Is It Over Yet?

Watching the past two weeks of the Republican and Democratic conventions, it's hard to remember a more grotesque political event. 

LONDON — Watching the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week -- and with the horrors of the Republican assembly in Tampa still all too fresh in my mind -- I was reminded of Oscar Wilde's quip about fox hunting: "The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable." Something similar may be said of the carnival of grotesques unleashed upon an innocent world these past two weeks. When Republicans or Democrats gather to celebrate their faith, America loses.

That's how it looks when viewed from the far side of the Atlantic Ocean, anyway. My, how each party is doing its best to make the other seem strangely electable. If Republican arrogance grates, Democratic smugness is just as aggravating.

Thank heavens for Michelle Obama. Her speech (perhaps the finest of either convention thus far) at least rescued something from what had been a grim, though doubtless successful, first night for the Democrats -- a night during which many of the party's worst attributes were not so much on display as celebrated with wild enthusiasm. But even the first lady's largely admirable speech was not without its low moments; declaring herself "mom in chief" was a toe-curling lapse of taste. Nonetheless, with the first lady's speech on Tuesday, Sept. 4, and Bill Clinton's on Wednesday, the Democrats marshaled star power that eclipsed anything the Republicans could offer in Tampa, Florida.

There are, in truth, two different conventions taking place in Charlotte, North Carolina, this week. One, televised in prime time, tries to talk to all Americans; the other, unscreened by the networks and followed only by political anoraks, is a back-slapping, complacent celebration held by and for a Democratic Party utterly persuaded it enjoys a monopoly on decency and wisdom.

Of course, the Republicans were just as bad. But no sentient person can possibly watch these pep rallies and think he or she wants to have any part of either party. By their nature, parties are cults, but their creepiness is never better displayed than at their quadrennial conventions. The theme of this week, always present in the background and sometimes stated quite explicitly, is that the United States and, hell, the world too, is lucky to have Barack Obama as its savior and protector.

If no one has yet quite plumbed the depths George Pataki reached in 2004, it's not for want of trying. Eight years ago, Pataki told the world: "Ladies and gentlemen, on this night and in this fight, there is another who holds high that torch of freedom. He is one of those men God and fate somehow lead to the fore in times of challenge. And he is lighting the way to better times, a safer land, and hope. He is my friend, he is our president, President George W. Bush." People actually cheered this. (To be fair, it might be said that if the United States could just about survive eight years of Bush, the republic can probably endure four years of Mitt Romney.)

If the Republican National Convention had one small saving grace, it was that there was a whiff of apostasy in the air. Granted, that's an unavoidable consequence of nominating Romney, but compared with past conventions and the Democrats this week, the GOP's reluctance to give its heart to Romney seems a model of prudent skepticism. There was plenty of hagiographical nonsense in Tampa too, but the Democrats' slavish enthusiasm for their candidate is something to behold. In primitive people, you'd consider it a kind of madness.

Some of it was oddly defensive too. According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: "His [Obama's] whole life, there have been so many who told him what he shouldn't or couldn't do" -- which seems an odd way of describing a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School who taught at the University of Chicago and worked at a top Windy City law firm before he entered politics. Instead, Reid presents Obama as a scrawny kid who can't go to the beach without having sand kicked in his face. Very strange.

Nor was Reid alone. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick -- who, oddly, seemed reluctant to lash Romney to his record of health-care achievement in Massachusetts -- told conventioneers that they can't allow Obama to be "bullied" out of office. That's an odd way to talk about an election, but then again, politicians are odd people. Regardless, this doesn't sound like a party that will take defeat well. Indeed, one suspects there are plenty of true believers gathered in Charlotte this week ready to believe that if Obama loses, it will be because Romney will have cheated.

Indeed, Bill Clinton may have put himself in a minority among convention attendees when he said: "Though I often disagree with Republicans, I actually never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate our president and a lot of other Democrats." The depth and range of conservative hatred for Obama is often startling, but many liberal Democrats are just as disinclined to grant that their opponents might plausibly be making their arguments in good faith. As former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland put it: "If Mitt was Santa Claus, he'd fire the reindeer and outsource the elves."

The red meat chucked to the Democratic base was, like its Republican counterpart last week, a reminder that it's always wise to shield these moments from an easily startled public. "Women are not an interest group," said Obama in a video introducing one set of speakers. "They shouldn't be treated that way." I dare say this is true -- which left one wondering why speaker after speaker treated women as, well, an interest group. Moreover, and though Lilly Ledbetter stepped up to offer praise for the equal-pay bill named in her honor, it seemed as if the interest was particularly narrow -- as if abortion is the only women's issue that really matters to Democrats.

Nancy Keenan, president of the abortion-rights group NARAL, even made the bold suggestion that "health decisions" (i.e., abortion) should be made in consultation with a woman's God. Enlisting the Almighty in the service of unlimited abortion might verge on the presumptuous.

At the very least, there's usually a distinction to be made between defending abortion and celebrating it. Usually, I say, because Democrats so ignored that difference on Tuesday night that you could have been forgiven for assuming an abortion was some kind of feminine rite of passage without which no American woman could consider herself whole. Or patriotic.

"Safe, legal, and rare" -- Bill Clinton's elegant formula -- suddenly seems quaintly old-fashioned. Democrats in Charlotte proved themselves every bit as extreme as Republicans in Tampa. More so in fact, given that all-access abortion all the time is a minority view. "Don't assume that every voter knows what Barack Obama has done for the women in this country," said Keenan with all the smugness of someone who knows only wickedness, terminal gullibility, or incorrigible stupidity could persuade someone to vote for the other team.

If all this was predictable, so too was the party's cheerful xenophobia. The party elites and big thinkers may know free trade is a good thing that lifts American boats as well as those flying other flags, but deep down, the Democratic base doesn't believe in free trade. How else to explain the relentless foreigner-bashing on display in Charlotte?

According to Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley -- as always, more impressive as an idea than in the flesh -- Romney wants to "ship our jobs to China." This is not, in fact, true -- though it's a mystery what poor Chinese people have done to so offend O'Malley. The idiocy of the Democratic position on outsourcing or, as it is also known, "overseas investment" is apparent if you consider what would happen if every company, from every country, followed the Democrats' advice and kept their investments inside their own borders. No more Toyota in America. No more BP. No more Deutsche Bank. And so on. Strickland's call for "economic patriotism" would, if emulated worldwide, see every foreign company flee the United States. Remember, they're "shipping jobs overseas" too.

And they call the Republicans the stupid party? I mean, come on. I understand why Democrats want to attack Romney's wealth and highlight his reluctance to release his tax returns. But there are limits. According to O'Malley, however: "Swiss bank accounts never built an American bridge. Swiss bank accounts don't put cops on the beat or teachers in our classrooms. Swiss bank accounts never created American jobs!"

Actually they did. That is, Swiss banks did. And so did British banks, German banks, and French banks. Foreign capital and foreign bondholders played a vital part in America's great 19th-century expansion. They still do. Why even today, it's Chinese bondholders who put cops on the street and finance the building of American bridges. Americans didn't build America on their own.

For that matter, mind you, let's not forget that this global financial crisis really was built in America. Other countries, especially in Europe, contributed to their own miseries, not least through their eagerness to buy whatever Wall Street was selling; and, yes, European banks acted like schmucks. Nevertheless, it all began in the United States. If there's any subject suitable for some kind of global apology tour, this might be it.

Perhaps only a fool would expect some appreciation of nuance or complexity to be allowed on stage at a political convention, but that's another reason for sensible people to be appalled by these cultish celebrations of mendacity.

If the Republicans demonstrated their unfitness for office in Tampa last week, all one can say today is that, on the evidence put before the court thus far, the Democrats are determined to give the Republicans a run for their money. No matter how pundits dress it up, this election is a contest between two political parties that deserve one another. Yet again, let H.L. Mencken be your guide: "In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican." Nor, he might feel like adding today, a Democrat.


Democracy Lab

Burma's President Shakes Up the Chessboard

Why the president's cabinet reshuffle portends a new move toward reform.

This week, as expected, the Burmese parliament gave its seal of approval to the cabinet reshuffle launched last week by President Thein Sein. The president's effort to rejuvenate his government is revealing. Though his government has been coming under fire from many directions lately, this isn't a desperate or defensive move. The reorganization of the cabinet actually represents an attempt to kick-start the stalled reform process. Thein Sein's choice of ministers shows that he is trying to centralize his administration even as he reduces the military's presence in it.

More than a dozen ministers have been replaced or sacked, while more than twenty new deputy ministers have been appointed. More changes are in the pipeline, according to government advisors. Some of the more renowned hardliners in the cabinet -- such as Construction Minister Khin Maung Myint and the oddly titled Minister for Electricity 1 Zaw Min -- have been sacked altogether. Others, including Information Minister Kyaw Hsan and Tourism Minister Tint Hsan, have been demoted.

But the most important aspect of the changeover is the large number of civilians that have been brought in, especially as deputy ministers. Almost all of them are former academics, businessmen, and civil servants. In this array of talent tapped by the president, the new deputy economic planning minister stands out: Winston Set Aung, a businessman, academic, and consultant who has been advising the president on economic matters for the past year. Government insiders hint that there may be more economics-oriented appointments like this to follow.

When ministers were sacked or reshuffled in the past, they were usually replaced by serving military officers or former military men. That was how the military dictators controlled power and ensured the cohesive support of the commanders. Thein Sein (shown at left in the photo above, as he welcomed Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last month) has now decided to break with that long-standing tradition and make his executive truly civilian (at least as far as the members of his cabinet team are concerned).

This has delighted the international community and local businessmen alike. Not only are the new faces being brought into the government civilian by origin and nature, but many of them, like Winston Aung, are thoroughly committed economic reformers, according to Australian economic specialist Sean Turnell. Burmese businessmen are now busily preparing for the "gold rush" -- the long-heralded influx of foreign direct investment from companies eager to get access to the country's rich natural resources and low-cost labor force. There's a general assumption that this process can only be accelerated by the president's cabinet reshuffle.

In last week's sweeping shake-up, Thein Sein replaced the ministers responsible for information, economic planning, finance, industry, and railways. The economic ministries are being transferred to the president's office. Finance Minister Hla Tun, Economic Planning Minister Tin Naing Thein, Industry Minister Soe Thein, and Railways Minister Aung Min have all effectively been promoted and transferred to the president's office to oversee the running of the economy. Four new ministries in the prime minister's office have now been formally agreed by parliament.

But the cabinet reshuffle also manifests another facet of Thein Sein's developing strategy (one that he may well have borrowed from his mentor, ex-strongman Than Shwe) -- namely, the concentration of power in his own office. "It's more a [government] re-organization than a reshuffle," said a government insider.

The four economic ministers will now oversee the country's economic development from inside the president's office. This means they will work directly under the president, which will free him up to concentrate on other matters, according to the president's political advisors. It will increase their direct access to the president and give them greater authority.

"It's all part of streamlining the decision-making process to make the president and his ministers more effective," says a government insider. But it is also a process of centralizing power in the president's office by creating an elite team of ministers -- a "super cabinet," if you will -- that will take responsibility for much of the government's administrative work.

Minister Soe Thein will continue to chair the powerful Myanmar Investment Commission, which oversees domestic investment projects and will play a major role in monitoring international ventures once the new proposed foreign investment law is finalized.

Massive changes to the Central Bank are also in the pipeline. It will no longer be under the finance ministry, but semi-autonomous, with the governor's position raised to the ministerial level. The bank will be substantially expanded, the number of divisions increased, and the staff almost doubled to more than 2,500.

Several ministries are being merged or shut down. The government is closing the Industrial Development Ministry, which overseas planned industrial mega-projects, and transferring responsibility for them to the president's office. Other ministries are being consolidated, including combining the two electric power ministries into one. The aim, according to the president, is to allow better supervision and cooperation to ensure adequate production and supply of electricity. Government insiders say that more reorganization of the civil service is also in the pipeline.

Another crucial change is the promotion of the former railways minister Aung Min to a minister in the president's office commissioned with overseeing national reconciliation efforts. Apart from continuing his ceasefire mediation efforts with ethnic rebel groups, he will be responsible for encouraging Burmese exiles and expatriates to return to the country. He will also, reportedly, become a member of the national defense security council, and be given a measure of authority over the military.

The president's cabinet reshuffle is only part of a broader strategy to build a wider consensus behind his reform process. It started with the appointment of a new vice president, the former naval commander Nyan Tun, after his predecessor resigned on grounds of alleged ill health. Nyan Tun is something of a Thein Sein clone: soft-spoken, fiercely loyal, and very cautious. But he will also steadfastly uphold the interests of the military, sources close to him say.

Nyan Tun's appointment is essentially the army's way of supporting the beleaguered president. They are committed to Thein Sein and his reform agenda, according to informed sources inside the military. In particular, the chief of the army, vice-senior general Min Aung Hlaing, has emerged as a staunch supporter of Thein Sein. He wants the democratic experiment to work -- and Thein Sein needs all the help he can get. He is at loggerheads with parliament over constitutional issues. The democratic opposition is taking advantage of newly won media freedoms to agitate for change. The government's war with the Kachin ethnic minority is intensifying, and recently achieved peace deals with other groups are developing cracks. Strikes, rural protests against illegal land grabs, and religious violence in the west of the country in Arakan have compounded the president's impotence. Only the international community and the army seem to steadfastly support him.

His only hope now is that the greater emphasis on government efficiency will provide concrete results and clear the logjam in the reform process. "The battle between the hardliners and reformers has been exaggerated," a presidential advisor told me recently, on condition of anonymity. "The fault line is between competence and incompetence; between effectiveness and ineffectiveness," he added. The government must deliver on its promises, another insider said, and time is running out.

Many people have begun to wonder when they're finally going to see the long-awaited "democracy dividend." Earlier last month, President Thein announced that the government's immediate priority was to boost economic growth by 8 percent a year and provide real income growth for everyone. Many Burmese economists, though, believe the president's plans are over ambitious and unrealistic, especially the proposed increase of per capita income to $3000 by 2015.

So while Thein Sein will retire at the end of his current term as president, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party knows that if they are to have any chance against the opposition -- the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi -- at the next elections in 2015, the government must improve peoples' standard of living.