Archive for Politics

Who am I really?


You know you better make up your mind!

You know you better make up your mind!

A couple of years ago, a thirtysomething female student in my grad school course in Nineteenth-Century American Lit expressed her revulsion over the rape of black slaves by their white masters.

“Love and respect are so important to me,” she said. “The very idea of a strange man getting on top of me and — I can’t imagine anybody not feeling disgusted!”

The context for this outburst was a discussion about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I remember it because the student’s inability to imagine herself a supporter of slavery disturbed me almost as much as the subject of the peculiar institution itself. What she didn’t fathom was that she could easily have been part of a group that simply assumed certain notions to be inarguable and true. She could have been part of such a group because, in fact, she already was. We all are.

Can you avoid groupthink?

The fifteen or so students had the same opinion on every issue that ever came up in the class. Nobody had voted for George Bush in the 2000 election (I didn’t either). Everyone thought the Supreme Court had over-ruled the popular election of Al Gore with its selection of Bush (I thought so too). Everyone thought the whites in Stowe’s novel were evil, sinful or corrupt and the blacks were victims (the novel is more complex than that). To my knowledge, nobody in the class held a contrary opinion on any of these or any other topics.

That’s because we were all students of literature; all educated to understand that the buying and selling of black people was wrong; all taught to believe that America was oppressive, Europe was hip and the rest of the world was a pretty remote place. In short, we held the usual high and low values of most cohorts.

Unfortunately, we don’t live our lives with the benefit of hindsight.

If you were a citizen of the United States in the nineteenth century, what are the chances that you would have had the foresight or humanity to see slavery as a corrupt expression of the human spirit? Most of your friends would not have questioned the status quo. If you were a southerner, your family would have owned slaves and slaveholding would have been as natural as breakfast.

If you were European and intellectual in the middle of the twentieth century, you might easily have justified the disposal by any means of the Jews whom you saw as too communist, capitalist, rich, pious, anti-religious, fill in the blank. Most of your friends would have too.

If you were American, European and intellectual in the seventeenth century, you might have supported burning unconventional women at the stake. Most of your friends would have too.

Which brings us to the presidential election of 2008.

Which team do you root for?

Judging by his first executive decision — choosing Joe Biden as his running mate — Obama has shown himself to be strategic, and wisely so. I for one am simply baffled by John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. McCain may be every bit as strategic as Obama, especially as Palin is more conservative on pro-life and oil drilling issues, and she positions McCain to look like an authentic Republican alternative to Obama. But his choice strikes me as desperate and erratic. Desperate because McCain needs to siphon Hillary Clinton’s supporters away from the Democrats; erratic because Ms. Palin doesn’t have any real expertise in foreign affairs. Isn’t that the criticism McCain lobbed at Obama?

Despite my misgivings about Obama — his association with Jeremiah Wright sticks in my craw — I nonetheless feel tempted to vote with my liberal, smart IBM Research bloc. We Americans allegedly don’t care one way or another about what the rest of the world thinks about us, but Barack Obama will rehabilitate our standing in the so-called global community. He at least talks like somebody with a brain and he looks fabulous.

Despite my misgivings about McCain — his snapdragon temper and witless sense of humor remind me of my ex-husband — I also feel tempted to vote with my conservative, smart Jewish bloc where the thinking goes that if Iran attacks Israel — or Ireland or India or whatever country it deems a devil — McCain likely will strike back. I would support his doing that. In this regard I fear that Obama would ask all parties to be “reasonable.” And whoosh. Down the drain go Israel and the survival of the Jewish people.

I confess. When I vote in November, I will vote with one clique or the other. I’m not sure I know how to think through my decision in any other way.

The company we keep

What’s scary is that, from what I saw of the Democratic National Convention last week, the Democrats rely on this clique mentality too. How else to explain the offending presence of Jimmy Carter, a man who has distinguished himself as a foreign affairs clubfoot (Iran, 1980 Olympics, Israel-Palestinian conflict) and whose very presence conjures up the memory of a hypocrite who chided the Soviet Union for human rights abuses in Afghanistan and defended the Shah of Iran as a pillar of stability.

Now I know that adults have to make nice with all sorts of people they might not really like. For example, I can respect Republican McCain for his reputed maverick nature but now cringe at Republican Donald Rumsfeld’s assertion that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction. Yet in making a decision about which candidate and party to choose, I am looking at which birds of a feather flock together. We are the company we keep.

The conflict for me remains. Do I vote as an individual with liberal political values (defense of the Constitution, belief in free speech, pro-choice) and go with Obama, or do I vote for McCain because I am an American and a Jew who understands that without national security, we could experience another 9/11 or U.S.S. Cole or Kenya-Tanzania U.S. Embassy? Do I “punish” the Republicans for taking us to war on sexed-up intelligence or reward McCain for his “straight talk:” that staying in Iraq until 2013 isn’t a partisan position — it’s simply facing reality?

Who am I really? An ally of a particular group? An individual? Somebody too confused to figure out what she really thinks?

Over the weekend, my Russian emigre friend Tanya pretty much summed up how I feel about this election: Whoever wins, we’re in big trouble. Yup. Count me in.

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Always out of step with history

out of step

It’s said that the Jews are always out of step with history. When the masses take to the revolutionary ramparts, we are said to stay loyal to the counterrevolutionary status quo. Okay. There might be something to that. Think of the Iranian Jewish community’s relationship with Shah Reza Pahlavi, for example, or the debt that a thousand Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany owed the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo when he permitted them to settle in a backwater called Sosua. It seems that history just doesn’t want us to be cool.

Of course this premise is wrong as many times as it’s right. Jews actually do what my mother says they ought not do: Zey krikhn vi m’darf nisht. They meddle where they shouldn’t. They are just as likely to be Emma Goldmans as Mort Zuckermans, Abby Hoffmanns as Joe Liebermans.

Certainly when it comes to American politics, Jews tend to throw their lot in with the leftish-liberal groups that promise to alleviate the burdens of the tired and poor, even if it means they themselves will have to pay higher taxes or yield to the prerogatives of multiculturalism. A lot of American Jews these days believe that we have so-called white-skin privilege, and if we ever did suffer discrimination, we should have long since overcome, forgiven and forgotten.

Nobody can say for sure where American Jews are going to come down in the general elections this November. The Jews I know at work hate George Bush for invading Iraq. They think of themselves as Americans first, I think, and aren’t that fixated on Israel or the historical fate of the Jews. No doubt they plan to vote for Obama. 

That’s not a criticism. I myself have been all over the political map, and I understand how the liberal point-of-view feels tolerant, objective, superior — even as it touts a philosophy as shrill as any of the radical Moslem sects’. True confession: If it’s a choice between liberalism and Talibanism, give me scantily clad girls on bus shelters, single-parent families and the right to mouth off about matters sublime and ridiculous any day. The culture that gives rise to all of these is awfully imperfect, but at least it allows for personal choice.

Now, the Jews I socialize with — my friends in Riverdale — are leaning toward McCain. It’s not that we are in thrall to him either, but by comparison with Obama, McCain strikes us as a realist, particularly when it comes to dealing with tyrants like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and with the radical Moslems who believe there is only one way to pray, get educated and treat women. And even though both candidates have had the support of extreme preachers, Obama’s 20-year long mentorship by Jeremiah “God damn America” Wright is a lot more worrisome to Jews who care about Israel than a know-it-all like John Hagee who got the lowdown from God Himself as to why He visited the Holocaust upon the chosen people.

A headline on Yahoo! News —  Many historians see little chance for McCain — pretty much sums up the current media outlook about the outcome of the election. Several academics apparently see Barack Obama’s prospects “as the most promising for a Democrat since Roosevelt trounced Hoover in 1932.” Historian Allan Lichtman, who has correctly predicted the past six presidential popular vote winners, says, “This should be an overwhelming Democratic victory.” Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz observes, “It is one of the worst political environments for the party in power since World War II.”

I have a feeling that the Yahoo story is on target. As Abramowitz goes on to say, “It would be a pretty stunning upset if McCain won.”

Something really awful would have to happen for McCain to win this one. Something like Iran attacking Israel with nuclear weapons. (Although why Ahmadinejad would do that now instead of waiting to chat with President Obama about it first — strikes me as, well, jumping the gun.) But that’s about it, I think. Everything else — the price of gasoline per gallon, the endless war in Iraq, the low profile of the U.S. dollar, the subprime implosion, an economy that keeps tanking — everything else will pull voters in Obama’s direction.

My father, who rues the day he voted for Jimmy Carter, is philosophical about Obama. “He won’t do any harm,” he says.

“Do you plan to vote for him?” I ask.


It would be so fly to be in step with the “mood of the country” and boot da bums out of office. But something tentative, something cautious inside my judgment is telling me to stay out of step with this historical moment. I don’t like the economic and geopolitical mess we’re in, but I worry that an untested, charismatic guy with the resume of a smart 30-year-old is going to be our Huey Long. And while we’ll be perceived as a “country of new beginnings,” as Thomas Friedman wrote in his New York Times column, we’ll also become victim to the same old bad endings that have befallen every well-meaning conciliator. Moreover, we’ll be as easy to take advantage of as Israel is when it calls for cease-fires with Hezbollah or Hamas. We’ll be the country that just “wants to get along” while our adversaries strategize and re-arm.

What I wouldn’t give to feel as optimistic as the Obama-ites on the ramparts. But I can’t help but wonder: Will we look back to the days of the current administration and think, “By George! ‘W’ may have been a buffoon, but he wasn’t a complete idiot after all!”


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Newt Gingrich: The guy gets it

Newt GingrichNewt Gingrich. Once upon a time, he was the politician who sabotaged a congressional budget and brought the Federal government to its knees for about a month in 1995. He was the cheating husband who asked his wife for a divorce while she was convalescing from cancer surgery. He was the guy who had the voice of a Pomeranian. Newt Gingrich was everything I considered cheeseball and uncool.

So, don’t ask me why I gave Gingrich the time of day when I saw a video on the CNN website called Gingrich: I’m deeply worried. Maybe because I myself worry that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — the two candidates that the media seem to have anointed as the Saviours of the Nation — don’t care about anything more than the cause du jour. As they jet about the U.S., the two Democratic candidates pull the usual arrows out of their campaign quiver and numb us with their talk about healthcare, jobs and change — or with whatever their pollsters counsel them to say. Throughout this campaign, Clinton and Obama have struck me as two smart kids running for president of student council: Even though the top seat isn’t much more than a sinecure, both of them will scrimmage like crazy to occupy the seat.

To some degree, I don’t blame Clinton and Obama for being short-sighted. They grew up in relative economic security and, as far as I can tell, neither one has lived through any dire situation. Their idea of fighting the status quo is to get out there and do some grass roots organizing or rally support for children’s rights. And by now both of them believe that war is a bad thing, like a football game on Thanksgiving Day that doesn’t end until dinner-time. If we were living in a world of ever-accruing peace dividends, I’d be happy enough with either one of them. Hillary or Barack would put a likeable smile on a country that, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, has been wearing a smirk just a little too long.

How embarrassing for me to concede that uncool Gingrich is making sense these days.

He sees the radical elements in the Moslem world chop off people’s heads. He sees them recruit ten-year-olds to be suicide bombers and support a national leader who threatens to turn Tel Aviv into a nuclear concentration camp. Even worse, he hears no outcry from the Moslem world. Gingrich asks what it will take for Americans to see that 9/11 was only the opening salvo of a campaign to bring at least one U.S. city to its knees.

I don’t know what to think anymore about our having invaded Iraq. Should we have left Saddam in place to gas the Kurds? To bankroll Palestinian suicide bombers? To let his sons use the country as their harem? If we were going to invade, wouldn’t it have made sense to act on real intelligence and not the funny-money stuff that Dick Cheney shoved down our throats?

I do know that what Gingrich is saying these days sounds awfully plausible: If we “set a timetable” to get out of Iraq, we’ll be leaving behind a failed state that will serve as a staging ground for more Islamic terror. Clinton and Obama may be desperate to get us out of there so that they can get back to planning the next homecoming game, but shouldn’t the rest of the student body, i.e., us, tell them that a real grown-up, a real president, has to keep his/her charges safe?

The only candidate willing to act like a grown-up is John McCain. Am I in love with the guy? No. I’m a pro-choice type myself. But I know that if I make abortion or equal rights or jobs my sole reason for voting, I will have to pretend that this more existential issue is a secondary problem. I can’t help but think that we are not going to have any kind of future at all as long as someone like Ahmadinijad can bandy atomic weapons about like a cheerleader baton.

As for the Republican right, it ought to swallow its pride and get behind McCain. If it doesn’t and Obama or Clinton wins the White House, this much reviled Bush administration is going to end up looking like the Roman Empire as it strove, however clumsily, to fend off the Vandals. And what kind of a touchdown is going to matter to anybody then?

See also: Newt Gingrich answers your questions [Stephen J. Dubner interview, The New York Times, March 14, 2008]

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Everyone’s doing it, so me too!

Campaign buttons  How can Hillary Clinton possibly go up against Dionysus?

What qualifies me to mouth off about the presidential campaign? I don’t volunteer for any of the candidates. I don’t donate that dollar on my tax form to the U.S. campaign system. I have never seen any of the current presidential candidates in person, except for a highly adversarial Rudy Giuliani, whom I saw in the early 1990s at a town hall in Riverdale, New York. And I think I drove past Bill Clinton on the Saw Miller River Parkway one morning. All the cars around his slowed down to take a look, so maybe it really was him.

OK, nothing qualifies me to predict this early in the game — after Iowa and New Hampshire — what the final runoff will look like.

I’m calling it for Barack Obama vs. John McCain. Maybe Michael Bloomberg will play the spoiler.

Why not Hillary Clinton? You can dredge up all the negatives against her: She’s not a big proponent of transparency in politics. At least she wasn’t when she headed the healthcare commission during her husband’s first term. She cosied up to Yasir Arafat’s wife: A big no-no for Jews who care about Israel. She has that awful, flat, hectoring style of talking. She just aggrandized the role of LBJ over MLK during the civil rights era. Dumb, especially for a woman married to the first black president.

Mrs. Clinton managed to win in New Hampshire because the registered female Democrats got worried. A lot of them, I think, were leaning toward Obama. They might have figured, “I’ll vote for Obama, but the other women can vote for Hillary.” After Iowa, when, maybe, plenty of Iowan women figured the same thing, the women in New Hampshire freaked out. If they didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, who would? So they did.

Meanwhile, I think Hillary Clinton could embrace transparency, eschew extremist Palestinians and be generally more likeable and she still wouldn’t be able to best Obama. I wish this weren’t true, but I think no strongminded woman can go up against a handsome, charming man like Obama and expect to be victorious. Obama is Dionysus. People, especially women, are going to flock to him. They’re going to throw themselves at him.

Right now the only candidate who has a chance of beating him is John McCain. True, McCain doesn’t have Obama’s physical presence — did you ever notice his  71-year-old gut? True, he doesn’t have Obama’s “people-person” abilities. You can’t take your eyes off Obama. You can take them off McCain.

But McCain’s obvious trump card is his experience. Except for Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, I never even heard of any of the candidates involved in this presidential race until they announced they wanted to run. Mike Huckabee? Sorry. Never heard of him ’til about three months ago. John Edwards? Only knew him because he ran for VP last time around with John Kerry, another guy I had never heard of until he ran for president. Mitt Romney? OK, I knew he had some kind of connection to George Romney, a name I remembered from my childhood. The point is, none of these figures had any real national stature. And when they end up dropping out of the race, you won’t ever hear from them again. I hadn’t heard anything from Kerry until a few days ago when he threw his support, for what it’s worth, to Obama.

McCain is different. McCain-Feingold means campaign finance reform. McCain the former prisoner of war means a man who overcame personal suffering to become a political leader. Has the man ever said and done anything stupid? Definitely. Like the time he went to Iraq with an entourage of flak runners and military personnel and declared that he felt completely safe walking around Baghdad. I was embarrassed for him.

The thing about McCain is that he didn’t recede into the political fog once he had to leave the race the last time around. He kept his name out there without making himself a nuisance. He has thought through his ideas and sticks to them, even if they’re not popular. Not everyone’s going to agree with him about Iraq, where he thinks we’re going to be stuck for a long time. He doesn’t talk about bringing the troops home because he knows we can’t do that. And he seems to be for some kind of an amnesty program for illegal aliens. Most people don’t like the idea that immigrants who slipped into the United States illegally would get a free pass in a McCain administration, but most people also understand that our economy cannot run without the landscapers, dish washers and sweatshop workers who take on the low level jobs North Americans don’t want.

McCain is a homely old man who strikes me as sensible and politically skilled.

Obama is a devilishly handsome guy who strikes me as inexperienced and naive.

Hillary Clinton will not win against either one of them. The sad thing is, if I’m wrong, I probably won’t have the sense I was born with to keep my political opining to myself!

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Containing George W. Bush

bell_jarWill containment isolate Iran or give it some breathing space?

President Bush is right to suspect that Iran is still enriching uranium, and right to ask the world to be vigilant alongside the U.S. But after the faked intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War, who believes anything he says?

Tom Friedman makes this point in his NYT column of December 12, 2007 where he discusses the value of containing Iran: “… I’d rather see Iran go nuclear, and contain it, than have the Bush team start another Middle East war over this issue.”

God, I hope Friedman’s analysis is right. But what if it’s not? How does containment work when you are dealing with loosely defined transnational groupings that sympathize with Iran’s anti-America and anti-Israel rhetoric?

I think Israel basically has used containment to secure its Green-Line borders, as well as the disputed West Bank territory of Yehuda and Shomron. To some degree, the strategy works. The security fence has kept all but the most determined terrorists at bay.

Containment, however, has created “bulges” on the country’s northern and western periphery where Hamas and Hezbollah plan and execute their incursions into Israel. The policy works if you are willing to live in an environment that is basically war-time at low boil all the time. Inevitably, Hamas and Hezbollah will want to burst through their respective bulges. What happens to the policy of containment then?

Maybe living at this chronic low-boil is the only solution for Israel — and maybe it’s the only solution for a world that is trying to figure out how to deal with a nuclear Iran. But what happens when Iran is ready to push past the “bulge,” i.e., its own territorial borders, inside which it is now contained?

An Israeli friend of mine suggested that the recent Annapolis Conference, in which Iran of course did not participate, was more an urgent discussion among the Arab countries, the Gulf States and Israel over what to do about Iran, and less about reconciling Israel and the Palestinians to each other. My friend is just an ordinary citizen with no special insight into Israeli or U.S. intelligence, but I am going to guess that nobody in the region wants to see Iran extend its nuclear weapons program. I think they worry that containment, Mr. Friedman’s recommendation, will be too little too late. Post-Iraq Debacle, I no longer know what to think about preemptive action. But I also fear that containment — whatever that actually means — only will give Iran more time to bolster its nuclear weapons program. Isn’t containment ultimately just a cease fire? During a cessation of hostilities, both sides in this new cold war will acquire more weapons and rethink military strategy. The crisis is deferred, but is war inevitable?

Some additional “fallout,” if I can use that word, from the Iraq War:

What kind of president do we want to elect in the U.S.? A Hillary Clinton who trusted CIA intelligence and supported the war for three years or a Barack Obama who doubted the CIA’s intelligence and never supported the war at all? Do we want a leader that trusts our intelligence institutions or one who doesn’t? The current intelligence crisis makes Watergate look like a high school warm-up exercise before the big game.

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What’s a girl to think in a polarized world?

 the end is near

The End is Near, and That’s a Good Thing?

After two terms of the George W. Bush administration, just about everybody, Republicans and Democrats alike, has an arsenal of skanky words they can use to tar and feather the president. He’s a sabre-rattler, a moron, a nitwit, a fiscal disappointment, an intellectual lightweight, a dunce who says nookular. Now that Bush’s term is coming to an end, I feel compelled to confess some kind of fellow feeling for this man — not because I sympathize with his tactics, but because in a storm, you can’t always see what’s right in front of you, and you’re bound to make some bad decisions.

By virtually all accounts, Bush has gotten it wrong on every foreign policy issue. Iraq is the biggest blunder, of course. We all agree that it was unconscionable to have invaded a country and executed its Tito-type leader based on the cooked-up intelligence that Dick Cheney and his cabal presented to the world as gospel.

But here’s what confuses me. In the couple of years before the war, that is, before 9/11, I was reading about Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks on the Iraqi Kurds. Where did I get that information? Not from The National Review, not from Right Wing News. I read an article about the “genocide” of the Kurds in The New Yorker, a magazine famous for its fact-checking, and for its implicit belief that the goals of literature and humanistic sentiment tend to coincide. I can still remember a description of a woman whose cognitive abilities were severely compromised as a result of a gas attack on her town. That’s horrible, I thought. But what can anybody do?

At about the same time, I began receiving e-mail forwards from a left-wing family member warning about the misogynistic program of the Taliban. The e-mail referred to the unchecked spread of the Taliban’s power and its growing influence over the Arab world. Something had to be done. That something, it seems, was no more than signing an e-mail petition decrying the Taliban and then forwarding it to five of your closest friends. I don’t do forwards, but I did this one because it seemed, well, serious. Urgent.

In short, the journalism on the left in those days right before 9/11 reflected the panic that “progressive” people felt about the growth of these represssive — and exclusively — mass Islamic movements. What if some crazed Islamic fundamentalist got hold of enriched uranium in some unmonitored storage bin in the former Soviet Union? What if a state full of gat-chewing seventeen-year-olds — we’re talking about Moslem-dominated Somalia here — got hold of submachine guns and went on a national shooting spree? What if Taliban-style politics resulted in women being prevented from leaving their homes, ever, even with a male escort, even to go to school or the shuk? What if Saddam kept paying Palestinian families, what, $25K, if they volunteered up their children to be suicide bombers? The world was looking pretty weirded out even before Susan Sontag all but praised the 9/11 hijackers for taking on an arrogant superpower, i.e., the U.S.

So, in this post-9/11 world, Bush starts talking all crazy about evildoers, and making them pay for what they did to the World Trade Center and the “multicultural” population that worked there. And he goes on and on about an Axis of Evil. And then he starts a rant about Saddam having weapons of mass destruction and somebody has to stop him. In my mind, I’m already worrying about the Taliban, and I’m freaked out that a bunch of fairly well-educated guys can hijack airplanes and fly them into seemingly indestructable tall buildings. And suddenly the scary scenarios that Bush paints do not seem implausible to me anymore.

And now we “learn” — who knows if we can “learn” anything when no piece of intelligence will ever be truly credible again — that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Plenty of people in the media, and plenty of them running for U.S. president, are gloating. See, they seem to be saying. We told you Bush is an idiot who’s fast on the trigger. We begged him not to engage in that Bible-thumping talk about evildoers. Evildoers! There is no such thing as evil. There’s only humane policy and Bush policy. Throw da bum and his Republican claque out ASAP. And while we’re at it, stomp on any Democrat who once looked upon the gassing of the Kurds and the Buddha-hating Taliban as manifestations of a world gone whackadoodle.

Hey, weren’t those progressive voices calling for military intervention in Bosnia during the Clinton administration? What about Rwanda? Wouldn’t it have been better to have flouted that country’s national sovereignty than to ignore the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis? Why did intervention make sense back then, but today it’s only a sign of Bush’s dementia?

Here’s the saddest conclusion of all. You cannot take any preemptive action to protect yourself. You have to wait until, say, a Hitler annexes countries. No, you have to wait until he rounds up civilians and puts them in death camps. Then, if diplomacy fails, maybe you can take some kind of action. Probably sanctions. Certainly, you can’t be too aggressive these days with the Islamic world because, well, it’s not nice to assume that Islamic radicals will do what their heroes already have done, i.e., attack U.S. Navy ships, U.S. foreign embassies and a U.S. financial district.

We’ve learned not to make an omelet because to do so means you have to crack some eggs. Better to go hungry.

Bush is on his way out. We’ll all have something to celebrate in November 2008. But I can’t help but wonder how a President Hillary Clinton or Obama or Giuliani or Romney or any of the candidates will act in the face of individuals and movements that despise us — all of us, whether we’re on the left, right or middle. Will we hate the next president and vice president too, or do they get a pass simply because they’re not George W. Bush and Dick Cheney?

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