Thursday, July 31, 2008

Costs of War, Costs of Oil

The Iraq war is costing about 150 billion/year in direct costs.

Exxon Mobile just posted a record profit of 11.68 billion for the quarter (or 44 billion for the year).

Why don't we just eliminate the middleman and send our taxes directly to Exxon?

Current Total Iraq War Cost: ###

And, just a reminder: the White House insisted the war would cost no more than 50 Billion, total. They even fired one of their advisers for suggesting the total costs of the war could reach 200 Billion. And bear in mind that even if we decided tomorrow to pull out ALL our troops it would still take 18 months just to get them out of country, or another 200 billion. That's how the "total cost" (including veterans benefits etc.) now approaches more than two trillion.

To put that in perspective, that's enough money to entirely fund Medicare for six years, or guarantee Social Security benefits without any increased taxes or age requirements for the next six generations.

McCain Plays the Dozens Against Obama

Lovely analogy in the Times about McCain's new negative campaign against Obama:

“It could be the Coca-Cola strategy of marketing that they’re trying to apply to Dr Pepper,” said John Weaver, a former chief strategist for Mr. McCain.

Meaning that McCain is finally running a down-and-dirty, negative Rovian campaign like Bush ran against Kerry. That's the "Coke" brand of the Republican party.

This is certainly a sign of desperation from camp McCain. The bump from their off-shore-drilling ads seems to be waning and the press is starting to scrutinize it for the irrelevance it offers.

Actually, the decline in gas prices is probably taking the steam out of the issue. People must be thinking, if prices can just decline on their own, maybe this off-shore drilling policy isn't really that big a deal. And with all the press on the other side of the pond, McCain got desperate.

And maybe made a mistake.

The biggest boon to this approach is to Obama: Obama gets to recapture his narrative as "above the usual politics" and a political outsider. The past few weeks he's kind of lost that sense (i.e., the "tacking to the middle" narrative). McCain could have continued to pound Obama as politically calculating (he really needs to pick a narrative for Obama and stick with it).

After all, calling Obama politically calculating, pointing out his liberal voting record, scruitinizing his political friends, hitting his experience: these are all the normal negative painting that people accept, just as people accept portraying McCain as beholden to Bush, and tempermental. Even some slight race-baiting (off-the-cuff MLK/Jesse Jackson remarks, a la the Clinton campaign) can just pass under the radar, as do the elderly jokes with McCain. But saying that Obama would rather win an election than "win" a war, or comparing him with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton - this starts to smack of desperation. Next I expect to hear McCain say that Obama's mother wears combat boots.

And with McCain going wildly negative, Obama gets to counter with "McNasty."

My analysis: this is a move that the Obama campaign scripted well in advance. Unlike Kerry, Obama saw this coming from a mile away, and his repost has been well set up. McCain may think he's simply following the Bush playbook, but in reality, he's just walked into Obama's trap. He stands little chance against Obama when it comes to playing the dozens.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Big Obama VP Buzz Day

Gosh, you know it's a slow newsday (all this prior to the 5.8 LA quake) when everyone is writing about Obama's POTENTIAL VP pick.

Apparently we're down now to four real contenders at camp Obama: Kaine, Sebelius, Bayh, and Biden. Or really three, since most speculators feel Biden is too problematic (i.e., so qualified he'd show up our guy.) I still think Biden would be a kick-ass VP but agree with the problematic assessments if we're playing out all the political calculations.

And today, Kaine's the one getting all the buzz. But as with any fresh face on the list, I think it's just the media falling in love. But at least the finalist list is pretty close to mine: Bayh, Biden and Sebelius, with Kaine as the VA wildcard. The only thing everyone seems to agree on: Hillary's odds at this point are pretty long.

I still think Bayh is the odds-on favorite. Why? Kaine won't deliver Virginia. Sebelius will fall victim to the Hillary dead-enders. Biden will overshadow our hero. Only Bayh is the non-controversial, non-oratorical, experienced safe pick. And he'll help in the upper midwest, which Obama is now finding slippery.

The real question: why is this story being leaked today? Is Obama trying to change the media narrative to pivot off his trip? Seems to be working, but I'm curious what they've got up their sleeves.

A Real World SPECTRE?

I always thought that the problem with the U.N. was allowing member states that weren't democracies. How can states run by tyrants have equal votes in a body with states run by people with human rights, and consider the rulings in any way legal?

Seems the terrorist-sponsored states have their own organization, called the Nonaligned Movement. Ahmadinejad just gave a big pep talk there.

So this may be the conflict of the future: Democracies versus an organized movement of criminal states. Not too dissimilar from James Bond versus Spectre. SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. All we need to do is kick these guys out of the UN and then we have a kind of world-wide game for spy-versus spy.

And we thought the post-communist world wouldn't be interesting....

The Obama World Tour: Did It Work?

There are several assessments out today. Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker suggests that the long-term effect of Obama's overseas trip is that even though it might temporarily make him seem egg-heady, it will, over the long term, demonstrate that he can be Presidential. CNN suggests he's already seeing a 3-piont bump. Gallup, however, disagrees, saying that that week of intense media press coverage may actually be energizing McCain's conservative base, thus providing an unintended backsliding in the polls.

If you ask me, the real numbers in the Gallup daily tracker show Obama widening his lead slightly during the trip and then that margin quickly dissipating. I think the trip went swimmingly; what cost that small lead, I think, was his press debriefing on Sunday, which swimmingly did not go so much.

Obama chose to give his thoughts on the trip to the Minority Press Association. Unfortunately, this group turned out to be a collection of typical left-leaning interest groups; so all the questions Obama was given worked to his disadvantage. There were questions on Indian rights and U.S. apologies (irrelevant to his trip), and little new insights about foreign policy, the real meat of the trip. If Obama's campaign made one strategic mistake, it was framing his trip with this group of reporters, who made the candidate seem as beholden to party special interests as a typical Democrat. He needed to get away from that and deal with issues of general concern. Why not a big interview with Barbara Walters or something of that nature?

Here's the point: Obama's going abroad may have been good for his personal campaign, but Americans want to know how it was good for them. What did Obama learn and what will working-class blue collar families get from that? Was there anything about trade, about oil, about security, about international cooperation with U.S. interests? Unfortunately, our group of reporters didn't really seem to care about that, and Obama missed his opportunity to debrief his trip into a frame that the key swing voters needed to make his bounce stick.

The points about Iraq were good: and Maliki endorsing his timetable was a gift. But right now, that seems to be the only tangible benefit, and he could have gotten that with two days to Iraq and back. Gambling on a week abroad in Europe needed to pay bigger dividends than that.

He's got a few days still to translate the additional dividends on his own, but if he doesn't, voters are just going to count the trip as a wash - and if all he did was energize Republicans and get a temporary boost, he'll find the time would have been better spent on the stump back home, or with a quick weekend briefing in Iraq, rather than pimping his creds with every duke and duchey on the European tour.

UPDATE: Looks like The Times pretty much agrees.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

What's All This I Hear About McCain and Checkoslovakia?

Interestingly, the most popular post on my blog is this one, "You Want Poland, Take Poland. You Want Checkoslovakia? Take Checkoslovakia. Anything Else We Can Help You With?" If you search "McCain Checkoslovakia" on Google, it comes up first. Could be it has something to do with my spelling Checkoslovakia without the z (thanks to my reader for catching my notoriously bad spelling. Apparently, however, I'm not the only one who spells it that way).

Whatever the reason, unfortunately, it has nothing to do with what people are looking for, so let me write an article that's about what people searching McCain Checkoslovakia are really looking for.

They're really looking for some juicy discussion of McCain's referring (in a contemporary manner) to Czechoslovakia, a country that ceased to exist in 1993 (it's now the Czech Republic and Slovakia). Look, as far as McCain gaffes go, I don't think this one is all that serious. (About a 3 on a scale if you put his mixing up Sunni's and Shiites as a 6. All of which pales in comparison to W. Bush, whose doozies were usually off the charts). The funny thing about McCain's Czechoslovakia gaffe though is that, apparently, he keeps doing it.

People may wonder, why doesn't Obama make more of these gaffes? That's certainly a dangerous business though. Is Obama willing to make a bet that he won't make a single gaffe between now and election day? Probably not, so going after McCain on this would probably not yield any dividends.

But there is a general pattern here, one that the Democrats could well use to diffuse claims of Obama's inexperience. Today, we get probably the first real serious look at McCain's temperment by Bob Herbert. Such an article makes us realize that, certainly in contrast to Obama, there's been practically no real media scrutiny of McCain. That may explain why Obama's numbers are shifting, and why, on the eve of Obama's return to the states, his surrogates might now start to really take McCain on. Obama himself may be saving his rejoinder for the debates, where it would do the most good in response to some dig against him about his foreign experience. "I may have only visited Iraq twice, sir, but at least it was in modern times. You don't see me talking about Czechoslovakia, a country that ceased to exist fifteen years ago." A take-down of foreign policy and a dig at McCain's age at the same time, albeit inelegantly phrased.

The problem is, most people who are still on the fence about the two candidates are probably like McCain - they probably don't know that Czechoslovakia doesn't exist either, so that kind of rejoinder (at least if it's phrased as unartfully as I have) would probably just make Obama look nerdy. Though it may be the sort of jab people searching for McCain/Chechoslovakia are hoping to find. Even if he could pull off a critique of these lapses and make it not seem schoolmarmish, Obama may be above that sort of thing. The trick is, can he score points for being above it, and be above it at the same time? Right now, the answer seems to be, no.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Newsweek Blames 15-Year-Old Kid for His Own Murder

The most oddly reported blame-the-victim story I've read in a while. Larry King, a gay, cross-dressing fifteen-year-old, was murdered by his classmate, Brandon McInerny.

The article devotes three salacious pages to detailing the "commotion" created by the victim, and offers a single page of insight into the shooter. Apparently, one day Larry asked Brandon (whom he liked, apparently) to be his valentine. The other kids at school then teased Brandon about it (the same way they would tease Larry). So Brandon shot Larry.

Here's how Newsweek describes these events: "he was allowed to push the boundaries so far that he put himself and others in danger." They quoted a teacher as calling Larry's actions "bullying."

Yes, asking someone to be your Valentine is the equivalent of being a bully capable of unleashing mass bloodshed. If you're gay. According to Newsweek.

Meanwhile, the only person at the school who seemed to want to mentor Larry - a lesbian principal - is under threat of lawsuit.

But no one cares why Brandon decided it was ok to shoot his classmate in the back of his head. "Brandon was being terrorized," claims his lawyer. By which he means Larry's approach, not the taunting by the other kids.

HEY, NEWSWEEK - IT WAS THE OTHER LITTLE HOMOPHOBE KIDS WHO BULLIED BRANDON (as well as Larry). Isn't THIS the bullying that school officials should have stopped? Apparently not: they were more concerned that Larry was wearing makeup. And apparently it's ok for bullied kids to strike back, as long as they shoot the gay kid.

The reporters give us this little tidbit about Brandon: when he was six, he watched his father shoot his mother in the arm. Like Harris and Klebold at Columbine, one wonders what demons Brandon had inside that a little taunting by the other kids would set him off. But since the victim was gay, this isn't a story about another homicidal teen triggered by bullying: it's a story of a victim made to sound like a prostitute on the street, just "asking for it."

Newsweek seems to have bought into the gay-panic theory. Apparently, the reporters understand the situation about as little as the people in charge of the school did.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Joker: Heath Ledger's Last Laugh

There's no doubt that good as it is, it's Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker that really makes Batman: The Dark Knight.

Since his death in January, due to an overdoes of sleeping pills and anti-depressants, one has to wonder whether or not this was a case of a role overtaking an actor. In order to portray the anarchistic nihilist, Heath had to summon up emotions that would be powerful and dark, a place he'd never gone before as a performer. Of course, his fellow actors deny that the role played into any contribution to his death. But add the depravity of the role's emotions to his recent breakup with Michelle Williams and his separation from his daughter, and maybe the darkness became too real. David Cohen and Ethan Sacks report friends saying that talk of the role made Ledger go somber. All artists have to experience the brink of the abyss in order to capture really great art. There's no doubt that as an actor, Ledger achieves that here, and quite brilliantly. Whether or not he was able to pull back from that abyss in real life, we'll never be able to say. And if, indeed, the overdoes was nothing but a haphazard accident: well, it was the sort of pointless, tragic accident of which The Joker would be proud.

SPOILER ALERT: for the rest of this discussion, I'm just going to plow right into what happens in the film. If you haven't been able to get a ticket yet, STOP READING NOW. Get online and get your reservations. Come back after you've seen the movie. Since you won't be disappointed, feel comfortable going with the crowds on this one: the crowd reaction, particularly a crowd of people who don't know what's coming, is one of the more enjoyable parts of seeing the film.


First, let's acknowledge that this Batman, written by director Nolan and his brother, is SO much better than the first (and achieves what no other movie this summer, with the exception of WALL-E, achieves: unity of theme and story. Even Iron Man, smart story telling as it was, was a bit confused about its message). Perhaps this is an argument for the writer/director - they know not only how to create character and metaphor, they know how to display it. Let's follow some of the wonderful themes.

Like playing cards. Ledger refers to the DA, Harvey Dent, as Batman's "Ace in the hole." But really, Harvey, and his girlfriend Rachel, are Gotham's King and Queen. Batman is the Ace (after all, the good guys would be able to do nothing about bringing Lau back from China without Batman - Batman trumps all the other rules), and commissioner Gordan the Jack, the loyal servant. Now...throw the Joker into the mix. As Heath tells Batman while he's being beaten up in his bad cop interrogation, "I don't want to kill complete me." Because, of course, Batman's Ace is the mirror of the Joker. The anarchist and the vigilante both thrive on chaos: one to cause it senselessly, the other to use it to society's advantage. The joker would get no laughs if there was no Batman to taunt, no willful purpose to try to upend.

What's fascinating is that this movie is interested in the nature of that card: the Joker. What is the Joker, what does it mean, and what does it mean to us, in a post 9/11 world? Lucious Fox's cell-phone snooping sonar machine is able to spy on all the calls in Gotham, coincidentally parallelling the recent FISA debacle. Batman's ethics requires the machine to be destroyed as soon as the criminal is caught. We're meant to see even using the machine this once as crossing a line - a line that needs to be crossed to catch a bad guy. But with even Obama supporting FISA, is this really that much of a line, any more? Interesting, we live in a world that's even more cynical than the Dark Knight.

But the movie would have us watch Batman cross a line only to emphasize that there are no lines for the Joker to cross. He is the WILDCARD in all senses: funny, ludicrous, deadly, whimsical...the pure antagonist, he only believes in upending whatever plans are in place and unmasking everyone's pretensions. While all the other "cards" in the movie have their faces - some even have Two Faces, their public faces and private faces, their white faces and black faces. The Joker has no face. No identity. No fingerprints. In the first classic "establishment" killing (by which I mean, the Joker - who starts off as a nobody - has to earn his criminal stripes by bumping off the criminal who doubts his ability. It's a classic of cinema which we last saw wonderfully parodied in the Kill Bill movies.), the Joker takes a pause from the killing to explain how he got the way he is: his father did this to him, see? But here's where the fun comes - the next big scene with the Joker, we get this "classic" origin story a second time, only this time, it's his wife. You see? Nolan plays with the convention and we get a different story every time we meet the character. There is no real psychological explanation for the Joker that we'll ever know: he's a pure cipher.

One who believes in mischief more than anything. When all those people on the ferry are debating about pushing the button and blowing up the other ferry, none of them ever stopped to think whether the Joker might be...playing a trick? Did you or did you not believe that those buttons controlled the the detonators on their own boats, not the other? Nolan never tells us: and that's how we know this movie works. He doesn't need to tell us - he's told us all we need to know about the Joker, and who he is. The rest of the fun is up to us.

None of this would work without Ledger's amazing performance. He digs down into this cipher and comes up with all the gestures that make us see both the joy and the fear in pure chaos: a nervous laugh, a bit of self deprecation, a quirky walk, a supreme confidence, a kind of smarmy simpering, and a voice channelling the venom of the most dangerous drunk, the darkest schizophrenic. He has a theory, that people are basically animals with masks, and a job, which is to remove the masks and unleash the animals. He starts off wanting to unmask Batman, only to realize he doesn't need to: the guy is already an animal. So he changes his sights (hey, chaos is nothing if not resourceful), and has his success with Harvey Dent. And his fun with the bat.

Perhaps this all best comes together when the Joker blows up the hospital. The Dark Knight is not a CGI movie - perhaps this is what makes it so successful - it's a bow to classic stunts cinema. So come up with a great classic stunt, like a blow up of a building.

Now add to that stunt a completely unhinged, unmasked, lunatic performance.

You get one amazing moment of the film, the Joker walking out of the building in a nurse's outfit while the building blows up: his face a series of glee, annoyance, disturbance, ennui, even fear at his own creation. As Ledger acts his way in front of a building blowing up, you realize you are being held captive by an actor's performance. We've had these moments - these visceral "ah hah!" moments of amazing cinema in movies recently: when the car is swept off the ground in James Bond as the plane takes off; as WALL-E discovers Eve's wonderfully perfect shape and purpose. But it's rare to have that moment as a mixture of imaginative old-fashioned explosives as amazing acting.

It may be tacky to point this out, but there a few moments in the film - and only just a few - where Ledger's untimely death has created some problems for the post-production continuity, and the big moments that could deliver the themes more fluidly. What was the trick that allowed the Joker to escape the cell with the knife (since this escape is the key to the Joker's whole setup, wouldn't that be a trick worth seeing)? What were the big words to Harvey Dent that supposedly was the Joker's coup de grace in unleashing Two-Face's hidden animal (Harvey has a chat about his anger, but wouldn't you think Ledger could have given him a nice soliloquy to put the final stamp on things, something the Joker doesn't shy away from in other moments)? And wouldn't it have been better, knowing that Ledger would be unavailable for the next film, to give the Joker a more fitting and definitive send-off (and the film a more satisfying ending)? Had Ledger been able to come back from the grave, no doubt Nolan would have had in him for some post-production tweaking to solve these problems.

But these are things, unfortunately, resulting from a tragedy that cannot be held against the filmmakers. And they hardly detract from Ledger's star turn. No one can doubt, after this final performance, a posthumous Oscar is in the cards for Ledger. And one can only appreciate even more how much his talent will be missed.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A McCain or Obama VP for the Base, or One for the Middle?

Interesting - Nate of Fivethirtyeight suggests that McCain, who is having trouble with his Evengelical base, might be wise to put Huckabee on the ticket.

Very interesting. So it seems that both McCain and Obama have "base-shoring" choices for their VP: for McCain, it's Huckabee; for Obama, it's Clinton.

But both these "base-shorers" will complicate the candidates appeal to moderates. For McCain, Huckabee will alienate rust-belt and western libertarians. For Obama, Clinton will muddy his unity message and while helping in the rust belt, might endanger the new south/west coalition.

Both candidates also have a good roster of VP selections for their mainstream, middle appeal: For McCain, Romney, Pawlenty, and Fiorino still look like the favorites - with Romney holding on to his favorite status. For Obama, Bayh, Nunn, and Biden seem to be the frontrunners - and no reason now to think that Bayh isn't holding on to the top slot. Interesting, because in this mix, is there really much ideological difference between people like Pawlenty and Bahy, Fiorino and Nunn? That's the middle for you: non-ideological, culturally bland pragmatists. It's the place where both candidates will most likely go.

Given their recent history, Obama seems more likely to go there than McCain. But we shall see, soon enough.

Tipping Point States

Fivethirtyeight has a good map of "tipping point" states - those states that will be decisive in the Presidential election.

This shows us where the fight will be: in the rust belt (Ohio/Indiana/Michigan/Pennsylvania), which currently generally leans Obama, and the "new south/west" states of Virginia & North Carolina, and Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Montana - states that are libertarian with a conservative tradition but influx of ethnic/new technology workers - which at the moment are close but probably with a slight overall edge to McCain.

I think Obama has been doing well in the rust belt with his economic message, and the "anybody but a Republican crook" sentiment of the current economy. If McCain rights his message on the economy, he could start making inroads here, so Obama can't take this for granted: he needs to hammer McCain on the economy daily. The rust belt is likely going to be where he wins or narrowly loses.

The new south/west can also give him the edge to seal the deal. Obama's "unity" message appeals to the new south/west, but I'm afraid that's getting a bit overshadowed in the heat of the partisan nature of the general. It's tricky: Obama needs to hammer McCain but at the same time still appear to be a force of unity and "new politics." His trip to Europe/Iraq is necessary, but could he be going at the wrong time? He needs to be threading this needle and hitting McCain/espousing unity in order to bring the fight to where it counts. He needs something symbolic and dramatic. Like if he could get a Colin Powell endorsement and have Powell join him in Iraq. And come out with an economic stimulus plan endorsed by prominent conservative economists. All this noise Republicans are making about his name and his character is just the sort of thing that will drown out Obama's message. Getting prominent Republicans to break with their party and tell people to actually listen to him is what can counter that. That's the sort of double trump Obama needs now to start taking the fight home in the states the count.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

End of the Oil Bubble?

For those of us who've read Chris Farrell's thesis that multiple bubbles are good for the economy - get ready to have some fun!

Farrell says that multiple bubbles (tech, home prices, etc.) allow for low-cost experimentation that can lead to economic transformation. Other writers have argued as well that all our IRAs and 401Ks create a huge hedge fund that essentially needs a place to go...they all tend to go somewhere popular together, that starts to create a bubble, the bubble pops, and then they go somewhere new. After the popping of the technology bubble, money went into home prices, and most recently, some people think that all that speculation has gone into the price of oil.

Everyone thought home prices had nowhere to go but up, until...what? Until the economy was doing well enough for the Fed to start raising interest rates. Rates hit a level that started discouraging some buyers. Other rates on ARMs started resetting higher, making the now infamous subprime loans into a house of cards. The cards started falling - then watch out: money streamed out of housing faster than you could say boo.

The same thing may have started happening to oil prices this week. Some suggest oil prices may be significantly inflated due to investor speculation (hmmm, similar to home prices). So perhaps, now, we have a bubble that might get us to finally think about quitting our oil dependency: the "transformation" Farrell loves. But now, the economy and stock market has gotten weak enough that we may have hit another tipping point, and oil prices, which have started to fall, may soon have a route....

One big difference, though: we're building housing all the time, but no one's making any more oil. Oil prices may be inflated now, but as supplies dwindle and demand increases, they have no where to go but back up. And perhaps to Farrell's consternation, this bubble might pop before it's had any real time to do its transformational work.

But a bubble it may be, nevertheless. The immediate result may be a huge drop in the price of oil (for now), and a reviving of the economy (for now). Some say oil could blow out to $80/barrel pretty quickly. If that happens, all that money will have to go someplace new: the market, or alternative energy, or sunflower seeds. And our urgency to develop alternative fuels may unfortunately dissipate. This rapid run out of oil could leave our economy where? A sudden reprieve from our inflation, a gradual healing of the economy as the stock market starts to turn up. But where is the transformation that Farrell predicts? And wont the high prices already have done damage without having time to spur us to good? Oil at $80/barrel will hardly inspire us to be more fuel efficient or move our grid, as Al Gore wants, to renewable energy. And the next time oil spikes, it won't be due to speculation.

The problem could be that the bubbles are starting to come and go too quickly - like a wild night at a Vegas craps table. The only people transformed by this are those in the house, raking in a percentage. The bubbles might pick up speed, getting into one thing after another and blowing them up before they can truly transform. How will our economy handle that? Probably with its usual schizophrenic confusion. And where will the bubble popup next? If you can guess that, and how long it'll last, you probably stand to make some dough....before you lose your job.

Warning: Obama's Lead Shrinking

Fivethirtyeight is showing a definite trend now, with Obama's lead over McCain in poll summaries shrinking from 4+ to about 2.

What's going on? Well, I don' think the polls reflect the most recent events like Obama's new earnings or his recent op-ed on Iraq, both of which should help him.

Instead, I think the sagging numbers reflect some ongoing core troubles in camp Obama and McCain's reshaping on his campaign in the past couple of weeks.

For Obama troubles, we have:
Clinton dead-enders seem to be actually growing, perhaps encouraged by recent suggestions that a Clinton role-call vote at the convention may actually result in her being nominated (and their frustration that this last, desperate hope seems to be being kaboshed by Howard Dean).

Changing mind on taking public campaign money and all the talk of "drifting to the center" seems to have generated a temporary tick-back (question remains whether that temporary hit will result in bigger dividends later on).

For McCain's successes, we have:
Improved situation in Iraq means situation on the ground starts to come closer to justifying his support of the surge. It also diffuses Iraq as a distinction between the two.

Quick repudiation of Gramm's faux paux helps to nullify potential hit on economy.

His speechifying generally seems like he's a little less bored of the whole ordeal; possible to actually listen to him talk, now.

Generally, less incoherence in the McCain message: more of a standard, conservative message and attack on his opponent as liberal.

None of this is determinant and the conventions (and VP selections) will of course provide critical bumps to both candidates. But momentum is important; Obama can't rely any more on McCain doing his campaigning for him. He needs to start shoring up supporters and getting his message out to swing voters and swing states, particularly to those "Reagan Democrats" or "white-blue-collor Appalachian" voters or whomever these people are who are backsliding, so that he has the forward momentum after the Olympics in August. And he needs to stop McCain's new campaign discipline. Team Obama is making all the right moves and his campaign is remarkably disciplined. But to turn around the momentum again he needs to finally put the Clinton issue to rest (whatever he has to give Hillary, it's worth it) and come at McCain as hard as McCain has been coming at him. With Iraq receeding as an issue, McCain and the Republicans are vulnerable on the economy: Gramm provides the perfect opening for Obama to go for the jugular, here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Getting a Piece of the Same-Sex Marriage Pie

Looks like Massachusetts may vote to allow out-of-state couples to wed there.

Well...there's a thought. Maybe we don't need to fly to California to get the license? We could do it right here in our own back yard.

Looks like Massachusetts may be waking up to the 370 million that California stands to make from gay marriage...time to get a piece of that marriage pie, huh?

Next, if New Jersey turns civil unions to marriage, we could see a revitalization of the Asbury Park tourist industry? Good business if you can get it.

Meanwhile, backwards states like Ohio, that have anti-gay ammendments, are just bleeding money....and not all of it due to trade, I might add. People are leaving. Even high school students don't want to go to college there anymore. With its limited opportunities in all regards, who'd want to stay?

Monday, July 14, 2008

VP Update: Mark Sanford Out

Along with Phil Gramm, Mark Sanford takes himself out of contention for McCain's VP, although, as with Gramm, probably not intentionally.

Romney, Pawlenty, and Fiorina are looking better all the time.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Hellboy II: A Brilliant Disappointment

Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Another movie I just saw and another disappointing feeling (so far, I'd say only Iron Man and Wall-E have the complete integrity of their scripts...the only movies worth seeing so far this season).

This one comes closer than most disappointments. But like Hancock, it's only half a movie.

Like Hancock, this one has a promising opening that the movie fails to live up to. Unlike Hancock, we realize it's not going to live up to the opening about fifteen minutes into the movie, when we get into the off-the-shelf formulaic horror-schlock of the Tooth Fairies and the Hellboy's domestic dolldrums (not to mention the pure poison of the usually enjoyable Jeffrey Tambor, who brings the movie to a dead stop every time he appears). From the beautiful puppetry opening to bad Lucy and Dezi in fifteen minutes.

Then back again. I have to profess that I loved the vaporous character of Johann Krauss, probably the most wholy original movie superhero we've seen. Every time we turn the corner, we think this movie might now be saved. What's odd about this movie is that it's simultaneously amazingly great while also being completely boring. Guillermo del Toro keeps coming up with one amazing visual setpiece concept after another: whether it's doing battle against a giant city-stomping flower (with a baby in one arm), the mystical connections between vengeful Prince and pure-hearted Princess, or the bittersweat battle with the oddly teddy-bearish Wink, del Toro explores the intersection of mythology and heroism with an imaginative ambivalence that's both endearing and fascinating.

At the same time, the story is such a boring mix of pop culture hoo-haa, I kept checking my watch, wanting it to move on to the end already. I was never too much a fan of Ghost Busters or Blade (okay, so del Toro's ripping off himself, here), so ripping off from them is one step below bubble-gum. Ripping off from Blade Runner, Total Recall or Lord of the Rings is always entertaining but pretty much cliche at this point, so while I liked the imaginative characters populating the Troll's market, I couldn't help but think, "Bar Scene in Star Wars" - which, to tell you the truth, was when, no matter how much I had been blown away by the power of what had come before, even as a seven year old boy, I had my first insight that some movies might be more interested in selling toys then entertaining their audience. Not that del Toro is as merchandizing happy as Lucas: his puppets are ten-time as's just that his sci-fi is a bland mash of yesteryear's warmed-overs.

And then it's back to the Lucy and Dezi show: the marriage banter between Hellboy and Liz Sherman is but one step above the groaning unevolving clunkiness between Indie and Marion in Indiana Jones and only marginally more believable than the insane drivel between Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel in The Happening. Could all this fake movie couple banter just die, already? It's as if none of these screenwriters have actually been in a relationship but have read some interplanetary fax about what it's supposed to be like (argue a lot about ultimately insignificant things; express your true feelings to everone but your partner) and have been told they have to put some of it in the movie or suffer the rack. Maybe the characters could just say something like, "please take five minutes to turn to your partner and insert your own meaningless couple's banter here," and we could just be done with it. At least it'd be more interesting. And if you were in the theater alone you'd get five minutes of personal silence, which would be far more rewarding.

So what do I think? I think if you turned this from a movie into a thirty-minute museum video installation piece, it would be pure genious: it would blow me away. The fairy-tale opening...maybe a little mirthful introduction of Johann Krauss...followed by the prince taking over the crown...followed by the battles of wink and the giant plant...followed by an abbreviated go at the Golden Army. A flow of forms and imaginings made of wood and vapor, plants and animals, metal and fire. If I could have seen that as an installation piece, I'd be raving about it for years. In those few scenes I've mentioned, del Toro fully realizes the fantasy world that's haunted him in movies like Mimic and Pan's Labirynth, and extracted a yearning for the lost magic of that mythical world and its creatures. And there's a nice little theme here, a nice little story that's overshadowed by the schlockier Hellboy story: that the vengeance of the night-time fantasy world is intricately bound with its purehearted salvation. That the forest offers both death and life, that in fact, this is the very breast of mother nature, which man strives to turn from - whose authority man strives to challenge - but which he must ultimately accept. When the life-and-death destructive battle with the plant ends with an explosion of ferns and flowers, it's rapturous: the bringer of death and harbinger of life is just what these fairy tales are about, yet rarely so beautifully enacted.

But since you have to slog through about fifty additional minutes of off-the-rack boredom to pick out that poppy, I have to say, wait till it's on video, when you have the fast-forward button in your hand.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Hancock'ed that Went off Half....

I've been meaning for a while to write about Will Smith's Hancock, which I saw last week.

In the meantime, it's gotten some pretty poor reviews, most of which point out the same problem we had with it: the second half sucks. (although that hasn't stopped it from topping the box office for its weekend - though facing stiff competition from Hellboy, Wall-E and Batman in July, along with it's bad reviews, will likely sink it quickly.)

But it's more than just a sucky third act (and missing second). What disappointed us was that the first half was so original and interesting - for a summer movie. The second half not only completely betrayed the tone and interest of the first, it left all the issues raised by the first half (how publicity can transform the image of a superhero) unresolved in order to go off in a completely derivative (and pretty stupid) direction. So not only did the second half suck, it was so unrelated to what came before, we never found out how the first half of the story was supposed to end. The worst of all story-telling mistakes. I don't think I've ever seen a movie that was this disjointed between the first act and the end.

Our immediate assumption was that it suffered from Hollywood ReWrite Syndrome. A little research reveals this is pretty much true: the original script was much closer to the first half of the movie, all the way through. However, although the rewrites introduces the disappointing concept of a (SPOILER ALERT) second superhero, it also seems to have moved a lot of the movie location and spirit and introduced some of the more interesting elements of the PR man remaking the image of a misunderstood superhero.

Since we found the PR/Los Angeles angle the most interesting idea in the film, I can't blame its odd disjointedness totally on the rewrite. So what went wrong? A classic case of bad story telling, of giving up a good premise to substitute another that is not really quite so strong. A case of welding two different movies together that never should have been joined. Hey - I've made this mistake, too, when writing a screenplay. But usually, someone will call it for the crap it is, and force me back to the drawing board to kill off the weaker twin and raise the other. And didn't anyone notice that, in both of these stories, the superhero of this film isn't given any kind of villian to fight?

I don't know what went wrong. Maybe one of the test audiences said, "where did Hancock come from?" and off they went. But they could have settled that question with a single line; they didn't have to eviscerate the movie.

It's such a shame, because if they had stuck with the premise of the first act all the way through, this could have been a really brilliant movie - a kind of live-action Wall-E for adults. And a different kind of villian - a real-life villian called "the PR machine" - would have been really quite facinating.

The premise: is being a "superhero" really created exclusively through public relations? Or rather, how essential is the right PR to turning talent from being annoying to being cloying? Just when the story starts to turn: just when Hancock foils a bank robbery and does everything right just the PR guy says he should in order to win public approval - we drop the PR angle entirely. It's never heard from again. It's as if the main character (no, Will Smith is not the main character - he's the mirror) might as well be a gas station attendant or a potted plant.

But what if the movie continued to exploit the PR theme through to the end? What if Hancock becomes the superhero he longs to be, becomes not only accepted by the public but irrationally desired, because of the PR man's success? What if Hancock's successful public relations itself becomes a trap? What if he starts to mess up not because he's a yutz but because the public mistakes the PR Hancock for the real guy? Maybe they have him busy opening a shopping mall and missing the BIG PLOT TO CAUSE AN EARTHQUAKE or something that the old cranky Hancock would have easily seen. What if Ray's PR is so successful that Hancock's publicity is taken over by a larger company (BAD GUY ALERT) without such pure and trusting motives for him...or the public?

Yes, the story of a hero's rise and fall all due to the love of the public - and the manipulations of the "hero machine" - is all a bit cliche, but the story manages to avoid that through the first act. With the same imagination put to this story through its conclusion, we might have seen Hancock learn that good public relations involves more than just sticking to the's about having character. We'd have seen Hancock apply this character against the people who are trying to manipulate him for their personal gain. We'd see Hancock do his heroic altruistic schtick not because he's board or wants acceptance, but because he truly feels the pain of the people he saves (maybe, in the end, Hancock's enemy's are out to smear his good name: and he has to sacrifice his hard-won popularity in order to truly do what's right, and save the city).

The fact that he doesn't learn this - that the story's deus ex machina saves him not only from the logical conclusion of the first act but also his deserved character arch - gives us only one real bad guy to root againt. And this one doesn't even appear in the movie.

Bush's Legacy - Coming to a City Near You

Check this out.

Pretty cool. I just like the idea of a museum devoted to failure. Kind of a nice change from the usual museum aura of reverence. They should make this a permanent installation - best place: New Orleans.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Take Webb off the Obama VP Short List

According to FiveThirtyEight.

Also, Sebelius is getting nearly the same odds as Clinton on Intrade (both of whom are beating the next top contenders: Bayh and Biden).

Interesting, Amy Klobuchar (whom I didn't have on my list) comes in next, followed by Clair McCaskill. Seems Intrade is serious about Obama nominating a woman. I'm not so sure - I think the "better not be anyone but Hillary" factor isn't being accounted for strongly enough.

Anyway, back to Webb. He's out. So who does this help? The other Virginians, natch: Tim Kaine, current gov. of Virginia (put him up on the list). Mark Warner, former governor and businessman (add him as well). Jack Reed, from Rhode Island but who's got West Point credentials and has been coming up from behind (but I'm skeptical about a senator from a solidly blue state.) Put all these guys together and you got Webb. By themselves...not so much. Which is why Webb's departure as the front-runner on the "other than Hillary list" probably helps out Bayh, Biden, and Sebelius more than anyone else.

Goodbye, Mr. Helms

You know, I have a rule to never take joy in someone's death, no matter how odious the person.

However, I make one exception: Jesse Helms.

Knowing that he's gone from this world is really one of the greatest feelings of relief I've ever known. I can't say how many times I wanted to read this news when I was in my twenties or thirties.

Here's why. And here. Oh, and this. Anyone remember this little doozy? Here's a nice little compendium of favorite Helms quotes for your memorial scrapbook.

Could it have been the thought of a President Obama that sent Helms scurrying off to the great hereafter? Had to get off the planet before the abomination came, I suppose. In any event, it was a Happy July 4th (for the rest of us....).

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Vice Presidential Frontrunners - McCain

Okay, let's admit it: the race for McCain's Veep choice isn't nerely as interesting as Obama's. But there's some suspense here...and the playing feel has certainly evolved - so let's review.

First up, since the Republican convention comes after the Democrats', conventional wisdom is that McCain will wait to see what Obama does and then pick second - perhaps even waiting to the convention to make a pick. So how will McCain triangulate this off Obama?

Perhaps the most radical suggestion is, by selecting nobody. That's right, the Wall Street Journal suggests McCain might go into the convention without a VP selection, and leave it up to the delegates to pick, creating political theater as great as the Democrats. While intriguing as a possibility, particularly if Obama makes hay with a high-profile Hillary selection, the odds, I think are unlikely (does McCain really want to the delegates to tell him who he's going to work with for four years?) And besides, suggesting nobody isn't much fun for those of us just interested in the horse race.

No, the conventional wisdom is that if Obama DOESN'T select Hillary, McCain will swoop in by putting a woman on the ticket. Front runners: Palin, Condi Rice, and Carly Fiorina, the ex-CEO of Hewlett-Packard. I think Fiorina is an interesting choice. Kind of like a female Mitt Romney. Of course, she has no political experience and is a bit of a question mark for the conservative base. And Condi - while certainly a clever choice - is really too tainted by Bush. Talk about getting labelled as "Bush Term Three." No, that charge is sticking, so Condi is out. I think my readers are right: as far as the women go, Palin offers a fresh face and popular governor. What's not to like?

But if Obama DOES pick Hillary, McCain will face a money-machine like the Republicans have never seen. Conventional wisdom says he'll go with the guy who can bring in the dough: Romney. I see no reason to buck conventional wisdom on this one.

The dark horse in this equation seems to be Charlie Crist, governor of Florida. With Florida in play, Crist has been positioning himself to be a cleaned up Veep possibility, even going so far as to get engaged. The question here is, are all those rumors about Crist being gay possibly true? If they are, he can forget about it. If not, and he can withstand the intense media vetting, Crist seems to be getting his qualifications in order to deliver Florida into the McCain column. Question will be, then: does McCain need Florida? Probably probably he will.

So the fallout, as it is for Obama, is that everything revolves around Hillary. If she gets the ticket, look for money-bags Mitt Romney to get the nod, or perhaps something completely dramatic to shake up the press at the convention, like "nobody" or Toby Keith (hey, imagine if that happened) or Colin Powell (assuming camp McCain can turn him around).

If Hillary isn't on the ticket and the race starts to tighten, McCain has some room to maneuver and look over the electoral calculus. If scenarios have everything coming down to Florida, Crist moves to the top of the list; if it's the upper midwest McCain needs, Pawlenty is still sitting pretty. If the calculus is looking to win back western states, out comes Palin. And if McCain just wants to throw shit at the wall and shake up the board, Carly Fiorina could get him some valuable press.

I wonder if Hillary ever thought she would end up being so critical not just to Obama's selection, but McCain's as well.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Vice Presidential Frontrunners - Obama

As promised, we're revisiting the VP sweapsteaks. A lot of people have gotten into the game with their picks, including the LA Times, which has run a series of articles. Bully for me, they like mosty the same candidates I do. The New York Times has pointed out that candidates usually don't select their Veeps till just before the convention. So we have another several weeks to wait.

But now, the race has gone on, and there's new developments and more information. Obama and Bill Clinton have made up; Charlie Crist has gotten engaged. All this and more shakes up the playing field.

First up: Obama. What's changed on this front? Mostly, time: the bitter nomination battle (on a poodle with a paddle in the water on a turtle....) is over. Clinton supporters have mostly forgiven the opposition and both Hillary and Bill have aired their laundry with Obama and "gotten past that" and on board with being just another Obamabot fan. She's also been largely written off by the punditocracy. That in itself improves Hillary's chances tremendously.

Look: there is still no more energizing candidate out there for Obama than Hillary. By announcing a Hillary Clinton VP at the start of the convention, Obama can shape the narrative of unity going both into and out of the convention, and create a media frenzy the world has never before seen - the "unity ticket" would go on the stump immediately after the convention and such all the media air out of the Republican convention. Between the money and the media interest, McCain would become just a footnote to his own race. There would be no stopping the momentum.

Plus, Hillary has turned into, in her own right, perhaps the second best Democratic politician in this country right now. (Yes, the old Bill I used to love is now but a memory.) From a pure talent standpoint, Obama would be hard pressed to claim that there's anyone better.

There's just one problem. What does Obama do with the Clintons once he gets to the White House? Conservative Clinton-hating Obama fans like Andrew Sulliven would be apoplectic; Bill would be a liability; Michele has supposedly nixed the entire idea. There's a lot of feeling in camp Obama and around that the Clinton's are supposedly done, now, and not to be kept hanging around.

But Hillary is not done. And Obama wants his rivals close. Veep is as good a spot for her as anything.

The only issue, really is this: Obama is doing so well on his own, he may not need her. If he can do it without her, he probably will. So we'll have to wait and see; if the race starts to narrow in August, look for the big H to be pulled out on Day One in Denver. If Obama's six point margin turns to 8 or 10, then go to scenario two:

Scenario Two: Someone who isn't Hillary.

This list is harder to penetrate. Was the whole Clark fiasco Obama's way of auditioning him for VP? McCain wants Obama to "cut him lose," whatever that means - but what better way to get up McCain's rear than to put this guy on the ticket?

Maybe that's a bit too in-your-face, though. If Obama turns to his other short list, he's basically got Biden, Nunn, Richardson, and Edwards to pick from; or if he wants a general who isn't Clark, the basically unknown James Jones. (I'd say, with the amazingly lingering still-sore feelings of a significant minority of Hillarybots, all women who aren't Hillary are off the ticket.)

How do we chose amongst these five? How do we rank amongst these five? Really, it's hard to say - they all have assets in different ways. But if Obama is 10 or more points ahead of McCain in polls going into August, and a real rout looks possible, Obama doesn't need his selection to do any particular thing for him. He just needs someone who won't be controversial and who'll be the best asset for governing come January. In that case, my money would be on Biden. I've always liked Biden - he could have been a Bill Clinton without the baggage, if he only hadn't lifted a bit of his speech from some limey years ago. That's largely a non-issue for a Veep that won't be competing with Obama for head of the oratory spotlight. Biden always seems smart, experienced, educated on the details of the issues without seeming overly wonky. When the young Obama wants to turn to someone for advice, I could hardly think of anyone better to do the job.

So it comes down to this: Obama ahead by less than 6 - look for a big Hillary anouncement day one of the convention. Obama pulls his lead out to 10 or so - Biden's put on the ticket during the Olympics. Polls stay somewhere in's anyone's guess.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

McCain Smells the Coffee

After trailing Obama in the polls for a month and getting wide criticism for a lackluster series of speeches, McCain finally retools his campaign.

Shaking up the managers. Looking to manufacture controversy. Calling for more debates. Hillary knows these tactics well.

If there were any sure sign that Obama has a solid lead going into the attention deficits of summer, this is it.

Meanwhile, Michele and Barack are fist-bumping their way to the evengelical vote.

The Two Obamas (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love FISA)

Obama supporters are livid over his switch in stance about FISA, the bill that would grant immunity to telecoms snooping on citizens. Add this to his endorsement of the lame Bush-era idea of Faith-Based Initiatives and his aplomb at using and abusing Wesley Clark, and you definitely see a guy that's tacking to the middle.

All this has upset the liberal blogging crowd, led most notably by Arianna Huffington, who argues that a move to the middle waters down Obama's brand as a Washington outsider coming in to take on the status quo.

But Obama's "outsider" brand is as much about the wishful thinking of the liberals supporting him (and the portrayals made by the conservatives opposing him) as it is about Obama himself. Yes, "change you can believe in," asks people to take Obama to their hearts as an avatar leading the way against the Powers that Be. But if you wanted a "fighter," your man was Edwards (and if you wanted a really really sneaky, paranoid, never-say-die fighter, your woman was Hillary).

Obama has always been more of a lover than a fighter. And that's the other side of Obama's brand: he's a compromiser who can work with a "team of rivals," a man famously known to get along famously with everyone, foreign enemies included. Well, if a team of rivals doesn't produce a down-the-middle insider compromise, then I don't know what will.

The question is, which Obama is your Obama? The outside-the-beltway progressive, or the unite-the-country pragmatist? Personally, I like Obama the pragmatist: so all this talk about tacking to the middle, playing politics, and reaching out to conservatives just makes me like him more.