there is more to this story in Wisconsin.

Because it is also the story of heroes, of ordinary people who sacrificed themselves automatically for others.  The story now is of Sikh Temple of Wisconsin president Satwant Singh Kaleka, who fought off the gunman to protect others, and paid with his life.  And of  Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy, critically wounded as he came to the aid of wounded victims.

There were similar stories told about the all-too-recent rampage in the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre, when ordinary people--who seconds before were just there to watch a movie--sacrificed themselves to protect others, and endangered themselves to help others.  Like Kaleka and Murphy, they have little in common but their humanity, and the sense that helping others is just something you do.  Maybe it is their version of the American way, or it's just the human way--the simple conviction that "you'd do the same for me."

That's the humanity that is our best hope in the times to come, when because of the failures of many politicians, the insidious blind selfishness of certain corporate leaders,  and the exploitable weaknesses of the rest of us, we have not addressed the climate crisis in time to stop it from causing severe consequences.  Ordinary people will have to deal with those consequences.  Some will go crazy with blame, some will go crazy with fear and the impulse of violence.  But some will do the right thing.  Many will depend on them to right the balance--will depend on their intelligence, competence and their commitment.

For I don't agree with James Hansen that we can "solve" the challenge, nor do I agree with Al Gore that we can "solve" the climate crisis.  You can't solve a challenge, or a crisis.  You can meet a challenge, you can address the causes and effects of a crisis.  There will be no complete solution.  There will just be lots of attempts to deal with the crisis, to meet the challenges, and those efforts will go on for decades.  They will be the substance of people's lives.  If things go well enough, they will be their careers--very exciting careers.  Or they will be their jobs--relentless jobs.  Nobody will be untouched by what's got its foot in the door.

Because this is Hansen's message.  It's human nature perhaps--or at least the media attention span--that when a warning has been issued since 1988, it isn't noticed when the warning starts to come true.  In effect, it's the boy crying wolf.  When the wolf isn't at the door immediately, the next warning gets discounted.  But people forget what happened in that story, what that story is about.  It's not about a boy who was prone to panic, who rushed to judgment when his data suggested something really bad might happen.  It's equally about the people who didn't listen.  Because the wolf came, and they weren't ready.

That's what Hansen is saying.  The wolf is here a little early.  But the wolf is here.      

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Curiosity Has Landed

The Curiosity Rover--the size of a car--is safely on the surface of Mars, getting ready to begin two years of scientific research that may bring us closer to knowing whether there is or was life on Mars.  That's one of the first photos it sent back moments after landing--seeing its own shadow on the Martian surface.  

It was amazing to watch the Jet Propulsion Lab--"mission control"--while the spacecraft was making its complicated approach and landing.  On a day when life on Earth is not going so well, there really is something exciting and transcendent about feats like this, and the reality of such a venture on the surface of another world.