The Real Campaign Just Began

Today we try something new. I typically give you my thoughts on big topics in small doses. I often come across great articles, typically longform (5,000 words or more), that beg to be shared and when it fits, I include a link in one of my posts. Today, I’ll be taking one of those articles, an interview actually, and breaking it down for you. I still encourage everyone to read the original, but if you don’t have time, then this is for you. Think of this post as a longform article review. You know those people who never read books, but do read book reviews, and talk at dinner parties as if they’ve read everything? Just think, you can be the gal or guy who waxes eloquently about that fascinating article or interview you read earlier in the week.

The interview in question was with President Obama and it was published yesterday in Rolling Stone. It wasn’t a groundbreaking interview, but it was insightful. Also, given that Mitt Romney has finally solidified his position as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, it makes sense to take a look at the President’s first major interview of the campaign season. The following is a summary of the President’s remarks and my analysis.

2012 Campaign

The President: Leaders of the Republican party are not representative of mainstream Republican America. Republicans today are pretty much the same as they have always been, but the party has moved so far to the right that even Ronald Reagan, the GOP saint, would fail to garner his party’s nomination today. The economy is still struggling but a full recovery will take time and a Romney administration would be just another repeat of the policies of 2000-2008, which were, by and large a failure.

mrcyriac: This is basically his way of taking a jab at the opposition while still courting a few moderate Republican votes in November – GOP leaders are bad, but the GOP voters are alright. Part of the difficulty for Obama’s 2012 campaign is that in 2008, he ran on a platform of change. Three years later, things do not feel much better. Democrats argue that it could have been a lot worse and that we are in a much better position than Europe and other advanced industrial countries, but that’s a far cry from “change you can believe in”.

The role of government

The President: Folks like Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist have done the country a disservice by convincing people that government is always the problem. “Let’s redirect the Republican Party back to those traditions in which a Dwight Eisenhower can build an interstate highway system.” A active government that provides safety nets is key to promoting the sort of productive risk-taking that helped the American economy to grow for generations.

mrcyriac: The President really doesn’t like Limbaugh or Norquist and can’t believe that he is being accused of being a socialist when most of his ardent supporters consider him to be, at least partially, a sellout to the right.

The Middle East

The President: It’s complicated

mrcyriac: Yes.

Everything else

The President: Regarding the war on drugs, until Congress changes the laws, the executive branch must enforce those laws. Regarding marriage equality, we’re making progress on LGBT issues, but “I’m not going to make news in this publication.” Regarding race, it’s almost always going to be an issue but much progress has been made. Also, climate change is real and anyone who dismisses it is a fool.

mrcyriac: These are mostly issues that Obama would rather not discus in a major interview because they might alienate him from those precious moderate Republican voters. By enforcing drug laws with greater zeal than anyone expected, he’s proving that he’s no hippie. He wants to come out in favor of marriage equality, but is probably fixated on some poll in some swing state that indicates that now is not the time. As for race, he tries to play it cool, but I think he hates talking about it, even more so than Republicans hate hearing about it. Obama has no problem discussing climate change, but does not, and will not, make it a priority until voters are scared of rising sea levels and vengeful polar bears. Nothing motivates voters like fear.

Things Obama likes

When I found out, years ago, that Obama was a fan of The Wire, as an ardent fan of the show, my appreciation for him went up a bit. In case you’re wondering if any of your favorites are on Obama’s like list, yesterday’s interview included praise for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart (actually, his exact words were “I think Jon Stewart’s brilliant”), Al Green, Homeland, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan and Mick Jagger.

Outlook

The interview was quite fluffy, but the hints of a more populist tone than in 2008 were evident. Four years ago, the conversation that Obama was commanding was dominated by the need for change, and a call for unity. There is almost none of that now. The debt ceiling negotiations last summer mark a sort of last attempt to politely reach across the aisle – frustrated by Republican obstruction, the President has begun to use a lot more executive authority in the past year. Expect to see a candidate Obama who is a lot more aggressive and progressive than he last last time. I doubt Obama will go full bull moose any time soon, but this interview is a good example of the President testing the waters.

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The Republican Suicide

By catering to the most extreme wing of the American right, the Republican party is alienating itself from moderate conservatives and setting up the stage for a potentially historic loss in upcoming elections.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter ushered in a rightward shift in American politics that has lasted for three decades. Since that election, the Democratic party, even when in power, has been on the defensive, whereas the Republicans have been able to set the agenda and the tone of public discourse, even when not in power. For the first time, this arrangement seems to be unraveling, and as is to be expected, it’s the Republicans doing to moving and shaking. In the past week, there have been three powerful articles, each positing that the GOP may be sewing the seeds of its own decline.

In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibi argues that the Republicans are engaged in a perpetual and self-destructive campaign of fear mongering and finger pointing. After decades of weeding out all moderate elements of the party, those within the far right of the party have no one left to lash out at except themselves. Each debate (there have been 20 already and the general election is more than nine months away) showcases the candidates, taking turns arguing why they are the true conservative and why their opponents are liberal sellouts or Republicans in name only (RINOs). There is such an eagerness, an almost religious desire to conform to the orthodoxy of the current canon that no candidate can be deemed worthy of being a “true” conservative.

In New York Magazine, John Heilemann also feels that the GOP is tearing itself apart. The Republican playbook, which is increasingly the Tea Party playbook, sees the country in terms of Christian middle American and secular/urban/internationalist America – it is a constant beating of the us vs. them drum. There is a constant need to prove how American you are. The current Republican primary has been so dirty and vitriolic because the candidates, at least in their rhetoric, are so similar to one another that they must bend over backward to make their opponents seems like traitors.

In The New Republic, Ed Kilgore points out that among the current crop of contendors, there is no such thing as too conservative. Whereas George H. W. Bush called Reagan’s supply side theory “voodoo economics”, today’s criticisms would only come from the right. Christian faith, capitalism, free markets and military defense are among the sacred cows of the now. This primary season has been one big game of who can claim to be to the right of his opponents – “everyone else is too liberal except for me!”

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008 it almost felt like the beginning of a progressive renaissance – the 2010 elections dashed any such hopes/quelled any such fears. 2012 will not be the fulfillment of that or any other progressive renaissance, but it may be the turning point after which the GOP must rethink and reconstitute itself if it hopes to be relevant in the long term. If the GOP goes down in flames, it will not be to the credit of the Democrats (they are still weak and directionless), but because of the rigidity and self-destructive dogmatism that typifies the Republican party.

Unless the GOP figures out how to accommodate some progressive views, 2012 may mark a historic shift, similar to what happened in 1980.  Even Reagan isn’t conservative enough for current bunch.

Hendrix Was a Cowboy

The popular narrative of American individualism may explain why the rock & roll pantheon consists of English bands and lone American men.

Earlier this week, I made the argument that iconic English bands are better than their American counterparts. The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Floyd, Queen and the Who blow away the likes of Aerosmith, Metallica, the Eagles, CCR, Skynyrd and Guns n’ Roses. When it comes to individual artists, however, the Americans are gods.

As mentioned earlier this week, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the Beatles as the greatest artist/group of all-time. Second on the list was Bob Dylan. Also in the top ten were Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard – the very heart of rock & roll music, and all American. Also high on the list are Bruce Springsteen and Prince. The first Englishmen are Elton John and Eric Clapton, who both come in at around 50. Although many consider the Beatles to be the greatest rock band ever, virtually everyone in the rock world agrees that Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitarist of all time. As Tom Morello said, Hendrix “exploded our idea of what rock could be”.

Does it even mean anything that the greatest rock bands are English and that the greatest individual rock stars are American?

Perhaps the disparity has to do with the idea of American individualism – cowboy philosopher on the stage – reckless guitar slinger with a conscience. Popular American bands did exist. But the pinnacle of American rock & roll expression was the singular disgruntled, rebellious young man – James Dean with a mic. Angry young bands on the other hand were more like gangs and mobs – such an Old World concept. It’s not that Americans are or ever were more individualistic, but that the dominant narrative of the American spirit in popular culture permitted the worship of only those artists that conformed to it.

Sorry America, but English Bands Are Better

Rock & roll music is more American than apple pie. The great American bands, however, pale in comparison to their English counterparts. Is it something in the water?In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine compiled their list of the 100 greatest artists of the rock & roll era. The list isn’t perfect (no list is), but it captures a relatively undercovered transatlantic disparity. Unsurprisingly, the top spot is held by the Beatles. The next band on the list is the Rolling Stones. The next, and first American band on the list is the Beach Boys.

Beatles…Beach Boys.

Other English bands on the list include Led Zeppelin, the Clash, the Who, Pink Floyd, Queen, Radiohead and the Yardbirds. The American bands include Nirvana, the Doors, Aerosmith, Metallica, the Eagles (I hate the fuckin Eagles, man), Creedence Clearwater Revival, R.E.M. and Guns n’ Roses. With the exception of perhaps R.E.M. and Nirvana, I feel confident in asserting that every single one of those English bands is better than every single one of those American ones.

It should be noted that all of the English bands mentioned took inspiration from distinctly American musical roots. The Beatles were vocal in their indebtedness to Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Little Richard, the latter of whom incidentally stayed with and advised the Fab 4 during their stay in Hamburg, which, according to Malcolm Gladwell, marked the turning point in the Beatles’ career in terms of them actually becoming a good, and eventually, great band. The Rolling Stones made it no secret that they were following in the footsteps of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and other greats of American blues and R&B.

Furthermore, all of the bands on the list, including U2 and ACDC, neither of which are English or American, toured extensively in the States and sold more records there than anywhere else. It can be argued that in terms of inspiration and a market to consume and appreciate them, there would be no Beatles or Stones without the US. But now it feels as though I’m getting patriotically defensive. The fact of the matter is that either by historical accident or some other cultural reason, the iconic bands of England are far better than those bred in the US.

But why focus on mainstream bands? Perhaps there are plenty of underground groups in the States that are better than those in England, but by that logic, underground rockers in Germany, or Korea even, may be better than anyone on the Rolling Stone list. For ease of analysis, my use of the word “better” applies, unfortunately or not, only to bands that have achieved popular success.

Perhaps unfairly, I have intentionally excluded many bands (Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament Funkadelic and essentially every Motown band on the Rolling Stone list). Although these bands can be considered part of the rock world, they are also different enough to merit their own genres. I may hate the Eagles (seriously, I do), but they are unfortunately more of a rock band than the Temptations (who are great). In other words, being called a rock band is not a compliment – it’s a description. Also excluded are Simon and Garfunkel (seem more like Batman an Robin than a band) and the E-Street Band of Bruce Springsteen fame – neither or whose omissions change the larger point mentioned above concerning the English advantage.

Take a look at the list again and let me know if you think there are any deserving bands that were left out. Possibilities include the Cure, Outkast, the Smiths, Pearl Jam, the White Stripes and many more – please don’t say Coldplay. Later this week, I will explore whether the English advantage exists when dealing with individual artists as opposed to bands (hint: it’s the complete opposite).