James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Politics

  • What Does the Netanyahu Victory 'Mean' for America?

    Was it a clear endorsement of Netanyahu's policies? Do we even know what those policies will turn out to be?

    The victor (Reuters)

    Last night I argued that there was a systematic difference in the way election results are seen inside and outside the country that was voting. From the inside, voters often realize how many mixed, random, or contradictory forces may have led to a certain outcome. From the outside, people tend to think: Well, the people of Britain have chosen X, or the people of America have chosen Z.

    As applied to the multi-party, coalition-dependent outcome of this week's Israeli election, that could mean that the increasingly hard-line Benjamin Netanyahu stayed in power, thanks to votes that could have been cast for a wide variety of non-hard-line reasons (starting with the economy). I used the comparison of the 2004 U.S. election results, which the outside world saw as clear ratification of the Bush-Cheney Iraq and anti-terrorism policy, while inside the U.S. it involved a host of other factors (the Ohio gay-rights initiative, etc).

    Almost no one agrees. A sample of reader reaction:

    1) "The comparison doesn't work." From a reader who disagreed with virtually everything I wrote about Iran and the Netanyahu speech to Congress, and who is very glad that the election turned out the way it did:

    The Iraq War was controversial in the US in 2004. If John Kerry had been elected, he would have followed a very different policy from that of George W. Bush.

    But in Israel, Buji and Bibi had the same policy on Iranian nukes—that they mustn't be allowed. There is no controversy inside Israel on the issue, which is why Iranian nukes weren't an issue in the election.

    So anybody who concludes that Israelis back Bibi's position on the negotiations with Iran is 100% correct.

    And regarding a Palestinian state, what Bibi actually promised was no more unilateral Israeli withdrawals, which is the only realistic method by which a second Palestinian quasi-state entity could be created.  Bibi's exact words were,

    "I think that anyone who establishes a Palestinian state today and evacuates land is giving territory to radical Islam from which it will attack the state of Israel. This is simply the reality that has been created in recent years. Anyone who ignores this is sticking his head in the sand. The left does this, sticking its head in the sand time and time again. We are realistic and understand."

    Bibi spoke to the Israeli experience, but Western reporters automatically twisted his words to fit their their fantasy reality, in which peace talks are eternal and Palestinians actually want to have a state next to Israel.

    By the way, I understand that nicknames—Buji, Bibi—are ubiquitous in Israeli politics, as they long have been in the Philippines. I don't use them because I don't know these people, and to me it would sound fake-cozy to refer to them that way. FWIW.

    2) "You are now on your own." From an American on the West Coast with a long background in politics:

    Didn’t other nations pretty much say to the US after Bush’s re-election, “Okay, but if you want to start or continue Bush’s wars, you are now on your own.”

    Is it not at least conceivable that other nations should now respond to Israel and say, “Okay, but if you truly are not going to agree to a two-state solution, and if your settlements are going to continue to be planned and located to make a two-state solution impossible, then you are now on your own"?

    I mean, can we not make continued support contingent on a policy that has at least some hope of leading to (1) peace in the Mideast, and (2) extrication of the US from a situation in which we are attacked and our citizens are killed because we are perceived to support Israel unconditionally?

    3) 2004 changed things, and 2015 has too. From another American on the West Coast.

    The reelection of Bush did, I fear, reflect an American acceptance, all messiness having been sorted through, of the bizarre idea that Bush was a better leader to safeguard American values and realize her aspirations.

    I have not felt the same about my country since, having played poker with George [in various places] often enough to know that he was, of all adult Americans then living, among those least suited for this role.

    I have the same reaction to this week's developments in Israel.  Netanyahu certainly is not a stupid or stunted man, but he is a willingly and knowingly dangerous catalyst in a bad batch of cultural and ethnic chemistry. I hold Israeli voters responsible for his reelection, and so, my love for Jewish culture and history, and for my Jewish friends and relatives notwithstanding, I have crossed into hostility toward the Israeli nation-state as it now sees itself.

    I know that for every Netanyahu there are two or more Barenboims, but Israel has chosen to follow -- and be -- the former.

    4) Let's not rush to moralize. From writer Jim Sleeper, a lone "I agree with you" message:

    Bravo your post noting what Israel's election and the U.S.'s of 2004 have in common. The differences are vast, but you hit on something inherent in democracy: What may seem monolithically majoritarian abroad is often messier in reality.

    And how about Netanyahu's rhetorical reversal today on his election-eve pledge that "There will never be a Palestinian state"?  Maybe Kahlon and Kulanu demanded that reversal as the price for their entering the coalition; we'll see. Netanyahu may lose some right-wing party leaders over this reversal, and, like you, I can't pretend to follow his snake-like twists and turns.

    But you're right [about the need] to take a broader, longer view.  Israel is in trouble; Netanyahu's policies in practice have certainly been a big part of the reason it's in trouble; but they're certainly not the only reason, and it would be nice if the rest of the world acknowledged some of those other reasons in its rush to moralize the election stats.

    5) You've been duped. From an Israeli writer who obviously opposes Netanyahu and what he stands for. I've condensed a lot of the internal Israeli detail to focus on parts relevant to the "what this means for the outside world" theme:

    I'm afraid you've been misled by Netanyahu's policies of the last two terms.

    At base, Netanyahu is an extreme right-winger of the Israeli racist kind. His latest appeal against Israeli Palestinian voters is proof of that, but people who remember the 1996 campaign knew it a long time ago. ... He created a right-wing government, and had a hellish time of it, as far as the world was concerned. He did, however, managed to kill the peace process by endless delays.

    He learned from his mistakes. When he came back to power, he used leftist and centrist politicians as fig leaves - Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Tzippi Livni, Yair Lapid. This had, as far as he was concerned, two benefits. One, he deluded the world into thinking that since those center-left people supported him, he actually intended to make peace. He never did, however. His government sped on with the construction of the so-called outposts - which are in fact undeclared settlements. The point of the outposts, all of them are far away from the 1967 border, is to prevent any division of the land. (See this recent report by Yesh Din, a human rights organization.)

    The second benefit Netanyahu derived from having centrist partners is he undermined them by their very partnership; their voters, disaffected by their collusion with Netanyahu, drifted away. ...

    While Netanyahu may look for more fig leaves, there may be few left - and he may actually have to do in public what he did for six years secretly, i.e. undermine any chance of a two-states solution by endless land-grabs.

    6) America as again the promised land. From a reader in Florida:

    I appreciate the hopeful note on Israel. Hope you are right.

    I think the most consequential American political development of [the Netanyahu Congress speech, the Iran debate, and the Knesset elections] is the end of the assumption that only [expert commentators who are mainly Jewish Americans] get to make any kind of distinction between Jewry and Israel. If any of the rest of us attempt to think it through, it's our latent or cultural anti-Semitism talking. The fiction-crushing aspects of Netanyahu's win are pretty liberating to American liberals. Israel is no longer a truly bipartisan issue.

    Right now, there is no denying it, Israel is very illiberal place. It has chosen to be. Its leader needed it to be. It should be easy now for an American liberal to say, "Sorry, can't support the leadership of the global tea party."

    I consider American Jews, as a group, probably our single finest group of citizens. I can't imagine America without them. I want more of them. I hope liberal American Jews start encouraging liberal Israelis and European Jews to come to America.

    I can't think of a better way to smash the easy, pernicious conflation of support for Israel and support for Jews than to simply recruit more Jews to America. ... If nothing else, simply talking about it, telling the Israeli left come here because it's actually welcome, would be valuable...

    This is the type of unpredictable pressures that can affect countries after very clarifying elections. Even if the reasons are messy, I don't know that Israel has ever had a more clarifying election to the world at large, at least not in my lifetime.

    This last message may be the place to say: For as long as I've been writing in this magazine, I have argued that America's openness to worldwide talent, ambition, energy, and dreaming is our most important advantage over any other country, and the most important element that makes us, us. When traveling in China, I met students, entrepreneurs, or simple rural families who thought that they'd be better able to realize their dreams if they could do so in America. Similarly in India, and West Africa, and Latin America, and Iran, and Israel, and other places I have been.

    The United States obviously can't be home to everyone in the world. But recognizing our crucial role as human talent-magnet is important to our understanding of America's strengths. It also should equip us to face our weaknesses, which very significantly include mistreatment of nearly every component of our pluralistic whole. Including notably, in this context, the European Jews who were shouldered aside rather than embraced as Hitler was taking over Europe. I want ambitious people from around the world, including those uncomfortable with the political climate in Israel, to view this as a potential promised land.

  • The Scandal of the Anti A-10 Campaign: Chickenhawk Chronicles Resume

    What a spending battle over military aircraft reveals about our moral priorities

    A-10 Warthogs doing low-altitude drills at the Barry Goldwater range south of Phoenix ( USAF Senior Airman Christina D. Ponte, via Aviation Spectator )

    A week ago, my wife Deb and I were driving down Highway 85 in Arizona, toward the southern town of Ajo (which we'll soon be writing about) through the military's very active Barry Goldwater Range. Right above our car, A-10 "Warthogs" swooped back and forth over the highway in training drills. I mentioned last month that to fly a non-military plane along this route, as I had once contemplated, you have to fly right over the highway, stay within 500 feet of the road's surface level, and maintain radio contact with a military controller called Snake Eye. I didn't try it last month and am glad I didn't now, because on their mock strafing runs the Warthogs came impressively/alarmingly low. The picture above, from the Air Force, is a clearer version of what we saw as we drove.

    But of course I'm glad to see the A-10s in action and their pilots maintaining proficiency, for reasons I laid out in my article "The Tragedy of the American Military." Let's consider the evolving fates of the A-10 and its ill-starred sibling, the F-35, for what they show about the modern military.

    * * *

    In my article I argued that the importance of the A-10/F-35 story had relatively little to do with the comparative virtues of either airplaneone relatively cheap but battle-proven and very effective, the other increasingly expensive and also fragile and increasingly difficult to keep out of the repair shop. Rather the real significance was what their stories showed about the cultural and even moral characteristics of the way we think and act on national defense.

    Moral?  Yes, moral. In public we generally talk about defense as if it were mainly a matter of bombs, machines, and the dollars that buy them. Of course those matter. But from Napoleon ("in warfare the moral is to the physical as three is to one") to Air Force strategist John Boyd (what counts in combat is "people, ideas, and hardware — in that order!"), students of conflict have emphasized the crucial role of character and integrity.

    Character and integrity are involved in this battle-of-the-warplanes in the following way (as sketched out in my story): The A-10, which is flown by the Air Force, has always had a strange stepchild status there. It is truly beloved by the Army, whose ground troops the A-10 has saved or protected in so many engagements. To the Air Force, in contrast, this mission of "close air support" has never been a budgetary or cultural priorityas opposed to bombing, aerial combat, "air superiority" in general, and even transport.

    In a rationally organized defense system, the A-10 would belong to the Army, which needs and loves it. The Army could include it in its budgets, keep as many flying as possible, make it the center of its close-air-support arsenal. But for bureaucratic reasons known in shorthand as the "Key West agreement," the Army directly controls armed helicopters but not many fixed-wing aircraft. Thus through the decades we've seen a long push-pull struggle between the Air Force, chronically eager to dump the A-10 and make way for other models, including now the troubled F-35, and the Army, which wants the A-10 but has no direct way to keep it in the budget.

    Several weeks ago I mentioned the truly alarming news that a three-star Air Force general had warned his officers against speaking up about the A-10's (very strong) combat record. As the Arizona Daily Independent reported, Air Force Maj. Gen. James Post told officers that if word of his views ever got out he would deny it, but he wanted them to know that passing information to Congress about the A-10's effectiveness constituted "treason." When that news leaked, the Air Force didn't even deny Post's comments; a spokesperson just called them "hyperbole."

    Since then, news continues to emerge of the institutional militarysome people in uniform, others in the contractor diasporatrying to make the A-10 look worse than it really is, and the F-35 look better. For what these episodes show about military-industrial-political culture, here is a reading list:

    "Lying to Win: Air Force Misrepresents Combat Records In Campaign to Retire A-10." This is a report last month from a retired Air Force officer named Tony Carr at his John Q. Public blog.

    "The Little 'Fighter' That Couldn’t: Moral Hazard and the F-35," a John Q. Public update by Carr yesterday on the mounting bad news about the F-35 and military efforts to contain it.

    "Not Ready for Prime Time," a report by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) on problems, failures, and deception involving the (favored) F-35.

    "Now the U.S. Air Force Wants You to Believe the A-10 Is Too Old to Fight," by Joseph Trevithick this week for the War Is Boring site on Medium. From the headlines alone you may be getting the drift of these news reports.

    "The F-35 Is Still FUBAR," by A.J. Vicens yesterday in Mother Jones.

    "Operation Destroy CAS Update," by the Arizona Daily Independent, which has been all over the A-10 story. CAS is, again, close air support, the mission at which the A-10 has been unexcelled, and the story details Air Force efforts to blunt the fact of the A-10's success.

    "U.S. Rep. McSally Urges Halt to 'Disproportionate' A-10 Cuts." Martha McSally, a first-term Republican Representative from Arizona who is herself a former A-10 pilot (and was the first woman in U.S. history to fly combat missions), writes to the new Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, to complain about the anti-Warthog effort.

    The Monthly Newsletter, by Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group.  My friend Richard Aboulafia is an always-quoted expert on aircraft issues both civilian and military. He devotes his latest newsletter to putting the A-10 debate in strategic perspective.

    As I say, it's a debate that matters in the short- and medium- term for the aircraft the military uses, and in the long term for the way the country thinks about its defense. More links after the jump

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  • Why Paralyzed Politics Are Making America More Unequal

    The Senate has even more to answer for than we thought

    Boss Tweed, by Thomas Nast, as originally published in Harper's Weekly (Wikimedia Commons)

    One obvious problem for 21st-century America: the seeming zero-sum paralysis of our national-level governing system, illustrated most recently by the spectacle of the Congressional-Executive / Republican-Democratic tussling over the Iran negotiations.

    Another obvious problem: the seeming polarization of American society on almost every axis, from economic well-being to political and cultural beliefs.

    We tend to discuss these problems as if they are serious but only indirectly connected. That indirect link would be via the increasing Citizens United-era dominance of big money in politics. This, in turn, makes it harder even to consider, let alone enact, policies that would blunt the winner-take-all aspects of a globalizing economy or rebuild the public institutions that have historically buoyed a middle class and protected the poor.

    One specific virtue of an admirable-on-many-fronts review article by Jill Lepore in the latest New Yorker is that she makes clear the connection between these twin pathologies. This argument comes in a discussion in her piece "Richer and Poorer," which begins with a discussion of Robert Putnam's new book Our Kids and ends with material from a forthcoming book called Inequality: What Can Be Done?, by Anthony Atkinson.

    Lepore's whole essay is very much worth reading, but here is the gist of the connection she lays out. She begins with the ever-faddish "culture of poverty" sociological explanations for inequality, including those in Robert Putnam's new Our Kids book. Then she moves to Atkinson's and mentions a study he discusses:

    It might be that people have been studying inequality in all the wrong places. A few years ago, two scholars of comparative politics, Alfred Stepan, at Columbia, and the late Juan J. Linz—numbers men—tried to figure out why the United States has for so long had much greater income inequality than any other developed democracy...

    Stepan and Linz identified twenty-three long-standing democracies with advanced economies. Then they counted the number of veto players in each of those twenty-three governments. (A veto player is a person or body that can block a policy decision. Stepan and Linz explain, “For example, in the United States, the Senate and the House of Representatives are veto players because without their consent, no bill can become a law.”) [Most] countries Stepan and Linz studied have only one veto player [with one-house legislatures] A few countries have two veto players; Switzerland and Australia have three. Only the United States has four. Then they made a chart, comparing Gini indices with veto-player numbers: the more veto players in a government, the greater the nation’s economic inequality...

    Then they observed something more... Using the number of seats and the size of the population to calculate malapportionment [in 23 countries], they assigned a “Gini Index of Inequality of Representation” to those eight upper houses, and found that the United States had the highest score: it has the most malapportioned and the least representative upper house. These scores, too, correlated with the countries’ Gini scores for income inequality: the less representative the upper body of a national legislature, the greater the gap between the rich and the poor.

    The growth of inequality isn’t inevitable. But, insofar as Americans have been unable to adopt measures to reduce it, the numbers might seem to suggest that the problem doesn’t lie with how Americans treat one another’s kids, as lousy as that is. It lies with Congress.

    Worth reading; thanks to Michael Ham for the tip.

  • Readers on Netanyahu, Iran, and Existential Threats

    A powerful speech, received in very different ways by different audiences

    The campaign goes on in Israel, as the campaigner comes to the United States (Reuters)

    These responses follow these recent pieces about Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech: "Is it 1938?", "The Mystery of the Netanyahu Disaster," "The 'Existential' Chronicles Go On," and "On Existential Threats."

    1) "What kind of existential threat is this, if it won't change policy on the West Bank?" From a reader at a U.S. defense-related organization:

    Let me add a couple more thoughts on Iran as an existential threat to Israel, or to be more precise, whether Netanyahu thinks Iran is an existential threat to Israel.  I say, no he does not.  Obviously, no one can read his mind, but we can see how he acts, and he does not act like a national leader possessed by such a belief.

    A leader who truly believes there is an existential threat to his nation organizes his actions to counter that threat.  In particular, he prioritizes his goals.  Things which would otherwise be valuable to him have to take a backseat, and maybe even be dispatched with, if it harms or insufficiently aids him in countering the existential threat.

    In Netanyahu’s case, what would that include?

    It would mean forming stronger alliances against Iran that would buttress Israel’s position against their nuclear program, even at the cost of harming other interests close to Netanyahu’s heart.  Principally, that would mean being more accommodating towards the Palestinian Authority (even if not Hamas).  This would serve to remove an unnecessary irritant with the Obama administration, conceivably even with the European states imposing sanction on Iran.  It would help open doors to the Sunni Arab states that Israel desperately needs to be publicly on its side on the Iran issue, and not just expressing their agreement in private.  (Indeed, reports are that Israel wooed these states’ ambassadors to attend Netanyahu’s speech, but was turned down.

    Does Netanyahu want to thwart development of an Iranian bomb?  Surely.  Is it worth any concessions on the West Bank?  Apparently not.  What kind of existential threat is it when maintaining Israel’s position on the West Bank supersedes rational actions to counter Iran?

    So indeed let’s compare Netanyahu to Churchill.  We can just mention briefly that Churchill’s main goal from at least May 1940 on was to stay on the best possible terms with the American president, which obviously could serve as a lesson to Netanyahu.  But that was an easy one for him.  Other things were a lot harder.  Selling off parts of the British Empire to the Americans.  Making deals with the devil named Stalin, allying himself with any and all partners to defeat Hitler and Germany.  *That’s* what you do when you face a true existential threat.

    I didn’t know Churchill and he wasn’t a friend of mine, but Netanyahu sure as hell isn’t a Churchill.

    2) "This is where we disagree." A reader responds to this line from me, contrasting 1938 and 2015: "Nazi Germany had a world-beating military, and unarmed Jewish minorities within its immediate control. Iran is far away and militarily no match for Israel." The reader replies:

    This is where we disagree. Iran is close and militarily strong, much stronger than any military Israel has faced before. Iran is as far away as Syria and Lebanon. In other words, on the Israeli border. Iran is much larger than Israel and has much larger manpower. While Israel spends more and has more military equipment, it is not that much more and, as stated before, Iran is likely stronger than any military Israel has ever faced before. Hezbollah did very well in its recent wars with Israel.

    A war against Iran would be devastating for Israel, or at least that is what many Israelis believe. There is no handwaving "we'll crush them" belief, as you try to portray it.

    3) "If it's really 1938 ..." That is the subject line on this reader's note:

    The expanding empire that blames a minority  (gays) for its problems is Russia, not Iran.

    Iran is just a buffer state to Putin.  See also Syria.

    The best hope for world peace and nuclear proliferation would be joint US and Iranian military operations against ISIS.  Second best is a good nuclear deal.

    Instead of attacking Iran, we should be quietly moving tens of thousands of troops, tanks and aircraft to all three Baltic countries and Poland.

    Even if Iran gets nukes it lacks the air force or navy to invade and hold a country.  The same can't be said about Russia.

    Several other readers wrote to say that they would have liked the speech better if it were about Putin and Russia.

    4) A political shift. From a lawyer on the East Coast:

    Netanyahu’s choice to embrace the Republican Party offers what may be a historic opportunity.  Henceforth we will have one party, the Republican, asserting as it has for some time that the United States must follow the lead of Israel in all things—the “no daylight” cliché that has become Republican orthodoxy.

    This creates an opportunity for the Democratic Party to tell voters something different.  How about this: “We wish the people of Israel well.  On many issues the interests of Israel and the United States are the same, and we will work together to advance those interests.  But there may be times when we conclude, even after honest dialogue with Israel, that the interests of our two countries diverge.  When that happens we will work to advance the interests of the United States rather than the differing interests of Israel.”

    In the context of U.S.-Israel relations this sounds like a radical idea, but it expresses our view of every other country in the world, and there is no reason Israel should be different.  This would perhaps put Democrats out of the running for Sheldon Adelson’s money, but they’re not likely to get any of that anyway.

    5) "You are wrong." From a reader I know in the tech industry:

    Unfortunately, you're wrong about Bib's fighting words.

    You may or may not be right that Iran is fundamentally unlike Nazi Germany or that Iran's leaders are not suicidal. In the spectrum of risks, it's a big chance to take. Israel's population is 8.3M vs Iran's 77.2M vs USA 320.2M, so your statement "any attack on Israel would ensure countless more Iranian deaths" isn't all that reassuring. Is it possible that you do not appreciate the thinking of suicide bombers or Jihadis.

    More importantly, Iran neither has to actually use the bomb nor use it directly to intimidate the free world. There are plenty of anonymous popular fronts who unfortunately would happily deliver an atomic suitcase to downtown DC. Oops. What are you going to do? Start a war?

    I personally did not support Netanyahu's speaking to Congress, but the scariest quote in the 3rd Jeffrey Goldberg piece you linked to: "The deal that seems to be taking shape right now does not fill me—or many others who support a diplomatic solution to this crisis—with confidence." David Horovitz, the thoughtful editor of [The Times of Israel], put it this way: "Netanyahu so wrong in confronting Obama, so right on Iran".

    It's not about preventing any deal. Deep down, doubt it though you may, Netanyahu actually does go to sleep and wake up "genuinely believing that this is a life-or-death existential issue because of a suicidal Iranian leadership." And many many Israelis share what you must consider his "paranoia."

    My Dad's [a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald] quote still stands, "When someone threatens to kill you, just believe him." Americans may find this hard to appreciate because of (1) superpower strength, (2) strategic size and depth, and (3) the doctrine of M.A.D. [Mutually Assured Destruction, a.k.a. nuclear deterrence] with relatively rational adversaries for the last 70 years.

    I envy your inability to consider the E-word. [Existential]

    6) What about the speech, as a speech? From another lawyer on the East Coast:

    We can agree to disagree about 1938, protocols, etc., but given your role as former speechwriter, I was really more interested to read what you thought of the speech in terms of delivery, language, rhetoric, structure, etc.

    I wasn't listening to it so much in those terms, or taking notes on phrasing and stagecraft. But overall as a speech, I thought it was very good. (Transcript from WaPo here.)

    It was crystal-clear: "My friends, for over a year, we've been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well, this is a bad deal. It's a very bad deal. We're better off without it."

    It was well and powerfully delivered, by someone who knows how to wait for and ride crowd approval, of which there was a lot.

    It had a number of noticeable phrases that stayed just on the effective side of the effective-verging-toward-cutesy continuum. (I.e., I thought these were good, not too cute.)  For instance, "It doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb; it paves Iran's path to the bomb." And "Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. ... In this deadly game of thrones, there's no place for America or for Israel." And "when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy."

    When listening to Ronald Reagan, I often disagreed with the policies he was presenting but respected his skill in presenting them. Same with Benjamin Netanyahu today.

  • Talking With Dan Richard About High-Speed Rail

    The chairman of California's costly and controversial infrastructure project explains why (in his view) it actually will get built—and whether its champion, 77-year-old Governor Jerry Brown, is likely to be able to take a ride.

    What California is planning to build (UC Davis and Esri)

    For the past 10 days my wife Deb and I have been mainly on the road in California, visiting cities for the new season of American Futures that launches in this space a week from today.

    But last Wednesday, in Sacramento, I had a chance to interview Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, about what I keep calling the most significant infrastructure project underway anyplace in America. This was part of a "Bold Bets" conference on transportation challenges, which was run by AtlanticLIVE and underwritten by Siemens.

    You can see an index to the past year's High-Speed Rail series here, and again in this post after the jump. It included two installments, No. 3 and No. 9, in which Dan Richard responded to financial, technical, and environmental criticisms of the project. My approach for the interview below was to say: Obviously you (Dan Richard) are in favor of this project. And over the months, as I've written, I've become a supporter too. So instead of talking about the pluses I'm going to take you through the major criticisms and complaints about the project, to hear how you address them. Then if I have left out any complaints, I'll give members of the audience their turn.

    You can see the results in the video above. (Video from the conference as a whole is here.) You'll see Richard talking about specific complaints—cost overruns, potentially outdated technology, inefficient routing, "last mile" challenges of connecting with local transport networks—and also larger political and philosophical questions of how to assess investment in costly civilian infrastructure. I thought this was an interesting and instructive half hour and hope you find it worthwhile as well.

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  • 'Mistakes Were Made'

    Those were not General Custer's last words at the Little Big Horn. But if he were a modern politician, they probably would have been.

    It is quite possible that mistakes were made in 1937. ( Gus Pasquarella/Wikimedia )

    “There were mistakes made in Iraq for sure.” Jeb Bush, yesterday, in his foreign policy speech. Nearly all of which, by the way, could have been delivered by his elder brotherwhich is as it should be, given how many members of the Bush #45-aspirant brain trust have Bush #43 or Bush #41 experience.

    Previously in this ignoble series:

    1973: "Mistakes were made in terms of comments." Richard Nixon's press secretary Ron Ziegler, on the lies he had told the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about their Watergate stories.

    1986: "Mistakes were made." Then-VP George H.W. Bush on the Iran-Contra scandal and the administration's lying about it.

    1987: "Serious mistakes were made." Ronald Reagan, on the same topic in his State of the Union address.

    1991: "Some mistakes were made." White House chief of staff John Sununu on his abuse of travel policies.

    1997: "Mistakes were made." Bill Clinton not on the topic you might guess but on administration officials discussing banking policy in front of fund-raisers.

    2002: "It is quite possible that mistakes were made." Henry Kissinger, on human-rights complaints about U.S. intelligence activities in South America.

    2006: "The biggest mistake that's happened so far," George W. Bush on the Abu Ghraib torture scandals. "That's happened" is a nice variation on "was made."

    2007: "Mistakes were made." Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, on the politicized firing of some U.S. Attorneys.

    2014: "Mistakes were made." NJ governor Chris Christie on the GW Bridge scandal in his State of the State address.

    1946: "Mistakes were made," Albert Speer at the Nuremberg trials.

    No, sorry, this last one is not real. Nor is AD 33: "Mistakes were made," Pontius Pilate; nor 1912: "Mistakes were made," Capt. Smith of the Titanic.

    For wrapups on this pernicious, passive-voice, accountability-avoiding approach to public life, see On the Media; the Maddow show blog; The Washington Monthly; the NYT; CBS; Wikipedia; the NPR blog; MetaFilter; etc. The late William Safire wrote about the circumlocution in 2003, also arguing at the time (mistakenly) that the invasion of Iraq would not prove to be a mistake.

    Please, God, let us bring a halt to this three-word affront to logic and language. Other 2016 candidates, please learn from the mistake that was made in Jeb Bush's speech.

  • California High-Speed Rail: A Minor End, an Important Beginning

    Who should get the benefit of the doubt when we consider the unknowable future?

    Infrastructure moves the world (from Hiroshige's watercolors of the Tōkaidō) (Wikimedia)

    Yesterday in Sacramento, Jerry Brown was sworn in, at age 76, for his fourth and final term as governor of our most populous and economically most important state.

    Today in Fresno he will preside at a symbolic groundbreaking of his major infrastructure project as governor, and the largest one underway anywhere in the country. This is a north-south high-speed-rail program that will start construction in the state's hard-pressed Central Valley region and ultimately link the great population centers of the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin.

    Aspirational High Speed Rail network by 2030

    For reasons I described in this 2013 article, I think it's good for California, and good for all Americans' understanding of politics, that Brown has been returned to office for these four last years. For reasons I have laid out in, um, copious detail, I also think that it is good for the state and the country that this project go ahead. (For the details, see episodes No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, No. 10, No. 11, No. 12, No. 13, No. 14, No. 14 1/2, and No. 14 3/4. Today's item is officially No. 15, and is The End of the Line.)

    You can see Brown's inaugural address yesterday via (non-embeddable) C-SPAN video here. If you jump to 12:20, you'll see an introduction by Brown's wife, Anne Gust Brown (in screenshot below), and get an idea of why she has been considered such an important part of his third- and fourth- term success.

    C-SPAN

    And if you go ahead to roughly 23:00, you will see Brown talking about his high-speed-rail project. It gets a cheer, but to be fair, it's a secondary theme in the speech, which goes in more detail into Brown's plans for education, prison reform, and environmental protection. If you're wondering what it's like to talk with Jerry Brown, the speech as a whole (full text here) will get you started. As I mentioned in my article, the autumnal Governor Brown peppers his formal statements and informal comments with references to his family's many generations in the state, and the state's unusual position in the nation. That's also how he ended this speech:

    Whether the early explorers came for gold or God, came they did. The rest is history: the founding of the Missions, the devastation of the native people, the discovery of gold, the coming of the Forty-Niners, the Transcontinental Railroad, the founding of great universities, the planting and harvesting of our vast fields, oil production, movies, the aircraft industry, the first freeways, the State Water Project, aerospace, Silicon Valley and endless new companies and Nobel Prizes.

    This is California. And we are her sons and daughters.

    Yes, California feeds on change and great undertakings, but the path of wisdom counsels us to ground ourselves and nurture carefully all that we have started. We must build on rock, not sand, so that when the storms come, our house stands. We are at a crossroads. [JF note: This "crossroads" sentence is in vapid contrast with the rest and could have been cut.] With big and important new programs now launched and the budget carefully balanced, the challenge is to build for the future, not steal from it, to live within our means and to keep California ever golden and creative, as our forebears have shown and our descendants would expect.

    * * *

    Now, the rail project. Why am I for it? Beyond the details laid out in the previous installments, here are the summary reasons.

    1) America is direly short on infrastructure; the financial and political resistance to remedying that is powerful (for reasons Mancur Olson once laid out) and usually prevails. China is biased toward wastefully building infrastructure it doesn't need. The U.S. is biased the opposite way. So when there's is a real chance to build something valuable in America, I start out in favor of it.

    2) The counties of the Central Valley of California, where the first stages of the construction will begin, are not just the poorest part of a rich state but also, taken on their own, would constitute the poorest state in the entire country. Of the five poorest metro areas in the United States, three are there. Most dynamic analyses of the effects of the rail project indicate that it would bring new jobs to a region that most needs them, while chewing up less farmland than normal sprawl and freeway expansion would destroy. Which leads to ...

    Poverty and environmental-stress rates in California's Central Valley. The interactive version of this map is here. (UC Davis and Esri)

    3) The state's population is growing, and so is the demand for intra-state travel. Any other way of getting California's 30-plus million people from north to south, via cars on new (or more crowded) freeways or planes to new (or more crowded) airports, will be more destructive of the state's finances, its farmland, and its environment than a rail system.

    A comparison of American and Chinese pollution levels (The Washington Post)

    And, maybe the biggest factor of all:

    4) There is an established track record of overestimating the problems of big infrastructure projects, and short-sightedly under-envisioning their benefits. Here's the crucial contrast with big military construction projects I've written about recently. Repeatedly, big military projects have come in over budget, past schedule, and below performance promises.

    The Panama Canal: What a crazy idea this was! (J. Saxon Mills)

    Repeatedly the opposite has been true of big national or regional infrastructure projects. Their drawbacks have been exaggerated before they've been started, and their potential benefit has been grossly under-imagined. Here's a few of the projects that seemed impractical, quixotic, ruinously expensive, or not worth the bother when proposed:

    • The Louisiana Purchase
    • The Erie Canal
    • "Seward's Folly" of buying Alaska
    • The Transcontinental Railroad
    • The Panama Canal
    • The Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge
    • The TVA, REA, and WPA, plus Boulder/Hoover Dam
    • The expansion of a continental airport system
    • The GI Bill
    • The Interstate Highway system
    • Washington, D.C.'s Metro and San Francisco's BART

    Details on some of these in the first post in the series.

    All of these projects have had their problems. But without any one of them, the United States would be in far worse shape than it is today. High-speed rail also has its problems, and will have more. But the record of big ventures of this sort suggests that we are better at worrying about the problems and noting imperfections than we are at envisioning long-term rewards. Thus I think that the benefit of the doubt should go with the proponents. People on their side have more often been right.

    Photo of the corner of Tulare and G in Fresno, where today's groundbreaking will occur. (Google Earth)
  • The West Wing on the Music of Oratory

    Mrs. Bartlet: "You are an oratorical snob." President Bartlet: "Yes, I am. And God loves me for it."

    Thomas Cranmer would probably not have done well on TV, but he knew something about effective persuasive prose. (Wikimedia)

    Two days ago, on the occasion of Mario Cuomo's death, I mentioned his ability to "think in public" through his major speeches, notably his address on private faith and public policy at Notre Dame.

    This morning, readers Allison B. and then Kevin M. talked about the music of spoken prose and the allusive power of 20th-century speakers from Cuomo to Robert F. Kennedy.

    This evening reader David M. closes the loop with an old West Wing segment that bears on exactly these questions. The first two minutes of "War Crimes," an episode from Season 3 of the program in late 2001, could have been in response to  ... well, to a blog post 13 years later.

    The clip above is legit as of the time I post it, from YouTube. If it turns out to be unauthorized and you can't see it any more, after the jump you'll find a transcript (via David M.) of the exchange I'm directing your attention toward. Placeholder note: Although, as noted over the years, I am not a spiritual person, my inner sense of the proper shape and pace of an English sentence is heavily affected by having heard, recited, and engraved into my brain passages from the old (Thomas Cranmer) version of the Book of Common Prayer thousands of times through my youth. If you watch the West Wing clip you might see why I mention this.

    Back to military discussions soon. See transcription after the jump. Envoi: A dozen years after this show appeared, it's conventional to make fun of faster-paced-than-real-humans-could-manage Aaron Sorkin banter. But these two minutes are a reminder of what was impressive in this show.

    More »

  • A Question About Cuomo: How Did He Do It?

    "But the spoken phrasing? The timing? The timbre and oratorical glory???"

    Mario Cuomo listening to a question after his speech on "Religious Morality and Public Morality" at Notre Dame in 1984. ( C-SPAN )

    [Please see update below.] A note just now, from reader Allison B., raising a question about Mario Cuomo's performance as orator:

    I read your quick Cuomo obit and last night watched the Notre Dame video. [Full C-SPAN video of the 1984 Notre Dame speech is here.]

    As I listened I kept asking myself who wrote the lecture (Cuomo himself, I presume) and how he learned to do that? How does it work, practically speaking? I'm not expecting an answer, I just wanted to let you know one result from this short article.

    I know how to write a research paper and how to get from a topic to a doc. But the spoken phrasing? The timing? The timbre and oratorical glory??? Yes the writer knows the man and how his rhythms and the words he can speak without embarrassment (Salvific! Although Cuomo knew the word and knew he could say it there). How to deflect cliché and leave grandness. I could never do it.

    Wow, what a gift in the writer and the speaker.

    I have spent a lot of my working life wrestling with versions of such questions. How does it work, in practical terms, this process of learning to convey thoughts and emotions in words? And learning about the different tools that are available for meaning conveyed on a page or screen, versus through the sound of a voice in a broadcast, versus the look and bearing of a speaker before a group? And the odd art of writing words someone else will deliver, via a script or a speech, versus those where writer and speaker are the same?

    As with any learned-and-practiced craft, there are no set answers to any of these questions, simply the ongoing practice. I don't know whether anyone ever thought to ask Mario Cuomo a version of Allison B.'s question, or whether the process was conscious enough for him that he would have been able to offer an answer beyond: I listen and think and try.

    * * *

    Update: Reader Kevin M. has this astute follow-up:

    It was not in the segment of the San Francisco keynote that you linked, but I still distinctly remember him saying “mirabile dictu” at one point in that speech, which I watched on TV and have never rewatched or reread it.

    And that reminds me of RFK quoting Aeschylus in Indianapolis the night King was assassinated.

    Both of those moments cause me to wonder if the answer to Allison B.’s question is that once upon a time it was more common for politicians to know who they were, knew that it included being intelligent and articulate, and didn’t feel the need to be ashamed of it.  Yes, Cuomo could “get away” with salvific at Notre Dame, but the keynote speech was not offered to Catholic scholars.

    Moreover, what would happen to a politician, a white politician no less, who started musing on Aeschylus before an African-American audience, especially at such a moment?

    Thanks for this addition. Three extra points. First, the RFK/Aeschylus quote on the night of Martin Luther King's assassination was quite extraordinary:

    Robert F. Kennedy, delivering an extemporaneous eulogy to Martin Luther King, Jr., the evening of April 4, 1968, in Indianapolis, Indiana, said, “Aeschylus wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”

    Second, I also remember hearing Cuomo use mirabile dictu in a major convention speech—but the one eight years later, when he nominated Bill Clinton in 1992. In a great NYT article about that 1992 speech, Michael Winerip quoted Cuomo as saying, no doubt with a wink, "You write that in for guys like Bill Buckley."

    Third, when being reminded of Cuomo's and Kennedy's classical allusions, I naturally thought of another politician I'd written about recently, Jerry Brown. As I mention in my article, he was throwing off references to Yeats and Comenius (?!) when I talked with him, and not in a trying-to-seem-impressive way. What Cuomo, Kennedy, and Brown had in common, of course, is an old-school Catholic education. Brown actually spent three years in a seminary; Cuomo and Kennedy (plus Buckley) were very public about the importance of religion in their lives.

  • Mario Cuomo, a Thinker in Public

    "I can offer you no final truths, complete and unchallengeable. But it's possible this one effort will provoke other efforts—both in support and contradiction of my position—that will help all of us understand our differences and perhaps even discover some basic agreement."

    Mario Cuomo during his most famous speech, at the Democratic Convention in 1984 (AP)

    While in transit, I've heard the sad news of Mario Cuomo's death. From sketchy connections in airport(s), here are two ways to remember him.

    First, Cuomo's speech 30 years ago at the Democratic Convention in San Francisco, which did more to electrify its audience than any other such speech I have heard, including Barry Goldwater's 20 years earlier (which I watched on TV as a kid in Southern California) and Barack Obama's 20 years later (which I saw in person in Boston).

    Listened to 30 years later, Cuomo's speech is startling in its partisan edge. Franklin Roosevelt talked more or less this way. Modern aspirant Democrats don't. Contrast it with Obama's reputation-making convention speech—Obama was much more conciliatory, as given his historical situation he probably had to be.

    While that speech is Cuomo's most famous, another one is to me more representative. That was the second speech I want to mention, at Notre Dame, in which the very publicly Jesuitical Governor Cuomo talked about the separation of church and state, in a speech titled "A Catholic Governor's Perspective." You can watch the whole thing via (non-embeddable) C-SPAN report here; or hear an excerpt of Cuomo's speaking (without seeing him) in the video below; or ...

    ...  you can read the full text from Notre Dame's archives, here. It's the source of the quote at the beginning of this article

    One thought on Cuomo's legacy. National office in the modern United States—the presidency, or a serious candidacy for it—requires a broader range of skills than any real human being has ever possessed. This is a point I've made in different ways in long Atlantic articles about Barack Obama in 2012, about Jimmy Carter in 1979, about George W. Bush in 2004, and a shorter one about Bill Clinton in 2001.

    To succeed fully in national leadership a person would in principle need to be as shrewd a manipulator as Lyndon Johnson, as confidently patient a commander as Dwight Eisenhower, as quickly intelligent as John F. Kennedy, as publicly sunny as Ronald Reagan, as fundamentally sane as Gerald Ford—you get the idea.

    Mario Cuomo did not have all these skills. He no doubt was aware of that, which is probably why (through what was generally referred to as his Hamlet-like era in the 1980s) he broke many liberals' hearts by never running for president. If he had run, who knows whether he would have won; if he had won, who knows how "successful" he would have seemed. It's easy to imagine him ending up seeming "feckless" and "indecisive" as president.

    But he possessed one of these abilities in remarkable fullness. Among politicians of the past generation-plus seen as national-level contenders, he was the most accomplished and engrossing public thinker. (This is also Obama's strength, and presumably he will overtake Cuomo through the scale of the issues he has been involved in.) Most public officials know, or fear, that they need to buff away the complicated or challenging parts of their views before presenting them in public. That's assuming they ever had, or kept, such thoughts. Mario Cuomo was notable in trying always to talk up to his audience, not down. You see that especially in his Notre Dame speech. It's an example worth reflecting upon.

    Rhetorical success, like presidential effectiveness, involves more separate elements than you might think. It helps to have a good voice and physical bearing; to have actor- or announcer-type skills in presentation; to have an ear for sentence-by-sentence euphony; and to understand the intellectual and emotional shape of a speech. Mario Cuomo had all of these, and our public life was richer when he was an active part of it.

  • Talking With Chuck Hagel

    What was on his mind when he thought he had two more years as defense secretary

    President Obama, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey at a commemoration for victims of the 9/11 attacks (Reuters)

    I like and respect former Senator, soon-to-be-former Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, and I am sorry that he is leaving this position. For day-job reasons, namely closing a long magazine story that involves the Pentagon, I have been absent from this site for a while and will be for another day. But let me quickly put up what I consider a useful reference: it's a conversation I had with Hagel just four weeks ago, at the Washington Ideas Forum here in D.C:

    In particular I direct your attention to:

    • The section beginning at 15:30 in the video above, when I ask Hagel how his experience as an enlisted combat veteran of Vietnam affects his decisions and outlook in the Pentagon. Note especially what he says starting at around 16:50 on how lessons of Vietnam made him want to know, or at least to ask, how a military commitment would end before deciding to begin it. "It's made me cautious."*
    • Around 2:10, I ask a several-part question, the last part of which is: Will today's "long wars" ever come to an end? Hagel covers other parts of the question, but not that one, in his initial response. So at 6:45 I re-ask it and say, At what point, if ever, will our Middle Eastern wars be declared over? You'll hear his reply.
    • Right at the start, I ask him about Defense Department measures to cope with Ebola. This was news that he had announced a few minutes before our talk.
    • Starting at 8:50, I ask about the Pentagon's view of whether climate change is a national-security concern (answer: it is) and what he thinks should be done about it.

    More later. In the meantime, my Atlantic colleague Steve Clemons explains the view from inside Hagel's camp here, and Fred Kaplan explains in Slate some of the sources of Hagel's distance from the White House and other power centers.


    *  For the record, early in this answer Hagel makes a verbal slip that I decided not to correct. He says that 1968 was the bloodiest year for America in Vietnam, which is true, and that 56,000+ Americans were killed in Vietnam, which is also true. But he says that they all died that year, which of course (and as of course he knows) is not true. The actual American death toll in 1968 was over 16,000, which is shocking on its own (more than 300 per week) but is not 56,000. I judged in real time that Hagel's meaning was sufficiently clear that it was unnecessary, and would have seemed pedantic, for me to interrupt and say "You're talking about the casualties for the whole war, not that one year."

    Also for the record, if you'd like a reminder of the odious attempt to block Hagel's confirmation based on smear allegations that he was anti-Semitic, a claim denounced by leading figures in Nebraska's Jewish community and by Israelis with whom Hagel had worked, and also based on the preposterous suggestion that he might be on the North Korean payroll (I'm not making that up), see this and this on the anti-Semitism campaign, and this on North Korea. Spoiler: the person challenging Hagel to prove that he wasn't a North Korean agent was none other than Ted Cruz.

  • Vote Early and Often!

    "Don't vote—it just encourages them," the old saw used to go. Au contraire. Even-lower turnout is about the only thing that could make our terrible election system worse.

    This mailer arrived yesterday in Charleston, W.V., mailboxes. Nick Casey, as you will have guessed, is a Democratic candidate. (Republican Party of West Virginia, via James Fallows)

    Get out and vote! I will be doing so in D.C. later today, though not, alas, for a full-fledged senator or representative, nor an anti-leafblower ordinance, but there's always next time. I'll vote once my wife Deb and I get back to D.C. from West Virginia, latest stop on our American Futures journeys.

    What you see above is part of the mailings flooding into homes in West Virginia's Second Congressional District. It's now represented by Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, who is expected to win today to succeed Jay Rockefeller in the U.S. Senate. Alex Mooney is the Republican candidate to succeed Capito in Congress. Barack Obama Nancy Pelosi the anti-gun Michael Bloomberg Nick Casey Jr. is the Democrat.

    Here's what a local Republican received yesterday. It gives a flavor of how local races are being "nationalized."

    We're not here on a political-reporting swing—it is amazing how much more interesting it is to see the country doing something other than watching campaign rallies—but it's election day, after all.

    The other big item on the local ballot is a levy to support improvements in the Charleston public library. On Halloween, Larry and Sandra Groce, about whom you'll be seeing more in this site, decorated their entire house on the theme of: You know what would be scary? No library! There's a nice story about them and their house in The Charleston Gazette; here is the way the house looked in the stark autumn light yesterday, which gives a rough idea:

    Vote!

  • Political News From Maine: Latest Shifts in the Race for Governor

    An independent candidate deals with a "what-if?" question

    Incumbent Republican governor Paul LePage of Maine in the center of the photo though not of the political spectrum, flanked by Independent Eliot Cutler on the left and Democrat Mike Michaud on the right, at a debate last week. ( WMTW via YouTube )

    Four years ago, when Republicans were sweeping the boards in many midterm contests, the Tea Party faction had one of its biggest and strangest victories in Maine. Biggest, in that the Tea Party Republican candidate who became Maine's governor, Paul LePage, is arguably the most right-wing governor in the country, serving in what is far from the most right-wing state. Strangest, in that he eked out a victory not over the Democratic candidate, who faded badly in the last weeks of the campaign, but over the independent Eliot Cutler.

    That race four years ago was full of what-ifs. What if the Democrats, when it became clear that their candidate (Libby Mitchell) was sinking to a distant third, had explicitly or implicitly thrown in the towel or backed Cutler—similar to what is happening now in the Senate race in Kansas? What if fewer people had voted early, before it became clear that the real race was between Cutler and LePage? What if the Maine moderate/centrists who have sent the likes of Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Angus King to Washington had a clearer picture of how hardline LePage was going to be in office? What if the dynamics had shifted a few days earlier, so that Cutler had caught up in time? In the end LePage beat Cutler by 10,000 votes, with Mitchell another 100,000 behind.

    As I wrote back in 2010, Eliot Cutler and his wife Melanie are close friends of ours; their daughter Abby, who is now a doctor, once worked for The Atlantic. That meant I wasn't a dispassionate observer, but also that I knew Eliot well enough to be enthusiastic about what he could have done as governor.

    This year two things are similar: LePage has been running as a Republican, and Cutler as an independent. The big difference is that the Democrats have unified earlier, and more powerfully, behind a stronger candidate than last time. This is Representative Mike Michaud, from Maine's northern—and poor, and rural—Second Congressional District.

    Two months ago, I noted that Angus King, who won statewide races for governor and U.S. Senate as an independent, had endorsed Eliot Cutler. Since then, the race has fallen into a pattern with Michaud and LePage closely matched at just under 40 percent support, with Cutler below 20 percent, even after strong performances in a recent string of debates.

    Yesterday two significant press conferences occurred. First, Eliot Cutler said that if people supported him but thought he could not win, they had his blessing to vote strategically—that is, to act as if it were a run-off between the other two candidates, even though he was staying in the race.

    Then, his crucial supporter Angus King said that, in effect, he would be voting strategically, and switched his endorsement to Mike Michaud. As King put it (via a Politico story):

    “Eliot Cutler is a fine man who would make a good governor of our state,” King said in a statement. “But, like Eliot, I too am a realist. After many months considering the issues and getting to know the candidates, it is clear that the voters of Maine are not prepared to elect Eliot in 2014 .… The good news is that we still have a chance to elect a governor who will represent the majority of Maine people: my friend and colleague, Mike Michaud.”

    These moves obviously change the nature of the race, and they avoid another potential what-if: What if a clear majority of Maine's voters wanted not to have Paul LePage for another four years, but got just that because of a split in the liberal-centrist vote?

    This also heightens the importance of what Eliot Cutler said yesterday, after saying that his supporters should feel free to pay attention to the polls when considering their vote:

    For those voters who have been seized with anxiety and who don’t want fear to become an indelible hallmark of politics in Maine I have a single request: Regardless of whether you vote for me or someone else, please join me in supporting the proposed citizens’ initiative on ranked choice voting and sign a petition at the polls on November 4 to bring ranked choice voting to a vote of the people in a referendum.

    The machinery of democracy is already flawed in enough ways, inadvertent and intentional, and the match between party alignment and popular wishes is already sufficiently askew, that we need to seize any opportunity to fix easily correctible errors. So if I were in Maine, in addition to considering "strategic" voting, I would sign that petition. People of Maine, over to you.

  • 'Of No Party or Clique' at The Atlantic

    The big-tent principle applied to a former U.S. senator and a current U.S. adversary

    Signatory page from report on the importance of negotiation with Iran ( The Iran Project )

    "Of no party or clique" was the founding motto of our magazine, 157 years ago next month. In practice this mainly means that we should aspire to present each article or argument on its merits, and not as expressions of some other agenda. (Though of course we all have our larger worldviews, blind spots, favorites, etc.) Sometimes it means there are disagreements in the arguments presented in our pages or on this site.

    For the record I want to note two recent disagreements, one about a journalistic tone and one about a diplomatic goal.

    1) Gary Hart. Last week I wrote that I found Matt Bai's All the Truth Is Out to be valuable and worth reading in full, perhaps especially if you'd read the interesting but not-quite-representative excerpt in the NYT Magazine. The book as a whole considers the real career, achievements, and, yes, "character" of former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart, including his original and decades-long work as a defense reformer—and it contrasts that with the smirking shorthand of press references to Hart as a man forced out of politics because of Monkey Business.

    Yesterday The Atlantic ran a short news item about Hart that demonstrated the smirking shorthand tone. Indeed, I thought the item had little point except as an occasion to mention Hart this way—that is, it probably wouldn't have been written if some other former senator was going on a diplomatic mission. It began:

    Gary Hart hasn't made a whole lot of headlines in the quarter-century since the outing of his extramarital affair cost him a shot at the presidency and, arguably, changed American politics forever.

    But less than a month after a new book thrust him back into the news, Hart has a new job, and it comes courtesy of a fellow member of the semi-exclusive club of presidential losers, John Kerry.

    This is just too easy, and there's just too much of it in political media. I'm sorry that we added to the supply. Before you ask, I have discussed this with the item's author, Russell Berman, and I know that he never meant to leave the impression I am talking about. But that's all the more reason to note it in public, as an illustration of the tone we often take by reflex, without meaning to or thinking about it—and because we are talking about real people.*

    2) Iran. Over the past month, David Frum has written several articles warning that the U.S. is being tricked or lured into a bad nuclear deal with Iran. Notably "Why Is the U.S. Yielding to Iran Now?" and "How Iran Scammed America Out of a Nuclear Deal." He also published a reader's response here.

    My view all along has been more or less the opposite: that the greatest opportunity for the United States is re-integrating Iran into normal international relations, and the greatest risks for American interests and the world would come from Iran's continued isolation under extremist leaders. For background: Ten years ago I argued in a cover story that a military "solution" to Iran's nuclear ambitions was a fantasy. It hasn't gotten any more realistic since then. Last year I wrote about the ways in which re-integrating Iran resembles and differs from the Nixon-era accommodation with China. Because it's relevant to the Iran question, I should also mention that David Frum is generally credited with having come up with the line calling Iraq, Iran, and North Korea the "axis of evil" in George W. Bush's State of the Union Speech in 2002. On the 10th anniversary of the speech, Frum wrote that the phrase stood up well.

    By all means read these latest pieces by Frum. Then please consider this detailed report by "The Iran Project," which argues (as I would) that the risk/reward calculation of long-term dealings with Iran favors more active attempts at engagement.

    The people running The Iran Project are about as august a group of experts as you could find, largely former ambassadors or security advisors from both Republican and Democratic administrations. The image at the top is a screen-grab of a signature page showing some of their names. One member of the panel, longtime CIA official Paul Pillar, has explained its implications this way:

    A premise of the report is that a successful nuclear agreement, by resolving the issue that has so heavily dominated for years the U.S.-Iranian relationship in particular, is likely to have other repercussions in the Middle East. This is partly because it would open up opportunities in the U.S.-Iranian relationship itself to address other problems of mutual concern. It is also because, given the importance of the United States to many states in the region, there are apt to be secondary effects involving the relations of those states with Iran.

    Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO (and a colleague and friend of mine back in the Carter administration days), made a similar case as negotiations neared a deadline this summer, in "The Hopes and Fears of an Agreement With Iran."

    Read them all, decide for yourself, and remember the big-tent spirit we aspire to here.


    * For some reason, this old standard comes to mind: "Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest."

  • In Which I Am Recruited to Switch Political Teams

    "What you are discovering on your road trip is the genius of conservatism."

    In your heart (Wikimedia)

    I recognize that the social-intellectual ecology of blogging is different from what it was even three or four years ago. Back then—ah, the lost Golden Age of the Blog!—it was easy to assume, or imagine, an ongoing, incremental process of working out concepts in public and exploring evidence as it emerged. This was the era and the mood that Andrew Sullivan captured in his "Why I Blog" cover story for The Atlantic in November, 2008.

    The autumn of 2008 is "only" six years in the past, but it seems a different universe. George W. Bush was still the president. At least for supporters, Barack Obama was most strongly identified with the word Hope. The world economy, rather than being "troubled" as it is now, was in full-fledged panic. (Worth remembering for perspective on today's "volatile" stock markets: The Dow Jones average went from the 14,000s to the 6,000s within a little more than a year.)

    Twitter was just a glimmer; Facebook had barely one-tenth as many users as it does today. And online discourse, because of the relative "calm" of that era, seems in retrospect something from the days of Emerson and Melville, of Addison and Steele. Our magazine, The Atlantic, had Andrew Sullivan and a handful of other online "Voices." Collectively we put up a relative handful of items per day.

    It's the age of superabundance now in all things digital: opinions, outlets, connections, sources of insight and misinformation and distraction. That makes the thinking-in-public process more complex than it seemed six years ago, since it's harder to assume that any reader has had the time to follow a discussion. There's a greater risk that a single comment will be taken out of context—and a vastly greater likelihood that it won't be seen at all. On the other hand, this may return the thinking-out-loud process to something like its normal, pre-Golden-Age-of-Blogs condition, in which you think mainly to yourself and with a small group of onlookers and every so often try to get broader attention for the results.

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