Saturday, January 26, 2008

The lamest use of a classical education ever ...

I opened my Conflict of Laws textbook the other day and found this sentence:

"Conflicts, like Caesar's Gaul, is generally said to be divided into three parts."

That's great, Professor. But you know what else has three parts? The number 3.


I do not like the "electability" argument; it's generally an intellectually lazy way for people to write off a candidate that they don't like. But I'm starting to have serious questions about Hillary Clinton's ability to win the general election, triggered, (oddly enough,) by her ongoing comeback in the primaries.

Two weeks ago,'s composite polls had Barack Obama up in South Carolina by a 44% to 31% margin over Hillary; today they have him up 38-26. About half of the difference has gone to John Edwards, who has moved up from from 13% to 19%. The other 6% went back into the pool of undecideds.

Pretty clearly, Bill Clinton has managed to create doubt in the minds of a sizable number of previously committed Obama voters. But he's managed to do the same to his wife. Does a larger number of undecideds bode well for Hillary in this primary? Sure; at the very least, she's competing with Obama for more voters. In the long run, this is not a winning strategy, either for Clinton or the Democrats.

We all have fond, rosy-tinted memories of Bill Clinton's presidency. The further we get from 2000, the easier it is to forget about the flaws that undid Clinton's presidency. When he goes on the attack like this, it all comes flooding back.

For starters, he's not presidential. Even George W. Bush, who subordinates everything to politics, has had the sense to keep his mouth shut about the Republican primaries. Some might say that that's because he's so incredibly unpopular that his endorsement would be the kiss of death for the eventual Republican nominee; while that may be true, he remains extremely popular among the Republican base -- the very voters currently being courted.

Perhaps more tellingly, George H.W. Bush has been extremely circumspect in supporting Republican primary candidates over the years. After the former president appeared by video at a South Carolina rally for John McCain a few weeks ago, his office quickly put out a statement that his appearance was not to be construed as an endorsement. Even in 2000, with his own son running and Bush v. Gore in front of the Supreme Court, he was careful not to publicly comment on the election.

Former presidents are certainly not required to be apolitical, but as elder statesmen of their parties, they almost always save their endorsements for the general election. Seven years out of office have given President Clinton a gravitas that he did not possess in 2000, ensuring that anything he says over the next few weeks or months will be treated seriously by the media. This is the essential difference between Bill Clinton stumping for his wife and Michelle Obama stumping for her husband -- for now at least, his attacks on Obama will be treated as the considered pronouncements of a respected elder statesman, and not as political hackery from an overwrought spouse.

But it won't last. Every time he stands on a stage in front of a crowd and attacks Obama, the media and the electorate come that much closer to asking, is he saying this because he believes it, or because he wants his wife to win? Bit by bit, he's burning off the gravitas and goodwill he's acquired in the last seven years. Bill Clinton has already ensured that, if Obama wins the nomination, he will be effectively sidelined for the general election -- as he was in both 2000 and 2004. The more he acts as Hillary's attack dog, the more he diminishes his effectiveness as a campaigner, should she win the nomination.

All of which just serves to remind me of a more disturbing flaw from Clinton's presidency: he is incredibly self-destructive and short-sighted. The Bill Clinton who couldn't keep his pants zippered in 1995 is the same Bill Clinton who can't save even a shred of dignity for the 2008 general election.

Some time in the next two hours we'll learn how well the Clintons' strategy has worked in South Carolina; but I'm afraid it will be months before we find out if Bill Clinton retains any credibility with voters as a statesman, and whether he is ultimately a help or a hindrance to Hillary Clinton's presidential bid.

The Unwelcome Mat

Knittin' Kninja and I were up in Northeast last night, with the baby, and we decided to stop in for dinner at Nye's Polonaise. Nye's has three dining rooms: one immediately in front of the door, and two others separated by walls from the main dining rooms. The two back dining rooms are only used when the front dining room fills up; we've been there before when the bar area was absolutely packed, elbow to elbow, and the host was not seating anyone in the empty back dining rooms.

So we walked into the nearly empty main dining room around 5:00 pm -- 4 out of maybe 30 tables were in use -- and asked the hostess for a table for two. "Two and a half you mean?" she asked, leading us past an empty row of booths in the main dining room. She led us past an empty row of tables, another empty row of booths, and into the back dining room. In the back dining room she led us past another 12 to 15 empty tables, finally seating us in the far back corner, 50 feet and one wall away from any other customers.

Which got me to wondering, what exactly do people have against seeing a baby out in public? We asked for a booth in the front dining room, and got both a booth and a sick look from the hostess; when we left 90 minutes later, they still weren't seating people in the back dining rooms. We were eventually seated between a drunken couple having the worst date of all time and a table of middle aged couples who harassed the waitress relentlessly with hostile, "witty" comments. There is no possible way in which we could have been worse customers. And yet we run into this attitude on a semi-regular basis.

Public places are full of annoyances -- loud cellphone conversations, strangers who keep bumping you, cars that take up two parking spaces, guys who order for their dates -- and yet, for the most part, we accommodate these annoyances without comment. But when it comes to certain things -- a baby in a public place, no matter how quiet and well behaved -- people seem to feel a sense of self-righteousness that allows them to rationalize violating basic norms of civility.

Monday, January 21, 2008

St. Louis is an unusual place

Every once in a while, something reminds me how different the Twin Cities are from St. Louis, where Knittin'Kninja and I used to live. Today's reminder, courtesy of the local headlines from all three of our old home towns:

Pioneer Press: "New St. Cloud human rights office to focus on discrimination"

Wisconsin State Journal: "Local Events Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy"

St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "Homeless man charged in chainsaw attacks"