Three Ways of Reacting to the Obvious

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At this writing, no one can say what happened in Benghazi on September 11, when Ambassador Chris Stevens was brutally murdered by a mob of Muslim fanatics, driven to frenzy by an obscure YouTube feature. Or was he murdered by a Muslim army, conducting a well-planned attack? Or was it an inside job, perpetrated by Libyan employees of the embassy? Or perhaps all three?

The administration’s account of the enemy has frequently changed. But what about America’s arrangements to defend its people and property? What about our own operations? What happened with them? Mrs. Clinton’s State Department clearly wants everyone to assume that adequate security was in place. But . . . but . . . what about the obvious? The ambassador is dead.

The badly named Buck McKeon (R-CA), who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, made that point. It’s an obvious point, but he made it, and he did a little something with it: “It’s pretty obvious he did not have adequate security. Otherwise he would probably be here today. . . . I’m really disappointed about that. I think when we put our people around the world at risk and don’t provide adequate security, shame on us.”

This is one kind of response to fact. It’s banal, it’s obvious, but at least it recognizes the obvious. It recognizes things as they are, and allows for some further investigation, and perhaps some redress of grievances.

A second kind of response is represented by President Obama’s bizarre remarks of Sept. 20, about what he had learned as president: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."

In making this comment, Obama assumed a general recognition of the obvious: he had not managed to fulfill his promises of hope and change. An obvious response would be, “Well, maybe somebody else can fix things.” But that’s not the tack Obama took. That’s not what he said he had learned. He said he’d learned that you can’t change Washington from the inside, that you have to be an outsider to do that.

There’s no way you can make sense out of that. Obama couldn’t be farther inside, and he’s campaigning to stay that way, despite the fact that insiders can’t change anything. But obviously, when he was on the outside, he didn’t manage to change anything, either — because otherwise why would he have campaigned to get on the inside?

This dilemma has no exit. It’s a radical form of conservatism: since no one, either inside or outside, can do anything about anything, we need to stay exactly where we are right now. Obama happens to be in the White House, so that’s a good deal for him. As for the rest of us . . . we’ll always have Social Security to fall back on.

Or will we? On September 20, Paul Ryan addressed the convention of the American Association of Retired Persons, otherwise known as the world’s greatest purveyor of direct mail, and said what is obviously true and admitted by all: Social Security is broke, and getting broker, and if something isn’t done about it, the system will fold. This non-news should, theoretically, be of the first importance to the AARP. The AARP should want to do something about it. But what it did was to boo and hiss Paul Ryan.

This is the third kind of reaction to the obvious — an impassioned resistance to knowing or doing anything. It’s a conservatism so militant that even Jerry Falwell, were he still on earth, might pause and admire it. It’s the kind of conservatism that one sees everywhere in the campaigns of incumbents (and this year, the Democratic Party is the chief incumbent). Every Obama sign and sticker is like a giant billboard reading SO WHAT? The failure is obvious; the intention to fix it, nonexistent. The program is, keep everything exactly the way it is. The fact that this program will probably win is an even ghastlier reflection on American politics than the Republicans’ tedious gyrations between truth, untruth, and sort of truth.

“Fact checks” almost always hurt the Republicans, because the Republican campaign is predicated on the idea that facts exist and must be faced. But they do nothing to hurt the Democrats — and that’s the really awful thing.

rsquo;s not the tack Obama took. That




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The 47% Solution

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Earlier this week Mother Jones released a video in which Mitt Romney, standing in front of a gathering of prospective donors (that is, rich people whose lives are so impoverished they have nothing better to do than listen to another rich person beg for money), all but conceded the election, announcing that no matter what he did, 47% of the nation would be voting for his opponent. Setting aside how imprecise and impolitic his remarks were — did he really need to make himself appear even more out of touch with the public? did he really mean to lump minimum-wage earners in with the professionally unemployed as “moochers”? — his response to the footage that shows how poor a candidate he is, and how incompetent his campaign has been.

Straight off, Romney took to his domesticated media outlet, Fox News, to answer softball questions that would allow him to get back on message. But he botched even this: saying his remarks were “not elegantly stated” because they were “off the cuff” was an admission that he could neither handle anything approaching a crisis, nor tailor a message to this specific audience while keeping up the phony populist image all politicians are expected to maintain.

Can you imagine Reagan casting aside half the nation at the start of a campaign?

Next, Romney pointed to Obama’s notorious remarks in the 2008 campaign about rural voters “get[ting] bitter and cling[ing] to their guns or religion.” While he’s right about this revealing the president’s (undoubtedly ongoing) contempt for a large percentage of the electorate, he’s wrong that the effect is in any way comparable, or that Obama’s later victory proves that this election is still salvageable. Obama’s remarks came in April, much earlier in the cycle, when he was still battling Hillary Clinton for his party’s nomination; at that time he was running left, trying to gain support from likely primary voters in the Democrat base. Obama still had plenty of time to spin the remarks for a wider audience (and is still doing so today), especially when faced with yet another weak GOP candidate.

Romney is not facing a lame duck candidate, and he does not have months to spare. He may have had that chance if the video had surfaced in May, when the donor event was surreptitiously recorded, but with the tape emerging only now, it’s as if he gave them just last week. And even so the situation was still different: by then Romney was the nominee in all but name; his message should’ve been about how he was going to carve out hunks of that 47% for the GOP. Can you imagine Reagan casting aside half the nation from the very first? Romney's comparison of his callous remarks with Obama’s shows he does not understand the gravity of his misspeak.

Meanwhile, Romney, as well as Paul Ryan, has also tried to call attention to taped footage of Obama speaking in 1998 — 1998! — about how he believes in “redistribution” of wealth. Back then Obama was just finishing up his first term as an Illinois state senator in a very safe seat; he had no reason not to say he believed in the same thing 99% of Democrats have believed in since FDR’s day. The move smacks of sheer desperation; worse, it suggests that this video clip from 1998 — 1998! — was something the campaign had been holding in reserve, a hidden weapon the Romney crew hoped would push their guy over the hump. What’s next, a tape from Obama’s childhood where he would like to get the world singing in perfect harmony?

There are so many ways to hit Obama’s first term performance, yet Romney has missed with every swing.

If Romney had proven himself competent at any point during this campaign, he might’ve been able to mitigate the damage, or at least issue a semi-believable retraction. But this is a candidate who somehow contrived to offend even the English — the Tories, even, past masters at giving offhand offense — when he stated London might not be ready for the Olympics. (It was.) And, to pick just one more among many, he’s also the candidate who, when he was asked how much “middle-income Americans” make, gave a range between $200,000 and $250,000.

The Fox News fools, of course, are trying to rally behind this, encouraging Romney to stick with that line of attack—a great way to lose not only the White House, but any chance of retaking the Senate, as well. Which could be the point: it was enough early on that no Republican with any genuine chance at a two-term presidency wanted anything to do with the 2012 election; I suspect the smart ones among them (and the intelligence of anyone in the GOP should from this point be measured by the speed at which they distance themselves from Romney) realize what a mess the world will be by 2016: global recession, mushrooming unemployment, massive debt burdens, neverending wars . . . how could anyone tossed into that not improve things at least a little?

Which, again, highlights the unfathomable failure of the Romney campaign. There are so many ways to hit Obama’s first term performance, yet Romney has missed with every swing. Obama extends Bush’s imprudent wars, pursues new ones, prosecutes whisteblowers for treason, executes American citizens extrajudicially, and kicks bin Laden’s corpse up and down the campaign trail; Romney calls him soft on terrorism. Obama maintains Goldman Sachs’ disastrous control of American economic policy, bails out underwater companies while deriding solvent ones, exacerbates global starvation through continued agricultural subsidies, and puts forward an unworkable piss-take of a budget; Romney refers everyone to Ryan’s almost equally unworkable budgetary scheme. Obama presides over a prison gulag filled with consensual criminals and an unconscionable percentage of America’s young black men; Romney says nothing on criminal justice reform. Obama holds up trade agreements to benefit his union cronies; Romney calls for trade war with China. It just goes on and on and on.

Going by the president’s approval ratings, this is an election that the Republicans could have won — but not by this candidate, and not with this campaign. Now there’s just one good thing the GOP can hope to take from the Romney campaign: getting a couple months’ jump on the postmortem.



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Ron Paul: The Books

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Two prominent libertarian authors, Walter Block and Brian Doherty, have just published books about the same important subject: Ron Paul.

Liberty thought it would be a good idea to ask each author to review the other. No one knew how this would turn out — but here are the results. Stephen Cox

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Ron Paul’s Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired, by Brian Doherty. HarperCollins, 2012, 294 pages.

Reviewed by Walter E. Block

This is a magnificent book. It is riveting, hard to put down, informative. I experienced much of the Ron Paul phenomenon myself, up close and personal, yet I learned a great deal from Doherty’s explication. In another life, he must have been a safari guide to the deepest jungles, or an inspired travel guide to foreign lands, or a gifted sociologist. He takes us on a trip through the libertarian movement as brought to us by Dr. Paul as no one else has been able to do.

If you are a Ron Paul fan, or are interested in his foray into Republican and Libertarian politics, or even hate the man and want to be informed about him, this is the book to get. Its main drawback is that it was released on May 15, which means that Doherty must have finished writing it early in the year (he covers the Iowa caucus in its last few pages); but so much has happened since then, and without this author to put all these recent occurrences together for us, it just isn’t the same. This means that if Ron Paul becomes the next president of the US and appoints me czar of anything, I shall order Doherty to write a sequel to this important book of his.

Our author takes us on a historical tour of Ron Pauliana from his early days, to his medical career, to his beginnings in politics, his struggles as the Dr. No congressman, and his three campaigns for the presidency — one for the Libertarian Party, and two for the Republicans. But this book is far more than a biography. One of its many strengths is Doherty’s incisive knowledge of the libertarian movement in all its esoterica.

Others are his numerous vignettes of the people who have given of themselves, lost jobs and alienated friends and family members, in their support of Paul. Doherty also offers candid assessments of Ron Paul himself; we get not only the palpable love that Doherty feels for Paul, but also some of Paul's warts; e.g., he refuses to take lessons from professional speakers, he keeps his religious faith to himself, and he almost absolutely refuses to tailor his message to his audience (of course without violating his principles — what kind of a politician is that?) — things I didn’t fully appreciate even though I, too, am something of an intimate of Paul.

Doherty had me at the edge of my seat, practically panting with glee, as he described the dramatic Giuliani-Paul dustup about 9/11.

Doherty is not a professional economist. Yet his insights into the gold standard, budgets, the deficit, the debt, the fallacies of Keynesianism, the Austrian business cycle theory, the Fed, inflation, the Ponzi scheme of Social Security, the difficulties with socialized medicine, and much more — are clear and true. He is a journalist, not a libertarian theorist, and he is also insightful in his treatment of the niceties of legalizing drugs, the distinction between crony and real capitalism, the strengths and weaknesses of various “movement” organizations and leaders, "voluntaryism," anarcho-capitalism, and a host of other often complicated issues.

The dramatic highlight for me in this book was our author’s depiction of the Giuliani-Paul dustup about 9/11. I witnessed this myself, firsthand. And I read what was said about it, in the aftermath. Yet Doherty had me at the edge of my seat, practically panting with glee, as he once again described this dramatic event. Doherty is nothing if not a magnificent storyteller, and this gift of his pervades the book.

This is a strange review for me to write, for at roughly the same time that his book about Paul was released, so was mine. Doherty and I agreed to review each others’ books, and this is my contribution to the agreement. Although Doherty and I share a love for Ron Paul, our books are very different. I don’t interview anyone; Doherty's book is chock-full of interviews. In contrast to Doherty's, mine shares no personal experiences with Paul and Paulians. Mine is not at all historical. I do not give any tour of the libertarian movement, as he does. Instead, my book is in part an attempt to garner publicity for Paul. I wrote articles that later became chapters in the book about whom he might pick for Vice President and whom for Supreme Court, not so much because I thought there was a clear and present need for such speculations, but more as an attempt to promote his quest for the presidency. In the book, I feature groups such as Jews for Ron Paul, to combat charges that he was anti-Semitic, anti-Israel. I offer a few “Open Letters to Ron Paul,” where I have the temerity to offer him advice on, among other things, how best to deal with interviewers who simply will not allow him to speak.

Another part of my book features my sometimes, I admit it, pretty vicious attacks on people who “done wrong” to Ron Paul. These chapters are not so much aimed at liberals or conservatives, although I do take on a few of them. I can (sort of) forgive them their trespasses. What do they know about anything important after all? No, my ire was aroused to the boiling point by unwarranted criticisms emanating from libertarians, several with impeccable credentials in this philosophy. They, it seems to me, should have known better.

Let me close this review with two very minor criticisms of the Doherty book. For one thing, he (along with practically everyone else) characterizes the war of 1861 in the US as a “Civil War.” But ’twas not a civil war. That term pertains to the case in which one party wishes to take over the entire country at the expense of its opponent. The wars in Spain in 1936 and in Russia in 1917 were true civil wars. While the North in 1861 did indeed wish to rule the entire nation, the South did not. It only wished to secede. So a more accurate characterization would be, the War to Prevent Southern Secession, or the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression.

Second, Doherty (p. 254) claims that what enraged Ayn Rand about the publication in the Freeman of Milton Friedman and George Stigler’s article, “Roofs or Ceilings” was that Friedman “was willing to grant the good intentions of his intellectual adversaries.” No, she was angry at Friedman and Stigler because of “a paragraph on page 10, which seems to suggest the authors agree with the goal of equalizing income.” Rand (very properly in my own view) called them “the two reds” (Snow, 2012). In the view of Skousen, 1998: “Ayn Rand labeled the pamphlet ‘collectivist propaganda’ and ‘the most pernicious thing ever issued by an avowedly conservative organization’ because the economists favored lifting rent controls on practical, humanitarian grounds, not in defense of ‘the inalienable right of landlords and property owners.’” Miss Rand objected to Friedman-Stigler on both of the grounds just stated, and I concur with her on each.

But these are minor blemishes in an otherwise magnificent book. I loved reading it, and so will you, if you have even the slightest interest in Ron Paul and liberty.

References:
Skousen, Mark. 1998. “Vienna and Chicago: A Tale of Two Schools.”
http://www.thefreemanonline.org/features/vienna-and-chicago-a-tale-of-two-schools/
Snow, Nicholas. 2011. “Making Sense of the Controversy.” February 22;
http://www.fee.org/from-the-archives/making-sense-of-the-controversy/

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Ron Paul for President in 2012: Yes to Ron Paul and Liberty, by Walter Block. Ishi Press International, 2012, 392 pages)

Reviewed by Brian Doherty

Libertarian economist Walter Block really, really likes Ron Paul, and thinks Paul ought to be (and thought when he wrote this book that he would be) the next president of the United States. As the title indicates, Ron Paul for President in 2012: Yes to Ron Paul and Liberty is a book of express, and strongly worded, advocacy. Block grants at one point that, well, libertarians can maintain their cred as true friends of liberty merely by not stabbing Paul in the back. But his general tone sells the message that anything other than pure adoration and belief in Paul’s eventual victory qualifies as such stabbing, and he writes that he sees support for Paul as “a sort of litmus test for libertarianism.” Anyone who does not share and express Block’s own thoughts and feelings regarding Ron Paul with precisely the same, or nearly the same, strength and commitment seems to be, in Block’s view, an objective enemy of libertarianism, and generally “despicable” (a favorite Block word for people or articles he thinks are anti-Paul).

Block’s new book is a collection of his articles and blog posts, most of which appeared at the website LewRockwell.com, and were written mostly over the course of Paul’s 2011–12 campaign. As Block writes in the book’s introduction, “Each and every last one of these chapters is an attempt . . . to expand and expound upon his [Paul's] views, to publicize them, to promote his candidacy, to defend it against attacks from within and without the libertarian movement.”

Block is a professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans by vocation, and by avocation the “Jewish mother” of what he sometimes calls the Austro-libertarian movement, the hardcore pushers of a Rothbardian plumbline of Austrian economics and anarchistic libertarianism. Here, this Jewish mother’s mission is to tell libertarians, and the world, that they need to push for Paul. Although Paul is not 100% by Block’s own standards — even Block admits the non-anarchist Congressman Paul is only a 97, and further admits to disagreeing with Paul on immigration and abortion — Block finds Paul’s rise in public prominence in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns the greatest thing that’s happened to the libertarian cause in, well, ever. Block believes that “the Texas congressman has acquainted more people with libertarianism, and converted them to this philosophy, then all of the other [libertarian thought leaders] put together.”

Block is well placed to judge these matters regarding the libertarian movement. He’s a grandmaster of modern libertarianism himself, fighting in the trenches of academic and popular writings on Austrian and libertarian issues for over four decades, since he was converted to Austrian economics at Murray Rothbard’s feet. He’s the author of the libertarian classic Defending the Undefendable, which rigorously argues for the legitimacy of such professions as the blackmailer, ticket scalper, slumlord, scab, and employer of child labor, professions which disgust many but which Block points out aggress against no one and provide real economic value and should not be interfered with by the state. That book’s purpose is not to be shocking, per se, but to be rigorously intelligent in identifying the legal and moral meanings of the modern libertarian project, and Block performs the purpose brilliantly. As F.A. Hayek, not nearly as hardcore as Block himself, said of the book: “Some may find it too strong a medicine, but it will still do them good even if they hate it. A real understanding of economics demands that one disabuses oneself of many dear prejudices and illusions. Popular fallacies in economics frequently express themselves in unfounded prejudices against other occupations, and in showing the falsity of these stereotypes Block is doing a real service, although he will not make himself more popular with the majority."

Block finds Paul’s rise in public prominence in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns the greatest thing that’s happened to the libertarian cause in, well, ever.

Block tries to write, here as in all his popular writings, with a light hand. His version of lightness, though, often manifests itself as a very New Yorker-ish (not the magazine — a stereotypical New Yorker) heavy sarcasm, with bursts of manic silliness. But his point is serious, even when made with bludgeoning irony. The book contains defenses and explanation of Paul’s stances on discrimination law, environmental protection, the dangers of the Federal Reserve, and ending the drug war, among other issues. Block advises Paul, from afar, about how to conduct himself during debates, while wisely allowing that, given Paul’s tremendous success, he’s obviously already doing most things right: “It is unlikely that [his success] is in spite of his presentation style.” Block also indulges in some Paul fannish fun, such as skylarking about possible Supreme Court nominees or vice presidential picks for the congressman.

Since this book collects pretty much everything Block has written in the past four years that mentions Paul at all, it is a bit repetitive, and it sometimes drifts a bit into more general libertarian controversies, such as Block’s daring defense of accepting money and jobs from the government. Block believes that as long as you stand against statist policies, “the more money you take from the coffers of the state, the better libertarian you are.”

The book also contains Block debating or attacking other libertarians for falling short of Paulist standards; instances, he believes, are Randy Barnett’s pro-Iraq War stance, and Wendy McElroy’s disdain for any major-party political leader for the libertarian cause. Block often provides line-by-line eviscerations of other people’s writings that he found mistaken or insufficiently respectful to Paul, whether from libertarian or nonlibertarian sources. (Block regards one of my Reason colleagues expressing on TV the opinion that there was no way Paul would win the presidency — and with a look on her face that he found objectionable, to boot — as a firable offence. He regards an organization that would not do such firing as unworthy of the libertarian label or libertarian support. Reason, of course,did not fire her.)

Block may be read by some as too hero-worshipping of Paul, and unrealistically optimistic about his chances. (Block, for example, seems to think the probability of Paul’s victory can be calculated merely by assuming that every single GOP candidate has the exact same odds of winning.) But Block is objective enough to admit that despite his admittedly great success as a proselytizer for the cause, Paul is “not a leading theoretician, not a leading economist . . . not a leading intellectual” of the movement. So what is he? I think Block would agree with my assessment, as author of my own book about Paul and someone who has followed his career with interest and support since 1988, that Paul is a staunch student and fan of Mises and Rothbard who has learned and can transmit their lessons well, who found himself in the position — ironically through a major-party run for president — of selling radically anti-political libertarian ideas with greater efficiency and success than anyone else has managed for a very long while. Block is correct in thinking that Paul has been uniquely successful at his task, and most interestingly by finding a huge mass of normal Americans who never thought of themselves as libertarians before, or as anything specifically political at all.

Understanding what Paul did and said since 2007 ought to be of great interest to libertarians or students of libertarianism, or just students of American politics, and Block gathers a useful collection of information and arguments about the Paul movement as it happened, touching on many of the controversies that surrounded Paul, both within and without libertarianism. If one is a Paul fan seeking a grab-bag of commentary and explanations that is unabashedly pro-Paul — something difficult to find in the modern media environment — then he or she will at least have fun with this book, and likely learn a lot about some of the more complicated issues Block addresses, such as strict property-right libertarian environmentalism, and how to figure out, amid the maddening empirical complications of modern foreign policy issues, who is and who is not an initial aggressor, as opposed to simply a retaliator.

Readers not already 100% sold on Paul are likely to feel Block’s suspicion and even contempt radiating at them. But 10, 20, or 30 years from now, when people look back on what the Paul movement may have meant for American libertarianism, this book will be a valuable document of the excitement and manic energy that Paul’s presence inspired in many a libertarian, old and new.




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The Ryan Pick

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With his selection of Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate, Mitt Romney has decided the 2012 presidential election. Barack Obama will be reelected president of the United States.

Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, brings Romney needed credibility with conservatives. Indeed, over the past few days establishment conservatives have been waging a pick-Ryan campaign in the media, and probably behind the scenes with Romney’s people as well. Ryan is a serious figure intellectually, and commands respect within establishment political circles. But he has spent over a decade in Congress, and as a result is viewed with some skepticism by Tea Party types. He will not excite the yahoo wing of the party as Sarah Palin did in 2008.

But just how much Ryan solidifies Romney’s support from the base is beside the point. Indeed, the Ryan pick shows just how out of touch Romney is with political realities. Conservatives were going to hold their noses and vote for Romney anyway, because they hate Obama. What Romney needed was a VP pick who would help him win over independents, particularly women. Ryan doesn’t do that. But the damage the Ryan pick does to Romney goes beyond this.

The problem is Ryan’s plan for Medicare. I’m not going to discuss the merits of the Ryan plan here; this is a piece about electoral politics. The Ryan plan will be pounded day in and day out by Democrats. By November Ryan and Romney will literally look like losers, irritable and worn from weeks and weeks of defending a plan that most people (and all oldsters) will perceive as the evisceration of a sacrosanct entitlement. Even people over 60 who belong to the Tea Party believe that their Medicare benefits must be preserved, no matter the cost.

Romney’s people may believe that Ryan will bring them Wisconsin, and winning that state becomes a bit more likely with Ryan on the ticket. But it’s still very much a reach for the Republicans. Scott Walker’s success in surviving the recall election earlier this year is not likely a harbinger of Republican prospects in November. Many Walker voters who were standing up against Wisconsin’s public employee unions (i.e., voting their pocketbooks), will not support cuts in Medicare and Social Security.

Had Romney been looking to pick off a battleground state, he should’ve picked Rob Portman of Ohio. Ohio is bigger than Wisconsin, and Republicans had a decent chance of carrying the state. Portman might have put them over the top there. The Ryan pick places Ohio more firmly in the Democratic column.

I originally thought that Romney would pick a woman or a Hispanic (Marco Rubio), because he lags badly with both groups. I did an analysis in June that gave President Obama 22 states and the District of Columbia with a total of 270 electoral votes, the minimum needed to win. With five months to go the election was clearly very much up for grabs. I thought then that Romney would pick Portman, as Ohio is a state Romney needs to win if he is to prevail. With the selection of Ryan, Romney has probably lost Ohio and Florida, which in June I had going to the Republicans. If Romney loses both Ohio and Florida, there is no way he gets to 270 electoral votes.

The idea that major structural reform of Medicare and Social Security will play politically, in a time of economic uncertainty and widespread voter despair, is utter nonsense. Yet that is what Romney apparently believes, based on his selection of Ryan. Romney truly is out of touch with reality. His dippiness was already apparent in his views on foreign policy. His economic policies — on tax reform, job creation, and yes, entitlement reform — were in fact far more sensible than anything put forward by the Democrats, and this constituted his main advantage over Obama. But by placing radical reform of Medicare and Social Security in the forefront of the political debate — that is, by picking Paul Ryan — Romney has cost himself the election. The only question now is how big Obama’s margin will be.




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Populist Fizzle

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The Obama campaign and the DNC appear increasingly desperate in their attempts to find some attack on Romney that resonates with the American people. They’re desperate, of course, because the economy continues to drift in the doldrums, and the election looms.

The latest is a populist ploy. Key Democratic politicians started attacking Romney for having invested in foreign companies and having assets in Swiss and other offshore accounts. This was immediately trumpeted by the mainstream media. How dare Romney invest abroad! He’s the pioneer of offshoring!

Now, it is by no means illegal — yet — to put some of your portfolio into foreign assets, and it is in all the “Investing 101” books that you ought to do so. You need to diversify your assets to minimize risks, and this may include diversifying outside your home country. Putting money in a Swiss account, for example, is a good hedge against inflation, given the historic stability of the Swiss monetary system. But the Dems are banking on the fact that the average person doesn’t understand all this — and that is a very good bet.

Alas, however, the attack fizzled when it was discovered that Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), chair of the DNC, had herself invested abroad, repeatedly. She invested in the Davis Financial Fund, with holdings on the State Bank of India, as well as a Swiss private banking group. She also invested in the Fidelity Advisor Overseas Fund, which has holdings in HSBC (a British bank), Novo Nordisk (a Danish drug company),VW, Rakuten (a Japanese shipping firm) and so on.

It also turns out that another person who has invested abroad is the ever-offensive Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Venus), “head” (though not the brains) of the House Democrats. She earned millions from her investment in Matthews International Capital Management, which focuses primarily on Asian equities.

Obama, like his spiritual mentor Nixon, is much given to what psychologists call “projection” — calling others what you yourself are. Obama once accused McCain’s campaign of “throwing stuff up against the refrigerator to see what sticks.” Yes, President Obama, and you don't have an infamous "enemies list."

But it looks like this little piece of magnetized crap isn’t sticking. Try again, guys.




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And May the Better Blur Win

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The old Reader’s Digest used to run a lot of one-page features, each with nine or ten little paragraphs of something vaguely related to a central theme. (If that reminds you of Word Watch, please think again.) There was “Humor in Uniform” — funny anecdotes about soldiers and sailors. There was “Life in These United States” — funny anecdotes about virtually anything. And there was something called “Toward More Picturesque Speech” — examples of colorful ways of saying things.

I thought about that feature at the end of last month, when Turner Classics ran Wells Fargo (1937), an historical-fiction movie. Captivated by the opening shot of an early railroad train jolting along toward a station full of excited people, I watched till the end. The movie was a sympathetic exposition of capitalist investment and innovation, though it offered few things as good as the train. But one thing was better. It was a scene in which an old mountain man lamented his failure to find gold in California. “I ain’t had no more luck,” he said, “than a duck with a doorknob.”

Now that, I thought, is picturesque speech.

Unfortunately, the humor in recent examples of the verbal picturesque is mostly unintended.

Such examples can be arranged in any order, so why not start with the Yahoo News report on the French election? There one learned that “François Hollande won the French presidential election on Sunday, capturing more than 51 percent of the vote.” Or, to put that in another way, “Sarkozy, who has held the French presidency since 2007, grabbed 48.1 percent.” Quite a picture. Sarkozy, we see, didn’t spend the past few years just being president; he spent them grimly holding the presidency. But Hollande found a way to break his hold, and captured a majority of the vote. Now, apparently, he’s waiting for an exchange of prisoners, because at the same time Sarkozy reached out his hairy hand and grabbed almost half the voters for himself!

Picturesque speech — and it isn’t a pretty picture. Be warned, however: this is the kind of picture that is going to be painted from now until November 6, election day in America. We’re going to hear a lot about how Nevada is up for grabs, Romney is scoring big in the Kentucky polls, Obama may deal Romney a punishing defeat in Missouri, Biden has doubled down on his anti-Romney rhetoric, and come next Tuesday the two campaigns will be gearing up for their moment of truth. “Come” is such a poetic substitute for “on,” isn’t it? And if you see a chance to combine a reference to gears with a bullfighting metaphor, well, chase after it, tiger. After all, this election is going down to the wire, and we’re all going down with it.

“Public servants” exist only in metaphor. No one actually goes around dressed in a maid’s or butler’s costume, serving the public.

Everyone understands the plight of the daily sportswriter, who constantly has to come up with new synonyms for “beat.” You know, “Last night, East Overshoe crushed, blinkered, snowed, spooked, buried, sliced and diced West Overshoe, 12 to 8.” The sports guy’s life is a game with no winners (sorry — conquering heroes): nobody receives any particular reward or recognition (claims the laurels) for finding odd ways of not using the same word twice. That’s just part of the job, in the same way that saying “Doesn’t he look natural?” is part of everyone’s job at open-casket funerals. No one knows why the tradition is maintained — although everyone should read the section of Fowler’sModern English Usage called “Elegant Variation” and consider the logic of the thing. Fowler’s point was that you might as well repeat a word, if the word is appropriate in the first place, rather than resorting to a supposedly elegant variation and making your readers waste their time deducing the fact that women representatives are the same as female delegates.

Reading the sportswriter’s elegant variations doesn’t blow out many brain cells; it’s just annoying. But the political reporter’s verbal gymnastics are both annoying and misleading. When they depict political disputes as mildly comic games, as the kind of warfare that takes place on the Scrabble board, where someone grabs points and captures the lead by putting “adze” in the right place, the artists of picturesque speech transform the serious into the trivial.

Or the trivial into the serious. The latest fad is for politicians to picture themselves, not as people who started out running for student council, then majored in poli sci because they liked the idea of government, then became interns for various hacks in the state legislature, then ran for the legislature themselves, and so on and so forth, through all the stages of a humdrum existence, culminating in a government pension, a dacha in Florida, and an occasional invitation to address their granddaughter’s third-grade class — the latest fad, I say, is for politicians to depict themselves not as people like that, but as public servants. There hasn’t been a day in the past month when I haven’t heard some politician pompously describe himself in that way, usually because somebody dared to lob a protest or an ethics investigation in his direction. Da noive!

Public servant is an odd phrase. It isn’t like calling yourself the chief cook and bottle washer. Cooks and bottle washers actually exist. Public servants, by contrast, exist only in metaphor. No one actually goes around dressed in a maid’s or butler’s costume, serving the public. No one appears in the slave market with a sign around his neck saying, “For Sale: Faithful Public Servant. Works Hard. Eats Little. Priced to Sell at $500.” No one devotes himself to doing the public’s business, claiming no rewards of money and power. If you wonder what literal public servants look like, too bad for you. You won’t find any.

But you will find people like Kathleen Sebelius, US secretary of health and human services, who on May 17, in the face of protests about her role in the abortion controversy, declared, “I have spent virtually my entire life in public service.” What that has to do with abortion, one way or another, you may well guess. I’m still wondering myself. But what chiefly concerned me was the idea that an innocent young girl had been forced by her parents into public service, and had wound up spending virtually all of her life there. Alarmed, I rushed to Wikipedia and discovered what a virtual life in public service really is.

Sebelius, age 64, is the daughter of a governor of Ohio. She went to an exclusive private prep school, then took a B.A. in (guess what?) political science. To this she added (guess what?) a master’s in public administration. From the age of 29 to the age of 38 she served, as Wikipedia says, “as executive director and chief lobbyist for the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association.” (This Wikipedia article was written, in bulk and by the ton, either by Sebelius or by a fervent admirer who has kept meticulous track of every instant of her service to the public. Why do I think so? The entry says, among other things, that “in January 2006 [she] was tied for 20th most popular governor in the country.” No, really it says that.) After helping the Trial Lawyers, Sebelius was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives and served for eight years there, making laws for other people to obey. Then she was elected state insurance commissioner, then governor of the state.

Few or none of Sebelius’ elections appear to have taken place against her will; it seems, in fact, that she persistently pursued public office. Denied, by one of those pesky term-limits laws, a third chance to capture the governorship, she packed her bags and moved out of Kansas, grabbing her current job in Washington. Immediately, according to Wikipedia, she went from 57th most powerful woman in the world to 23rd most powerful woman in the world (rankings developed, no doubt with scientific accuracy, by Forbes magazine). She hasn’t been quite as successful as Dorothy Gale, who attained even greater power in the land of Oz, but who knows what her future holds? In any event, this is how Kathleen Sebelius came to spend virtually her entire life in public service.

You can decide for yourself if you would rather hear such picturesque speech as Sebelius’ self-descriptions or listen to stuff that tries not to create any picture at all — because that’s the other way in which words are used in our political environment. Among the alternative-media sensations of May 2012 was one of those recordings that seem to surface whenever a public servant imagines that there are no electronic devices in the vicinity. It documents an impromptu classroom debate between a public school teacher in North Carolina and a student who insists that it’s all right, it’s really all right, to criticize President Obama. The teacher refuses to permit such critiques in her classroom, asserting that people can (and presumably should) be arrested for them. Responding to complaints about her ridiculous statements, the relevant education authorities issued their own statement, reported by the Winston-Salem Journal (May 12, 2012):

“The Rowan-Salisbury School System expects all students and employees to be respectful in the school environment and for all teachers to maintain their professionalism in the classroom,” the statement says. “This incident should serve as an education for all teachers to stop and reflect on their interaction with students. Due to personnel and student confidentiality, we cannot discuss the matter publicly.”

You gotta love it. Reading these words, could you possibly picture what might have occasioned them? They not only refuse to describe a single thing that went on; they also refuse to conduct any further discussion of the matter publicly. Don’t bother to write — we’re not writing back. If you don’t think this is funny, you should reflect on the fact that the institution that refuses to discuss the matter publicly is itself a public institution.

But the more I reflect, the more I see in this non-picture. I see that all teachers are in need of reflection and education, which they acquire only when one of them makes a mistake that astonishes the nation. I see that there are things called respect and professionalism, which exist in certain environments, though perhaps not in others; it is impossible to tell whether these things exist in the school district in question, because of two mysterious things — personnel confidentiality and student confidentiality.

I would like to know what those phrases mean. Do they mean that students and “personnel” never say anything about anything, preferring to remain confidential? Or do they mean that no one has the right to say anything about students or “personnel”? Or do they mean . . . ? They could mean almost anything.

This is not what the Reader’s Digest had in mind. It’s not what anyone, not under the immediate control of Satan, has ever had in mind.

But now, turning to the pair of 500-pound whatevers in the room, let’s think for a moment about the picturesque speech of President Obama and former Governor Romney. Take a moment — take a million moments — and try to recall anything interesting, resonant, poignant, piquant, picturesque, or memorable in any good way that either of these men has said during the past several thousand years of the current political campaign. Try to recall . . . well, try simply to recall their campaign slogans. What are they? A new deal! No, that was Roosevelt. Are you better off today? No, Reagan. Let’s see, let’s see . . .

What chiefly concerned me was the idea that an innocent young girl had been forced by her parents into public service, and had wound up spending virtually all of her life there.

Try to remember the speeches they made. Go back as far as you want. “Ah,” you say. “I remember that speech where Obama claimed that because of him, the oceans would stop rising, or drying up, or something like that. Then there was that hopey-changey thing . . . when did he say that? What was it he said? Then he said something about how the Republicans had a car, and they drove it into a ditch, and now they were trying to get their hands on the wheel, so they could drive it out again . . . Something along those lines. I know he said that he looked exactly like Trayvon Martin. Or have I got that wrong? I guess I’m not doing very well here.”

No, you’re not. Now what about Romney? The picturesque speech of Mitt Romney. Recall some instances.

(Silence.)

Thank you for completing the survey.

Here’s what I think is happening — mere speculation, but I could be right. Barack Obama, having written a book that nobody read, was expected to produce picturesque speech. When he did, however, it either sounded weird or just fell flat. His campaign advisors learned to discourage any further attempts at the picturesque. It’s a gamble they can’t afford. Mitt Romney is in less danger, because the only vaguely memorable thing he ever said was that strange story about his dog. But his flacks have adopted the same policy as Obama’s.

Notice that neither of these candidates has disciples, people who learned or even claim to have learned something from them. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, neither Obama nor Romney is Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, or Wilson (thank God, in that last case). They don’t have disciples, and they may not even have friends; but they do have flacks and handlers. Flacks and handlers don’t want a picture. They’ll settle for a blur. So that’s what we get.




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Ron Paul and the Future

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Four years ago, when Rep. Ron Paul suspended his campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for president, he would not endorse the party’s nominee, was not invited to the party’s convention, and held a counter-convention of his own. By all appearances, he’s not going to do that this year.

At Antiwar.com, Justin Raimondo urged Paul to run as an independent, “because a third party candidacy will leave a legacy, a lasting monument to your campaign and the movement it created.” I can’t see a lasting monument in it, or the sense. I note that Paul’s forces are continuing to push in the caucus states for convention delegates, which confirms that Paul expects to attend the convention as a loyal Republican.

In 2008, I wrote in Liberty that Paul ought to endorse the party’s nominee, John McCain. Paul wouldn’t have to campaign for McCain, I said, and he could remind people how he was different from McCain, but to preserve his influence in the party he’d have to endorse McCain as preferable to Obama. Well, he didn’t. Paul endorsed Constitution Party nominee Chuck Baldwin, a pastor and radio talk show host whom few Americans had heard of, and who received 0.15% of the general election vote.

Paul’s forces are continuing to push in the caucus states for convention delegates, which confirms that Paul expects to attend the convention as a loyal Republican.

This year Paul turns 77. He is not running to keep his seat in Congress. His career as an elected politician is at an end. But since January 2011 he has had a son, Rand Paul, in the Senate. There is talk of the junior senator from Kentucky being Romney’s vice-presidential choice and more talk of him running for president in four years, or eight. Either way, for Ron Paul, having a 49-year-old son in the Senate changes the calculus about party loyalty and his movement.

Again, I say: endorse the nominee. It doesn’t mean you agree with everything the nominee says. It means that in a field of two, you prefer your team’s candidate to the other one’s. It means there is a Republican label on you and your supporters. And that is important, especially regarding them.

Is an endorsement a betrayal?

What was the point of the Paul campaign? To put Ron Paul in the White House? That was never possible. In public, Paul had to pretend that it was, because those are the American rules, and his supporters have been pretending it even harder. But it was a fairy tale. Ron Paul’s purpose has been to advance the cause of liberty, sound money, and a non-imperial foreign policy. He could do this even if he fought and lost, depending on how he did it. He was introducing new ideas (or old ones) into political discourse, creating a new faction that aimed to redirect the mainstream of one of the two great national parties.

That is not a defeatist notion. It may be a task with a lasting monument, though it is too early to say.

A political leader changes the thought of a party by persuading people to embrace new ideas. To do that, he needs the media’s attention, and in politics, equal attention is not given an outsider. It has to be earned by such things as polls, the size and behavior of crowds, money raised and, ultimately, by electoral results.

Endorse the nominee. It doesn’t mean you agree with everything the nominee says. It means that in a field of two, you prefer your team’s candidate to the other one’s.

Paul achieved none of these things in 1988 as the nominee of the Libertarian Party. He was nobody, and he went home with 0.47% of the vote. But in 2008, in the Republican Party’s primary campaigns, he did unexpectedly well, measured by straw polls, crowd behavior, and campaign donations. Unfortunately, the media pegged his support as narrow-but-deep (they were right) and mostly ignored him. He took 5.56% of the Republican vote — one vote in 20.

This year they still slighted him, though less than before. And he received 10.86% — one vote in almost nine. His support was still narrow-but-deep, but wider in almost every state. He was not the top votegetter in any of them, but he came close in Maine and garnered more than 20% of Republican support in six caucus states: Maine, 36%, North Dakota, 28%, Minnesota, 27%, Washington, 25%, Alaska, 24%, and Iowa, 21% — and in three primary states: Vermont, 25%, Rhode Island, 24% and New Hampshire, 23% (not counting Virginia, 40%, where his only opponent was Romney).

Paul’s support is not typical for Republican politicians. He is from south Texas, but seems to do best in states on the Canadian border. Most of his best states are Democrat “blue” rather than Republican “red.” He was the oldest candidate in the race, but exit polls showed in state after state that he had the youngest supporters. In New Hampshire, a Fox News exit poll showed Paul winning 46% of Republican voters 18 to 29 years of age.

Enthusiasm among the young is a special political asset, but with a liability: the zeal of believers can go over the top. Some believe that Ron Paul is the only man who can save America, and that anyone who opposes him is evil. They don’t see themselves as joining a party; they aim to take it over. In the unfamiliar turf of parliamentary procedure, they are quick to cry foul and sometimes are right. At the moment, their strategy in the caucus states is to outstay the Romney supporters and snatch the national delegates away from them.

And that makes for nastiness.

This is from a Politico story by James Hohmann, May 14:

Those close to [Ron Paul] say he’s become worried about a series of chaotic state GOP conventions in recent weeks that threaten to undermine the long-term viability of the movement he’s spent decades building. In the past few days alone, several incidents cast the campaign in an unfavorable light: Mitt Romney’s son Josh was booed off the stage by Paul backers in Arizona on Saturday, and Romney surrogates Tim Pawlenty and Gov. Mary Fallin received similarly rude treatment in Oklahoma.

Booing is the public stuff. I know a political operative who crossed the Paul forces and received death threats — so many, he said, that he turned off his phone for two weeks.

Enthusiasm can become something else. (For more examples, google “Ron Paul supporters are”.)

Given the strength — and sometimes the immaturity — of his supporters, what is Paul to do? Endorse Romney or not, he will soon be a non-candidate and a non-congressman.

Enthusiasm among the young is a special political asset, but with a liability: the zeal of believers can go over the top.

What then? One poll asked Paul supporters whom they would vote for in November. The answer: Obama, 35%; Romney, 31%; Gary Johnson, 16%. The Paul movement splinters.

How they vote in November might change if Paul made an endorsement; and anyway, how they think is the more important thing in the long run. If a large number of the young ones went into one political party and stayed there, they might change that party — and that could be the lasting monument.

All this is something for Ron Paul to think about as he ponders whether to endorse, what to do with his 100-plus delegates, and what to say if the party gives him a chance to address the national convention.




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None of the Above

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“The party is split. It is split right down the middle.”

How did we get to this point? After three days of peaceful lovey-doveyness, the Libertarian Party this afternoon ripped itself apart, reopening a decades-old wound barely healed since the last time it tore open, in 2008. But unlike the Denver debacle, this fight wasn’t over the presidential ticket — it was over the LP chair, and the direction the party is likely to take over the next two to four years, and beyond that the next decade or more.

At the beginning of the day, such an outcome seemed unimaginable. The party started off by celebrating its past — paying tribute to David Nolan and John Hospers, and inducting Tonie Nathan, Roger MacBride, and Ed Clark into the “Hall of Liberty” — before looking towards its future, in the form of the next election. But in retrospect, even this retrospection pointed to the troubles to come: throughout its 40-year existence, the party has been anything but placid; rather, prone to deep and sudden rifts, and grudges carried for many years by people who want many of the same political ends, but have utterly incompatible ideas about the means used to get there.

But this was all well in the background when the delegations gathered to compile their votes for president. Four candidates were nominated: Gary Johnson, Lee Wrights, Jim Burns, and Carl Person, with the latter two making their token count overnight. (A motion from the floor was made to suspend normal rules and nominate Ron Paul. It failed spectularly.)

After three days of peaceful lovey-doveyness, the Libertarian Party this afternoon ripped itself apart, reopening a decades-old wound.

The nominating speaker for Wrights took a roundabout way of getting to his candidate, going via Rudy Giuliani and Ron Paul and not mentioning Wrights’ name for a full ten minutes. He passed off to Mary Ruwart to second, introducing her as “the woman who should have been our 2008 nominee.” (And he’s right, they should have — but their campaign botched it.) Ruwart, finally, went on the attack: what the party needed, she said, was a “consistently libertarian candidate.” Speaking of Wrights’ ability to get “more bang for the buck”; she provided as evidence two laughable TV spots, one a half turn away from a used car ad, the next a parade of doughy, beardy white males talking about the wars they would end. Accepting the nomination, Wrights said: “I am not at war. And if we say that enough, they can’t have them any more.” Not sure that’s how that works, but hey, it’s worth a shot.

Carl Person’s speaker only used a few minutes of his time, and spent that explaining who Carl Person is. And necessarily so, since many people didn’t know or, in the bigger problem for his campaign, didn’t care. Person, in turn, presented himself to the assembled delegates first with a ramble about all the jobs he held in his youth, and then — in the most tangential of segues — explaining his jobs program, which seemed designed to produce someone that can teach him how to use the Internet, or possibly keep kids off his lawn.

Jim Burns, speaking for himself, gave Patrick Henry’s speech “Liberty or Death” speech as his own nominating statement. He did this in character, while wearing a powdered wig. Once done, he removed the hairpiece, and took a few minutes to beg for the tokens it would take to get him onto the VP ballot.

Gary Johnson’s speaker went straight to the former governor’s experience and his suitability to run against the two major-party candidates. “No one will ever confuse him for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.” His second picked up the torch, speaking of him as the “most qualified candidate we have ever had.” Johnson in accepting hammered on the resume again: mentioning once more his vetoes, but also his popularity in office: “People in New Mexico waved at me with all five fingers, not just one.”

He slipped only once, in bringing up the Fair Tax yet again in front of an audience hostile to any taxation. But wisely he went straight from that into his promise to end our wars in foreign countries, and on drugs too — neatly appropriating Wrights’ slogan as his own. He distanced himself from Bob Barr and the 2008 fiasco, and even more so from the two major parties: citing an NPR question where interviewer asked him, if you were on the torture rack, and required to cast a vote for Romney or Obama (and what a telling construction that is, NPR using as casual metaphor the torture they have colluded in normalizing) he says he would rather die than vote for either. Oh, and in case you didn’t remember, there was also that “climbing Mount Everest” thing.

Ruwart, finally, went on the attack: what the party needed, she said, was a “consistently libertarian candidate.”

On the whole it was a great speech; according to at least one seasoned observer, his best as a Libertarian. Any damage done him by the previous night’s debate — likely minimal, if even that — was wiped away, making a first-ballot victory all the more likely. All it would take is 50% plus one vote — and as it was unlikely Burns or Person would be taking many, there was little standing in the way of Johnson’s coronation.

Little, that is, except nearly an hour of deliberation, tabulation, and state-by-state recitation of delegate votes, with each state of course tossing in their little tidbit about their libertarian past or present. In almost all cases, though, their libertarian future lay with Gary Johnson, who handily took the presidential nomination with 419 delegate votes, just over 70% of the total available. Wrights, as expected, was second best at 152; Burns and Person scraped a mere handful apiece.

In his acceptance speech, Johnson thanked his family first and foremost, even noting his daughter’s feedback on the debate: “Dad, you did great, but you got your ass kicked by Lee Wrights.” He paid tribute to Wrights’ campaign, and Wrights, graciously, said it was to come together as a party: “Let’s get this guy elected.”

Of course, R. Lee was hoping the party would come together in support of a Johnson/Wrights ticket. But Johnson moved on to endorse Judge Jim Gray from the podium, citing him as the perfect running mate. Gray announced only days before the convention, and his promotional materials had an unavoidably slapdash look to them — folders with a brief media release and a few pictures of the Judge against a blue sky, looking pensive and, presumably, vice-presidential.

In some ways Gray is a rarity. Usually the presidential losers end up contesting the VP — few come to the convention specifically speaking the second-tier nod. But as the presidential candidate’s handpicked running mate, Gray had the big guns (such as they are, in the LP) lining up behind him — including David Bergland in the role of nominating speaker. Gray himself emphasized the need, as a party, to win — “We are not a philosophical debate society. We are a political party.” — and encouraged audience to repeat the word “Win” whenever it’s said from the stage, which is not at all cultish or creepy.

In 2008, all the trouble had been about the top of the ticket; with that settled, what could go wrong?

Wrights’ nominating speaker went on a bizarre tangent about Ron Paul, and again almost ten minutes passed before the candidate’s name was actually mentioned. The seconding speaker, Nicholas Sarwark — about whom much more below — made an actually coherent case for Wrights, noting he would providing balance to the ticket, and represent the “libertarian wing of the libertarian party.” There were about 15 other uses of the word libertarian tossed in there, but then tautology is the order of the day at political conventions. The line landed, at least, which wasn't the case with his Simpsons reference — it's a pretty damning indicator about the age of this crowd that next to no one seemed to know who Kodos and Kang were.

On to the balltoing, common sense intervened for the vote and the state-by-state roll call was suspended; when the dust settled Jim Gray had a comfortable first-ballot victory, taking 357 votes to Wrights’ 229. In 2008, all the trouble had been about the top of the ticket; with that settled, what could go wrong?

The answer, of course, is plenty. The day’s business was set to conclude with the election of a new chair, a fairly straightforward affair between the present chair, Mark Hinkle, and LNC at-large member Mark Rutherford. But this discounts a serious candidate that built up a surprising amount of support heading into the convention: None of the Above, or NOTA.

Enter Nick Sarwark. He spoke in support of NOTA, laying out in brief the reasons he felt unable to support either candidate — both tied to the Oregon credentialing crisis of the first day, and the party’s overruling of a report on that matter by the Judicial Committee, on which Sarwark sits — but also reminding delegates of the power of NOTA as a political concept. As he summed up later: “It’s telling people, if you’re big enough assholes, we’re just going to go our own way, cut our own door, and go around you.”

But for Sarwark, the speech was primarily a rhetorical gesture, something he thought would get “10 or 15 votes” — not taking into account either the dissatisfaction that led to printed signs advocating “No One” for LNC Chair, or the opportunists who saw a chance to boot out both nominated candidates in favor of one not implicated in what they saw as the present board’s failings. Between the two, support for NOTA was strong enough at 101 votes to prevent either Rutherford or Hinkle from claiming a majority. Instead, with Rutherford beating out Hinkle 228–221, the latter was eliminated, and the final ballot would be between Rutherford and NOTA.

One serious candidate for chair built up a surprising amount of support heading into the convention: None of the Above, or NOTA.

Or so it seemed. Because when the votes were counted, NOTA had won 273–269, and accusations of vote tampering were immediately in the air. Acting chair Bill Redpath called for a revote, which ended Rutherford 278, NOTA 277, write-in Sam Sloan 1. Because Rutherford did not take a majority plus one, he could not be certified as victor. Usually in such circumstances the loser would concede, but NOTA was for obvious reasons unable to do so. As Rutherford also did not concede, and with time running out on the day’s session, Redpath ruled that Sloan, the write-in candidate, was eliminated, and the delegates would reconvene the next day to vote once again between Rutherford and NOTA, as well as all the other officer positions.

Tumult, chaos, anarchy — in the metaphorical, and not the medieval Icelandic sense. The ruling set up a night packed with exactly the sort of back-room meetings and opaque dealings that Sarwark had hoped to expose with his NOTA advocacy. “This was about ripping open a wound that’s been festering for a long time, getting in there and cleaning it out, and applying some Bactine to it. And that will make it heal up, but in the meantime Bactine stings like a motherfucker.”

So there was never any concerted attempt by any group — some observers even calling it the “family” wing of the party — to use NOTA as a way to force open the chair’s race? No, Sarwark said. There was no conspiracy — and the only reason those observers saw one was because, if the tables were turned, a conspiracy is how they would have handled it. “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like — well, you know.”

The greatest worry at this point was that, with the chair’s election lingering to the next morning, time would run out before any of the other party positions — officers, at-large members, Judicial committee — could be decided on the floor, leaving them all (except the Judicial Committee, which couldn’t be handled this way) to be appointed by the newly-installed LNC board.

With all the manipulations in motion, however unintentionally, by Sarwark’s NOTA gambit, there was no lack of context for Ed Clark’s banquet talk about the challenges facing the Libertarian Party. Though he spoke mostly of the challenges overcome in the 1970s and ’80s, and of the rifts that periodically tore the party apart at that time, the applications for the present moment were clear: whatever the feud, whatever the obstacle, it must be overcome so that the fight for liberty could proceed.

Not until the next day would we see how well that message sank in — or if it even did at all.

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Pulling Punches

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Friday dawned bright with the promise of everyone’s two favorite parts of any LNC: the party platform and bylaws sessions!

Actually, Friday is about candidates trying to court delegates for the precious tokens they bear. In order to enter the Friday night debate, televised live on C-SPAN, candidates must secure 10% of the available tokens; with 528 delegates registered today, the magic number this year was 53.

Two candidates cleared the bar with ease: Gary Johnson would end up with fully 267, and Lee Wrights had a comfortable 127. But none of the others could muster hardly half so much: the next closest were Carl Person with 28, and Jim Burns with 27. Though either could (and would) collect further tokens and be nominated with a mere 30, neither was close to making the debate—and they were far out in front of the other also-rans. At least nine people received at least one token, and the LP wasn’t actually sure how many candidates they had running for president because a number of those who filed failed to correspond in any other way.

So when the lights came on and the C-SPAN cameras started rolling, the stage looked not totally dissimilar to any other American presidential debate: two speakers, both in suits, one wearing a blue tie, one wearing a red—though the latter, Wrights’ tie, had a bit of patterning mixed in that marked him as marginally the more casual. He would be far more so by debate’s end.

After a 12-year-old sang a histrionic version of the national anthem, the format was explained by moderator David Bergland. About halfway through it became clear that he’d been a poor choice; though both eminent and highly respectable, his questions never strayed from traditional libertarian talking points, and certainly never went into current events such as the student loan debt uprising, or the European Union crackup. What do you expect candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination to say when asked about gun rights, or welfare?

Johnson went first, and delivered an opening statement heavy on constitutional rhetoric, applause lines. He made three promises about what he would carry out in his first year as president: first, submit a balanced budget to Congress in 2013; second, veto any expenditures that outstripped revenue—the first chance of many to bring up his veto record as governor—and finally, throw out entire tax system, abolish the IRS, and establish a national consumption tax. He presented this last point, the much derided Fair Tax, as a means of moving toward zero tax—but many in the room only heard this as a plan to introduce a new tax, period. So any time he brought up the Fair Tax—and he did it seemingly every question, really ramming it down the throats of the audience—it got about the same response as a fart in an elevator.

What do you expect candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination to say when asked about gun rights, or welfare?

Wrights played up his history in the Party: “It feels like I’m at a family reunion.” His first act as president would be to “declare peace” in wars on drugs, poverty, other nations. As he got excited, he got louder and drops deeper into his North Carolina accent, so that at times he is almost incoherent. But when not bellowing, he projected a genial, folksy image, well suited to delivering libertarian one-liners, if not substantive analysis. It was an approach better suited to this crowd than Johnson’s, which aimed beyond the immediate crowd and out to the C-SPAN viewing audience.

The early questions all concerned the candidates’ relationships with libertarianism. Wrights takes us back to family again, “born a libertarian from a libertarian father.” Johnson talks of his journey from Republican governor to Libertarian candidate as his “coming out of the closet.”

What is libertarianism? Wrights: “A life decision. A way of life. Making decisions for yourself rather than allowing them to be made for you by people hundreds or thousands of miles away.” Johnson: “Don’t tell me what to do.” He followed this up with the first and only Ayn Rand quote of the debate.

As Garrett Quinn of Reason noted, this “seems more like an infomercial for libertarianism than a debate between two candidates” for the nomination. Much policy discussion, little back and forth between the candidates even when there’s a chance to engage. On a question about immigration, Johnson adocated “easy as possible work visas,” and expressed a belief that the Fair Tax would solve taxation problems. Wrights could have attacked that, but settled for more talk about visas and the need to open borders.

Social security, bank bailouts, Medicare: meat and potatoes libertarian issues, but hardly ways to distinguish between candidates. The first even veiled attack was in a question on foreign policy, where Johnson nearly went off the rails by saying he wouldn’t be above pre-emptive strikes—back on a little bit by saying that even those would have to go to Congress for approval. Wrights insisted he would never deploy anyone, ever, but didn’t press his advantage much further.

Johnson’s constant mentions of the Fair Tax were impossible for Wrights to ignore forever, though, and finally, an hour and a half into the debate, he took his chance: asked about tax policy, he said, “There is no such thing as a fair tax. We need to abolish the IRS and have no tax at all.” The follow-up, for once, was the right one: how then would we pay for the essential functions of government? Wrights replied that if we got rid of whatever’s not essential—“which is nearly everything”—there wouldn’t be any problems. Johnson, meanwhile, went back to his 43% solution for a balanced budget—a cut that would be unimaginably radical for much of the American public, but wasn’t nearly radical enough for the sort of crowd that shows up at a Libertarian National Convention.

He was on stronger ground whenever he could move his answer toward his experiences as an actually elected executive official in New Mexico. A number of times he came back to his extensive veto record—“possibly more than the other 49 state governors combined”—though it was a bit odd to hear him talk proudly about vetoing a bill solely for being too long, and not having the time to read it. Not as weird, though, as when Wrights stated that the first executive order he would sign as president would be one invalidating all prior executive orders.

In closing, Johnson promised to stay a libertarian “for life”—“I really want this job.” Wrights, for about the hundredth time that evening, found himself once again in agreement with his opponent: “I really want this job too!”

On the whole it seemed a measured win for Wrights. Johnson didn’t entirely adjust to his audience—case in point, the unnecessary forcing of the Fair Tax, which was never going to play to the room. But it wasn’t a total loss for him: at no point did he go beyond the pale, and usually he succeeded in talking himself back to an applause line. And he certainly nailed home his experience in executive office.

Wrights though played the audience much better. Which, of course, makes sense: he’s been in the party and around these people for many more years than Johnson has; if nominees were selected solely for their skills at preaching to the choir, Wrights would take the race going away. But moving beyond the insular and, sad to say, rather small world of the libertarian hardcore, there are many other situations a candidate must navigate successfully. Wrights won tonight’s debate, but in doing so paradoxically showed himself a less rounded candidate than Johnson.

The nighttime brought events hosted by several states, including the justly famous Texas shindig, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Indiana affair, and a small but spirited crossover by Washington and Mississippi. But, conscious of the early start tomorrow, most called it in early tonight, postponing the true revelry for after the election Saturday night.



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Squabbles and Sorcerors

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As the official business of the 2012 Libertarian Party National Presidential Nominating Convention got underway, there was but one question on everyone’s mind: which group of people will be credentialed and seated as the official delegation from Oregon?

Actually, no, very few people cared about that, especially if you count out those with either a direct stake in the matter, or a fetish for obscurities of parliamentiary procedure. But the LP cannot do without drama, so lacking any at the top of the ballot it was left to the individual delegations to come up with some. Oregon came through in spades.

It’s never a good sign when there’s more than one “central committee” of anything, and Oregon brought two, the Reeves group and the Wagner group. The latter is the one recognized by the Oregon Secretary of State; the former is suing to contest this recognition. It’s of those thoroughly Byzantine LP procedural matters that simmers for months before exploding into floor debate that even Robert’s Rules is hard pressed to contain.

So once the proverbial gavel fell (only proverbial because the actual gavel failed to make it to the convention — the TSA, no joke, would not permit it to be taken on a plane), things got ugly real quick. Between conflicts of interest, backroom (even bedroom) deals, and worst of all violations of parliamentary procedure, there were accusations aplenty. As one of the speakers, himself an involved party, noted when addressing the floor: there are “unclean hands on both sides of the dispute.”

Others settled for the fatal passive — “Mistakes have been made, things could have been handled better.” — before appealing to the LP’s “brand distinction” as the soc-called “party of principle.” “If we can’t follow our own rules,” one asked, “then how can we ask the American people for their votes?” Because of course the fight over who is seated as the Oregon delegation is going to be a campaign killer with the American people in the coming election cycle.

The actual gavel failed to make it to the convention — the TSAwould not permit it to be taken on a plane

Hilariously low stakes aside, this dispute is not one that’s going away. The delegates’ decision to approve the credentials report and seat the Reeves faction, though pragmatically ending a fight that was already holding up the keynote address, leaves the status of the Oregon LP uncertain. Even party insiders cannot yet say which side will win out, or even whether the party’s nominee will be able to appear on the Oregon ballot. But it leaves a bad taste in the mouth — as one Oregon delegate, new to the party and unknowingly swept up in this pissing match, said when addressing the floor: “It seems like the Libertarian Party is more concerned with preserving their own personal power than with promoting liberty in the United States.”

With that kerfuffle momentarily sorted, it was back to the same old, same old with Michael Cloud’s keynote speech. If there’s any libertarian idea you care particularly about, chances are he brought it up — but because he spent his time speaking to every possible issue, there was little focus on any single one of them. “Big government is the disease, and libertarians have the cure” is bumper-sticker stuff, practically defining boilerplate.

The list of the day’s speeches proved hardly more inspirational, showing, if nothing else, that the party is in urgent need of fresh blood. And to be fair, two of the speakers late in the day addressed that in particular: Alexander McCobin, president of Students for Liberty, which gathers college students to talk about liberty; and Andy McKean, founder of Liberty Day, a group that tries to raise constitutional literacy, especially in elementary schools. While neither speech exactly concealed its fundraising aim, it’s encouraging nonetheless to see a block of speech aimed at reaching a generation that, by my own admittedly anecdotal experience, they’re doing none too well with to date.

All of this, though, is a sideshow to the real business of the convention: nominating a presidential candidate. But unlike the higgledy-piggledy 2008, this year’s race is more like a coronation march: Gary Johnson announced his intent early and entered the convention as overwhelming favorite to take the nomination; the only real drama in the process by now is whether the vote will go to a second ballot.

But there are other candidates: enough of them, in fact, that the LP itself isn’t actually sure how many of those who have filed to run for president will actually bother to show up and do so. But what is clear is that the field is nowhere near as packed as in 2008, where nine candidates made the debate stage. Reaching that point requires 30 delegate “tokens” (actually slips of paper); but it’s uncertain whether anyone other than Johnson and Wrights will reach even that total.

So why even bother? I asked Jim Libertarian Burns, a perennial candidate (and yes, that is his legal middle name). For him, it’s about making contacts — even friends — and getting the message out that the Libertarian Party is the best hope that the American people (and by proxy people worldwide) have for true political change. At the same time, the LP as presently constructed is “a pile of crap.” Burns has the hope of at least making the debate stage, which — if it did happen — would be far more as a reward to him for decades within the party, than for any particular strength of his campaign. But rest assured: if by some fluke he were to take the party nomination, he would not accept it, but would instead turn it over to Gary Johnson.

Unlike the higgledy-piggledy 2008, this year’s race is more like a coronation march.

The same would certainly not be true of Lee Wrights, Johnson’s main competitor. Another longtime presence in the LP, Wrights has held a number of roles in past years, including vice chair; without Johnson around, Wrights’ campaign would be something like Andre Marrou’s: essentially, a lifetime service award, and one for which Wrights’ slogan “End All War” (e.g., foreign, Drug, On Poverty) would be adequate

With Johnson, however, Wrights has to focus much more on the issues where he and the ex-governor differ — difficult since they’re both anti-war, anti-drug prohibition, anti-entitlements, etc. So what does he have to offer? First and foremost, many more years of experience in libertarian politics, specifically — indisputable since Johnson just joined six months ago, albeit as a life member. Second, an economic plan that isn’t the Flat Tax. Third, a foreign policy farther in the direction of isolationism than Johnson’s non-interventionism. What would a Wrights campaign look like? A grassroots affair, reaching out to local libertarian candidates in a bid to make use of preestablished media relationships — relationships I’m not sure actually exist, or at least haven’t proven terrifically useful in the past. But the talking points are in place for the debate, and Wrights will at least be on the stage with a chance to make them.

But at this point it would take getting caught in flagrante delicto with half a dozen hookers, several farmyard animals, and a choir of castrati for Gary Johnson to lose the nomination. And while some of the above might be on the menu for other libertarian operatives once they get over to the Strip, there’s precious little vice (other than the obvious one) at the resort itself, even in the room parties that fill the convention’s nighttime hours.

The peculiar pleasure to be found in these hospitality suites is instead that of truly bizarre conversation — something like a perpetual Philip K. Dick story, where one comes to realize, again and again, that there is no firm ground to stand on, no intersection between a particular person’s mind and whatever passes for objective reality in the world around us. For instance, last night I spoke with a younger attendee who was absolutely convinced that the greatest problem facing American politics — nay, politics worldwide — was the workings of sorcerers wielding unimaginable arcane power. He supported a blanket ban on all sorcery, speaking approvingly of nations where such laws were already on the books, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. More specifically, any presidential candidate worth his salt must be willing to take on the leading nest of sorcerers in America, Yale’s Skull & Bones society, which has been responsible for many assassinations over the past half-century or so, most recently Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.

After a few drinks and a swing across the dancefloor at Gary Johnson’s bumping election party (LMFAO soundtrack included), I called it a night. Tomorrow: candidates court delegate tokens and try to get on the stage for the C-SPAN televised debate. More anon.



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