A Week Is a Lifetime In Politics

As far back as October 22, 2011 Ross Douthat in the New York Times, and as recently as Jan. 14, 2001, the lead in the Economist declared that “Mr.  Romney is likely to win the nomination.” However, the Republican primaries in South Carolina are a clear example of the adage that a week is a lifetime in politics. It looks like Gingrich is going to win South Carolina.  While I do think that Romney is still the odds on favorite, I do remember that slightly more than four years ago, before the votes were actually cast, Hillary was the Democratic nominee, and McCain didn’t stand a chance. For now, it seems Gingrich is the bad boy, right for a date. Romney is the steady one, suitable for marriage.

Rather than try to predict what the future holds, it makes sense to ask, what happened over the week? Most of it happened on TV and multiple metaphors and analogies are rather apt. Romney fumbled the ball. He has made a lot of money, and apparently has an effective tax rate which is low enough to support the proposition that the law must be changed to make rich people pay higher effective tax rates. He seems reluctant to release his tax returns. Earth to Romney – if you carry on in this race you must release your tax returns eventually. So you might as well do it now, for if you don’t, you may not win the nomination.

Gingrich threw a couple of Hail Marys when he responded to a question that Juan Williams of FOX NEWS asked him in a debate on Monday, and a question that John King of CNN asked him in a debate on Thursday. For those who haven’t seen these exchanges, please return to Earth and click on Juan Williams/Gingrich and John King/Gingrich. Notice how he begins both answers with a “No.” I think the “No” in both cases said a lot. It said, “I am smarter than you, and your mindset, attitude, and intentions are worthy of dismissal. “ Given his audience, and those he was seeking to appeal to, this was rhetorical brilliance at its best. Notice also, in both cases, both questioners respond to Gingrich’s response in defensive terms, and opened the door for them to be taken to the shed. The conspiracy theorist in me thinks that Juan Williams asked Gingrich a softball question, giving him the opportunity to hit it out of the park. And he did! (Please note that I am a rather poor conspiracy theorist.)

However I think that the exchange with Gingrich was something King was unprepared for. Easy for me to say now, but I hope that when King responded to Gingrich’s initial response, instead of the defensive explanation for why he asked the question, he had said rather forcefully, something in the lines of, “Mr. Speaker I can see why you are uncomfortable with my asking this question, and why you think going after the media is a good strategy. But sir, when it has suited you, you have gone after people’s personal lives and made character an issue. Character is an important part of any presidential campaign, and what your ex- wife had to say about your infidelities matters, even if it is inconvenient.” And he shouldn’t have just said it, but say it forcefully. And for the record, I do not think a candidates personal life should be a campaign issue. All that I am suggesting is that if you think it is a campaign issue, then when you raise it, do not be defensive about raising it.

It seems to me what worked for Gingrich in his responses was not what he said, but how he said it. He simply verbally destroyed his questioners. He would not have been so effective if they stood up to him. And what didn’t work for Romney was not that he didn’t release his taxes, but how badly he defended that position. Among the qualities we want to see in a leader are confidence, clarity, and charisma. This week Gingrich demonstrated all three. Romney dropped the ball on all three.

The lesson from this week is that form matters as much as essence. In fact, this year’s Republican primary has shown that.  Pawlenty had to leave when he couldn’t confidently say face to face in a debate to Romney, what he said about Romney on a weekend talk show. Perry’s campaign imploded when his memory froze, and when he couldn’t make it up on the fly. Cain dropped out when he couldn’t defend against a lighter version of the Gingrich problem. Maybe a necessary (even if not sufficient) condition for confidence, clarity, and charisma is conviction. And if that is true, then maybe the package is as important as the product.

In Defense of Maureen Chao

I am guessing that most people who read the title will not know who Maureen Chao is, but will have no problem remembering the incident for which she paid a heavy personal price. This piece could have had a number of different titles. Possible contenders include:

  • Let Him/Her Who Is Without Sin Cast The First Stone
  • Foot In Mouth Isn’t Racism

Maureen Chao was the Vice Consul in the U.S. Consulate in Chennai. On Aug. 12, in a speech she was giving to a group of students at SRM College in Chennai she said, “I was on a 24-hour train trip from Delhi to Orissa. But, after 72 hours, the train still did not reach the destination… and my skin became dirty and dark like the Tamilians.” Apparently the students at SRM College thought it was humorous – as I will argue, this matters.

Reactions to Mrs. Chao’s comments were swift and spanned the spectrum. A piece in the LA Times asked whether she was “racist or just poorly worded?” But such uncertainty was a minority perspective. By and large, accusation, condemnation, and denigration came together as a bundled package, swift and clear. (a good representative of such judgment is a blog by one Mr. Ramani).  General perceptions of Mrs. Chao were far from favorable. As First Post reported, “66 percent of Daily News readers’ responded saying Chao should be sacked as a US diplomat should show better judgment in public statements, while 17 percent felt Chao’s comments were misconstrued by the audience.”

The gut reaction was across the board. In the days that followed I heard many a conversation about the racist diplomat. A friend of mine posted a link to the story on Facebook with “What a bloody idiot!” as his/her comment. Responses to my friend’s FB post were

  • Sadly, such deep-rooted racism (she remembered something that she felt 20 years ago!) will not go away with a single “cultural sensitivity” course.
  • See my comments on us consulate chennai (sic) page.
  • Read this a couple of days back. Crazy woman! I think Jayalalita demanded an apology and got it.
  • How can US appoint a diplomat who is so racist? They should have sent her to the cultural sensitivity training before they sent her over. Now it is too late. Good for Jayalalita for calling her on it.

These reactions were not only understandable, but seemed rational. After all, as a State Department spokesperson had said by then, “”We consider the comments absolutely unacceptable. I think you saw that she apologized almost immediately. She’s voluntarily enrolled in a cultural sensitivity course. But obviously, they’re unacceptable and inconsistent with core American values.” Shortly thereafter we were told that Mrs. Chao herself had decided to leave her posting in Chennai in the near future by a US Consulate spokesperson.

At that time my attitude to the incident could be described as agnostic apathy. Agnostic, because I am always skeptical when I hear of people doing things which sound completely bizarre (the corollary of the ‘if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t true’ aphorism, is, ‘if it’s too bizarre to be true, it probably isn’t true), and apathetic because I really didn’t pay much attention to the incident.

However my desire to comment on this has changed over the last week. I met someone over the week who has worked closely with Mrs. Chao and assures me that the malice attributed to her is far from merited. Please meet Andrew Simkin, who was the Consul General in the Chennai U.S. Consulate till August 2, 2012 – exactly 10 days before the Chao incident. Mr. Simkin is an alumnus of the college where I teach and I was delighted when he visited us last week. I came to know Andrew when he was posted in Chennai and I was organizing study abroad programs for my students. Andrew’s sense of inter-cultural exchange and his delight with his stay in India are well reflected in his July 4, 2011 remarks in Chennai at the Consulate Independence Day Celebrations. When we met last week I casually asked him about the “unfortunate incident with the Vice Consul.” In his usual soft, measured tone he told me about how decent a person Mrs. Chao was, and how she was as far from being a racist as anyone could be. He told me about her family (she is married to an ethnic Vietnamese), and how her life journey and activities showed her to be a person open and warm to peoples of all cultural backgrounds. He felt that the State Department should have defended her, while clearly acknowledging the unfortunate words she should not have uttered. Andrew also pointed out that as a diplomat and Consul General he wanted his staff to go out into the community and meet people from all walks of life in their official capacities, rather than stay cocooned within the fortress that houses a U.S. Consulate. He was afraid that it is precisely the probability of backlashes of the Chao incident variety that makes diplomats say little and employ a ‘minimize the probability of the misspoken word’ strategy.

Andrew’s defense of Mrs. Chao impressed me and has stayed with me long enough for me to want to write this piece – no more apathy when it comes to this incident. Also, I am no longer agnostic when it comes to whether Mrs. Chao is a racist. I know I’m not the only one, but I do hope Mrs. Chao can see that at least one Tamil does not think she is a racist, and thinks she is the one owed the apology.

In conclusion four points are worth making.

  1. To judge people when they say things that should preferably not be said is problematic. People who actually bear malice and ill-will repeat their indiscretions often enough to form a pattern. Before ruining somebody’s reputation and good name let us look for a pattern of indiscretion, rather than jump in with simply one data point. A single, or even occasional faux pas should not erase numerous acts of decency and good will. Balance matters.
  2. The words people say matter, but the reactions to those words matter too. The social and personal costs of the errors of judgment should not exceed the social and personal costs of the errors of those being judged. It seems to me Mrs. Chao and U.S.-India/Tamilnadu goodwill and diplomatic relations have paid a much higher price (even though very small in absolute terms) than any harm Mrs. Chao’s remarks have caused.
  3. Words taken out of context look terrible. Even on paper, Mrs. Chao’s “and my skin became dirty and dark like the Tamilians” means something very different if you simply insert a comma after dirty. And if you add the words that came before and after the unfortunate phrase (I have no idea what they were), and the mood of the room (the laughter and reaction of the students does matter – they did not seem to sense any hostility or ill will) maybe Mrs. Chao doesn’t seem a racist to even those of us who condemned her.
  4. And then there is the let ‘Him/Her who is Without Sin Cast The First Stone’ aspect to this affair. I for one (and many a person reading this blog can attest to this claim) have said far too many things which I prefer I had not said. Thankfully I have not received public opprobrium for any of my soleful words (foot in mouth), though…

None of this is to suggest that racism should be tolerated. I am arguing though that racism is so vile an offence that we should be careful and deliberate before concluding that someone, their actions, or even their words are racist. If they are seen as such after careful deliberation, then they should pay the price. But reaching such a judgment calls for more evidence than we had in the case of Mrs. Chao. In fact, it seems no such evidence exists in the case of Mrs. Chao.

12604 Iowa Primary Votes Call for an Explanation

Iowa is an interesting primary state because it bucks conventional wisdom regularly. The ‘what will Iowa do?’ question is worth asking simply because it is far from clear what Iowa will do. This year I called the Republican primary for Santorum. How close I was! But my prognostication was not a result of some deep, unique sense of the Iowa voter formed by my nine month stint at Grinnell College (Grinnell, IA) over a decade ago. Rather, it was one of those ‘call an improbable outcome where your call is inconsequential, and if you happen to be right then you win brownie points with the two and a half people who listen to you’ kind of calls.

As is most often the case, bucking conventional wisdom does not mean the outcome is irrational. Ex-post, the results are clearly explainable. Iowa constantly exposes the poor judgment of the chattering classes. This constant revelation is also a testimony to the power of the chattering classes – they can repeatedly say the same banal stuff over and over again, constrained only by the quadrennial timing of American elections, and still maintain center stage.

The Iowa primaries are being post-mortemed to death with rather clear cut explanations for the outcomes. One question I haven’t heard asked which I would love an answer to is, “Who were the 12604 (approximately 10% of the votes cast) primary voters in the Republican caucuses who voted for Perry?”

It is easy to explain why people voted for Romney (electable and moderate), Santorum (values and connected at grassroots), Paul (Libertarian, anti-war, abolish the FED, crazy in a cute way), Gingrich (well known, apparently bright, good debater), Bachmann (woman, born in Iowa, Christian values), or did not vote for Huntsman (who?). When it comes to Perry, what were they thinking? – Let’s cast our vote for someone who was going to be the Tea Party, Religious Right challenger to Mitt Romney, who entered the race late with a lot of money (a combination which gives him less time to goof up, and enough resources to beat the other guy up badly) and who stumbled so quickly and so well that even the Lord (do not take his name in vain) would not have a chance in making his bid credible, let alone make him victorious. And it isn’t as if Perry took principled or unique stances where a vote for one of the other candidates would not have given voters a chance to channel what was deeply important to them at the ballot box.

What I am suggesting is, whatever your reasonable motivation might have been (electoral pragmatism, ideology, religious fervor, making a social or cultural point) there was a more viable candidate than Perry in Iowa. Yet he got 10% of the vote. Even a conspiratorial explanation like the Independents were trying to mess it up for the Republicans does not hold up – imagine the chaos if Santorum (best substitute for any Perry voter) had beaten Romney by 10%! The best explanation I can suggest is that a lot of people in Iowa love Texas.

There is one piece of good news that comes out of this for folks who might be contemplating a run for office. There are people who may vote for you even if there isn’t a good reason to do so. Maybe that’s what’s motivating one of my former professors, Laurence Kotlikoff to run for President! No kidding!!