Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bloomberg's Last Day

I come out of more-or-less blog retirement with some final thoughts on Mike Bloomberg's twelve-year tenure in office.

First a confession: I thought Bloomberg was going to be a terrible mayor. The only volunteering I've ever done in a non-presidential election was for Mark Green in autumn 2001, and it wasn't so much because I liked Green--who, in retrospect, might have been every bit as lousy a mayor as Bloomberg was excellent--but because I dreaded the idea of an arrogant billionaire running for ego gratification actually taking the office. I had no sense of, and frankly not much interest in, his policy views. I knew that his commitment to the Republican Party on whose line he ran wasn't very deep, but his wealth and business background along with that partisan affiliation--and above all the strong endorsement of the entirely odious Rudy Giuliani--was enough to mobilize me.

I was almost entirely wrong, and ultimately was very happy for that. Somewhat in my own defense, I don't think it took me very long to realize that the new mayor was a far cry from the Republicans we were suffering in the presidency and governorship at the time, as well as from his Nixonian predecessor. Bloomberg made a series of decisions during his first two years that were unpopular but wise: he raised taxes to close the post-9/11 budget hole, put the kibosh on sweetheart deals Giuliani had made, imposed the smoking ban and generally showed that he would do what he felt was right no matter who it upset. At the think tank where I worked, we quickly figured out that this was going to be a good time for rational policy argument--and that the days when we'd absorb cheap shots and personal attacks from City Hall were over.

By 2005 I was fully onboard, and even went on Daily Kos to make the argument for Bloomberg's re-election. (I didn't volunteer, largely because there was absolutely no doubt he was going to win big.) The second term might have been the highlight: the mayor launched PlaNYC and the Center for Economic Opportunity, school reform enjoyed probably its peak of public recognition, and crime continued to drop. When the financial crash hit, New York came through much better than we probably had any right to expect--in large part because housing didn't crash to the same degree as elsewhere, to a significant degree because of TARP and other federal interventions, but it didn't hurt to have Bloomberg at the helm of city government.

Of course, the crash also prompted him to overturn term limits and seek a third four-year stretch in office. For many people I knew, that was an unforgivable sin against good governance, and I found it obnoxious enough that I voted third-party in 2009. (That said, when for a couple hours that election night it looked like he might not win, I was really horrified.)

Bloomberg's third term--almost all of which I spent in city government, with two different agencies--probably was the least effective of the three. I still think it stands up well to, say, Koch's third term, or those of Mario Cuomo or Pataki at the state level. But between the departure of some top talent and, likely more to the point, the mayor's own excessive certitude and self-regard, the triumphs were fewer and the setbacks more apparent and significant.

His public approval has correspondingly declined. No political figure--perhaps no public figure, period--survives a stretch of high-profile years with his or her popularity fully intact. The public collectively grew tired of Bloomberg, and he of us. Even so, I think history will appreciate not only how outstanding was his overall performance in office, but how unique--not just in New York City, but probably in American history.

Like all NYC mayors, Bloomberg is structurally empowered by the City Charter. Unlike any of his predecessors, he was totally free of partisan commitments: a Democrat for most of his adult life, then a Republican of convenience in 2001 and 2005, and finally the independent he in actuality always was. He was wealthy beyond any need to trade favor for financial support (and his wealth increased something like fourfold while he was earning a dollar a year for something rather more than a full-time job). He was unconstrained by any realistic aspirations to higher office--he certainly wanted the presidency, but unlike almost all career politicians, he never seemed to succumb to the delusional belief that he might have it. Finally, he was possessed of an ego that rendered him impervious to contemporary criticism. Where no criticism or critic was too small for Giuliani to disregard, Bloomberg simply took comfort in his absolute certitude that he was right, and kept on keeping on. 

This confluence of factors left him almost entirely free to ask the vital question: What course of action best serves the public good?  He took on challenges that most "rational" officeholders, including virtually all his predecessors, would have skirted: control of the schools, infrastructure and sustainability. These were issues that would offer no political reward in his lifetime. But if New York City is a better place to live, learn and work in fifty or a hundred years--and I believe it will be--Mayor Bloomberg should earn much of the credit for that.  

This is not to say that he was always right, or always effective. His failings as a political communicator are well known and had real cost, in at least two respects: he was almost never able to work his will in Albany, with the real and righteous exception of the fight for marriage equality. In part this was because he couldn't put himself in the mindset of more conventional, transactional politicians. 

While Bloomberg didn't subscribe to a partisan political ideology, he did have beliefs that were absolutely unshakable, and deeply informed his governance. Foremost among these was a near absolute unwillingness to countenance any limit to profit-seeking. As someone who's made his career in large part about expanding opportunity and improving socioeconomic mobility, I found this incredibly disappointing. On the public stage, his bias played out in the battles over living wage, sick leave, and countless other issues. His intransigence here lent validity to Bill de Blasio's "Tale of Two Cities" argument, and did a great deal to set the stage for a successor who sees the world very differently, and no doubt will undo some of his work.

But this is not uncommon for the democratic process: we choose leaders who address the deficits of their predecessors. Bloomberg seemed unconcerned with equity. My belief is that all the criticisms leveled at him having to do with the growing gap between rich and poor in the City miss the point of just how little power even the Mayor of New York City has to stand athwart macroeconomic trends. (I haven't looked at how the same dynamic has played out in cities like Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, all of which have had Democratic mayors for decades; my guess is that they've seen similar divergence, and if you equalized for financial sector employment, there would be little difference.) I also think that the work of CEO is itself sufficient to counter charges that Bloomberg was totally unconcerned about the poor, and that the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who graduated high school as the overall rate rose represent a signal antipoverty triumph that will pay off down the generations to come.

I think a secondary legacy of Mayor Bloomberg is that he's permanently raised the expectations of city government. Twelve years is a long time for a nonpartisan administration that generally delivered high quality city services with relatively little corruption and disruption. The bar has been set higher for his successors, and for that alone all New Yorkers should send him off with gratitude and good wishes.  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Obama, Reagan, and the Triumph of Iterative Democracy

President Obama begins his second term with modestly strong public approval, some recent policy wins to complement the impressive political victory he scored last November, and an almost palpable sense that he's mastered the levers of presidential power--that, as I once put it, he's learned to drive the fastest and highest-performing car on the track. For a right-wing opposition that made such an enormous emotional (as well as financial) investment in his defeat, this all has been tough to take.

The operatic excesses of reactionary despair is usually catnip to me, but this piece by right-wing journalist Matthew Continetti is too far off-base analytically to truly enjoy:
On the eve of his second inauguration, we ought to face the unpleasant fact that Obama will be remembered as a president of achievement and consequence. It does not matter if, like I do, you think those achievements are horrible and that their consequences will be worse. Obama’s reversal of the Reagan revolution is here. 
What was the Reagan revolution? It was lower taxes on the wealthy, more money for the Defense Department, a genuine if somewhat easy-going cultural conservatism, and the rhetorical promotion of business, private initiative, and American nationalism. Presidents Bush and Clinton and Bush fussed with the rhetoric—all three of them used language that was more communitarian than Reagan’s—and tinkered around the edges of tax and spending policy. Bush I raised taxes, Clinton imposed work requirements on welfare, and Bush II oversaw an additional Medicare entitlement, but Reagan’s general approach remained the dominant one. 
This is something Obama understood. He wrote critically of Reagan in his first book. But, by his 2008 campaign for the presidency, he had developed something of an appreciation for our fortieth president. It soon became clear that Obama sought to be more like Reagan than Reagan’s successors had been—but in a way that would negate those aspects of Reagan’s legacy that liberals found distasteful. Obama sought to be the anti-Reagan, sought to restore the liberal consensus that prevailed in Washington prior to January 1981. He was not a revolutionary. He was a counterrevolutionary.
The perversely impressive thing here is that he not only gets wrong the evilly ascendant Obama; he badly mischaracterizes the now overthrown St. Reagan.

Unless I'm forgetting something, Reagan didn't dismantle the welfare state: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and even Aid to Families with Dependent Children all persisted without serious challenge during his two terms, and in fact he championed and expanded elements of the social safety net such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is now likely more favored by liberals than conservatives. Likewise, the military buildup associated with Reagan really began under Jimmy Carter, who shifted to a hard line following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow among other measures.  Both presidents sat squarely within the bipartisan Cold War-era consensus, from which the biggest deviant probably was Nixon.

Obama, then, is no more counterrevolutionary to Reagan than Reagan was to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Reagan's biggest domestic policy accomplishments were reducing tax rates, which was not a difficult or controversial political fight, and promoting a culture of deregulation (where, again, his policies represented less a break with Carter's than an intensification). But he wasn't an absolutist on these questions; for instance, taxes rose in seven of his eight years in office. Indeed, one of my favorite pieces of political history is a ten year-old Washington Monthly story by Josh Green titled "Reagan's Liberal Legacy":
A sober review of Reagan's presidency doesn't yield the seamlessly conservative record being peddled today. Federal government expanded on his watch. The conservative desire to outlaw abortion was never seriously pursued. Reagan broke with the hardliners in his administration and compromised with the Soviets on arms control. His assault on entitlements never materialized; instead he saved Social Security in 1983. And he repeatedly ignored the fundamental conservative dogma that taxes should never be raised.
None of which is to say that Reagan wasn't, in Green's words, "one of the most conservative presidents in U.S. history [who] will certainly be remembered as such." But he didn't start from a blank slate, nor was he operating in a political vacuum: Democrats (albeit of a considerably less liberal flavor than was the case twenty years earlier or twenty-five years later) controlled the House during the entirety of his tenure, and the Senate for part of it. Similarly, it's not at all hard to imagine future analysts or historians on the center-right offering a parallel contrarian take on Obama's presidency: massive increase in utilization of drone strikes, biggest tax cut in American history, enormous expansion of private health insurance, et cetera.

As Continetti implicitly admits, Reagan's impact was more tonal and attitudinal than anything else. Institutions that had lost popular currency during the '60s and '70s--the military, business leaders--suddenly had a champion in the president, who also happened to be one of the most charismatic and compelling individuals alive. His greatest impact was to change minds in a way that further overt expansion of the welfare state would become at least temporarily impossible; to push the center of public opinion to the right.

Just as Reagan at most moderated some of the effects of New Deal/Great Society governance, Obama really has done little more than undo some of the worst excesses--maybe "perversions" is a better word--of Reagan's legacy. Tax rates are nowhere near what they were in 1981; military spending remains much higher than during the Cold War; discretionary domestic spending is still on its long-term downward trajectory; we have not re-regulated in any meaningful way. If you believe, as I do, that George W. Bush's presidency represented Reagan's worst instincts and ideas taken to a comical extreme, and that the overarching policy narrative of Obama's first term was the cleanup of selected Bush-era messes, then perhaps we're about back to where we were in 2000.

I would argue that two aspects of Obama's presidency do merit the "revolutionary" descriptor. He passed healthcare reform, succeeding where Bill Clinton could not (albeit with something close to the plan that the Republicans of Clinton's era claimed to support), and he helped abet the great strides made toward full civil rights for gay Americans. I think he deserves enormous credit for the first accomplishment, which ultimately came down to an act of political will that fired the courage of Democrats who cast politically painful votes to make it happen. But this long stride toward universal health care involves not a massive new government program, but rather a very large expansion of current models and structures: progressive ends through conservative means.

On the second, he showed more caution than courage, but again this was politically if not morally the right move to make. The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell largely was his doing, and his "evolution" on marriage equality was no less impactful for how transparent it was. Even so, he served and supported a liberalizing social trend rather than creating or truly driving it. In doing so, he made unlikely but appropriate common cause with that faction of the Republican Party that applies its rhetoric about limited government and federalism to gay rights, including former vice-president Dick Cheney and uber-funder David Koch. My strong hunch is that both those men would claim Reagan, that champion of individual liberties, as a philosophical comrade on this issue.

Which maybe brings us all the way back around. Reagan's legacy was less a counter to than a correction of what FDR and LBJ did, both in terms of his policies and where he left the political center of the country. Obama likewise has less "ended" the Age of Reagan than modified and moderated it in a way more aligned to the liberal tradition from which he comes.

His bruised feelings and gross exaggerations aside, Continetti more or less manages to stick the landing:
[T]he generation of conservatives and Republicans who return one day to power will be forced to reckon with the consequences of the Obama revolution, just as a generation of defeated liberals were forced to confront and in some cases accept the revolution of Ronald Reagan."
I'm just not sure he grasps that this is how it's supposed to work. Among our stated Constitutional goals is "a more perfect union." When the system works well, it features opposing factions that peaceably transfer power and show a healthy respect for both small-d democratic will and the prerogatives of policy precedent. All our most successful presidents have left legacies similar to what he claims for Reagan and posits for Obama. It isn't yet clear to me that Obama will match Reagan's success in permanently shifting the center of political opinion in his preferred direction, but that will be the biggest question of the second term.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Andy's Last Stand


One late night probably four or five years ago, I was finishing up the only full season I’ve ever played of a “Madden” NFL game. I’d bought Madden ’08 for my Mac in December 2007, and piloted the Eagles—led by Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook and L.J. Smith on offense and surprisingly effective defensive tackles Broderick Bunkley and Mike Patterson on defense—to the Super Bowl against an opponent I can’t now remember, probably the Broncos or Patriots or Titans. I’d gone something like 13-3 or 14-2 through the regular season—this was probably on the easiest level, as I’m not particularly good at any of these games however much I enjoy them—and gotten through the NFC playoffs without difficulty, but this Super Bowl was a war. I couldn’t stop them, and they couldn’t stop me: two- and three-touchdown leads dissipated like smoke at a tailgate, and at the end of regulation the score was something like 59-59. Then in overtime I managed to get a stop on defense, maybe through a turnover, and drove deep into the opposition’s territory before David Akers won it with a field goal. As the game went into its championship sequence, the montage included a bunch of joyous Eagles players dumping the mandatory bucket of Gatorade on (an unrealistically slender version of) coach Andy Reid… and to my own disbelief and slight annoyance, I felt myself tearing up.

One of the things about intensive self-consciousness is that there are relatively few surprises, but when it happens, it sticks. So what I’ve known ever since that incident is that I was considerably more emotionally invested in Andy Reid winning a Super Bowl with the Eagles than I’d previously understood. However richly deserved—the team has been screwed up for a solid two years now, and every move Reid’s made to set things right has only served to dig the hole deeper—it’ll be a sad moment sometime in the next 48 hours, when the organization cuts him loose at long last following Sunday's season finale against the Giants (a team whose number Reid's Eagles have had for years, and who I'm sure aren't thrilled to seeing him this last time).

I'm too lazy to look it up, but someone in the Philly media nailed it a few weeks back when he wrote that the years brought a subtle but unmistakable change in Reid: from a consistently smart coach to a coach who seemed to believe his every idea was gold because he was so freaking smart.  His successes begat his failures: he started with great offensive and defensive lines he built and a holistic multi-year plan that famously got him the job. When he couldn't quite get over that last hill beyond which a Gatorade soak awaited, he shifted approach, and the results were disastrous. From those solid beginnings, he will finish amidst the wreckage left by idiosyncratic old coaches and mercenary players and wild swings from one scheme to the next. 

Reid probably shouldn't have coached this year at all, after the tragedy of losing his son to a drug overdose over the summer. Many think he'll find another job immediately, and might well get his ring somewhere other than Philadelphia. Maybe so, though I kind of doubt it: while Reid's not "real-life old," he's old by NFL coach standards, which doesn't often correlate with winning titles, and he probably won't have the likes of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson and franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb awaiting him wherever he lands next. 

But maybe I'm wrong, and I kind of hope so. Reid seems worthy of a happy ending, and I'm just bummed it won't come in Philadelphia. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Some Thoughts on the 2012 Election

My memories of Election Night in 2008 all involve exhaustion and joy: listening to the returns while driving back from Ohio, the news getting better and better, while exchanging texts with friends in NYC and around the country and around the world. Making it home in time to see the celebration in Chicago's Grant Park, Democrats assembling to claim their great triumph in the same space where, forty years earlier, they'd torn themselves apart. It was a great ending to an incredibly compelling story, populated with vivid characters and packed with wild plot twists.

But real life can't sustain drama the way fiction can, and is resistant to happy endings because the actual story continues. Even as the country elected Barack Obama and brought the Democrats to the brink of a super-majority in the Senate, marriage equality failed in California and the remaining Republican caucus very quickly showed its determination to block the new president across the board--and it turned out that the economic crisis was far worse than most understood at the time. When Obama actually took office, he faced the same steep learning curve that confronts every new president: I think I once compared it to having the fastest car in the race by far, but not really knowing how to drive. In his first year, he seemed to get things right on substance (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), or on style (his speech in Cairo that spring), but almost never both. The economy first got worse more slowly, then began to improve. The process of passing healthcare reform disappointed literally everybody in real time: Republicans because it was happening at all, liberals because of everything it wasn't (no single-payer, no public option, no clampdown on Big Pharma or other predatory interest groups). Once in office, Obama the graceful and resourceful above-it-all candidate was replaced by a president who evidently was straining and often was, or seemed to be, failing. 

Looking at it from a distance, Obama actually accomplished enough during his first term that he had an argument not only for re-election but a plausible (not inarguable) case for greatness. But, as he himself has acknowledged, he's struggled to articulate that case to an almost shocking degree. With all that in mind, and more to the point the sustained high unemployment and slow growth throughout his first term, Obama certainly could and arguably should have lost his re-election bid last Tuesday.  Yet he not only won a second term, but did so by larger electoral and popular vote margins than almost anybody had predicted. In my opinion, this outcome was due to a failure of Republican strategy and a triumph of Democratic tactics. 

The tactical piece is pretty straightforward: in terms of infrastructure and technology, the president's re-election campaign is probably the best anyone's ever seen. What happened last Tuesday was the culmination of eight years of work to determine what the electorate might be, and how to ensure that it would be. The Democrats now have a decisive advantage in electioneering theory and practice. Some of this might be specific to Obama, but I wouldn't count on it: whatever enthusiasm the next Democratic presidential nominee might lose among African-Americans or the most highly educated urbanites with PhDs, he or she likely would recoup among women or blue-collar white men or other groups. The targeting and GOTV methodologies will persist and if anything might get stronger. 

The strategic failure of the Republicans is a bit more complicated, but it starts with their four-year effort to shift blame for everything wrong in the country to the president. History began for them on the day of Obama's inauguration; there was occasional grudging acknowledgement that the president inherited a challenging situation, but no evident self-reflection about either why they lost so badly in 2006 and 2008, or why and how the policies they'd been able to put in place through the Bush years had led to such a signal disaster. There was no admission of error and thus no profession of what they'd do differently; without that, their only path was an attempt to convince the country to blame the black guy with the weird name. Inside the echo chamber, it worked perfectly, probably because they so desperately wanted it--a common theme on the right, consistent with the magical thinking that brought us "we'll be greeted as liberators," "deficits don't matter," "this government does not torture," and indeed that they would win the election itself, possibly in a blowout.

But outside, few were buying. Hence an election where most of the country felt like we are on the "wrong track", yet so distrusted the party out of power that they voted to retain the current president. 

I think the Republicans have a deeper problem, though, a core incoherence in their message that will severely limit their electoral potential until they resolve it. I've written here before about Philip Bobbitt's book, The Shield of Achilles, which charts the evolution of the State through the last five hundred years and posits that we are moving toward a "market-state" in which individual autonomy and well-being, rather than that of the collective, is the explicit goal of government. I believe this is correct, though the pace and manner of the transition from the old nation-state to the emerging market-state obviously is very much in question. 

Given that the Democrats were the guiding party of the nation-state in its full flowering--leading the U.S. to victory in two World Wars, creating the regulatory structure and social insurance framework of the New Deal and Great Society that did so much to provide for the common good, and leading the gradual push for greater social inclusion and expansion of the national community--it would make sense for the Republicans to hold an advantage in this transition. Under Goldwater and Buckley and Reagan, they began to articulate a very compelling critique of the flaws and limitations of the nation-state as defined and administered by the Democrats, arguably helping to hasten the arrival of the "market-state."

But somewhere along the line, they lost the plot: concern about the pace of social change devolved into flat-out resistance to social change, and sensitivity to the displacement caused by deregulation and the dismantling of the welfare state mutated into a smug and arrogant certitude that the winners and losers in an unfettered market were defined by morality rather than circumstance. They went from making an argument to assuming that the rightness of the argument was so blindingly obvious that anyone who didn't see it was an idiot, a traitor, or both. (While I can claim honestly to have come up with this analysis on my ownsome, David Frum makes these points exceptionally well in his election post-mortem.) 

To put it simply, the Republicans as a group are too far ahead on economics--ready to embrace the full "You're On Your Own" worldview, and damn the consequences--and too far behind (and going backwards) on social issues. By contrast, the Democrats are probably in exactly the right place on social issues, and seem to be moving more or less with the tide on economics: interested in reforming the structures of the regulatory state and social insurance programs while remaining committed, at least for the time being, to sustaining them. 

The Republicans' schizophrenia could be papered over so long as they were winning: David Koch isn't a homophobe (the opposite, in fact; he's consistent in his libertarian views), and Mike Huckabee isn't a fanatical deregulator, but each was willing to support the other because their objectives weren't in direct conflict. But unless they can put Humpty-Dumpty back together, there's no real reason for libertarian billionaires and populist social reactionaries to remain clustered within one political faction. How this cleavage plays out over the next few years might be the most interesting story in American politics. 

The role of Fox News is another fascinating aspect here. Some have said for awhile that ratings and profits at Fox rise when Republican political fortunes fall:

Unfortunately for Republicans and fortunately for Roger Ailes, a feedback loop has been created: As disaffected conservatives turn increasingly to Fox News, Fox News caters its programming to keep them coming back, turning, for instance, the Tea Parties into a daylong televised festival of rage. But given Fox's well-earned brand identification with the Republican Party, and vice versa, that programming serves to promote a view of Republicans as angry white people who hate Puerto Rican judges. Which turns off independent voters, which further isolates the diehard rejectionist wing of the party, which increases the importance of Fox News in their lives as a reassuring voice telling them to be strong in the face of the barbarian hordes—or, as Glenn Beck puts it, "We surround them." 
The more viewers Fox attracts, the more voters the GOP repels. And the more voters the GOP repels, the more viewers Fox attracts. The most important part of the dynamic is that Fox News has no interest in doing anything other than attracting viewers. It will continue to ride this wave of anger and resentment irrespective of what impact it has on the Republican Party until it stops making them money.
But Ailes surely wants to win elections as well as ratings. And he's smart enough to understand that continuous catering to a worldview increasingly out of touch with majority opinion and objective facts will only lead to more head-on, full-speed collisions with reality of the kind his audience (and his on-air talent!) suffered Tuesday night. If and how Fox attempts to bring its audience along to a set of positions that won't fatally handicap its candidates for national office will be fascinating to watch as well. 

There's been a great deal of demographic analysis regarding the election results. Maureen Dowd had one of her occasional truly insightful columns about this today, noting that Romney won big among the group he most assiduously courted: middle-aged and older white men. This has led many to note that "if these trends continue," Republicans are doomed indefinitely. This is both true and entirely irrelevant:  the nature of democracy is that parties evolve to remain competitive. It's ironic in a deeply satisfying way that the Republicans, who endlessly claim to be the Party of Business, recently have failed to embrace this signal truth of market capitalism. But they'll get there--the debate already has some strong entries--and that's something that all of us should welcome. 

For now, those of us who were determined to see them beaten back this time can take great satisfaction in last week's results. Not only Obama's victory, but the election of numerous strong progressives to the Senate and, best of all in my opinion, wins on all four marriage-equality votes at the state level should hearten progressives and, hopefully, spark a revival among honorable libertarian conservatives at the expense of the right-wing radicals who've hijacked their party. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Empires


Some news from the world of entertainment:
The Walt Disney Company, in a move that gives it a commanding position in the world of fantasy movies, said Tuesday it had agreed to acquire Lucasfilm from its founder, George Lucas, for $4.05 billion in stock and cash. 
The sale provides a corporate home for a private company that grew from Mr. Lucas’s hugely successful “Star Wars” movie series, and became an enduring force in the creation of effects-driven science fiction entertainment for large and small screens. Mr. Lucas, who is 68 years old, had already announced he would step down from day-to-day operation of the company.... 
In a hastily convened conference call with investors late Tuesday, Mr. Iger said Disney planned to revive the Star Wars franchise and release a seventh feature film in the series in 2015, with new films coming every two or three years thereafter. Mr. Lucas will be a consultant on the film projects, Mr. Iger said.... 
Jay Rasulo, the company’s chief financial officer, said Disney’s financial calculations in agreeing to purchase Lucasfilm were driven almost entirely by the potential of the “Star Wars” series, which already has a place in the Disney theme parks. Lynne Hale, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lucas, said he was on a flight back to San Francisco from Los Angeles and could not immediately be reached. “It’s now time for me to pass ‘Star Wars’ on to a new generation of filmmakers,” Mr. Lucas said in a statement.
Honestly, the truth is the best time for that was probably about 15 or 20 years ago. But here we are.

My initial reaction to this news was that it was as if Lucas, having dug up a much loved corpse and drawn a mustache on it and put it in a silly costume before re-interring it, decided to let a bunch of goons pay him money to dig it up again for some group necrophilia. But on reflection, I agree with the emerging consensus that Disney probably will do a good, or good-enough, job with the Star Wars franchise, just as they seem to be doing with their Marvel properties. One friend suggests that they'll let a dozen of the best filmmakers of our generation fight it out to tell great Star Wars stories; another predicts that we'll all go through a cycle of overexcitement and disappointment as news leaks through the production cycle, before the first movie finally comes out and we all agree that it's better than the prequels though obviously not close to the original trilogy. 

I agree with that, and I can't imagine that I won't see the films. But I still wish they'd left it to rest. Maybe it's the incredible disappointment I felt with Episode I in particular, after waiting 16 years for that moment of the lights going dark and the Lucasfilm logo and the 20th Century Fox fanfare to sound; maybe it's just impending and inevitable grumpy-old-man-ness. Yet the sense, irrational but undeniable, is that something is lost every time they go back to this particular well. 

I've always said that Star Wars--the original trilogy--was the single best thing about growing up when I did. For all his flaws as an artist, Lucas succeeded completely in his goal of creating mythology for a new generation, and I don't doubt that those films influenced me in ways I couldn't possibly understand. I know that making more doesn't, can't, diminish the power of the first three; they remain fixed in memory (even if Lucas can't stop futzing with them in various infuriating ways), and nothing can change that my mom's greatest act of parenting through the first 39-odd years of my life was those four straight Wednesdays in 1977 when she took me to matinee showings of Star Wars. 

I guess a generous gloss on what I'm saying here is that it would be nice for younger generations to have their own cultural touchstones, and for entertainment conglomerates to show more faith that the artists of today can bring them into being. A related point might be that the endless perpetuation of franchises must exert some kind of creative opportunity cost, in terms of what else those great filmmakers might have worked on. It's also clear that Star Wars was always, in addition to much else, a franchise; from the start, Lucas had ideas about how to perpetuate the series in various media, including print. But there's a difference between knowing this on an intellectual level and being faced with it for, quite possibly, the remainder of my life and beyond. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Big Split Scenario

Everyone seems increasingly worried about an election resolution in which President Obama wins in the electoral college, and thus secures a second term, while losing the popular vote. Notwithstanding the possible implications for electoral reform--the option I think I'd like to see is adding an electoral vote  bonus for winning the popular vote--and putting aside the fact that I clearly am hoping for the president to be returned to office anyway, I decided I'm fine with this, should it come to pass. Here's why.

In 2008, Obama won the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton in a somewhat similar way. His campaign organized the hell out of early caucus states, which generally saw turnout of fewer registered Democrats, claimed a disproportionate share of delegates and built up a large lead. That lead held even when Hillary beat him soundly in primary states, in part because you did better, delegate-wise, by losing 55 percent to 45 percent in California or Texas with a few million Democrats voting, than losing 70-30 in North Dakota caucuses. (I'm pulling these numbers and states at random, but pretty sure the argument holds.) Obama won enough primaries to have an argument for popular legitimacy among registered Democrats who cast votes that winter and spring, but he and his team built their strategy to win the contest according to the rules clearly set forth by the Party.

Same deal here. Barring something crazy happening, Obama won't come close to his popular vote margin from four years ago because in pretty much every large safe Democratic state--New York, California, probably Illinois--his percentage win will be much smaller as disaffected or lazy Democrats rightly conclude their votes aren't "needed," and will stay home. (The same is true of Republicans in safe red states, but other than Texas there just aren't very many big ones--plus I suspect that there's more impetus to vote out an incumbent, even in a state you know will go that way, than to return one.)

Knowing that 270 electoral votes, not 50.1 percent of ballots cast, is what matters, the Obama campaign has thrown everything in the small number of states where the outcome is in question. It logically follows that turnout will be higher in those states than in the noncompetitive ones. Were the rules different--if popular vote was the determinant--the campaign (both campaigns) would look to run up their margins in the large safe states, and given what we know about the efficacy of their Obama campaign, they'd probably be able to do so. In the scenario we're considering, it can and would be argued, plausibly, that millions of non-voters favored the president; were they "needed," he probably could have had most of them. (Again, this is also true for Romney and the Republicans, but there seem to be fewer of them.)

Obama's team matches its strategy to the rules of the game. The resentment that will attach to him and the Democratic campaign apparatus if he wins the electoral college while receiving fewer votes would be more properly directed toward the Founders.

There's a second component to my thinking here, less important but probably worth noting. If Romney does get a popular vote majority while losing the electoral college, my strong guess is that it will be closer to the half-million votes of Al Gore's plurality in 2000 than the two and a half million vote advantage George W. Bush had in 2004. Bush in 2001 was a minority president, but just barely. (The problem I and, I think, millions of other Democrats had with the outcome in 2000 wasn't so much that Bush lost the popular vote, but that we think he really lost Florida under a fair count, which never actually happened.) Had 50,000 Ohio votes switched in 2004, John Kerry would have won the presidency despite a much larger popular disadvantage.

As Josh Marshall and others have noted, concerns that Obama would "lack legitimacy" in the eyes of Republicans if he won a second term despite losing the popular vote are risible mostly because they didn't grant his legitimacy even when he won big in 2008. ("ACORN stole it for him!") Given everything at stake in this election--whether we'll retain the near-complete social safety net reinforced with Obamacare, whether we'll continue moving toward full equality based on sexual orientation, whether we get back on a path toward fiscal sanity through devastating cuts alone or a blend of spending reductions and tax adjustments--it's tempting to say that an Obama win in any form is acceptable. But the inevitable efforts to deny his win if he draws fewer popular votes are specious anyway, and should draw no response other than "don't hate the player, hate the game."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Alternate Universe 2012 Election

I was thinking this evening about recent elections and started speculating about how things might have unfolded had John Kerry had beaten George W. Bush in 2004.

I'm pretty sure that Kerry would have been a one-termer in this scenario. The economic bubble was a bipartisan creation, and my sense is it still would have popped around 2008 leading to a financial crash and subsequent economic downturn of more or less the same magnitude. This almost certainly would have sunk Kerry in his re-election effort... though it likely wouldn't have unfolded until well after the Republicans had chosen a nominee to oppose him.

But I don't think John McCain would have been the beneficiary. McCain came reasonably close to running with Kerry in 2004; I can't imagine he would have turned around and run against his friend four years later. In fact, I'm not sure he wouldn't have joined Kerry's administration as Secretary of Defense or something. So you would have had a different Republican nominee in 2008, running against a charisma-deficient incumbent who'd barely won four years earlier (and might well have been a popular vote loser: a switch of 50,000 votes in Ohio would have gotten Kerry the White House even though he was down a couple million votes nationally), burdened by the economy having crashed on his watch.

Presumably we would have had the same set of Republicans running in 2008 as we actually did, minus McCain (who, lest we forget, was far from an inevitable nominee: he almost dropped out in the summer of 2007, and benefitted from the demolition derby of Huckabee, Romney, Giuliani and Thompson through the early set of primaries). So the nominee likely would have been either Huckabee or Romney, the runners-up to McCain, and that guy would have gone on to beat Kerry, quite possibly in a landslide. (An interesting scenario would have been W. looking for a rematch in 2008, but I don't think he would have been nominated again after losing.)

But then what? I don't doubt the Republicans would have done some stimulus, as Obama did--but given their ideological disinclination toward Keynesian policy solutions and tax cut fetish, likely it would have been smaller and even more tilted toward the cuts which were the least effective component of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. So the response very likely wouldn't have been effective, and the Republicans probably would have had a harder time blaming Kerry than the Democrats have on Bush--because you would have had a one-term Democratic president and likely continued Republican control of Congress this whole time. Kerry likely would have interpreted his victory as a mandate to draw down more quickly in Iraq, taking that issue off the table and likely ensuring that control of Congress never flipped in 2006.  (It's very possible that the Democrats would have taken control in 2010, creating a political dynamic in alt-2012 similar to that in real-world 2008.)

Since the incumbent, John Kerry, would have had the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, the actual '08 contest would have been pushed back four years. Romney or Huckabee (Romnuckabee!) is running against one of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards, the former Vice-President in this scenario who's likely tainted by his prominence in the failed Kerry administration in addition to whatever else he might have gotten up to over the eight years.

My guess is that in this alternate if-Kerry-won-in-'04 universe, Hillary would have been the 2012 nominee. Part of why Obama won in real-2008 was his newness and fatigue with sixteen years of Clinton/Bush; neither factor would have been as strong in a world where he was in his second Senate term and no Clinton or Bush had been in the presidency for eight years. But I do think he would have run, and likely would have come the closest to unseating Hillary--enough to have been asked to join the ticket. He's still just 51, with plenty of time to run in his own right in 2020 or 2024 backed by whatever the Clinton political machine looks like at that point and boasting executive branch experience. So we'd be looking at an election in six weeks' time that would see a Clinton/Obama ticket take the presidency, likely with a mandate to implement fairly strong economic policies.

Needless to say, there are a ton of unknowables in this scenario: how Kerry would have done in disentangling us from the mideast wars, whether the Republican president might have gotten us into new wars between 2008 and 2012 (given his comments this year, the thought of Romney in office during the Green Revolution and Arab Spring is unsettling to say the least), how the Supreme Court might have evolved with Kerry rather than Bush replacing Rehnquist and Souter, and Romnuckabee rather than Obama replacing O'Connor and Stevens... or for that matter whether the ones who are still alive would have left with a president of the other party in office. But it's an interesting line of speculation, to me at least.