Sunday, January 31, 2010

Films I've Watched: Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock, 1969)

Hitch - down with the Tank.

Being an auteurist - a film critic whose criticism centers around the mythos of the great director and his personal vision - is a lot like believing in God. Or in particular, believing that God wrote the Bible. Just as the devout will always attempt to resolve away contradictory biblical text, the auteurist, no matter how flat his chosen auteur falls on his face, will always attempt to show that the auteur's failings are really some sort of brilliant realization of the auteur's vision, one that has escaped the stupid critics. For example, Hitchcock's, shall we say, interesting decision to represent Baltimore Harbor by way of transparently painted backdrop in Marnie is often defended on all sorts of grounds as one of his more brilliant touches. For example, Hitchcock couldn't get a real ship to protrude/penetrate into the street in such overtly phallic fashion, so he had a painting made. Or it expresses the "heroine's subjective unreality," or represents "the fake emotional history which has been forced on Marnie to repress her primal memory." Never mind that the art directors themselves later claimed in interviews that the boat wasn't actually supposed to look fake. (In my own view, though blatantly fake backdrops can have their uses - Hitchcock does wonders with them in Under Capricorn, another movie I plan on posting about - the ship in Marnie doesn't work.)

So auteurism has its dangers, and I think it's important to recognize when a bad movie is a bad movie, just like it's important to admit when your favorite rapper can no longer rap. Which brings me to Topaz, which pretty much everyone, aside from a couple critics, seems to believe is Hitchcock's worst American movie, and not even in the "Hitchcock's worst is still better than most anything else" sense - more in the "a disaster in any terms" sense, to quote the editor of Hitchcock's notebooks. And there are certainly moments in Topaz so stupefyingly misperformed, miswritten, and misfilmed as to support that judgment. My favorite might be when the film's French master spy, played by a comically wooden veteran of sub-Bond thrillers, Frederick Stafford, meets up with his family for a New York vacation. His daughter, played by a very pretty and perfectly good French actress whose English-speaking skills are unfortunately rather limited, inanely cries in her French accent, "there is so much to see and do, New York is marvelous!" To which Papa, channeling the dad from Leave It To Beaver, says in his phony French accent, "and we will do it all!"

A less convincing or more vacuous representation of familial harmony simply isn't imaginable. The acting and writing are so poor, one could almost imagine it's the beginning of a twisted father-daughter porno. (Which actually isn't entirely off the mark; to the extent that the daughter plays any role in the movie, she does so as yet another, admittedly subtextual, rival to her mother for her father's affections. There's also something a little porn-esque about the way Daughter's vacation hopes are rather summarily dashed seconds later when the family arrives at their hotel room and finds an American secret agent waiting to meet Father there.) But in the first place this is nothing new for Hitchcock; one could make a very strong argument that there aren't any happy or normal nuclear families in any of his 53 films, and that whatever superficial familial happiness there is in Hitchcock almost always belies severe internal strains. More than that, though, this is where the auteurist in me says that this sequence couldn't be the result of simple laziness or artistic decline, that Hitchcock must have intentionally made it this bad in order to say something about the emptiness of the life of the professional Cold Warrior.

But to back up. Topaz is ostensibly a film about espionage and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the movie, other than Hitchcock's decision to cast an abjectly unsympathetic statue of an actor in the main role, is that it's a suspenseless film - about the Cuban Missile Crisis. The most suspenseful week in the history of the world! The week where we all came within inches of annihilating each other! And yet the film is almost entirely devoid of suspense. Of course, we all know, after the fact, how the Cuban Missile Crisis turns out, but the movie acts like it knows too, and like it doesn't particularly care. When Topaz came out, this was one of the biggest knocks on the movie - that it managed to turn that suspenseful week into a nullity whose big exciting ending consists of a man being asked to leave a room. And that's true. But of course that's precisely the point. Topaz is a film with the daring to suggest that the outcome of something even as potentially catastrophic as the Cuban Missile Crisis is a triviality when weighed against the human cost in betrayal, deception, dehumanization, and death of keeping the peace. Hitchcock all but comes out and says so in the film's last shot, a shot of a man tossing a newspaper proclaiming the successful conclusion of the Crisis on a park bench, a shot which in one of three endings to the film Hitchcock interposed with a montage of the film's numerous deaths. There is neither suspense nor release in Topaz, neither crisis nor happy (or unhappy) ending, because for Hitchcock the logic of cold war is one of stasis, inevitability, of a mutually assured destruction that prevents either side from making a move and thereby keeps the entire world and everyone in it frozen in a deathly standstill, or moving along deterministic lines not of their own choosing. Whatever horror there is in Topaz isn't the horror of a possible nuclear war, but the horror of there possibly never being one, of an eternal Cold War. Put in another way, the militarization of the whole globe (the film takes place in Copenhagen, Moscow, Paris, New York, Washington, Havana) paradoxically drains the world of Hitchcockian suspense, or more precisely, Hitchcockian terror, because the trademark of Hitchcockian terror - the moment where a character suddenly realizes that things aren't what they should be, whether it's the windmill turning the wrong way in Foreign Correspondent or the piece of jewelry that Kim Novak shouldn't be wearing in Vertigo - can no longer work in a world with spies on every corner, where every corner of the earth is uniformly charged with paranoia. There's no longer, in Topaz, a normal facade in the world behind which terror can lie.

Topaz's style bears this reading out. When people think of 60s Hitchcock, they think of montage - the 50 cuts/cuts in Psycho's shower scene, the birds picking at Tippi Hedren in The Birds from a thousand angles. Topaz puts forth a different sort of montage. At key moments in the film, individual motions are broken down into their constituent still parts. So a Cuban leader grabbing the arm of his traitor mistress so she can't run away becomes this:

And then this:

And then this:

And his killing her moments later to save her from being tortured becomes this:

And this:

And this:

Followed by this shot of him dropping his gun, unusually sexualized for Hitchcock, to his side:

And finally this famous shot from above:

Movement in Topaz is frequently mechanized, roboticized, broken down into so many still pieces that it ceases to look like movement at all. And with this mechanization comes a sense of inevitability and a concomitant lack of suspense. From the moment the leader grabs his mistress's hand and the soundtrack starts ominously duh-DUHing like someone just walked down the wrong trap door in a bad 50s horror movie, we know how this will go. The woman pictured above, in an exchange with her captor before she gets shot, explains that she worked for the Americans because "you made my country a prison." It would be more accurate to say that, in Topaz, the Cold War has made the whole globe a prison.

For though Hitchcock is careful to not get too morally relative - all the killings, for example, are committed by Soviets, even the Russian defector is somehow made to seem disgusting for selling his beliefs out for a plush safe-house in Washington and a diligent maid - the free world, in Topaz, is not really so free. In one of the film's worse-acted and written scenes, the French spy's wife prattles, "you are French. You are not supposed to be mixed up in this cold war between the Americans and the Russians. You are neutral!" To which her husband replies, "no one is neutral." Or rather, no one is free to be neutral. Constantly this ostensibly neutral party's freedom to be neutral is denied - for example, when as mentioned above, he and his family arrive at their hotel room to find his American spy-counterpart waiting for him there, half-menacingly, half-ridiculously standing before an enormous bouquet of flowers he's had delivered as a sort of consolation gift to the French spy's wife for ruining her vacation:

"I hope you don't mind my dropping in like this."

Of course, he has a job his French underling must do.* Sometimes the intrusions on our nominal hero's freedom are more symbolic, as in this strangely ominous, almost Kafkaesque shot of his coming home from Cuba to a heap of mail that Hitchcock somehow films like an unexpected corpse in his doorway:

"The amount of junk mail that accumulates in just a few days!"

Among the pieces of mail is a paper promising a "Soviet Showdown." Even though he is in danger of losing his wife to his work for the Americans (her return to Paris is the reason no one's picked up the mail), world events require him to plug ahead. In the ensuing collapse of the domestic order, the spies are left to rather pathetically clutch to ice trays:**

After which he is persuaded by a Russian defector whose American protectors afford him fantastic in-home coffee service to betray the French government and do still more work for the Americans:

"Mrs. Fawcett makes wonderful coffee!" [And what else?]

The withholding and granting of domestic, and implicitly, sexual privileges being one of the ways in which the Americans obtain loyalty from those whom they must control. And of course, our hero, Andre, in doing America's bidding, will reclaim his wife - her lover being the very man whom Andre has been sent to ferret out. (The fact that the Soviet spy whose identity Andre is sent to discover happens to be seeing Andre's wife doesn't come as an unbelievable coincidence, but rather as a turn of events which is almost to be expected, given the logic of the movie.) But even this, for Hitchcock, is not an entirely happy outcome; in fact, there is no sadder moment in the movie than when the Soviet mole realizes that his time in the French foreign service is over.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't say something about the march that opens and closes the film and encapsulates everything Hitchcock's trying to say. In the beginning, it plays over newsreel footage of Soviet tanks; in the end, it plays over the shot of the man tossing aside the newspaper that announces the end of the Missile Crisis. Neither a menacing warning of Soviet military ambitions, nor a rousing call to action, it elicits a sort of ironic detachment. What the march does is embody, as one writer has so aptly put it, "the parade of national interests," both American and Soviet, that go on in spite of the "successful" conclusion of the Missile Crisis, rendering all free peoples subservient to its implacable momentum.

* Conversely, in Cuba, spying on missile deliveries is whimsically disguised as a picnic (the cameras are packed in the sandwiches), and ironically, it's that very disguise that gives away the fact that they are spying where they shouldn't be (via a gull, whose movements, unlike those of people in the film, are presented in one shot, not as a series of stops and starts):

** In one of the great small touches in the film, we learn that Cubans, during their appearances at the U.N., have mastered the art of American takeout:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Obama Miseducates Us Like Lauryn Hill

Was Jada's latest album any good? Now that I barely listen to music I don't know these things. Anyway, Obama gave a very good speech tonight and wisely appears to be rapidly deprioritizing healthcare reform in favor of an (as yet undefined) jobs bill, mentioning it somewhere in between community colleges and foreign aid to Zimbabwe. Whether his jobs bill, or the natural recovery of the economy, will actually create enough jobs for Democrats to maintain anything above the narrowest majorities in Congress remains to be seen, but the strategy, at least, is sound.

However, Obama did make one small but glaring mistake - attacking the Supreme Court as they sat several yards in front of them, and doing so in a fashion that can only be described as (a) deliberately dishonest or (b) negligently ignorant. First, Obama said that the Supreme Court "reversed a century of law"; as discussed two posts below, they left untouched the century-old law in this area, and have never signaled any interest whatsoever in invalidating bans on corporate contributions, which date back to the times of Teddy Roosevelt. What they reversed was a single clause in a seven year-old law that they had already neutered a few years ago. To confuse the two is like mixing up a single affirmative action program and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Then he said that the decision would open up the floodgates for special interests, which is probably wrong as a predictive matter, but at least it isn't a baldfaced lie. Then he claimed that the decision allowed foreign corporations to run campaign ads - which again is either a lie or really bad misinformation on the part of his speechwriters. A different provision of campaign-finance law, left untouched by the decision, bans foreign corporations from running any electioneering ads at any time whatsoever, or making any donation to any candidate or party. The decision only dealt with the rights of American corporations. Naturally, one of the Justices, Justice Alito, couldn't help but shake his head in disagreement and mouth "that's wrong" - and now remarkably some are accusing him of lacking decorum. Obviously the lack of decorum here is on the part of the President who presumes to publicly tell to their faces the members of the highest court in the land how they ought to construe the First Amendment, and in doing so lies to the public about what they just decided. As if the media wasn't already doing a bad enough job explaining this stuff. Just as the Justices traditionally never applaud during States of the Union, lest they appear to be partisan, a President shouldn't use a State of the Union to bully the Supreme Court about how it ought to be deciding cases. I was also baffled by his suggestion to Congress to pass a bill that "addresses some of these issues." The Constitution's the Constitution, and the Court has the last say as to what it says; Congress can't change it unless it wants to amend it. As for My Son John, it wasn't at all the camp classic I was expecting, but rather a pretty devastating portrait of a 50s nuclear family in crisis, and in particular the fraying relationship between a mother and her grown-up son, that just so happens to be a rabidly anti-Communist movie

Even Now The Eyes Of Soviet Agents Are On Some Of You

My Son John, an hysterical 50s anti-Commie film about an effete intellectual boy whose upstanding parents suspect him of being a Communist spy, is on TCM tonight at 8. Apparently this is the first time it's been seen on TV since 1970, and no video or DVD of the movie exists. Obviously I've never seen it myself, but it sounds like a cockeyed masterpiece. Dave Kehr of the New York Times writes:

An appalling masterpiece. Resist the temptation to laugh at the film's violent anticommunism and try to see it as the audiences of 1952 did, and you'll experience the most wrenching right-wing film ever made. The film's propaganda is all the more powerful because director Leo McCarey refuses to acknowledge any intellectual, ideological intent: his argument is wholly emotional, and it is a powerful one. Robert Walker, fresh from Strangers on a Train, is a government worker who signs with the reds in oedipal revolt against his domineering, patriotic father (Dean Jagger); Helen Hayes is the mother who must choose between son and country.

Adding to the fun, the star died midway through shooting, forcing the director to make some interesting decisions, like playing his confession as a tape recording at his college graduation:

In an amazing scene, his speech is played from the tape recorder after his death at an empty podium that is lit with a shaft of light as if from God above, as the graduating college students listen...

John speaks of education as an evil worthy of equating with Satan. That this takes place during a commencement is beyond irony; it is an indictment and screed against the bright-eyed graduating class as much as it is an indictment of the viewer. Education is called a “stimulant”. But, John intones,stimulants lead to narcotics. As the seller of habit-forming dope gives the innocent their first inoculation, with a cunning worthy of a serpent, there are other snakes lying in wait to satisfy the desire of the young […] Even now the eyes of Soviet agents are on some of you.”

Oh boy. After I see this thing I'll have some comments.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Demystifying Citizens United (AKA, That Supreme Court Decision From Last Week You Probably Hate Without Knowing Anything About It)

I'm half-asleep so I apologize if I'm even a little more incoherent than usual, but I thought I should intervene now and rescue my readers from their ignorance on this (as I hope to show, pretty unimportant) issue. And luckily for you law is something I actually know something about, and I don't have any strong views one way or the other on corporate money in elections, so unlike some expert commentary out there, what I have to say will not be disingenuous drivel. I plan to cover what the Court did, and didn't do, why I think their decision makes a fair amount of sense, and what actual impact this will all have. Some parts of the post are a little lengthy, so if you want to skip to my views on the real-world impact of the decision (last two paragraphs), feel free to do so.

What exactly did the Court decide last week?

If you take nothing else away, take this. Last week, the Court invalidated - found unconstitutional - a provision of McCain-Feingold that banned corporations or unions from spending money from their general treasuries on TV ads, broadcast within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary, that told the viewer whom the corporation or union thought he should vote for. It did not say anything about corporations' rights to give candidates money. Just had to get that out there. Anyway, the provision the Court overturned, as it was meant in 2002, was supposed to ban ads that pretended to be mere issue advocacy, but were really designed to get viewers to vote for or against someone - ads that said, for example, "your Senator supports/is opposed to gay marriage, go write him a letter telling him how wrong that is," and said so days before the election, with the obvious purpose of getting supporters/opponents of gay marriage to vote against the Senator. However, several years ago the Court found it was unconstitutional to ban these sorts of ads, so all corporations couldn't do as of last Monday was run ads explicitly telling you whom to vote for. Now they can do that too. Things corporations still can't do and haven't been able to do since 1907 - give their own money directly to candidates. That's right - corporations can't give money directly to candidates. They can form political action committees with separate funds that can do it in limited amounts, they can give money to the parties. But they can't directly give to the candidates. So all that has happened is that now corporations can run, in the weeks before elections, ads explicitly saying whom to vote for. Nothing more and nothing less.

What does the First Amendment have to do with spending money? Money isn't speech.

No, money is not speech. Neither, however, are microphones, but if we were to say that certain politicians couldn't use microphones at their rallies, forcing them to rely only on the sound of their natural voice, they would obviously have a First Amendment case. And it's the same with money. How is the corporation supposed to make its views known without spending some money? A ban on spending corporate money on TV campaign ads is essentially a ban on corporations running campaign ads, period, or for that matter making its views widely known. Ads aren't free, and the ordinary voter isn't checking Exxon's website to see whom it endorses. Moreover, the Court has allowed Congress to regulate campaign contributions, which do have some expressive qualities (expressive here means that a campaign contribution is, among other things, a way of expressing one's views), but do look a lot less like speech than buying an ad stating one's view. So the whole money's-not-speech thing isn't really an argument against this decision or against the Court's campaign finance jurisprudence in general.

But corporations aren't people. Since when have they had constitutional rights?

To answer the question, since the late 1800s. But to be fair, the important question is whether that's right. And I would argue that the more one seriously thinks about it the more one has to say that it is. (By the way, the four Justices in the minority don't actually disagree; they just think there are compelling reasons to regulate corporate expenditures that supersede corporations' rights to make those expenditures.) No, corporations are not people. But they are made up of people. Suppose you ran a business that was in danger of being put out of business by a Walmart moving into town, and you wanted to run an ad in the paper pointing out that Walmarts and the like drain money from the community and encouraging people to write to the zoning committee and tell them to not let Walmart in. For that matter, suppose you run an ad telling voters to vote against Commissioner Brown because he wants to let the Walmart in and destroy local businesses. I think it would surprise you if you were told that your company had no constitutional right to run that ad because it's not human, that the only person with a constitutional right to run that ad is you yourself, and that in fact you could be put in jail if you used corporate money to tell people to vote against Mr. Brown. Of course you could use your own money, but I think it seems odd to say that if you want to use your company's money to save your company from extinction, you have no right to do so because once you dip into corporate money you're no longer human in some sense. Your opinions are still your opinions when you use corporate money to air them - and Exxon's CEO's opinions are still his opinions when he uses corporate money to air them.

If you didn't find that too convincing, consider these hypotheticals. If you believe that corporations really have no speech rights, you believe that ACLU and Planned Parenthood, both corporations, have no rights to advocate about anything. If you think that non-profit corporations have constitutional rights and for-profit ones don't, at which point you lose the benefit of being able to make the "you're not human, then you don't have rights" argument, you still are of the opinion that Congress, if it wanted, could ban any corporation from running ads for or against healthcare reform. To me, the notion that insurers and pharmaceutical companies have no right to try to sway our opinions on legislation that will fundamentally alter their industry is pretty absurd, but that's what you think if you think corporations don't have a right to speak. Finally, let me just note that there's no textual support in the First Amendment itself for the only-people-can-talk argument. Nowhere in the Free Speech Clause can the word 'person' be found. The Free Speech Clause, read literally, bans all regulations of speech without regard to who or what is doing the speaking. So it's not at all obvious that we need to even pretend that corporations are people for the purposes of the First Amendment to find that they have a right to speak.

Still, though, this was really activist. They overturned precedent, and I vaguely understand that they could've avoided reaching the broader constitutional issue in this case. I thought Chief Justice Roberts promised to be like an umpire in his confirmation hearings, just calling balls and strikes. [Sorry if that made the person making this point sound a little retarded, but I can't tell you how many pieces of commentary I've seen complaining that this decision was not very umpire-like.]

Briefly, activism is one of these charges that people throw out when they don't like a result. Yes, they overturned a precedent, a 20 year-old case that was pretty inconsistent with what the Court had said before and since about campaign finance, to the point where every election law professor in the country had been predicting that that case would get thrown out one day for years. Some precedents are wrong. You're supposed to give them some deference, but the Court does make mistakes. Like arguably this decision, for example. I doubt many people on the left would be too upset if Obama appointed some Justices who reversed this decision a few years from now.

A better "this was activist" argument is that there were lots of ways the Court could have said that the Hillary-bashing on-demand movie actually at issue just wasn't covered by the statute. And I can definitely see the argument, for instance, that on-demand movies aren't quite like ads. If you read the statute, though, they would seem to be covered (all you need is a broadcast, cable or satellite communication that CAN - not is, can - be received by 50,000 or more persons), but a Court that didn't want to reach the constitutional question could easily have said that on-demand movies don't count. However, a majority of the Court believed that the law was deeply problematic, and therefore didn't want to take the easy way out, especially when the easy way is probably a misreading of the statute. And I think that's fine. Suppose in the 50s you had a law segregating schools, and the parents who are suing say, look, if you can't find that segregation's unconstitutional, we'd be happy with a decision that said our kid isn't really black. He's only one quarter black and if you look at the statute we think it doesn't cover our son. And the state says, we'd like to keep this kid out of our white school, but if we're going to lose, we'd much rather lose on the grounds that the kid isn't black. They might be right about the technical meaning of the law. But if you're the Supreme Court, you're going to bend over backwards to find that the kid is black by the terms of the law, so that the only way he wins is if you get to the constitutional question, because you want to shoot down that law. You certainly don't want to write a decision that says that Johnny - and only Johnny - can attend the white school. And that's alright. It's alright to say, "we don't want to wait until a 100% black kid sues to kill the law, we'll take the first chance we get to kill this terrible law, even if technically we probably shouldn't even be getting to the step in the analysis where we decide whether to kill the law or not." Courts do this sort of thing all the time and unless you believe that it's wrong across the board, you have no business complaining that this Court did some mildly questionable things to get a crack at killing a law that they thought was blatantly unconstitutional.

But this is just a terrible result. Even if corporations do have rights to talk, their being able to buy our elections is such a bad thing that Congress should be allowed to regulate anyway.

Put that way (and not just put as "I hate this result, so the decision's wrong"), opponents of the decision have a point. In constitutional law land, constitutional rights can be superseded by compelling government interests. And preventing our elections from being bought, or preventing corporations from buying our representatives' votes, certainly sounds compelling. But are corporations going to start buying our elections? No. In fact, I don't think you're going to see many corporate ads at all. And here's why.

A few years ago when, as I mentioned above, the Court said corporations could run ads saying that your Senator is a really bad guy because he did some bad thing and you should write him a note telling him not to do that bad thing, but the ad was run a week before the election and the whole point was really to get voters to vote against the Senator, people were very upset and said that now corporations would buy elections. But what's the last time you ever saw an ad of that sort paid for by a corporation - unless it was a non-profit like Planned Parenthood? Fact is, it barely ever happens. Because who's going to listen to a corporation? If Goldman Sachs comes on your TV telling you to tell your Senator to stop killing baby seals, aren't you going to have a pretty good idea that Goldman Sachs really wants that Senator to lose his election so he can stop fucking with their money? Well of course. When it comes down to it, how many corporations do Americans like enough for their endorsement to not hurt a candidate? Not many. No one in the world is going to listen to what Exxon has to say; everyone's going to assume that whomever Exxon endorses in its ads (that it will never, ever run) must want to help them raise gas prices or destroy the environment. And even a popular corporation, like Apple, couldn't get away with running ads for anyone. Just think of the consequences of Apple running an ad telling people to vote for Obama. I'm not sure that many Republicans would stop using Apple products, but associating your brand with any one candidate is branding suicide. It's like coming out and saying that your corporation's official religion is Southern Baptism. N
ot to mention that if the guy you didn't endorse wins, he's not going to do you many favors. Which is why most big corporations have political action committees that give to both parties, not just their favorite. The bottom line is that if you didn't see corporations running many campaign ads when they had to make them slightly veiled and discreet ("tell your Senator that he sucks at life"), you're not going to see them running ads that really put themselves on the line. Of course, there are corporations that don't need to cultivate their image with the public much because they mostly do business with other businesses, and they might be a little more willing to advertise. And there are corporations run by people who just really want to see a candidate win or lose. But again, corporations have been able to run pseudo-issue ads for several years, and they just haven't. And not because pseudo-issue ads don't work; studies find they're more effective than the "vote for Smith" types of ads. The big difference this will make is that now the unions, and non-profits like Planned Parenthood, will run some ads telling you whom to vote for. And if Planned Parenthood wants to run an ad telling us to vote for Obama because he'll put people on the Court who love abortion rights, I think we're all fine with that. I certainly don't see what great harm it can do.

Friday, January 22, 2010

LeBron Lip-Syncing Eminem

Maybe Bethlehem Shoals will do a one tenth brilliant, nine tenths dopey post tomorrow on the social meaning of this here lip-syncing. I was just taken aback by the sheer aggressiveness of LeBron's lip-syncing, although kind of disappointed by the lame choice of material. Also disappointed by the reminder of Drake's continued relevance. Perhaps the 2010s will bring us a revival of the posse track. Maybe in the future no one will buy CDs, not even small children, and being a star of a high school soap opera will no longer be a stepping stone towards rap superstardom. Maybe Tru will do another reunion album and only sell 8200 copies. Maybe I'd buy one.

About the game, LeBron is quite a force, but as a loyal member of the Play The Right Way coalition (I'm a Republican who delights in the death of uninsured peoples, I like conservative basketball, it all coalesces), it's kind of jarring to see a guy shoot 12-16 from inside the arc... and 1-9 from outside it. Like you look at the 37 points on 13-25 shooting line and you think, nice efficient night for a perimeter guy, but it could have been a ridiculously dominant night if he just skipped the threes. And you know the defense didn't make him take any of those nine shots. He can get anything he wants. Interestingly enough, if you go to, where they have all kinds of exciting advanced stats and shit, you find that LBJ was 6-6 at the rim, 6-10 on long twos, which is very good, and 1-9 on threes... and he took nothing in the 5 to 15 foot range. No, LeBron has no midrange game to speak of, and he's still this good. (Perhaps when the Wizards finally trade Jamison over, they could send assistant coach Sam Cassell along with. That way he could do in-game interviews during the playoffs.) Meanwhile Kobe took 29 shots to score 31 points, the announcers enthused over how tough the shots he made were, and his team just scored 87, because when you take 29 shots to score just 31 points, you're not actually helping your team. Unless your teammates are Smush Parker and co., which they aren't anymore. (Although to be fair, Artest and Gasol had crappy nights too. Of course Artest often has those, offensively he's like you just threw a linebacker out on a basketball court and asked him to make plays just by dint of his athleticism. And then the linebacker starts trying his hand at shooting from long range, knowing that his teammates are too afraid that he'll Terry Tate them to say anything about it.) I might do a post sometime soon about how the simultaneous troubles of Arenas, McGrady, Iverson, and Marbury headed to China signal the death of the post-Jordan maniacal perimeter gunner. Brandon Jennings is trying to bring the prototype back, trying real hard, but I feel like there's already a Jennings backlash or a Jennings skepticism that just wouldn't have been there if he came into the league 5 years ago. People are actually cognizant of, and openly mention the fact that since the 55 game everything's been 5 for 21, 6 for 19. There was a time when no one seemed to care about that shit.

Finally, on a nice personal note, I aced every damn thing last semester, am at the top of my class and might as well have Harvard Here I Come stamped on my forehead. Well not quite, but at least a Columbia or something of that ilk. We'll see about Harvard. Anyway, Lexington is an odd place. I moved into an old Victorian house in the leafy part of town and there's an old print of Stonewall Jackson, great Confederate general, Lexington native, just sitting on the floor. The woman who owns the place was the one person in town with a Creigh Deeds sign on her lawn (that was the Democratic candidate for Governor who lost by a million points in another election that had no bearing on what voters thought of Obama, just local issues at stake, bad candidate, nothing to see here), but she can't seem to bring herself to dispose of her ancestral Stonewall print. So it's sitting on the floor. I would've liked to talk to more natives about their strange feelings about the Civil War and whatnot, but I'm not a documentarian, and everytime I do chat with locals they say strange things like, "I knew a Jewish person once," or strange crap about how much they love their fishin and huntin. This one locksmith one time used the phrase, "word, booty!" to describe how much ass there was to be had at some bar that's no longer here, but the way he used it it almost sounded like he was talking about spoils of piracy. It makes you wonder, as a future legal eagle of the Republican Party, which party's leadership would be more uncomfortable on a desert island with its base. That is, would Dick Cheney rather spend a year here in Lexington, or would Al Gore rather spend a year hanging out in Anacostia? I would say that Cheney would rather spend a year in Lexington... but it's close. He actually likes fishin and huntin though so maybe he'd fit in.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

And Lastly

Surveys confirm that this is how (yes, completely misinformed) voters feel about health reform.

A remarkable poll confirms that yesterday's result was all about healthcare reform. When asked what the most important issue in determining their vote was, 48% of MA voters named healthcare. The second most important issue, the economy, polled just 5%. I would bet anyone reading this that never in the history of exit polls and post-election polls has there ever before been such a massive split between the first and second most important issue in an election. Usually you see a lot of numbers clustered in the tens and twenties. Not so yesterday. Moving on, just 3% of the electorate said the most important issue in deciding their vote was disliking Coakley or liking Brown, and only 5% described their vote as a vote against Coakley. This in spite of the fact that many pundits have tried to blame last night's result on Coakley not knowing who Curt Schilling was. Nor was this about the sucky jobs situation. When asked if there was a second most important issue to their vote, a full only11% said the economy was their first or second most important issue. 62% said healthcare was. When asked whether their vote was cast to stop Obama's healthcare plan, help it get passed, or whether they didn't vote on that basis at all, 42% of respondents said they voted to stop Obama's plan. Brown won with 52% of the vote. Therefore, about 80% of his voters voted for him, in part, to stop Obama's plan. Insane. 51% of independents, and even 17% of Democrats said they voted to stop Obama's plan. On the other hand, only 53% of Democrats said they voted to help it get passed. 27% of them said they didn't vote on that basis at all. Contrast this to the Republican breakdown, where 77% said they voted to stop the plan, just TWO percent said they voted to get it passed, and 17% voted for other reasons. One party's voters are united in opposition to the plan, the other party's voters are split and apathetic about the plan.

On the other hand, if you look at Obama's policies in general in this poll, they're not nearly as unpopular as healthcare - even though healthcare is included among those policies. Only 38% said they voted in opposition to his policies. 27% said that Obama's policies weren't a factor in their vote. 44% of independents said they voted against them, as opposed to the 51% that said they voted against healthcare. While only 41% say they like the healthcare plan, 55% approve of the job Obama's doing. 59% say they have a favorable image of Obama. 55%, of course, is substantially higher than Obama's numbers nationwide, which speaks to what a Democratic state MA is. And Obama the person is quite a bit more popular than Obama's policies. Nevertheless, there's a road to electoral respectability here if the Democrats jettison healthcare and are judged on November on the basis of their other policy goals, which are unpopular but not as unpopular as healthcare. Once you get out of MA, where Democrats have an enormous majority, the margins are going to get even worse if the Democrats insist on pushing this through. Consider these numbers from the poll. Republicans oppose reform 92 to 2. Democrats support it 69 to 21. Independents oppose it 63 to 32. Now consider that only 13% of respondents identified themselves as Republicans. In a state with an actual functioning Republican party, that 92 to 2 bloc will be huge and health reform - currently by far the single biggest issue in American politics - will be opposed by substantially larger margins than the one that brought down Coakley. Meaning that, with the passage of health reform, very few Democrats would be safe.

"No No!"

So surely enough, Mr. Brown became MA's first Republican Senator in over 30 years and its first Republican member of Congress in over a decade, and surely enough, liberal commentators attempted to spin this as a signal that Democrats... really need to pass healthcare. Because, you see, the reason that Martha Coakley lost, besides that she dissed the Red Sox (come on now, how many voters do you really think would otherwise like Senate Democrats to maintain a 60 seat majority but just couldn't bring themselves to vote for someone who doesn't know that Curt Schilling pitched for the Red Sox?), is that Democrats have taken too long to get healthcare done, can't govern. So they sensibly elected someone who doesn't want to get healthcare done. So don't misinterpret the results of this election, nervous House Democrats - if healthcare dies, Democrats die. So say Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Ezra Klein, the folks at The New Republic, etc. Well Maddow and Olbermann are sub-literate, in spite of Maddow's being a Rhodes Scholar in a past life, so we can forget them. But some pretty smart people take this view, including, it would seem, the folks at the White House, who aren't backing down, and more usefully for my purposes, a couple of professors of political science from Yale and Georgetown who put forth this argument in the Washington Post this afternoon. According to Professors Hacker and Hopkins:

[Congressional Democrats] should ask themselves: Would they rather defend a successful law or an unsuccessful year-long legislative imbroglio? As was true after the Clinton health plan went down in flames in 1994, failing to pass health-care reform would cripple public perceptions of the Democrats' ability to govern. And as was true in 1994, the Democrats most endangered would be moderates, not liberals. The Blue Dogs may be hearing the loudest calls to turn tail. But they stand to lose the most if the governing reputation of their party goes down with reform.

Would they rather defend a successful law or an unsuccessful year-long legislative imbroglio? Hmm. Either way, of course, they're going have to defend the year-long imbroglio and the fact that they spent a year on healthcare reform that won't go into effect for years while unemployment was rising to 10%. So the question is really would they rather defend a successful law + imbroglio or just defend the imbroglio and their choice to quit. That said, the force of this argument is that "successful" laws are more popular than failures to make laws. And in a vacuum, I'd agree that voters would probably rather see Congress doing stuff than failing to do stuff, although even there I'm not so sure, because what was the last time you've seen Congress get anything done that anyone was particularly happy about? Voters are perhaps most content when Congress simply doesn't do anything. But yes, failure never looks good.

However, a "successful" law only trumps a failure to get a bill through if voters actually believe the content of the law is worthy of the name success. Right now you have an electorate which in large part believes, probably delusionally, that the healthcare reform being proposed is the equivalent of going around harpooning dolphins. Or, if they don't believe that, they think it's a great mystery (a thousand pages long, so complex and impenetrable!) that will probably make their lives worse. Or they're cranky liberals who think it should be more ambitious, that the current package is a big corporatist giveaway to insurance companies. Why a politician would want to go around bragging of his success in spending a year of Congress's valuable time passing a measure that many of his voters believe is the equivalent of going around harpooning dolphins, and many of his supporters think isn't nearly good enough, I do not know. It would strike me that a better message would be to say, "for some strange reason I thought it would be best for this nation if we started slaughtering dolphins, but then I got a lot of mail from my constituents to the contrary, and I notice that members of my party - the one that's into killing dolphins - have started losing elections in states where they shouldn't, so obviously my party isn't very popular at the moment and it probably has something to do with the dolphin-killing legislation that we've been spending the past 8 months doing nothing but talking about and attempting to get through. I now realize that at the very least, we were wrong to focus on dolphin-killing at a time when people are losing their jobs, and that we probably failed to explain how awesome and great for our economy dolphin-killing really is, and that in fact the legislation we were proposing did not actually, in any way, propose to actually kill dolphins. Your loyal Congressman would never, ever support killing dolphins. But it's too late now to convince you of that, so sorry for spending all this time on the dolphin issue; I now plan to focus my efforts on things more pressing/things you actually want." Or if he's insane he could hope that, once the legislation that has falsely been labeled as dolphin-killing legislation gets passed, people will suddenly take a new view of the whole thing, instead of getting much angrier than they are now once what they imagine to be a dolphin-killing measure actually becomes law.

Hacker and Hopkins then point out that Democrats failed to pass healthcare reform in 1994, and look, they got killed because people thought they couldn't govern. I'd really expect better from a couple of presumably pretty bright professors in the subject. Not to repeat myself, but this is like saying that it was sunny on Election Day in 1994, so Obama better go and secretly seed the clouds if he wants to retain his congressional majorities. This is also like saying that the reason Republicans lost in 2006 is because they failed to reform/destroy Social Security. If only they had succeeded, then the voters would have loved them so. No no. In that scenario, the Republican Party wouldn't have thrived, it would have practically ceased to exist. The reality is that a lot of things happened from 1993 to 1994; in fact, a lot of things happened from 1993 to 1994 that proved Congressional Democrats could govern. They passed a successful tax hike, they passed a successful trade agreement that tons of people in their own party hated, they passed successful gun control laws, they passed a successful crime bill. They actually got an enormous amount of stuff done. (Unfortunately for them most of it was stuff the median voter didn't like.) The one thing they didn't get done was massively unpopular. And the reason voters kicked Democrats out was because they failed to pass the massively unpopular item on their agenda? I don't think so.

Finally, Hacker and Hopkins argue, partly towards the claim that the failure of health reform killed the Democrats in 1994, partly to warn moderate Democrats that the effects of killing health reform would be disproportionately visited on them, that moderate Democrats went down the hardest in 1994. Which just goes to show, I suppose, that voters in 1994 really were punishing the Democrats who caused health reform to fail, not the ones who were pushing for it in the first place. But that's backwards. If you're a liberal Democrat, you usually come from a safely Democratic district. Otherwise you couldn't get away with being a liberal Democrat. If you're a moderate Democrat, you're more likely to come from a non-safe district. So yes, anytime a party does something drastically unpopular, the ones who get punished are, paradoxically enough, the moderates who weren't necessarily that in favor of it. That's why all the extremely conservative Republicans haven't gone anywhere and why the moderate Republican members of Congress are currently a virtually extinct species. They got blamed by their moderate constituents for what their extremist colleagues pushed through, because when it comes down to it, votes don't know jack shit about what their individual representative is for. They just know his party affiliation and a little about what his party has been up to. So of course the moderate Democrats have the most to fear from the passage of unpopular legislation, which is exactly why they should work to ensure that health reform never gets passed and why they should make a big public fuss of apologizing for having fucked up.

Finally, as for Obama and the leadership, they currently find themselves in the worst of all political worlds. The second Brown won, Democratic members of Congress (wisely) started panicking and saying maybe they should try reforming healthcare some other time, and the White House and the leadership, which hasn't seemed to have given this situation a great deal of thought, said they still plan to somehow get reform through. So a mere 24 hours after election night, it's already too late for the White House to get out in front of this and quit. If they did now, it would just look like face-saving and flip-flopping. So the rank and file members get to claim the "I listened to the people" high ground, while the White House and leaders, at best, get to claim the "we're getting bullied by our members and plan to quit" low ground, and at worst, are going to get publicly beaten by members of their own party. At that point, Democrats do begin to look like a party that doesn't have its shit together. Unilaterally quitting, however, would not have that effect. But that may be off the table - though perhaps Obama could pull a dramatic quit in next week's State of the Union.

Of course, this all ignores the question of whether healthcare reform is actually a good thing. Maybe it is and maybe Congressional Democrats have a moral obligation to give us the gift of healthcare reform, even though we don't seem to want it, and go down to defeat for having done so. Years later we'll thank them. Perhaps. The uninsured, at least, would certainly be grateful. My only issue is that the obvious desire of so many left-leaning analysts to get health reform done has led them to construct this bullshit political analysis that claims that voters reward politicians for doing really unpopular things, and punish them for failing to do unpopular things. And this strain of analysis of 1994 and the costs and benefits of failing to pass unpopular legislation in general could ultimately take us to a place where voters have no check on unpopular legislation pushed by the White House - because these cheerleaders will always be there to assure Congress that things will be even worse politically if they don't get something done. The whole point of representative democracy is voided if the representatives come to believe that passage of any bill is always better for them politically than failure of any bill.

Monday, January 18, 2010

What Democrats Should Do (If They Care To Win Elections)

I don't know who reads what I say about politics, but I just had to make a couple points. The polls all say that tomorrow Massachusetts will elect its first Republican Senator since 1972. The last time Massachusetts went for a Republican in any national election, it did so for Reagan in 1984, in a year in which Reagan only failed to carry his opponent's home state and the District of Columbia. It's true that Massachusetts has had a lot of Republican governors in recent years, but when it comes to national politics, no one can deny that MA's a very liberal state. Of course, liberal commentators will try to palm off this remarkable defeat on the crappiness of their party's candidate, her patrician affect and the fact that she barely tried. But, while she may have ran a terrible race, that doesn't explain away her losing a state that Obama carried by 26 points just 14 months ago. A bad campaign, or an uncharismatic candidate, can only have so much effect on an electorate's underlying partisan breakdown. Otherwise, John Kerry (who has a hell of a patrician affect himself) wouldn't be Massachusetts's other Senator. The fact that voters in MA understand that by electing Brown, they're depriving the Dems of their crucial 60th vote, only underscores that this election is largely about a rejection of Democratic policies and not just a matter of purely personal discontent with Martha Coakley. (Also the fact that Brown's whole campaign has been about promising to go to Washington and defeat health reform.)

Given, then, that one of our nation's most liberal states is poised to show at the polls that even it doesn't like the Obama health package, what should Democrats do? They could ram the bill through even with only 59 votes in the Senate, simply by getting the House to adopt the Senate bill that's already been passed unchanged. A lot of House Democrats aren't crazy about the Senate bill, but suppose that they're willing to take the Senate's version of health reform over none. Should they do so as a matter of politics? Of course not. Why would a House Democrat from a toss-up seat vote for a bill that even Massachusetts doesn't like? The logic seems straightforward enough.

However, the reasoning behind voting against a bill that consistently polls awfully would also seem simple enough, and yet Democrats have been willing to vote for health reform so far. How come? The answer is that they're relying on a tragically inaccurate misreading of recent political history. The reason, the argument for voting for health reform goes, the Democrats lost the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years is because they failed to get healthcare passed. Because Hillarycare went down in flames, the voters rejected the Democrats for failing... by bringing in the minority party that helped kill Hillarycare.

(Why exactly was a First Lady that had never held elective office put in charge of healthcare anyway?)

As should be obvious, this analysis of 1994 makes no sense; if voters were mad at the Democrats for failing to get health reform done, why would they punish them by electing reform's opponents? Does anyone really believe that had Hillarycare been passed, the Democrats would have held on to Congress? Isn't a much more credible analysis that Hillarycare failed to pass because it was so unpopular and that voters then punished Democrats, in part, for attempting the thing in the first place? Yes, but it's even simpler than that. A lot of the reasons the Democrats lost in 1994 were non health-related. In 1993, the Democrats raised taxes before we had gotten out of the recession. The hikes were so unpopular that Gore had to break a tie in the Senate and the bill passed by just one vote in the House. Clinton and the congressional Democrats also did other unpopular things, like passing gun control and NAFTA, the free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico that was supposedly going to suck millions of American jobs away. And yes, they also failed to pass a very unpopular health reform bill. Had they succeeded, they could have lost worse.

Because, however, the Democratic Party's been taken over by ideologues, or at least, people who actually believe in things (unlike Clinton, who arguably became - see welfare reform - our most conservative President since Hoover once he saw that voters didn't want him to govern as a liberal), the party, conned by health reform wonks masquerading as political analysts, has bought into this purely imaginary reading of history, one which says that they're better off passing a really unpopular bill than not passing one, because if they didn't pass anything 1994 would happen all over again. (Never mind that it's not even as if the poor ignorant masses will quickly see the benefits of reform once it's through; for the most part they come several years down the road.) And so they intend to go and commit political suicide. Or at least most of them do; surely a few House Democrats will understand the significance of the results in MA and peel off, citing irreconcilable differences between the House bill and Senate bill, at which point the bill in its present form will die. But instead of allowing reform to die in a chaotic process where a handful of no-name Texan Democrats come to their senses and kill healthcare, which would make Obama and the Democratic leadership look like losers, why not manage the fallout? How brilliant would it be for Obama to come out and acknowledge that he was wrong, that he wasn't elected to reshape the health insurance market? The speech practically writes itself. I listened to you, the American people, he'd say, and you don't want this. Partly it's my fault; I did a horrible job of explaining what reform entails. I also failed to take into account how happy a lot of you are with the system as it exists currently, I made too many backroom deals with drug and insurance companies to get this all done, and I took my eye off the all-important jobs ball. I'm asking Harry Reid and Pelosi to withdraw this bill and look to passing a second stimulus. Then in November they run on the economy; it still sucks, they'd say, but the GOP got us here, we arrested the decline, and now we're starting to see recovery. Fortunately for Obama, he hasn't actually really done much, and very little that people don't like - nothing equivalent to NAFTA or raising taxes. He can still do okay in 2010 so long as he kills his most unpopular policy proposal.