NDN Blog

TV ads feel different this cycle, and are

Alessandra Stanley has an interesting essay in today’s Times Week in Review section that looks at the humor in many political TV ads this season, suggesting that

 “In a culture where growing numbers of viewers say they get their news from “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report,” and at a time when anything shocking or amusing on television can be downloaded and e-mailed instantly, candidates are co-opting the YouTube revolution.”

She is on to something here.  Surveying the ads this cycle it is clear that many more of the most memorable ads we’ve seen is a candidate, or other “real” people, speaking directly to camera.  Think of Harold Ford's great ads, or the Tester/Schweitzer ad mentioned in Stanley's piece, the wonderful ads from Women's Voices Women Vote or Michael J Fox. They are attempting to be more real, more intimate, more authentic.  And they connect. I think humor has been used this cycle not as an end in itself, but as a way of connoting that the message is real, and “not political.”

This new attempt to connect to people in more meaningful ways I think has come for two reasons.  First, as she suggests, the broadcast era of political communications is exhausted, and a new rapidly changing digital and personal age is emerging.  This new age is still very nascent, and what we are seeing is the first of a new wave of efforts to connect to an audience that is no longer as open to traditional 30 second spots or broadcast media norms.   These direct to camera ads are in essence an acknowledgement that it is getting much harder “to break through.”

Second, people are deeply unhappy with the current direction of the country, are seeking a “new direction,” and want to better understand what is happening to the country they love.  The Bush era, with its failed government, extraordinary spin (lying) and disconnect from what people perceive to be the reality of the day, is leaving people wanting “straight talk,” authenticity, realness, leveling.  They want to better understand what is happening, and are looking for leaders to show them the way – and not manipulate them.

Both of these trends taken together would lead one to believe that what voters want more than anything else these next few years is a more direct, honest, authentic politics.  They know the country has gone off course, and are looking for a real and better path forward, and leaders who can take us there.  The Bush era has also given them new tools to detect “truthiness,” or the appearance of authenticity and realness as opposed to its actual existence.

Above all else I believe what this means is that in the next few years the two parties and their leaders will need to say what they believe and believe what they say, or will suffer their own “macaca” moment – a moment when the mask comes off, reveals the true person underneath and shows that it has all been a big show.  “Political positioning,” or playing to the polls, isn’t gonna cut it in what Stanley calls the “YouTube revolution.”  This is a time for real vision, leadership and powerfully held beliefs. 

KBR/Haliburton should be forbidden from getting future government contracts

The stories just keep coming about KBR's malfeasance in Iraq.  The NYTimes has a new one, showing how KBR has systemically hidden simple data from the government. 

..."A Halliburton subsidiary that has been subjected to numerous investigations for billions of dollars in contracts it received for work in Iraq has systematically misused federal rules to withhold basic information on its practices from American officials, a federal oversight agency said yesterday.

The contracts awarded to the company, KBR, formerly named Kellogg Brown & Root, are for housing, food, fuel and other necessities for American troops and government officials in Iraq, and for restoring that country’s crucial oil infrastructure. The contracts total about $20 billion.

The oversight agency, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, said KBR had refused to disclose information as basic as how many people are fed each day in its dining facilities and how many gallons of fuel are delivered to foreign embassies in Iraq, claiming that the data was proprietary, meaning it would unfairly help its business competitors.

Although KBR has been subjected to a growing number of specific investigations and paid substantial penalties, this is the first time the federal government has weighed in and accused it of systematically engaging in a practice aimed at veiling its business practices in Iraq.

The allegations come at a critical time for the company, as Halliburton is trying to spin off the subsidiary. And in July, the Army announced that it would terminate KBR’s largest contract with the government, and the company says that it will compete to regain some of that business when the government calls for new bids.

Proprietary information is protected by the so-called federal acquisition regulations, known as FAR. But the agency said KBR routinely stamped nearly all of the data it collects on its work as proprietary, impeding not only the investigations into the company’s activities but also things as simple as managerial oversight of the work.

“The use of proprietary data markings on reports and information submitted by KBR to the government is an abuse of the FAR and the procurement system,” says a memo released yesterday by the special inspector general...."

 Given how close to this group is to the Vice President, who had a hand in deciding who got what contracts in Iraq, they should have kept their nose cleaner than clean.  Given the strategic intent behind a great deal of their out of bounds behavior, we can only guess that they believed that normal, simple rules no longer applied to them. 

Their remarkable, systemic and strategic betrayal of the public trust should cause them to be barred from ever receiving a government contract again. 

New Schaller book worth a read

We held a small lunch for Tom Schaller, a friend of mine, and author of a new book about American politics, Whistling Past Dixie.  Why I dont endorse what appears to be the thrust of the book - that Dems should write off the South - it is full of important and interesting analysis about how progressives and Democrats can build a new majority around the new American of the 21st century.  I strongly recommend it, and Tom himself.  His presentation was very compelling.

Iraq: from tragedy to farce

To prove they are not staythecoursers, this week the Administration announced a strategy to develop a timetable for developing a timetable for transition in Iraq.  The announcement, interestingly, was made by our Ambassador to Iraq and our leading general on the ground there, and not be anyone in Washington.  This is, of course, a few days after another general on the ground there said our military strategy in Iraq was no longer working. 

What happened next should convince any reasonable person that the Administration is no longer capable of managing American interests in Iraq. 

For the only chance we have to prevent Iraq from slipping into a bloody civil war or failed state is to advance a new and vigerous political and diplomatic effort to bring the battling parties to the table and help them find a better path than war.  This will require the American government to be working hand in glove with the democratically elected Iraqi government. 

A day after our representatives made their announcement in Iraq the Iraqi Prime Minister rejected our timetable to find a timetable.  If we can't even manage to get the Iraqi PM to agree to what was largely a pre-election publicity stunt with no real impact for what would happen in Iraq, how can we possibly believe we have the diplomatic chops to pull off a diplomatic solution to our troubles there? 

A lede Times editorial this am discusses all this. 

And what was Rumsfeld's response to a question about the obviously troubling developments in Iraq? "Back off."

In yesterday's Times, Peter Bergen laid out a possible military strategy for the moment when we've decided that a safe and secure Iraq is no longer an option.  It isn't pretty. 

Friends, we've got some tough choices coming in Iraq, and am not real sure what role this Administration is going to play in helping us make them. 

Mr President, Pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins

I wrote yesterday that this new offensive by the Administration to set a timetable for a timetable - and once again to focus on a military solution to the troubles in Iraq, and offer no viable political and diplomatic path forward - didn't pass the pre-election laugh test.  According to the NYTimes, it looks like the Iraqi Prime Minister agrees:

Iraq’s Leader Jabs at U.S. on Timetables and Militias

BAGHDAD, Oct. 25 — Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki put himself at odds on Wednesday with the American government that backs him, distancing himself from the American notion of a timetable for stabilizing Iraq and criticizing an American-backed raid on a Shiite militia enclave.

Speaking in Baghdad just hours before President Bush held a news conference in Washington, Mr. Maliki tailored his remarks to a domestic audience, reassuring the millions of Shiites who form his power base that he would not bend to pressure by the American government over how to conduct internal Iraqi affairs.

His comments stood in stark contrast to the message given Tuesday by the top two United States officials in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who said the timetable for political measures had been accepted by the Iraqi government.

“I want to stress that this is a government of the people’s will, and no one has the right to set a timetable for it,” Mr. Maliki said at a news conference broadcast on national television.

“This is an elected government, and only the people who elected the government have the right to make time limitations or amendments,” he said, stabbing the air with his hand.

The remarks pointed to a widening schism between the Shiite-led Iraqi government and the Americans who support it.

As the violence here increases and midterm elections in the United States approach, Mr. Maliki has come under pressure from the Bush administration to step up efforts to control the violence. But the very forces that elevated him to power and whose support he must retain — religious Shiite parties with their own militias — are complicit in the violence.

That tension was on display in his remarks on Wednesday. While acknowledging the problems presented by militias and death squads — groups of men with guns that American military officials say are some of the primary culprits in the new phase of bloodletting here — Mr. Maliki said pointedly that the main factor driving the violence was insurgents and militant fighters, largely Sunni, who have been killing Shiites for more than three years.

“Saddamists and terrorist groups are responsible for what is going on this country and the reactions,” he said, in a reference to retaliatory killing by Shiite militias that began after the February bombing of a shrine sacred to Shiites. “We should contain the reactions.”

Mr. Maliki’s stance differs sharply from views presented by American officials, who speak of Shiite death squads as an evil equal to that of the Sunni insurgents. But it fits snugly inside the circle of hardening Shiite sentiment that the American military, in keeping full control of security, has not given the Iraqi government full power to intervene when Sunni militias or insurgents carry out sectarian cleansing..."

12-18 months doesn't pass the laugh test

The new formulation offered by a "general on the ground" in Iraq yesterday, that Iraqi troops and police would be ready to assume responsibility for the country in 12-18 months, is not taken seriously even in the front page news account in the NYTimes today:

"In trying to build support for the American strategy in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said Tuesday that the Iraqi military could be expected to take over the primary responsibility for securing the country within 12 to 18 months.

But that laudable goal seems far removed from the violence-plagued streets of Iraq’s capital, where American forces have taken the lead in trying to protect the city and American soldiers substantially outnumber Iraqi ones.

Given the rise in sectarian killings, a Sunni-based insurgency that appears to be as potent as ever and an Iraqi security establishment that continues to have difficulties deploying sufficient numbers of motivated and proficient forces in Baghdad, General Casey’s target seems to be an increasingly heroic assumption."

Friends, since the President declared "Mission Accomplished," our time in Iraq has been longer than our entire engagement in WWII.  Under pressure to show that we have a plan to change the course, the President's team rolls out this laughable 12-18 months timetable, even though our Ambassador acknowledged in the press conference yesterday that they were still working on the plan itself and that it would not be ready by the end of the year. 

And once again the assumption to all this is that our problem there can be solved through force, and not diplomacy and politics.  This comical press conference - which had to cease at one point as the electricity went out - confirms that the Administration has lost its way in Iraq, and has no real idea what to do now. 

As the nation tries to understand what went wrong in Iraq, a great deal of attention must be given to the lack of a plan for the occupation.  Our troops have performed with great effectiveness.  It was the lack of any kind of plan for building civil society and helping secure the peace - as the Marshall Plan so effectively did in Post-War Europe - that has been our undoing.  But the scale of the mess of the occupation is only just coming to light, and yet another tragic story, again in the Times today, details how little the Iraqis have gotten from our "reconstruction," and documents the utterly irresponsible contracting bonanza that Iraq has become:

"Overhead costs have consumed more than half the budget of some reconstruction projects in Iraq, according to a government estimate released yesterday, leaving far less money than expected to provide the oil, water and electricity needed to improve the lives of Iraqis.

The report provided the first official estimate that, in some cases, more money was being spent on housing and feeding employees, completing paperwork and providing security than on actual construction.

Those overhead costs have ranged from under 20 percent to as much as 55 percent of the budgets, according to the report, by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. On similar projects in the United States, those costs generally run to a few percent.

The highest proportion of overhead was incurred in oil-facility contracts won by KBR Inc., the Halliburton subsidiary formerly known as Kellogg Brown & Root, which has frequently been challenged by critics in Congress and elsewhere.

The actual costs for many projects could be even higher than the estimates, the report said, because the United States has not properly tracked how much such expenses have taken from the $18.4 billion of taxpayer-financed reconstruction approved by Congress two years ago.

The report said the prime reason was not the need to provide security, though those costs have clearly risen in the perilous environment, and are a burden that both contractors and American officials routinely blame for such increases.

Instead, the inspector general pointed to a simple bureaucratic flaw: the United States ordered the contractors and their equipment to Iraq and then let them sit idle for months at a time."

Good new essay on immigration reform, and C-Span tomorrow am

For those looking to learn more about immigration reform I strongly recommend an essay by Tamar Jacoby in the new issue of Foreign Affairs.  You can also find lots of good information at the site of the National Immigration Forum, and at our blog here and on our site.   Look for a new project we are involved to launch Thursday, www.immigration2006.org, which will also have good information. 

And watch C-Span tomorrow am at 8am eastern to watch me debate this important topic. 

GOP stumbling with minorities

Peter Wallsten of the LA Times has a very interesting piece today about the Rovian-led efforts to reposition the GOP with African-Americans and Latinos in unraveling. 

The numbers in the Latino Coalition poll are consistent with our NDN political fund poll this summer. and other polls, that show a dramatic degradation of the Republican brand with Latinos across the country. 

NDN and our affiliate continue to be the most aggressive of all progressive groups in speaking to Latinos, as we end the year with two media campaigns, one promoting the minimum wage in AZ and CO, and the other our wonderful campaign connecting Democratic values to the iconic sport of soccer, "mas que un partido."

Is what we are doing in Iraq a war?

Are we fighting a war in Iraq? Against whom? I know we have troops on the ground there, but the President has said that major hostilities ended in the Spring of 2003.  So why are we still calling our actions in Iraq a war?

It seems that a more accurate description of our work in Iraq would be to call it the American occupation of Iraq, and that our troops are peacekeepers. 

Getting these words right matters on several levels.  Accuracy in speech and thought usually help one end up in the right place, as knowing where you are helps you get to where you want to go.  It will also allow us to morally engage the rest of the world in doing what is right there now - preventing Iraq from slipping into a failed state or a civil war that could end up exporting instability the way Afghanistan did after the Soviet pull out.  Other nations do not want to help us fight a losing war, but perhaps they will help us find a regional political solution to the troubles of the Middle East. 

Language matters.  Calling American actions in Iraq a war is in itself part of a much greater problem - the overwhelming of American discourse by Bush proproganda and ideology.  The road forward in Iraq starts with calling it what it is - a failed occupation.

My relationship to television is changing

Tonight my two sons and I watched two of the most famous soccer teams in the world, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, play each other on television.  It was on a cable channel called GolTV, that had commercials in English and Spanish, and we watched a recording we had made earlier in the day on our Comcast DVR. 

A few months ago I would have never ever been able to see this game.  That's when we switched to Comcast, ordered a special soccer package and finally got a DVR (digital video recorder).  Since getting this new system I watch more TV, but it is much more of what I want to watch when I want to watch it.  And for my family, with two young active boys, it has meant much more sports. 

For example, last week I recorded the Mets games and we watched portions in the morning when the boys were awake.  Without this new magical DVR we would not have been able to see Carlos Delgado's great series, or the remarkable catch by Endy Chavez.  This thing has certainly changed our lives.  And you get the sense it is only the beginning.  

We have written a great deal about this media transformation at NPI.  But the growing power of sports programming in this new world is a major reason why our affiliate, the NDN political fund, has been running a national television and radio campaign - mas que un partido - connecting soccer, Democratic values and Latinos.  There is no question that in this increasingly balkanized media environment sports programming is rising in importance, and is something as progressives we simply must do a better job understanding, and connecting to.    

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