Saturday, January 30, 2016

This Election Is About George Bush

The Republican primaries have been chaotic, unpredictable, and in some ways unprecedented. They seem to get crazier every week. (If you predicted six months ago that Donald Trump would still be ahead just before the Iowa caucuses, you're part of a small minority. If you predicted six months ago that front-runner Trump would be boycotting a Fox News debate on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, well, you don't exist. No one saw that one coming.) But this election is not about Trump, or Cruz, or Jeb Bush. It's not about Obama or either Clinton, no matter how often the Republican candidates talk about them. The 2016 Republican primaries are about George W. Bush. The Republicans, and most of the media, won't bring up Bush's name any more than they can help doing, but that's part of the problem. Both the Republican Party and mainstream American journalism are doing their best not to reckon with, or even to recognize, the problems Bush the Younger has created.

The George W. Bush Administration was a catastrophic failure on the level of policy. Bush had enormous political success, thanks in part to the rally-around-the-Chief boost he got after September 11. He got almost everything he wanted done. But most of the things he wanted turned out to be wrong. He got his war in Iraq before the Afghanistan war was even finished, and left the US mired in both countries. He turned a budget surplus into a deficit. He pushed for financial deregulation and top-bracket tax cuts only to see Big Finance wreck the economy. He de-emphasized FEMA and botched the emergency response when an iconic American city drowned. This goes beyond partisanship. It's not that I don't like what Bush did. It's that he screwed up in disastrous ways. He was like some kind of Superfund Midas: everything he touched turned into toxic waste.

Policy failures this big only come along every generation or two in American politics. I think the closest comparison to Bush is Herbert Hoover, who was badly wrong on both the Depression and the threat of fascism in Europe. (Some might argue that Jimmy Carter's policies were failures, but even if that's granted the sheer scale of Bush II's mistakes dwarf any of Carter's setbacks. Would you rather have economic problems of 1980, or 2008?) And what usually happens after such a major policy failure is that a bipartisan consensus forms. The party that pushed for the mistaken policies gives up and switches to the other position. (Compare Richard Nixon's policy stances to Hoover's: the whole Republican party had moved on.) The Republican party gave up isolationism in the 1940s, and it adopted a more grudging and less generous approach to the New Deal it could not fully undo.

What is startling today is the degree to which the current Republican Party has refused to change after the debacle of the Bush years. They have not surrendered their positions. They have not conceded that their opponents were right. They have not even admitted that Bush was a failure, although he is unpopular even among their base. The behavior of the national Republicans since the 2008 election, and especially during the 2016 primaries, has been driven by the need to navigate around George W., the elephant in the room.

The immediate Republican response in 2008 and 2009 was to move into full opposition mode. Their own policies were in tatters, had been tried and failed. But rather than switch they fought, trying to do everything they could to derail Obama's policies. Much of the need to demonize Obama, beyond the element of racial animus, is the need to displace the disastrousness of the Bush II regime onto a scapegoat. Blaming Obama for Bush's failures is a core party belief at this point, because it's the only way to deny how badly Bush failed. This is why Fiorina can blame Obama for firing a general Bush fired, and Neil Cavuto can ask the GOP candidates, in all apparent seriousness, about "Obama's" 2008 financial crisis. And this has worked for them, psychologically and politically, in the short term. It gave them their majority in the House. But it is not clearly sustainable in the long run, and these primaries are exposing some of the strain.

The strange and lackluster quality of the 2016 primary candidates reflect a range of strategies for denying Bush's policy failures. The sheer fact that Jeb Bush is in the race, and that the party establishment originally treated him as the favorite, is clear proof of that denial. The Jeb (!) Bush position, which can never be articulated openly because that would require admitting previous failures, is that W.'s failure was simply a matter of execution. The implied promise is that a smarter, more competent version of Bush would make those Bush-II-era policies work. That's the implicit pitch for the other mainstream or mainstream-ish candidates, such as Kasich, Christie, and (by relative position) Rubio. The appeal is that one of these guys can execute Bush's failed policies successfully. That's a pretty dicey appeal when you say it out loud, and goes a long way to explaining why the mainstream-y candidates aren't getting much traction this year.

The second approach is the Not-Conservative-Enough position, the dogged belief that W. failed because he was too liberal, and that only a more extreme ideological rigor can make things work. This is the conservatism-hasn't-failed-it's-never-been-tried line of attack, embodied in different ways by Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Ben Carson. (Religious-right types Huckabee and Santorum may count, too.) As many people have noticed, this is analogous to the Goldwater approach in 1964, when Goldwater was part of the few Republicans who rejected the post-FDR policy consensus.

It's also worth noticing the preponderance of candidates who only emerged after Bush II left office. Cruz, Paul, and Rubio were only elected to national office in the Obama Administration, which absolves them all from any responsibility for the mistakes of the Bush years.

Finally, there is the Trump approach, which gets around a legacy of failed-but-never-renounced policies by having no policies at all. Trump moves the entire question to the levels of personality and fantasy. (His only concrete policy proposal, the impregnable southern border wall patrolled by various orcs, trolls, and Nazgul, is strictly on the level of fantasy.) Trump's active refusal to detail any policies is a feature and not a bug for his voters. He allows them to get around the question of what to do by taking actual plans out of the discussion entirely. He offers instead the fantasy of a strong, magically potent leader who makes things happen through the force of will. You don't need policies! You just need the Leader! It's gonna be huge!

Sooner or later, the Republican Party will have to come to Earth and adopt policies that actually work in the real world. It may take a number of electoral drubbings to make that happen. It may take electoral success followed by a disastrous return to failed policies, a second try that finally discredits those policies for good but at the cost of doing serious damage to the country. Or the party itself might go through some painful upheaval or realignment. But the longer it takes, the worse the consequences will be. The longer you deny painful reality, the harder you pretend that things are working when they're not, the worse it gets. It is remarkable that the GOP has hung on this long, this hard. And it's already unhealthy for the country. It's only going to get worse.

And here's where the media takes its share of the blame. The media has in many ways abetted the GOP's campaign against reality, through its reflexive "even-handedness" and its related refusal to cover policy, as opposed to politics. The media is so afraid of being called biased that it has largely shied away from admitting what is manifestly clear. Bush drove this country off this road into a ditch, but the media feels that saying so would be partisan, so it waffles about whether or not an upside-down car in a culvert has been safely parked.

Consider, for example, the "Obama's Katrina" meme, which has asked, repeatedly and erroneously, if a particular problem is "Obama's Katrina." That takes for granted, as some axiomatic rule, that if a president of one party makes a disastrous error that his successor in the other party will of course make a completely comparable error. That is obviously nonsense. "Is this FDR's stock market crash?" would be a stupid question, as would "Is this Carter's Watergate?" The "Obama's Katrina" meme isn't fair to Obama, but it's even less fair to George W. Bush, because it denies what is truly exceptional about him.

And after all, admitting the failures of Bush's policies would mean admitting the media's own failures, and the way it abetted him politically through its ersatz neutrality. Admitting how bad the Bush Administration failed would mean admitting how major newspapers failed to cover the run-up to the Iraq War, and how those newspapers got used to funnel false information to the public. It would mean admitting how the press cheer-led for Bush, and how it failed to vet his qualifications in the 2000 elections. Reckoning with the failures of the last decade will require major institutional change, change that will be terribly painful, both in the Republican Party and in the major media. Neither institution is willing to face that necessary pain yet. So both will continue to suffer, and so will we.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

It's Not Stop Trump. It's Stop Cruz.

The big headline today is that Sarah Palin, Martyr Queen of the Resentful Bozos, has endorsed Donald Trump in Iowa. But the even bigger news in some ways is that the Republican Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, came out to attack Ted Cruz today, saying that a Cruz win would be bad for Iowa. That's a Tea Party figure AND an establishment Republican both weighing in, on the same day, to keep Ted Cruz from winning Iowa. (And, in a transparently coordinated move, abstinence-poster-girl Bristol Palin attacked Cruz in a blog post earlier today.)

That's two shots to Cruz's kneecaps in one day, from both the (very, very relative) left and the (out past the horizon) right. Guess it's Iowa Caucus season.

People have been talking about an Anyone But Trump movement. But what we're actually seeing is an Anyone But Cruz movement. And that means Donald Trump is included in "anyone."

The weirdness of the Republican primary cycle just keeps going. First, Trump got out to a head start because no "reasonable," clearly electable Republican got any traction. Then, instead of one of the less extreme candidates (by this season's extremely generous definition of "less extreme") emerging as the alternative to Trump, wingnut Cruz became the primary alternative: the Wing-Not-Trump, as it were. And while that has taken me totally by surprise, it seems to be part of the structure of this year's field. Before Cruz, the number two candidate in the polls was Ben Carson. Carson's fade and Cruz's rise were nearly simultaneous, indicating that the second-largest bloc of Republican primary voters are hard-right types who, for various reasons, don't like Trump.

Now, faced with Trump and Cruz as first and second front-runners, and with none of the more presentable candidates catching on after months of striving and spending, it looks like some party figures are trying to choose between these unpalatable alternatives. (And yes, I know, it's early, and one of the more respectable-seeming candidates might yet become the standard bearer for Republicans who dislike both Trump and Cruz. But it's not that early any more; none of them has managed to break out of the pack despite months of predictions that a breakthrough was around the corner, and if none of them catches fire in the next three weeks they're all cooked. David Brooks's column today, pleading for the Republicans to coalesce around someone who could win the general, is sounding downright desperate.)

And in the latest twist, various Republican players are signaling that they would rather have Trump than Cruz. That's how hated Cruz is. But it also suggests that they view a Cruz candidacy as an even worse deal than a Trump candidacy, that Cruz could do more damage to the party or that a long-shot Cruz victory would be worse than a long-shot Trump victory. That's a pretty high bar you've cleared there, Ted.

 I'm going to have to stock up on more popcorn. Direct from Iowa.

cross-posted from (and all comments welcome at) Dagblog

Thursday, January 14, 2016

David Bowie Lived to 69 (Alan Rickman, Too)

My social media feed, like yours, is full of mourning this week: not simply for the great and beloved David Bowie, but also for the brilliant Shakespearean actor Alan Rickman (likewise beloved from many films), the poet C. D. Wright, and two more heroes of the Shakespeare world: the eminent actor Brian Bedford, a legend of the Stratford festival in Ontario, and the scholar and editor Sylvan Barnet. (You know those Signet paperback editions of Shakespeare? Those were Sylvan's.) And I see my friends asking in baffled grief, Why so many? Why so fast? Why now?

Because they refused to die in December. So let's celebrate that. They wanted to make it through the winter holidays, into the new year -- in Bowie's case, until his 69th birthday. So they hung on: for their family's sake, and for their own. Maybe not all of them. But likely most of them.

Can someone do that? Absolutely. You're going to have to trust me on this one.

You can't keep yourself alive through sheer willpower, not forever. You can't choose your day. But terminally ill patients can rally for a while, especially when they something to look forward to. I've seen it happen.

I feel sad that these famous strangers have gone out of the world. I liked living in the same world with them, and I will be sad they are gone. Some of them were heroes of mine. But celebrate that they got their New Year's Eve, their London Christmas. Be happy that their spouses did not have to spend Christmas in raw, newly-wounded mourning. Be glad that Bowie, who had already willed himself not just to stardom but to thoughtful, searching artistry, willed himself to his 69th birthday. (And no, I couldn't resist the off-color pun in my title. Bowie was full of appetites and life, as people who knew him in his touring days have amply testified. The bacchanal Bowie of the 1970s and the Bowie who willed himself past one last milestone were very much the same man.)

And if you think your Facebook feed is sad now, think of what it would have been like if Ziggy Stardust and Professor Snape had died on December 23. Think of how that would have made you feel, and be grateful for the deep generosity, by people with almost nothing left, that held off that sadness from you.

Celebrate their lives, and celebrate their final, persevering strength.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Monday, January 04, 2016

Your New Year's Public Domain Report for 2016

Happy New Year! It's Public Domain Day, the first day of the calendar year, on which people in other countries get new works of art and learning added to the public domain for everyone to use. And on the first day of the new year we in the United States get ...

Zilch. Nada. Niente. Nothing.


To review: American copyright law started out by specifying a 14-year term, renewable once to provide 28 years of exclusive protection. That was very much in line with the original 18th-century copyright laws in Britain. By 1976, that 28 years had crept up to 56. But that year Congress passed a new copyright act, extending terms to either fifty years after the author's death or (in the case of previously existing copyrights) 75 years from the work's creation. The law didn't go into effect until 1978, and copyrights that expired in 1978 weren't protected.  So on January 1, 1979, works published in 1922 entered the public domain. Works published in 1923 did not, and still haven't.
Even with that extension, those works from 1923 would have become public on January 1, 1999. But in 1998 Congress passed another extension, variously nicknamed the Millennium Copyright Act or the Sonny Bono Act (after one of its sponsors), which added another 20 years to copyright terms. Now previously-copyrighted works stayed in copyright for 95 years. As we get closer to 2019, we can expect intense lobbying by large media companies to pass yet another extension, defying the Constitution's mandate that intellectual property be protected for "for a limited time." (Article I, section 8, clause 8.)

So there's nothing under the tree this morning, same as last year. But let's review what would be public domain today if the laws had not been changed:

If not for the Milennium Copyright Act:

Bugs Bunny would leave copyright today. So would Tom and Jerry. Batman's best friend, worst enemy, and sexiest frenemy (Robin, the Joker, and Catwoman) would all join him in the public domain, as would a raft of Golden Age comics superheroes: Green Lantern, Hawkman, The Flash, The Spectre, and my kid brother's all-time favorite, Dr. Fate. Maybe more importantly, Will Eisner's classic masked detective, The Spirit, would enter public domain.

Warner Brothers (who have always controlled Bugs Bunny and now control DC Comics and its characters) would not be pleased. But Disney would be upset too: today is the day that Walt Disney's Pinocchio and Fantasia were scheduled to leave copyright after the first copyright extension. (Under the laws when those movies were made, they would have become public property in 1997.)

The public domain would also be enriched by classics like The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, The Grapes of Wrath, and Chaplin's The Great Dictator (still timely after all these years). So would W. C. Fields's The Bank Dick and My Little Chickadee, the Marx Brothers' Go West!, The Mark of Zorro, Our Town, My Favorite Wife, Northwest Passage, Rebecca with Laurence Olivier, Angels over Broadway, The Invisible Man Returns, Young Tom Edison starring Mickey Rooney,

They Drive by Night, and The Thief of Baghdad.

Today would also be the day Eliot's The Waste Land and Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls enters the public domain, as well as Grahame Greene's The Power and the Glory, Sholokov's Quiet Flows the Don, and Dr. Seuss's Horton Hatches an Egg, not to mention The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Darkness at Noon, Pal Joey, and Dylan Thomas's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. Add to that books of poetry by Yeats, Auden, e e cummings, Pound, and Millay, classic detective novels by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, and lit-crit landmark To the Finland Station. Not a bad list at all, and if they were allowed into the public domain they would be available in a wide range of editions, high-end and low-end.

In classical music, a trove of works by Barber, Britten, Copland, Hindemith, Khachaturian, Messiaen, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Walton would become free for anyone to perform or record, just as the works of Beethoven and Mozart are. So would a motherlode of popular songs by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer, Johnny Burke, Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Davis, and Artie Shaw. "You Are My Sunshine" should be public domain today, and "When You Wish Upon a Star." But just keep wishing on that star, because all of these works from 1940 are going to stay locked up until at least 2036, and longer if the law gets changed yet again.

If not for the 1976 Copyright Act:

The Sound of Music would be leaving copyright today, with all of its songs. So would Gypsy. That was the law, and the expectation, when those musicals were written. But the hills apparently cannot be alive with the sound of music until 2055.

We would also be getting a bumper crop of mid-century pop and rock and roll: "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," "Dream Lover," "High Hopes," "Kansas City," "The Little Drummer Boy," "Love Potion Number 9," "Mr. Blue," "Oh! Carol!," "Poison Ivy," "See You in September,"  "Put Your Head on My Shoulder," "Shout," "Teen Angel," "There Goes My Baby," and of course the Ray Charles classic "What'd I Say?"

Raisin in the Sun and Sweet Bird of Youth would be entering the public domain today, along with Jean Genet's Les Negres and Anouilh's Becket. Robert Bloch's Psycho, Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate, and Ian Fleming's Goldfinger would be free for anyone to publish. So would Naked Lunch, The Tin Drum, Henderson the Rain King, Faulker's The Mansion, Heinlein's Starship Troopers, and The Magic Christian, The Sirens of Titan, The Haunting of Hill House, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Zazie in the Metro, and Goodbye, Columbus. Then we'd have short stories by Ray Bradbury, H. P. Lovecraft, and Julio Cortazar. Karl Popper's landmark work The Logic of Scientific Discovery, which should be distributed as widely as possible, would become open-source today. And so would Strunk and White's Elements of Style.

Ben-Hur would be in the public domain today. So would North by Northwest, Some Like It Hot, Sleeping Beauty, and The 400 Blows. But let's not forget Suddenly, Last Summer, The Defiant Ones, Pillow Talk, Anatomy of a Murder, Black Orpheus, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Gidget, The Hound of the Baskervilles with Cushing and Lee, The Imitation of Life, Look Back in Anger, The Mouse That Roared, Our Man in Havana, Rio Bravo, A Summer Place, The Sound and the Fury, and the lamentable but unforgettable Plan 9 from Outer Space. A batch of more than 20 classic Warner Brothers cartoons featuring Bugs, Daffy, and the gang would become public domain as well. And in a coincidence, today would be the day that Warner Brothers lost copyright of its rebooted Silver Age Green Lantern, whose Golden Age prototype

But the whole point of this deal is that it's good for Warner Brothers. And Disney. And Sony. On that level, it works great. It just isn't such a great deal for you, me, or the general public.

Anyway, all of those works will stay under the control of large mega-corporations until at least 2055. If 2055 seems long enough to wait, tell Congress not to extend copyright any further. The next extension will move the term of copyright beyond a century; its already been extended to 95 years. And you should expect the big companies to start lobbying hard for another extension over the next year or two. The public domain clock, stuck in place for Americans since 1979, is due to start moving forward again in 2019, and the Warner Brothers of the world will spend a lot of money to prevent that from happening.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog