Thursday, July 31, 2008

Return of the Rovians

Last week, as Barack Obama addressed a crowd of hundreds of thousands in Berlin, John McCain talked two people in a supermarket. What can McCain do about Obama's ability to outdraw him by many times?

Attack, that's what. McCain is running a new ad that tries to turn Obama's advantage into a liability by painting him as an out-of-touch "celebrity" rather than a heavyweight politician.

What's interesting to me about the ad campaign is the strategy of it. It's obviously a return to Karl Rove's tactic of attacking the opposition's strength head-on. And where did Rove get this tactic? I have an idea.

Al Ries and Jack Trout, advertising gurus and authors of Positioning and Marketing Warfare make this suggestion in the latter book: if you're not the market leader, find a weakness in the leader's strength and use that as your point of attack. Don't find a weakness in the leader's general position. Find a weakness in their strength.

For example, they point to a rental car ad once used (by Avis, I believe) to attack Hertz. Hertz is the number one rental car company and had most of the customers. So the rival lured customers with this slogan: "The line at our counter is shorter." The weakness in Hertz's strength was that it inevitably had longer lines.

Rove was obviously trying this same strategy. One of Obama's biggest strengths is his magnetism. He draws enormous crowds. So count on Rove's disciples to suggest that there's something wrong with drawing big crowds.

I don't think it will work. Hilary Clinton tried the same strategy of suggesting that Obama was a crowd-pleasing empty suit. Obama proved too smart for that. His campaign, including his recent foreign trip, has shown that his talent is genuine.

But meantime, how about turning the strategy around? Obama's team should find the weakness in McCain's strengths as use them to attack.

I'm not clever enough to do it for them, but here are a couple of thoughts. What are McCain's strengths? Experience, of two kinds: Washington experience and military experience.

Well, the Washington experience should be easy to attack. Yes, McCain's served as a Senator for a long time and really knows Washington politics. But politicians have always attacked that as a bad thing, and it should be particularly easy to do that now. With 74% of people thinking that the country is going in the wrong direction, it should be easy to attack Washington experience as a liability -- Washington is what got us on the wrong track. So say that yes, McCain is highly experienced -- at the same old politics that got us in the mess we're in now. We need to turn the page and start fresh, so McCain's experience is bad, not good.

The military experience is perhaps a little trickier -- Obama doesn't want to look weak and doesn't want to make it easier for Republicans to push the line that Democrats don't understand that the war on terror is a military matter. But some appropriate attack could be made here too. We've lived for nearly 8 years under an administration that was overly adventurous and trigger-happy and that didn't understand that starting a war is serious business and shouldn't be done lightly. Do we want four more years of that? Do we want someone who's already beating the drum about going to war on Iran? With the country already war-weary, McCain's military experience could be suitably painted as a liability, not an advantage.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Home to Roost

Who can resist the late-summer sound of Republican scandals finally becoming official? Yes, we've actually known for months or years that Monica Goodling and others politicized career hiring at the Justice Department and that something was fishy about Senator Ted Stevens's relationship with an oil service company, but we didn't know all the juicy details, like the exact search string Goodling's predecessor used to screen out liberal job candidates, or just what renovations got made to Stevens's home.

The Goodling and Stevens scandals are philosophically linked. They show that when a party gets too much power, its people start to run amok. They start to accept power as their due. After a while they think they can do anything -- as though there's no accountability, no tomorrow. Would the Democrats be better? We can at least hope so.

Politicizing career hiring at the Justice Department is a true disgrace. I'm sure there's always some slight bias in favor of the incumbent party, but I know from my own days there that there was nothing like the systematic, heavy-handed litmus testing that went on under the current President. It's outrageous, and unnecessary too -- the career staff takes direction from the political leadership of the Department and defends the official line, regardless of their own political leanings. I sure hope the next Attorney General sends round a very public memo to everyone in the Department that states clearly and simply that career hiring is to be apolitical and meritocratic, period.

As to Senator Stevens, he has proclaimed his innocence, and of course we presume it until the contrary is proven. But the really sad thing is how small the bribes are said to be. The news reports say they are "more than $250,000," which I suppose is technically an unlimited amount, but which suggests that we're not talking about millions. Can you really buy a U.S. Senator with some drywall and a Land rover? Of course I'd most like to think that Senators aren't for sale, but if they are I'd hope they'd at least be more expensive than that.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Santa Fe Photos

I previously gave the rundown on what to do (and what to skip) in Santa Fe. Now if you'd care to see the photo version, it's here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Better Baseball Name

I recently went to see the Washington Nationals, our local baseball team, play in their newly completed park. It's actually quite a good stadium, although I remain skeptical as to whether it was worth the $611 million of public money the District of Columbia paid for it. Do we put up office buildings for other companies that want to locate in DC? I don't think so.

Anyway, having got their new stadium, what the team needs now is a new name. The "Nationals" is not a terrible name, but it's obviously pretty bland and banal. There have been a lot of suggestions, mostly of a comic variety.

My girlfriend and I put our minds to this question and ran through a few more serious possibilities, including bringing back the old Senators (too backward-looking), the Monuments (not suggestive of action), and the Representatives (too long, but could be shortened to the Reps).

But here is the name that we really like and offer to the team:

The Public.

This name captures the idealism of Washington, picks up a key thing that Washington is, or at least should be, about, and identifies the team with its legions of fans. Plus it's one of those cool singular names like the Magic or the Heat.

The more I think about it the more I like it. I'm thinking of the Nationals as the Public from now on.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Unclear on the Concept

The New York Times reports today on a 20-year-old blogger named Brandon Dilbeck who received an e-mail from Comcast after complaining about Comcast on his blog. Comcast employee Frank Eliason thanked him for his feedback and said the company was working on the issue.

Dilbeck's response? He found it all "a bit creepy." “The rest of his e-mail may as well have read, ‘Big Brother is watching you,’ ” he said.

Hello? It's a blog. You wrote your complaint about Comcast and you posted it on the Internet. You wanted everyone to read it. And now you're upset that somebody did?

Another blog called Contempt for the World posted this similar complaint called "Comcast is Watching Us," which calls Comcast's practice of leaving comments on blogs something that " seems to toe the line between concerned and creepy."

Again, what on earth do bloggers expect? These complaints hark back to stories about people who get fired for blogging. Of course there are lots of differing details in these stories, and it matters what was posted, and whether someone is fired for actual inappropriate material or just for having a blog at all, as some claim, but a basic theme seems to occupy these stories: did you not think anyone would read it? Do you think there's a legal privilege that protects you against consequences for anything you post? Did you imagine that the Internet is a separate universe that doesn't intersect the real universe?

Perhaps Brandon did. “It feels like nobody ever really reads my blog,” he told the Times.

Obviously, I like blogs. But some people seem unclear on the concept. When you post something on the Internet, you want people to read it. It's a little much to complain when somebody does.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Go Get Your Gun -- Sort Of

In response to the Supreme Court's historic gun rights case, the D.C. Council has passed emergency legislation authorizing the District to issue gun licenses and people to keep and carry guns in their homes -- sort of. Owners will have to be licensed and will have to pass a background check; guns are still banned in most public places; "automatic" weapons, defined quite broadly, are still banned; and, most controversially, guns will have to be stored unloaded and either disassembled or equipped with a trigger lock, unless there is a "reasonably perceived threat of immediate harm" in the home.

Now, the Council (which includes my colleague Mary Cheh) is entitled, in response to the Supreme Court ruling, to keep gun laws as restrictive in the District as is constitutionally permissible. Just because the existing law was struck down doesn't meanthe District has to give up. The Council can try to maintain as much of D.C.'s traditional anti-gun position as it can. It's even reasonable for the Council to be a little pushy and to enact some questionable provisions in order to probe for exactly where the constitutional limit is. The Supreme Court's opinion, by its own admission, left a lot of questions up in the air, and the courts will be decades resolving them. The District isn't required to roll over instantly. So licensing, background checks, and many other restrictions are appropriate.

But at the same time, the District has an obligation to comply with the Supreme Court's ruling in good faith. I haven't been able to find the exact text of the legislation (the D.C. Council's website isn't nearly as good as Congress's), so I'm just relying on news reports here, but I wonder whether the disassembled/trigger locked requirement can pass this test. The Supreme Court's opinion upheld "the inherent right of self-defense" that it found to be "central to the Second Amendment right." Noting that "the American people have considered the handgun to be the quintessential self-defense weapon," the Court determined that such weapons could not be altogether banned from the home. With specific reference to a requirement that firearms be rendered and kept inoperable in the home, the Court said, "This makes it impossible for citizens to use them for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional."

Apparently the Council thinks it can avoid this problem by permitting handguns to be kept loaded if there is a "reasonably perceived threat of immediate harm." I take it this term is not clearly defined in the legislation. Will gun owners be allowed to load their weapons only after they hear someone breaking in? Is this not too much of a burden on the ability of citizens to use handguns for their "core lawful purpose"?

Well, other jurisdictions have trigger lock requirements, so perhaps it's legitimate for the Council to at least give them a try. But I wonder whether it will stand up in court.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Bloody Good Try

Norman didn't win, but he did come in tied for third. His last round was a disappointing 77, but he still had an incredible week, and I'm none the less inspried. Bloody good try, Greg, you gave us middle-aged hackers quite a thrill.

Back to more normal topics tomorrow.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Surge of the Middle-Aged

I knew it was too good to be true that Greg Norman was actually leading the British Open almost through the end of the second round -- at the close of play he's one stroke back. But my goodness, the man's 53! He won the Open in 1986!

And don't forget Rocco Mediate -- the 45-year-old, who was second at the U.S. Open in a playoff, is just 3 strokes back.

If these guys can compete at the highest levels, perhaps I can still learn to play.

C'mon Greg, c'mon Rocco! Middle-aged guys everywhere are rooting for you.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

That New Yorker Cover

As everyone knows by now, the New Yorker published a controverisal cartoon on the cover of its latest issue, which depicts Barack Obama in Muslim garb, doing a fist bump with his wife Michelle, who is carrying a machine gun. Oy!

What's interesting to me about the cartoon controversy is what it shows about the importance of context in interpretation. As I look at the cartoon, in its context as the cover of the New Yorker, I see an unsuccessful attempt at humor. I can see, as the New Yorker's editor, David Remnick claims in defense of the cover, the attempt to satirize right-wing attacks on the Obama's patriotism. But it's too complicated to be really funny. You have to first get over your shock at what the cover depicts, then think about what it means, and finally get to the point of recognizing it as a satire of what it depicts. It's not nearly as funny as the cover from a few months ago that depicted Obama and Hilary Clinton in bed together, both reaching for a ringing red phone at 3 a.m. That one also satirized an attack on Obama, but in a playful, instantly funny way. This one doesn't work for me, but I do see it as attempted humor.

But what if the National Review or the Weekly Standard had published the exact same thing? I would be outraged! I wouldn't see it as funny at all. I wouldn't even see it as an attempt to be funny. I would see it as an outrageous, totally unwarranted attack on Obama's patriotism, not as a satire on such attacks.

It all goes to show you how challenging interpretation is, and how delicate humor is. The exact same thing can have different meanings, depending on who says it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Over the Top

Just a short, self-aggrandizing note: sometime late yesterday, my website had its 100,000th visitor. That doesn't count blog readers, who are tracked separately.

The great majority of the visitors are interested in my income tax pages. Interest waxes and wanes with the calendar. During tax season, the pages typically get about 500 hits from 200-300 visitors. This time of year 100-200 visitors a day is the norm. The daily traffic also serves as a barometer of events in the tax protestor world: when it shoots up, I know something is happening. I had nearly 1600 visitors the day Ed and Elaine Brown were arrested. Although there are false positives: nearly 600 visitors showed up this Sunday, but the only apparent reason is that a link to the pages that appeared on a popular discussion board.

I never imagined that proving that there really is a law requiring people to pay income tax would be my most public face. But there it is -- apparently there are a lot of people out there (100,000 or more) who need guidance on this issue. I'm happy to provide it.

Competitive What?

I was out of town when NPR aired this story, so I'm a bit late here, but can there actually be a league of competitive yoga? That's hoping to become an Olympic sport in 2012? Apparently there is.

My goodness, what are the events? Is there a competition for being the best at renouncing competition? A prize for not caring about prizes?

I guess once synchronized swimming got in, there was no stopping the silliness. Rhythmic gymnastics, moguls skiing, and half pipe weren't far behind. Even bridge was a demonstration sport at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

But at least these "sports" aren't inherently oxymoronic.