Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Politics is like a hippie drum circle

In many ways, this has been the first official week of the Obama vs. McCain presidential race. And it has been unbelievably ugly. Mark Halperin of Time Magazine urged McCain's people to use more racially-coded language. The RNC commissioned a top secret poll to figure out how to not "appear" racist (while presumably continuing to use racially coded language). The Tennessee Republican Party put out a racist press release. Meanwhile, Republican surrogates like Bill Cunningham and Kay Bailey Hutchison field tested various coded sound-bites to try to figure out what they can get away with in public and what will stick (and be repeated by traditional media). Josh Marshall has an insightful analysis of the McCain gameplan (here).

Honestly, judging by this past week, there are going to be so many racist attacks during this campaign it will be difficult to keep track of them all.

Which got me thinking... a couple things. 1.) All you folks who jumped on the Obama bandwagon thinking he was going to get a free pass from the media and the Republicans? Honeymoon is over. Welcome to the big leagues. Buckle up, because it's gonna be a bumpy ride.

2.) Politics is like a hippie drum circle. There are thousands of different messages in the debate, anyone can bang out whatever they want (although different voices have different megaphones to amplify their message), and the debate is really really noisy. But that chaos eventually resolves itself into a discernible pattern. You want that discernible pattern to be your message, not the other team's message. So how does that happen?

Well, again it's like a drum circle. Our team has to play our tune (our message) over and over and over and over again until other people start playing it. By the same token, YOU NEVER REPEAT THEIR MESSAGING. That just amplifies their message and is counterproductive. I think this is the #1 biggest mistake progressive blogs makes -- they repeat the Republican frame and sometimes fail to reframe it-- assuming that others will be as outraged as they are (while in fact just amplifying the other team's message).

If we want the traditional media to be playing our song, we have to repeat our song over and over and over again until that is all that they hear.

So when McCain (or his surrogates) say something racist during the campaign, don't just repeat it (their beat) rather reframe it by saying, "McCain and the Republican Party are racists." -- that's going to be one of our beats. And say it over and over and over and over until others start repeating it too. It's not elegant. It's not intellectual. It's really really basic. But I believe it's how messages move in our culture. (And even though most Republicans have never been in a hippie drum circle, you can be dang sure that their marketing and PR people understand the importance of a well-framed sound-bite (beat) and endless repetition.)

To illustrate my point, check out this video by Arcade Fire (there's really never a bad time for an Arcade Fire video). When the video opens, it's total chaos--just noise and everybody playing at once (they are transitioning out of one song into another). But if you listen really closely, underneath all of the chaos, is a discernible melody. And then, about 19 seconds in (literally I think it's 10 measures in 4/4 time--IN THE MIDST OF ALL THAT CHAOS THEY ARE COUNTING!) all the noise drops away to reveal the beat that was there all along. 48 seconds in, Winn gets the whole crowd clapping the beat. And by 1 minute in everybody is on the same page-- the entire band, the entire crowd, all singing the same song. It's extraordinary. Three people kept the beat during the chaos and didn't waver -- and then 1 minute later thousands of people are in sync with each other. Enjoy:

[A side note, if you're ever been in a drum circle you know it is really really hard to change the beat once one has been adopted by the group. You have to fight and fight and fight to get your new beat heard-- and in the interim the sound is really dissonant. But someone with a cowbell can pretty quickly change the beat with a more persuasive beat. A cowbell just seems to cut through the noise -- perhaps because of its pitch? I think DailyKos, Americablog, Firedoglake, HuffingtonPost, and Brave New Films are the progressive cowbells that can sometimes shift a debate in an instant. And for that I send them a deep bow of thanks.]

Monday, February 25, 2008

John McCain's misplaced priorities

Vote Vets is out with a pitch-perfect new ad that looks at John McCain's misplaced priorities.

(hat tip to Nicole at Crooks and Liars for posting the video!!!)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Clinton and McCain advised by different branches of the same consulting company?

I was doing research today on Charlie Black -- the Senior Adviser to the McCain campaign who has been one of their key point people on managing the pushback on the Iseman affair (for example he was on Charlie Rose denouncing the NY Times on Thursday night). Charlie Black is chairman of BKSH & Associates a prominent lobbying firm in Washington D.C. Charlie Black is working for free for McCain (as if there ever is such a thing in politics) but also admitted that he has continued his lobbying practice literally from inside McCain's Straight Talk Express Bus.

So I went to the BKSH website to learn more about them and noticed a tab that said, "Integration with Burson-Marsteller." And I thought hmmm, that's interesting, because the President of Burson-Marsteller is Mark Penn who is Hillary Clinton's chief strategist. And sure enough, there on the BKSH website is a paragraph that reads:

BKSH & Associates Worldwide joined Burson-Marsteller in 1990. Since then, the BKSH offices in Washington, DC and Europe have worked closely with Burson-Marsteller, Penn, Schoen & Berland, Direct Impact, Marsteller and the Civitas Group. Our integrated methodology can solve a wide scope of public affairs issues with great breadth and depth.

So Clinton's campaign and McCain's campaign are basically advised by different branches of the same company!? How screwed up is that? What is even weirder is that Mark Penn is charging the Clinton campaign out the ass for his services (a reported $4.3 million so far for doing a terrible job) and Charlie Black is working for McCain for free. WTF?

I'm still trying to figure out what to make of all this. For Penn and Black it really isn't about principles is it, it's just about billable hours (Penn takes his now and Black is making an upfront investment in the hopes of a big payout later)? But in the end Burson-Marsteller wins either way, because they are playing both sides of the street? They just sell PR bullets to combatants -- they don't care who wins or who gets hurt along the way right? Moreover, they just want the fight to be as long and conflicted as possible -- so they can keep billing?

This whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It seems to me that if you really want to show that choosing a Democrat over a Republican will make a huge difference in people's lives -- DON'T HIRE A CONSULTING COMPANY THAT IS WORKING BOTH SIDES OF THE STREET! (Am I just being naive here?)

If Clinton loses this race it will largely be the result of Mark Penn's incompetence. If Hillary Clinton wants to turn this thing around, she needs to fire Mark Penn.

Update #1: Joe at Americablog posted a link to a must-read article in The Nation on Mark Penn that is really quite stunning.

Frank Rich today details the many failings of Mark Penn today in a NY Times piece entitled, "The Audacity of Hopelessness" (it's the #1 most e-mailed article on

Update #2: After Iowa, when it was clear that Obama had tapped into something deeper in the electorate -- it would have seemed that the smart move for Clinton would have been to go out and hire an inspiring speech writer (maybe Aaron Sorkin was available after Studio 60 got canceled). This speech writer could have tapped into these deeper themes and Clinton could have claimed to be both inspirational and pragmatic. Instead, she pursued a bizarre strategy of public seppuku by attacking Obama's appeals to hope, the Declaration of Independence, and MLK. Such a move doesn't make sense until you realize that Mark Penn simply does not believe there is such a thing as American culture or any broader themes. For Mark Penn it is all about micro-targeting. He sees a hopelessly fragmented America that only cares about very narrowly defined self-interest. So Clinton couldn't go out and hire an uplifting speech writer because her chief strategist does not believe a noble higher calling exists in the American psyche.

Furthermore, as a PR hack, Mark Penn really isn't that good at moving voters. He's really about moving elites -- he's good at moving a handful of key Congresspeople to vote a certain way -- and he usually has the option to just buy them off with campaign contributions. The American electorate is a much different animal.

Update #3: When the Republicans re-took control of Congress in 1994, they launched the K Street Project. The idea was to only work with lobbyists who were loyal to the Republican Party. From wikipedia:

Shortly after the 1994 elections which gave a majority of seats to Republican candidates, [Tom] DeLay called prominent Washington lobbyists into his office. He had pulled the public records of political contributions that they made to Democrats and Republicans. According to Texans for Public Justice, "he reminded them that Republicans were in charge and their political giving had better reflect that—or else. The "or else" was a threat to cut off access to the Republican House leadership."
Lobbyists were to give money only to Republicans and hire only Republican lobbyists. In the process, Republican lobbying firms would get rich (they were the only ones who had access after all) and they would enrich Republican campaign coffers through their donations. The goal of this revolving door of contributions and influence was to create a permanent Republican Majority in Washington, D.C.

Now we all know how that worked out... Republicans quickly became corrupted by the process and lost control of Congress in 2006. The new Democratic majority went back to business as usual -- working with firms that gave equally to both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats didn't want to lead an ideological crusade -- they just wanted to be the ones in a position to make the decisions in Washington.

But it seems to me that there was something fundamentally correct about the Republican approach which Democrats would do well to learn from. It seems to me that it is flat out bizarre for a Democrat like Hillary Clinton to hire a PR firm to help her advance Democratic health care issues -- only to have that same firm turn around and help Phillip Morris advance its pro-cancer business interests in Washington D.C. It leads to weird situations where Democrats try to advance a FISA bill that protects Americans from domestic spying and then Nancy Pelosi goes out and does a fund raiser for Al Wynn who is bought and paid for by the telecommunications companies who are trying to kill the very bill she is advancing.

I think Democrats in Washington D.C. would do well to start using an environmental and social filter in deciding which lobbying firms they will work with. It would be just like the filters that socially responsible investment funds use to screen out bad companies from their portfolios. For example, lobbyists who work for alcohol, tobacco, or any polluting industry would be denied access. Lobbyists who work to advance Democratic values and interests would be given preferred access. Call it the Main Street Project -- requiring that those who are given access return the favor by working to advance Democratic values in all aspects of their business. I know Democrats also value tolerance of different opinions but we can't be in the business of simultaneously working for and against our own interests.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Quick thoughts on tonight's Democratic Debate in Austin

1.) I know it will never happen, but Obama and Clinton would make an extraordinary ticket together. Obama could make the big visionary speeches and build a governing majority. And Clinton could manage the details of moving legislation through Congress. It'd be the greatest ticket in history. The audience in LA a few weeks ago and the audience in San Antonio tonight both seemed to share that view with their standing ovations and clear adoration for both candidates.

2.) On the economy: I wanted both candidates to make the link to Iraq more strongly. Democrats need to be saying over and over -- "the Iraq war is causing the recession and withdrawing from Iraq will end the recession." Obama made the point late in the evening (over an hour into the thing) but he could have made the point in the first 10 minutes.

3.) On immigration: I wanted either candidate to make the connection very clearly between NAFTA and our current immigration problems. NAFTA has failed both the U.S. and Mexico and it's a big reason why so many people are trying to come to this country. Again Obama alluded to this point but didn't drive it home as clearly as he could have.

4.) On John McCain: when asked about McCain's record as a "reformer" -- Clinton should have hit McCain as being part of the Keating 5 -- and the millions of dollars McCain cost taxpayers as a result of his bad judgment. She also could have brought up his current relationships with lobbyists (ahem Vicki Iseman). The "reformer" meme needs to be challenged aggressively and consistently.

5.) Did Obama have a cold tonight? And what was up with the wind in the room -- they had to keep holding their notes down to keep them from flying away. I also thought Clinton's suit was rockin'-- black with green piping -- very Jillian from Project Runway.

6.) I'm so completely disgusted with CNN I want to scream. Yet another debate sponsored by the coal industry, yet another debate with ZERO questions about global warming!!! It's not like the future of the planet depends on figuring this out -- oh wait, it does. CNN has once again shown that they are bought and paid for by big, dirty, polluting coal. With friends like these...

7.) Clinton's "plagiarism" line of attack is ridiculous. Obama was quoting the Declaration of Independence and MLK for god sake. If she wants to draw distinctions, Clinton should be making a detailed defense of partisanship and how fighting for ideas is what gets results. (It seems to me that Obama's emphasis on post-partisanship is actually his biggest weakness.) But the current plagiarism line of attack makes her look petty.

8.) If Clinton really wanted to win this thing -- she should have used the Monica Lewinsky scandal in reply the question, "What was the moment that tested you the most in your life?" Her answer about wounded vets was brilliant and got a standing ovation, but a candid reply about Monica would have completely dominated the news cycle and could have changed the dynamics of this race.

9.) Also, if Clinton wants to win, she needs to fire Mark Penn. People HATE that dude (and he's giving her really lousy advice -- see point #7). If she wants to show she's listening, firing him would be a great move. Oh yeah she also needs to fire Terry McAuliffe -- I don't care if he's not actually getting paid by the campaign, dude is a total tool.

10.) All that being said, I came away feeling that these are two extraordinary candidates. In any normal election cycle we'd be lucky to get one candidate this brilliant. The Democratic Party is lucky to have 2 wonderful choices.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

John McCain has some 'splaining to do

John McCain seems to have a thing for the younger ladies. He was 42 (and married) when he met Cindy (who was then 25). Now comes news that Senator McCain may have been romantically involved with Vicki Iseman, a registered lobbyist who was 40 to McCain's 71! From today's NY Times:

Early in Senator John McCain’s first run for the White House eight years ago, waves of anxiety swept through his small circle of advisers.

Stephen Boitano/Getty Images

(Vicki Iseman at an awards dinner in 2004.)

A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, in his offices and aboard a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.

When news organizations reported that Mr. McCain had written letters to government regulators on behalf of the lobbyist’s clients, the former campaign associates said, some aides feared for a time that attention would fall on her involvement.

I want to make a few points about this:

1.) If McCain really was sleeping with a registered lobbyist, this is a huge problem. While McCain speaks out against trading votes for campaign contributions, this gives the appearance at least of his being willing to trade votes for sex.

2.) John McCain needs to disclose every single client Vicki Iseman represented and any actions he took on their behalf.

3.) This is not McCain's first ethics problem. He was also part of the Keating 5 -- a group of 5 Senators who told regulators NOT to investigate problems at Lincoln Savings and Loan -- which in turn led to the Savings and Loan Crisis in the mid 1980s. The S&L crisis cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

4.) I suppose adults can do what they want. But I don't want to hear any Republicans talking about so-called "families values" this election when the person they have chosen to represent them doesn't seem to hold himself to the same standards.

5.) When Chris Matthews and other blowhard pundits call John McCain a "maverick" -- is that just an old boys' club code-word for a guy who's getting a little something on the side? 'John, you 'ol maverick, she's 30 years younger than you!'

Update #1: The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Americablog, and DailyKos all have the story now too. It's also blowing up on Digg. The American Spectator (not a site I usually visit) claims the NY Times had this story for 5 weeks but withheld it. If so, the NY Times may have some 'splaining to do themselves -- did the editors who wrote the paper's official endorsement of McCain (before the Republican primary in NY) know that the paper was withholding a story that may have prevented his Super Tuesday victories?

Update #2: I wonder how Republican Apologist-in-Chief, David Brooks, is gonna try to spin this? I gotta figure he's wracking his brain right now -- "If McCain can score with younger chicks, it shows he really connects with younger voters? McCain really is the youth candidate after all! Yeah, yeah, that's it! Or maybe... McCain has shown that he can think outside the box when it comes to his marriage, so he'll be able to bring that same independent streak to um, um, screwing the voters? No, no, that won't work..." It's gonna be a long night for Mr. Brooks. I've got $5 that says David Brooks criticizes the NY Times for reporting the story in the first place. Make it $10.

Update #3: Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has posted a nuanced and thoughtful analysis of this story. Definitely worth a read.

Update #4: D.C. superlawyer Bob Bennett is now on record as saying he worked to stop publication of the article in the NY Times several months ago.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I'm calling BS on compact florescent light bulbs

For a few years now, power companies (through their marketing and PR representatives) have been telling us to use those twisty twirly compact florescent light bulbs instead of regular light bulbs. The campaign has always felt a little disingenuous to me -- it was basically a way for power companies to say global warming is really our fault (not theirs) even when, if you ask the experts, they will tell you that completely changing over to compact florescent bulbs would only make a small dent in a much larger problem.

Well now, after years of telling us compact florescent bulbs were practically a moral obligation, they tell us that SURPRISE! the compact florescent bulbs contain toxic mercury and they really don't have a plan for how to dispose of them. From today's NY Times:

Now, the question is how to dispose of these compact fluorescent bulbs once they break or quit working.

Unlike traditional light bulbs, each of these spiral bulbs has a tiny bit of a dangerous toxin — around five milligrams of mercury. And although one dot of mercury might not seem so bad, almost 300 million compact fluorescents were sold in the United States last year. That is already a lot of mercury to throw in the trash, and the amounts will grow ever larger in coming years...

If you break a fluorescent bulb, there is no need to call in the hazmat team, the agency says. Just clean it up quickly with paper (no vacuuming or brooms), keep the kids away and open the window for a 15-minute douse of fresh air.

Are you f'ing kidding me!? This is a light bulb we're talking about! "No need to call a hazmat team" they tell you -- just don't breathe for fifteen minutes and don't let the kids near it and open a window and don't use a vacuum cleaner or a broom (because that would disperse it into the air and into your lungs). Regular bulbs can be disposed of in the trash without a problem. How many families are really going to follow these steps? How many people even know that CFL bulbs contain mercury and that mercury is a potent neurotoxin?

It's just like when the big oil companies told Congress that they wanted to add MTBE to gasoline because it was supposed to reduce gasoline emissions. It was an attempt to head off regulation or increased taxation of gasoline and it was presented as a win win solution. Then MTBE ended up leaking from gas station storage tanks and contaminating water supplies throughout the country. In the end, the solution was far worse than the original problem (and the original approach to addressing the problem -- regulation to reduce emissions or taxation to reduce consumption -- would have produced dramatically better benefits for society).

I'm done with compact florescent light bulbs. They didn't give off good light anyway. I'm just gonna keep on using regular light bulbs until they come up with a non-toxic alternative. In the meantime, I'm gonna plant a tree, reduce overall energy consumption, and vote for politicians who favor aggressive regulation of power plant emissions and global treaties to reduce greenhouse gases.

Update #1: Power companies (through their PR representatives and allies in government) will tell you that compact florescent light bulbs produce a NET DECREASE in mercury pollution. They acknowledge that each compact florescent bulb contains 5 milligrams of mercury. But they counter by claiming that the energy saved by these bulbs will reduce energy use and in the process, save 9 milligrams of mercury pollution which would have come from the power plant (to produce the energy for the less efficient regular bulb).

I think there are 3 problems with this argument:
1.) There is an big difference between mercury being released miles away (and thousands of feet into the atmosphere) at a power plant and mercury being released in your living room. I'd rather not have mercury released in my living room.
2.) It assumes that their estimates are correct (and these are power companies we're talking about here so there is at least some reason for skepticism).
3.) Perhaps this is the most important point -- THIS ESTIMATE ASSUMES THAT THE ENERGY IS BEING GENERATED BY A COAL-FIRED POWER PLANT. Coal-fired power plants emit tons (literally) of mercury into the air, which then gets into the soil and water, and ultimately into our bodies. Solar power, geothermal plants, and wind farms produce no mercury pollution as far as I know. Rather than forcing us to use toxic light bulbs (and continuing to license new mercury spewing coal-fired power plants) it seems that a better way to go would be to shut down coal-fired power plants and invest in solar, geothermal, and wind energy.

Update #2: Both the MTBE environmental disaster and the dangers of compact florescent light bulbs illustrate the problem I have with Barack Obama's post-partisan approach to politics. MTBE was promoted as a win-win bipartisan way to clean up the environment (in the same way that CFLs are being promoted today). Republicans and their corporate allies got a low cost way to act like they cared. Democrats got to claim a business-friendly environmental victory. Except, by not making the hard choices, society is actually much worse off in the long run (and in each case, people literally lose their lives because of these bad decisions). In each case, the partisan solution of regulating and taxing polluters would have produced dramatically better results for society than the so-called bipartisan approach.

Update #3: For those who want to know more about MTBE, here's a great link which details the whole history of the problem (complete with links to original source documents from the big oil companies showing what they knew and when the knew it):

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

WSJ recommends letting the poor freeze to death to combat global warming

Last Wednesday, the Senate voted on several amendments to the proposed economic stimulus bill. Democrats wanted to add an extension of unemployment benefits and home heating subsidies for poor families. The Wall Street Journal editorial board didn't think that was such a good idea. They wrote:

As for home heating subsidies, these encourage greater energy use, especially in the Northeast, which depends on oil more than natural gas. This is thus more of a stimulus to foreign oil exporters than to the U.S. economy. Think of it as one more subsidy to add carbon to the atmosphere, notwithstanding the usual global warming grandstanding.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board is a leading global warming denier and has consistently opposed the Kyoto Protocol and any other efforts to mitigate this potentially apocalyptic problem. But with their editorial on February 8th, it seems they've found a plan to combat global warming that they actually like -- namely, letting the poor freeze to death. So, according to the WSJ -- investing in green energy technologies = bad, regulating power plants = bad, allowing the poor to freeze to death (especially those freaks in the Northeast who heat their homes during the winter) = good for the environment and a plan they can really get behind.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Absolute Genius

By now you've probably seen the "Yes We Can" video in support of Barack Obama. It's brilliant and Scarlett Johansson looks hot in it and it was probably worth a couple points to Senator Obama on Super Tuesday. Well today, the Huffington Post links to a video spoof of the Yes We Can video that tries to apply that same magic to John McCain and the result is absolutely hilarious. Here's the original Yes We Can video:

But then check out this parody of John McCain.

The difference between the two videos really speaks volumes about the upcoming election. In Barack Obama (or Hillary Clinton) we have a genuine leader who can transform the world. In John McCain... not so much.

Update #1: Here's the YouTube link to the parody video (from an LA comic calling himself so you can send it to your friends:

Update #2: Americablog is reporting that the video was created by LA comedian Andy Cobb. Here are the folks who worked on the video:

Andy Cobb
Josh Funk
Nyima Funk
Marc Evan Jackson
Dave Pompeii
Marc Warzecha
Mark Kienlen

Deep bow, my friends, deep bow.