Came across an article today from a fellow at the Cato Institute lauding the latest piece of bizarre politics to come out of that funniest Commonwealth – Australia’s Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is proposing a massive increase in defense spending as part of its May White Paper envisioning a “Force 2030“.  Wasn’t so long ago that Force 2010 was the target of wishful thinking.  2010’s a bit grittier than expected.

A lot of white papers have come out of various Western governments in the past few years as their militaries fight dramatic postwar cutbacks.  Australia’s is interesting because it proposes re-armament, perhaps for the first time.  (America has certainly been “rearming,” but then we’ve been busy.)  However the Cato article takes a tone that is at once too sanguine and loses something of the broader strategic picture.  I’ll get there.

The defense white paper, like the Cato write-up, assumes a resurgent Japan a domineering China and an increasingly-disengaged, if not declining, United States.  All of these assumptions, like most such strategic considerations, are pretty badly flawed.

Despite the CATO author’s brushing by Article IX in fairly brusque terms as an American invention – which it fully was – he fails to realize that it is in fact a deeply-ingrained assumption in Japanese politics and the Japanese psyche that the Second World War won’t happen again.  And no mention is made of an economy deep into a ten-year recession with a 0% interest rate, a declining population and ballooning elderly demographic.  Where, precisely, does such an economy find the money for a broad rearmament program?  Where does it find money for something incremental?  This would perhaps be less pressing if the long-term, pro-US Liberal Democrat government wasn’t about to be turned out.  (Though, stay tuned.)

Now in terms of China there isn’t yet any evidence to back up the supposition that they are going to be flexing their strategic muscle.  The Taiwan problem has been left to wither on the vine as a succession of internal uprisings grips the country (which the author does mention) and most importantly China’s power projection capability is not yet serious.  Even with the intervention of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force it’s not clear that their main fleet could seriously challenge America’s local naval forces, much less any major American task force.  Assuming they did so successfully, and the conflict remained non-nuclear (as it almost surely would, at least as long as China’s strategic forces are puny compared to the United States’), the United States could quite simply dispatch a new fleet.

(Would this be likely?  Maybe not, but I can’t really forecast the effect of a Chinese victory over American policy.  My sense is that there would be no other choice – and the defeat of Third Fleet’s single carrier battle group would merely unleash Seventh Fleet’s five, assuming no chance to deploy them sooner.)

This might seem a bit insane.  The Chinese Air Force, and Navy, against a single American carrier?  But consider the context.  Any flashpoint would be over Taiwan, Japan or the Koreas.  This would mean the benefit of local assistance (and the fleet Japan and South Korea do have is of high quality, while Taiwan’s is entirely American product) and most importantly local air support.  The Chinese would have to fly out over the South China Sea and risk the loss of downed pilots.  A significant portion of their Air Force is either old or not particularly suitable for a fleet engagement, and their Navy – such as it is – is home to only a few native designs and a lot of old Russian hardware, including the Kusnetsov, if memory serves.  (Close.  Ironically, it has purchased several carriers to study various designs.  One of them?  The British-built HMAS Melbourne. Australia no longer operates a carrier.)

There is also a question of experience.  Much of America’s naval aicorps have seen some sort of action in their careers, the benefit of constant engagement in so-called “brushfire wars.”  The PLAAF has had little of the same experience.  Many of the pilots involved in an attack (not to speak of the seamen, if China were foolish enough to even introduce their fleet) are likely to be fairly green, if not totally inexperienced, and pound-for-pound their hardware is not going to offer them an advantage.

I generally think the abilities of an air force are somewhat overstated as against a modern fleet.  The victory of the British in the pre-AEGIS era Falklands War, using relatively antiquated vessels and equipment but superlative training against a relatively well-equipped but inexperienced Argentine Navy and Air Force, should be taken as a warning against alarmism.  The US Navy would have all of Britain’s advantages, but enhanced, and China all of Argentina’s handicaps magnified.

That introduces the element of America.  We’re really not going anywhere.  Even if Australia, Japan and South Korea all wanted us gone, we probably wouldn’t do.  (How many American forces are still in Germany?)  In its deployments after World War II American policymakers were actually subtly, sublimely clever – they knew where the new threats would come and laid the groundwork for what were essentially long-term watchtowers.  Since we were the ones responsible for kneecapping the British and French, we knew too when and how to react to the ebbing of their power.  (Judging, at least, by the relative lack of American interest at Britain’s withdrawal from the East of Suez and later Hong Kong.)  America’s interests are not necessarily strategically malevolent, but the message is clear: if there’s a war it will be far away, even at the risk of making it harder.

At the moment, as I said, China seems not to mind this.  It’s getting rich.  Its leaders’ foresight rivals their advanced age and they realize that a major rearmament would unnecessarily drag down their breakneck development.  The military advances you’re seeing out of China are not directed really at anybody – they’re directed at putting China properly in the frame at a level appropriate to their size, economy and geopolitical importance.  (As opposed to ours, which are dedicated to locking in an inflated and ossified geopolitical status.)  They are not Germany in 1910 (or indeed in 1936) – they are not bedazzled by the impression that in a few short years they could outbuild, outcrew and outgun the US.  In a land war – well, okay.  But the land war won’t matter.  It didn’t in Europe and it didn’t in Asia.

So to Australia.  Australia is like China in one key way (similar to Japan, South Korea, and indeed local powers like Singapore): their military power is undersized.  Despite a small population they’re relatively prosperous and their military deployments have been increasingly-robust and generally successful.  (Especially as they develop an Italian-style immigration issue.)  So what do they plan to do?

Not much, actually.  Heavy vehicles for the Army; costly fighters and fighter upgrades for the Air Force; and new-generation submarines.  These aren’t bad ideas in and of themselves, but if we’re to suppose they’re enhancing their power-projection capabilities, as the Cato editorial does, it’s a puzzling set of choices.  Australia has a very limited sealift capability, so its ability to get its new heavy vehicles anywhere is going to be tricky.  (And this despite the white paper’s assurance that “it is not a principal task for the ADF to be generally prepared to deploy to the Middle East… in circumstances where it has to engage in ground operations against heavily armed adversaries.”)

By the time Australia would ever need them, its expensive new F-35s (total cost something like $15 billion US) may be antiquated, while the F/A-18F is a capable and cheap platform but lacks the range necessary to cover Australia without large numbers, much less project power.  Even the government admits these will probably only get 10 years or a bit more out of their life.  In choosing the F-35 they appeared to be looking for a good multi-role platform, which is a fine choice.  But it’s probably going to run $150,000,000 a piece, if not more.  You can get a nice little Saab Gripen for a third of that – or indeed a Eurofighter Typhoon with some cash to spare.  (Buy an F-35 you you’ll know when you get it but not how much it’ll cost.  Buy a Eurofighter and you know what it’ll cost but not when you’ll get it.)  More than anything it’s questionable whether Australia needs an aircraft with the F-35’s capabilities.  By that standard it’s a diplomatic, wishful purchase – not a serious one.

A good ship

A good ship

As for their fleet, submarines with cruise missile capabilities aren’t a terrible idea, but it’s not a “power projection” platform so much as a “sea denial” one.  (Submarines don’t really “hold” an area.)  The money might be better invested in the Anzac-class frigate platform, which can better project Australian power, engage in peacekeeping tasks (which the white paper predicts will be crucial in the short- and medium-term) and best of all avoids a costly new design program.

The upshot is this: you can plan for the future or plan for today.  Australia is attempting to do a little of both.  It’s unsurprising – democracies always try to split the difference.  We’re doing the same thing, but we have enough money and defense research establishments to pull it off.  Australia and the nations the Cato Institute is encouraging to up their game don’t.  So they can either decide that China is going to be a problem and arrange for that or they can engage in a realistic military assessment and build or buy weapons platforms that are useful today and whose obsolescence isn’t immediately foreseeable.  Australia is doing neither, and encouraging this sort of schitzophrenia in its policy-making will not help them become self-sufficient or build them up vis-a-vis emerging threats.  It will leave them even more reliant on American technology and support.  This outcome is the worst of all worlds.

[UPDATE: It appears that my numbers were wrong about the cost of the F-35 – by almost twice what it actually costs on a per-unit basis. It may be more when the cost of the concept, design and initial construction is taken into account, but the actual cost is actually $83,000,000, which is competitive with the Eurofighter Typhoon. I think the point stands but it’s worth correcting the error. – 21 July]

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I don’t mean to make fun of conservative commentators more than liberals (or progressives, if you’re a wet).  I am a liberal, and an unashamed one – but for some reason I don’t actually read the liberals.  I read the conservatives.  Perhaps it’s a bias against reading what I already believe – perhaps it’s a bias against seeing it badly framed and ham-handedly put.  Perhaps I have too many conservative friends.  I don’t know.

But in the vein of David Gregory’s recent attack on egalitarianism comes George Will.  (Courtesy of my friend Rich via an apoplectic rant at Kissing Suzy Kolber.)  Now I actually like George Will.  His articles are generally well-formed and thorough, if not plausible.  Generally.  Not today.  The target of his wrath?  Let’s find out together.

On any American street, or in any airport or mall, you see the same sad tableau: A 10-year-old boy is walking with his father

I think it’s a generational thing, but my first thought was “pedophile.”  Is that bad?

whose development was evidently arrested when he was that age, judging by his clothes.

Not another Michael Jackson article.

Father and son are dressed identically — running shoes, T-shirts. And jeans, always jeans. If mother is there, she, too, is draped in denim.

The enemy within.

See, I wish that was a witty joke.  But in addition to only being so-so, it’s also true. He’s writing about jeans.

Apparently a writer noticed this first (necessitating, in Will’s mind, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, which we usually reserve for failed foreign leaders or people who have better but probably don’t mind the trip), and “denounced denim in the Wall Street Journal,” (of course)

summoning Americans to soul-searching and repentance about the plague of that ubiquitous fabric, which is symptomatic of deep disorders in the national psyche.

Will you please?

Will you please?

Apparently denim is the latest manifestion of an egalitarianism where we all look “equally shabby” and represent a sort of cultural lie.  The description is strangely Marxist, all about (as Will describes it, anyway – my eyes might bleed if I read the original) how it’s symptomatic of a desire for an agrarian past, hence McMansions, and how bizarre it is to have denim on the bourgeoisie.  Then again, I suppose this is not the sort of upper class Will wants to defenestrate for their capitalist crimes.  Eh, comrades?  Eh?

It’s here that Will starts to froth rather embarrassingly.  In a country where “[s]eventy-five percent of American gamers… are over 18 and nevertheless allowed to vote,” blue jeans have become the “clerical vestment for the priesthood of all those who believe in democracy’s catechism of leveling.”  This, of course, means that everybody should dress as poorly as everybody else.  (Though, to be fair, hobo chic has not quite caught on.)  That means blue jeans, lest people believe that we care about our appearance.

How should we dress instead?  One simple rule: if Fred Astaire or Grace Kelly wouldn’t have worn something, you shouldn’t.  Seatbelts, for instance.

Now there’s a strange concurrence here between what Brooks wrote a week ago and what Will did in April.  (Washington’s “dignity code”… Could I have stumbled upon a developing meme?)  It is this sense that a) dignity as a social concept is under attack and b) the cause is, in descending order of seriousness, egalitarianism, declining class consciousness and, why not, socialists.  (I don’t merely say that as a joke – this whole “Obama’s march to socialism” idea is rooted in much the same fear of an undifferentiated civil polity.)  It’s complete rubbish, of course, and I think there is something to be said for the fact that it’s mostly older white men complaining about it.  I don’t mean at all to suggest that Will is racist, or David Brooks, or anybody else.  But they remember an era where being born a white American male was pretty much the apotheosis of history.  It couldn’t get better.

The simple point seems to be one about fashion.  The Beefeaters who guard Buckingham Palace aren’t dressed that way because Britain is one big gay costume party – this used to be quite permissible and sensible social dress.  The fact that soldiers wore it would probably mean it was even a bit lowbrow.  Medieval dress gave way to early modern, where white tie and black tie first diffused across the classes and then was reserved to only the most rigidly formal of occasions (state dinners, weddings, and presumably mitzvahs).  That gave way to the business suit, which seems to be on the same declining slope – it became so widespread that it was no longer special, and so will eventually be reserved for occasions of formality.  (At my last couple DC internships, only one guy wore a suit on days when he didn’t have a donor meeting, and he only infrequently.)  Eventually dress pants and dress shirts and even blue jeans themselves may go that way.  It’s how fashion works in an era of mass consumption – it’s fancy (or niche), then common, then anachronistic.  Don’t like it?  Wait awhile.

But then what is the problem with all of us wearing the same clothes?  And why are blue jeans specifically bad?  If everybody wore plus-fours instead, would that be more acceptable – or is it still too egalitarian?  But of course this isn’t the point.  Not everybody can afford plus-fours, or nice suits, or tasteful evening gowns.  And that’s the point.  Clothing should be about self-segregation into appropriate socioeconomic classes.  When white suburban kids sag their pants and drug dealers and rappers wear diamonds, this muddies the waters.  It makes it harder to tell who’s from a good family, who’s doing well.  Will knows appearance doesn’t really matter in and of itself – it’s what it says.

Which is why Will’s solution, like David Brooks’, is to throw back to some mysterious wonderous past where everything was better and more decent and most importantly defined by a certain small set of apparently-rigid codes.  (With class determined by adherence to them, and knowledge of them… and ability to afford them.)   At least in Brooks’ case everybody could theoretically follow his “dignity code.”  In Will’s world this is impossible.  Those who can’t do this will mark themselves – and the problem will be solved.  “Good” people will associate with “good” people.  “Bad” people won’t. Listening to him tut I’m reminded of the Duke of Wellington’s reaction after a new Parliament enfranchised and elected the first of the masses of the British people: “I’ve never seen so many shocking bad hats in my life!”  Desperately quoting Edmund Burke MP as he does (pleading against the French Revolution for, of all things, assaulting the “decent drapery of life”), Will would surely appreciate the comparison.

Of course if blue jeans are the problem, there is one group who can solve it.  But Levi Strauss is the only person/group to be singled out without being blamed.  Such is the nature of capitalism, apparently – you can’t expect the market to be moral, only the people dealing with it.  And even that didn’t stop Will from buying a pair of blue jeans “because he had to” – for a Senator’s party.

Whatever.  Tell it to Edmund Burke.

On my Facebook today a “friend” – to the extent that anyone on Facebook is actually a friend – posted an article by David Brooks in yesterday’s Times.  The article, entitled “In Search of Dignity,” is his attempt to examine dignity in public life.  He concludes that “the dignity code [after a list of precepts of George Washington’s] has been completely obliterated.”  In public life and in general public behavior, if I’m not stretching his point too far, we have lost something.  An uprightness, perhaps.

I feel like the fact that this is hogwash should go without saying, but it is sadly consistent with a certain mindset.  Often conservatives, like Brooks, have a tendency to see everything as-it-was as superior to what-it’s-like-now, the latter evincing the (inevitable?) moral decay of a self-obsessed society.  Lest I generalize lopsidedly, it’s often matched by a perception amongst liberals and progressives, to which I am far from immune, that pines for what dreams may come at the expense of our benighted, backwards present.  It is a fallacy of thinking to which none are immune and everybody should resist.  And yet, and yet…

What is dignity?  In an old episode of The Simpsons, of which I can find neither picture nor video, where Milhouse and Bart’s parents are playing Charades.  Milhouse’s Dad draws a bizarre square with a circle in the middle, and when time expires he screams, “Duh!  It’s dignity!” to which the others react with increduilty.  Milhouse’s long-suffering mother then gets up, writes something, and the crowd mumbles, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely dignity,” with admiration and awe.  Obviously they don’t show what she drew.

Not dignity

Not dignity

The purpose of that is that dignity is not some picturable, quantifiable thing.  It’s not a giraffe.  Much like porn, we – we – know it when we see it.  You come up with a definition, fine; it will probably not satisfy anybody but you.  What David Brooks means when he talks about dignity is at first unclear – the fact that he’s doing so abstractly means he has to have something in mind, but he doesn’t let on.  The two quotes he offers from Washington are actually fairly banal social courtesies – standing when people enter the room, not reading in the presence of company.

Lest you think that dignity to Brooks consists only of trite public kabuki, he writes:

Washington absorbed, and later came to personify what you might call the dignity code. The code was based on the same premise as the nation’s Constitution — that human beings are flawed creatures who live in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their own passions. Artificial systems have to be created to balance and restrain their desires.

The dignity code commanded its followers to be disinterested — to endeavor to put national interests above personal interests. It commanded its followers to be reticent — to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public. It also commanded its followers to be dispassionate — to distrust rashness, zealotry, fury and political enthusiasm.

At the risk of making a mockery of my own point, this definition of dignity is crap.  Not only is it crap – were it actually the character of dignity we would find it not a virtue but deeply socially and morally corrosive.

But let’s start from the same premise.  Dignity being what something we see rather than know, Washington was a dignified man.  I defy anyone to say otherwise.  He was a man loyal, decent, reluctant to anger, vigorous at war and generous at peace, private, sensitive, thoughtful.  He was not the soul of virtue.  No man is.  But whatever dignity is, he had it.

It had absolutely nothing to do with some code, written or unwritten.  Washington maybe wrote down what he did as a courtesy to a friend, as a thought exercise, out of ennui.  I don’t know.  But what he wrote is a manifestation, not a summation, of the dignity he had.  And it was only his way.  How, precisely, was Washington’s “dignity code” (or the one America was supposed to have itself had) an artificial system designed for restraining passion?  Nobody made him write what he did or do those things, and plenty of people didn’t, then and now.  He did it because he thought it right.  You know he was a man of dignity precisely because it wasn’t artificial, but a duty he felt he had to his fellows.

Not dignity

This is what I find so objectionable at Brooks’ piece – the idea that dignity is something timeless and unchanging and specific, such that my generation and his will be judged against generations long past.  It’s unfair to both and a historical lie.  In Washington’s time it would have been considered as offensive or more that a servant use the front entrance as that a man failed to stand on the entrance of a lady.  What sort of dignity is it that treats a person differently because of an arbitrary class distinction?  Washington certainly subscribed to no such belief while he lay resting on the grass with his troops after Monmouth.  But yet that would not be thought proper – dignified – by the standard of the day.

Not dignity

Not dignity

Even speaking of a dignity code is, frankly, wrong.  It implies that dignity is merely manners, passed from parent to child and a form of social shorthand.  Worse it may imply something deeper, intrinsic and decent but that must forever be tied to an unchangeable principle.  This is silly.  What made Washington dignified was that he was able to look a changing world in the face and deal with it, not in a haughty, controlling and moralizing way but with grace and good humor.  He was able to run the country and make decisions, for he was a leader; but uniquely he was able to imagine a country he loved that he didn’t run.  Hence why he stepped down after merely two terms; hence why he refused to be King.  Washington was cheerful in the face of disaster and the failings of himself and others – master over what he could control and strong in the fact of what he could not.  Most of all his mind was not set on world of absolutes.  How else could he imagine one without a Royal Governor of Virginia – much less with a President and not a King?

This is what I mean about dignity – it can imagine a world that’s different and flawed and out of its control but still

Not dignity

Not dignity

worth fighting for.  It’s rare not because of the depravity of our times but because it implies a willingness not to try to control the world and lock itself in.  What Brooks has in mind is not dignity.  It’s moral power, potency, and it implies domination.  Domination over emotions: hence “dispassion”; domination over conditions: hence “disinterest”; domination even over care: hence “reticence.”  A dignified man is some sort of human being who transcends their humanity to become some brain-in-a-jar public man.  No dignity this, but death.

Whether a President campaigns from a porch or a train or a space shuttle has nothing to do with dignity.  Neither does holding doors for women, speaking of emotions in public or anything like that.  These are manners, and if David Brooks wants to object to the erosion of change in those he may do so until he’s blue in the face.  But I beg that this not be confused with something so important and rare as dignity.  A person of dignity will not merely operate within whatever the manners of the time are but will surpass them in virtue for no reason other than that they can.  And a person of dignity will be human, not some computerized moral decisionmaking system.  Are Mark Sanford, Michael Jackson or the other negative examples Brooks offers dignified?  I don’t know.  But I would submit that one tearful press conference or even a whole life lived in unwanted spotlight are not disproofs.  They’re errors.  They’re human.

Not dignity... but not bad, either

Not dignity... but not bad, either

Dignity is human.  It’s authentic.  It’s passionate if it needs to be, studied and careful if that.  Bombastic or muted, puny or giant, enthusiastic or hesitant, dignity comes in no specific flavor and is marked by no time.  It is about people bettering themselves, not transcending themselves into godhood.  Washington lost more than he won and he made bad choices.  And he didn’t stop, either, but kept at it.

Dignity is recognizing that you are your choices, not others’.  This is as true practically as it is ethically.  No “dignity code” can make me dignified; it can only make me tolerable.  Anything beyond that is up to me, and it is most certainly not up to David Brooks, pining for a noble past projected into a wealthy future, where gentlemen in plus-fours and indoor plumbing coexist.  Washington waited for no one to tell him how he should behave and he did not whine about how others did, how they used to and how they should.  He didn’t expect others to set an example.  He set it, and they could do as they liked.  This is a lesson that David Brooks should consider next time he decides people aren’t living up to his expectations.  Physician – heal thyself!

Inhofe-in-mouth

2 July 2009

I went to post about Senator Jim Inhofe’s (R-OK) comments calling Al Franken “the clown” and declaring that the climate change bill wouldn’t get more than thirty-five votes yesterday.  It was well-constructed, pointed and managed to thoroughly confuse Inhofe with his colleague, Senator Tom Coburn (also a Republican of Oklahoma).  As my friend Rich pointed out: “It’s very easy to do.”  Just so.

A future Prime Minister

A future Prime Minister

I’m inspired to give it another go today because of Al Franken’s reply today suggesting that, for all he knows, Inhofe’s remark might have been an “incredible compliment.”  It was a rare thing, and one I’d like to expect from a professional comment: a remark at once wry and careful, in (relative contrast) to Inhofe’s verbal diarrhea.  It’s true when people remark that Al Franken has steadfastly refused to be the easy caricature.  It’s why he won, and reminds me somewhat of the election of (very Conservative) Boris Johnson as Mayor of London.  Both made their names half in controversy and half in comedy (though people weren’t always quite laughing with Johnson.)  Both walked into political office against weakened incumbents and, contrary to expectations, ran flawless campaigns that carried them in despite strong third-party candidates.

(On a personal note, watch the video.  This man is unbelievable, and  made more so by the fact that he couldn’t pull this off were he not just a bit on the clever side deep down.  If nothing else it should illustrate the difference between inadvertant verbal messes, like Inhofe’s, and calculated humor.)

On a larger level a comment like Inhofe’s is a comment writ small on the relatively vitriolic nature of American politics, a nature made more ironic by the relative lack of distance between the two main parties in government.  Now before you come after me (and that might be a bipartisan effort) let me qualify that I’m not putting Democrats and Republicans on the same ground: I think it begins to defy reality to suggest that politics in 2009 is at all similar to politics in 2005 or 2003, in terms of the agenda.  But American politics as a system is not much changed, and there is relatively less distance between the two major parties than in other countries.  Whether this is a novelty I’m not willing to say – reading urban legends on Snopes.com as a kid taught me that people tend too often to see the way things used to be as good (or better) and the way they are as bad (or worse).  But it is true.

This is not a new idea.  A guy called Anthony Downs formulated it decades ago in a book called An Economic Theory of Democracy, which they teach in every basic PoliSci/asskissing class.  The basic idea is that the decisive concentration of voters is at the political “center,” which is a relative term.  (See here for Political Compass, a cool website that many of you may know.  It attempts to assess political ideology on a more absolute scale.)  Parties want to win power, whether because that is simply their interest or in order to put forward some kind of predetermined agenda.  That means they want to get at that center.

Imagine this bell curve I stole off Google images is the spectrum of American politics.  If I want to win the largest number of seats or electoral votes, I want to be in the middle.  My own political views may be between 25 and 35, but there I will get only a limited number of votes on my merits while turning off a broad majority.  The only way around that is to go closer to X – muddy the waters, basically.  My opponent will probably do the same.

This displays something called Duverger’s Law, which suggests that a two-party system is the natural result of a system where the winner is the person who gets one more vote than any other person, no matter how few people actually voted for me.  Hence Franken won with a bare 42% of the vote.  Hence also why actual “moderates” don’t do well, like (for instance) the third-party candidate in Minnesota who took 18%.  If you sit exactly on top of X, you’re still going to turn off a majority of voters, in this case for being insufficiently liberal or conservative.  The moderate will always be squeezed out from the margins, especially since people who are politically active are far more likely to come out of the margins.  Few people are passionate about centrism even if a lot of people are centrists.  So invariably centrists rarely if ever win, the same with third parties, and two big ones compete for the middle.

Now in real life that bell curve is distended.  You’d probably see a peak on the left, a somewhat larger peak on the right, and the biggest in the middle (though none near a majority on its own).  This not only further disincentivizes moderates in practice (rather than by political declaration) from gaining victories, as they’re alienated to large concentrations of ideologically committed people, but increases the likelihood that people of one stripe or the other will be fragged by their own party.

This is what happened to Joe Lieberman in 2006.  A bell curve like the one I described, but cut in half, is the primary electorate.  Being moderate was poison and Lieberman was handed his hat by CT Dems.  He only survived because of tactical thinking by Connecticut Republicans: running only a token candidate to avoid the stigma of formal or informal association with the Republican Party (which Lieberman himself probably didn’t want), the Republicans failed to run a robust campaign.  They reasoned that their people would vote for Lieberman in the absence of a strong Republican and that even a strong Republican (which are not legion in Connecticut) could at best muster second place.  Lieberman, however, had a demonstrated command over the center and a newfound antipathy to his former party: doing nothing, which was easy because of national Republican cashflow problems, shifted the necessary votes to Lieberman and edged out the official Democrat in a Democratic state in a Democratic year.

The consequence of these trends over a long period of time, though, is that parties look a lot alike, especially in their campaigns.  The association between party and officeholder is often weak in this country, it’s true; but that fact further restricts the ability of parties nationally to distinguish themselves, since only a few officeholders will have a position such that they are closely identified by party – and live and die by it.  It also makes it more difficult for challengers to attack officeholders by associating them with their party – individual officeholders aren’t seen as being that tied up with their party.  (Or, indeed, with its activities in the country as a whole.)  So the identity of the party is diluted by its officeholders.

Now – this has what to do with James Inhofe?  Simply, it is that the only way to campaign is to erode the support of individual officeholders; the only way to do that is to attack them personally.  Party identification varies wildly across the country, as does what party identity actually means (a Democrat in Oklahoma is not one in Massachusetts, nor a Republican in Alabama one in Montana).  To the extent that they’re associated with a party or ideology at all candidates are constantly seeking to erode the distinctions between themselves and their opponents to swipe minor slices of the center.  Nationally the failures of one person can be magnified a thousand times – hence Larry Craig and Mark Foley became symptomatic of a Republican Party falling apart, when they had only a passing relationship to the broader party and could hardly be described as powerful figures.

So when Inhofe calls Franken a clown, he’s setting up not merely for Franken’s next election but for 2010, and trying to draw Franken out in the hopes that he’ll live up to the name.  Franken’s measured response ensured that he didn’t do so – and that next time around the attacks will be that much fiercer.  Sadly the problem is systemic.  Some other time I’ll offer some thoughts on how we might fix it.

In the meantime – don’t clown around.  Too much.