Friday, December 31, 2004

Opportunity Knocks; Anyone Home?
Is the Democratic Party just taking the week off, or does their silence in the face of this week's repeated opportunities to make political hay a depressing harbinger of rollovers to come in the new year?

Consider three items from this week's headlines: the proposed rules changes in the House seemingly designed just to protect Tom DeLay and other apostles of corruption, the Bush administration's almost transparent indifference to the horrible suffering in Asia as a result of the tsunami, and the proposed "fuck the blue states" change to the tax code that would cut or eliminate taxpayers' ability to deduct state and local taxes from their federal payments.

All three of these stories could easily be woven into a compelling narrative about Republican governance: protecting the crooks and facilitating special interest governance, neglecting those in need despite pious rhetoric about "compassion," and using the power of government to settle political scores rather than enact policies of real utilitarian value. Instead, we have good government advocates speaking out against the proposed rules changes, and the New York Times making the case about Bush administration parsimony in disaster relief. Only on the third issue, the tax change, are Democrats prominent in the pushback effort, and even there it seems to be more of a regional thing than a partisan-based response. Never mind the principle under attack here, which theoretically should appeal to Republicans: that local and state priorities are as more important than that of Washington, DC. As a New Yorker, I'd much rather pay for fire services, sanitation, or need-based college aid for my neighbors than for missile defense, corporate welfare, or "faith-based" social services that don't work.

These issues--plus the proposed "deform" of Social Security, the likely great fight of 2005--all offer Democrats fertile terrain to start making a positive case to the country about how they would lead. There's a need for both good communications practices--coordinated messaging--and a unifying theme to weave these items into a larger vision. Let's hope that the party will become a true opposition in 2005; with Republican arrogance and avarice firmly ensconced, I suspect these opportunities will keep arising, but unless the Democrats start to seize them, this won't be much consolation in the face of the damage that will be done.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Losses
I've always looked askance at people who show conspicuous emotion at the deaths of strangers. The international outpouring of ostentacious grief at the passing of Princess Diana in 1997 disgusted me, and the to-do over those who become famous as a result of gruesome death--Laci Peterson, JonBenet Ramsey types--is even more repulsive, as there's no question but that nobody outside their circle of acquaintance had strong feelings about those people either way before they left this world.

That said, two unexpected deaths of famous individuals are on my mind tonight. The journalist and activist Jack Newfield passed away last Monday night of cancer at age 66, and former NFL great Reggie White died early this morning. He was just 43.

I met Newfield once, when he did one of the first online chats in NBC's history in 1995 to promote his book about Don King. He had been a hero of mine for years already from his writings about Robert F. Kennedy, and much later I read his classic City for Sale, a devastating expose of corruption in New York during the mayoralty of Ed Koch, with Koch's tacit tolerance if not approval, which Newfield co-wrote with Wayne Barrett. He continued to write riveting articles on poverty, politics and New York City through this year, and his passions for Gotham, reform, and pro sports are all traits that make me feel I knew the man far better than one professional encounter could encompass. While we mourn his loss, we also celebrate his life.

Reggie White isn't quite so clear-cut or easy to talk about. Like most Philadelphia Eagles fans who followed the team in the late 1980s and early '90s, I just flat-out loved watching the man play. His ferocity, courage and leadership were utterly compelling, and he seemed like a great guy off the field--funny, community-minded, generous. On the other hand, White left the Eagles when the NFL players won free agency in 1993--a move I blame less on White than the shabby treatment he received from then-owner Norman Braman, a real prick who was as widely despised in Philadelphia as White was beloved. At least he went to the Packers, an easy team to root for, and led them to a Super Bowl championship in January 1997. And he made his peace with the Eagles organization after Jeff Lurie bought the team from Braman, indicating that if Lurie had been in charge at the time he left, he probably wouldn't have done so.

Of course, White later dimmed his own star with widely reported homophobic remarks to the Wisconsin state legislature, which didn't sit well with me--though considering the widely reported distaste for homosexuality within the evangelical African-American community (a factor some credit for George W. Bush doing much better among African-American voters in Ohio and elsewhere than had been expected), it probably shouldn't have come as a surprise. But the ugly comments somewhat obscured his superb play between the lines.

Newfield died of cancer, which has been all too present in the lives of my family and friends this year. White had a heart condition, possibly related to sleep apnea, which I was diagnosed with a few months ago. I don't think one needs to be of overtly religious bent to note that no day should be taken for granted. Sleep in peace, gentlemen, and thanks for all the good memories.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The American Hybrid
This morning I was flipping around the TV and came across C-SPAN's "Washington Journal." Normally when I do this, it's just in time to hear some belligerent voice, often with a southern drawl, castigate "the libburls" or "the Democrats" for this or that imagined transgression. Today, though, I caught an enraged caller from Illinois blasting the war and, before signing off, reminding the people that "the real terrorist is George W. Bush!"

I was relieved to hear this--not because I necessarily agree with it, and certainly not because I think it's a politically useful stance for Democrats to take, but because it suggests the culture hasn't chilled to the point where we can't even voice dissent. Presumably the caller, after hanging up, went off to work or maybe posted on his blog, in all likelihood without any government oppression resulting from his publicly stated view. In a time when so much else is going wrong, we need to appreciate that this is still something very right in our country.

(I know there are exceptions to this rule, and we have to remain vigilant in defense of personal liberties--but let's face it, just the users of this site have said and written some pretty strong things about the country's current political leadership, myself certainly included, and we've never been physically or legally assaulted for doing so.)

But while freedom of opinion remains more or less intact, the powers that be are taking every action they can to render those dissenting voices irrelevant. How much have you heard or read about what Rep. Conyers is finding in his investigation of fraud and chicanery in Ohio? Outside of the left-leaning blogosphere, probably not much at all. Will any Democrat challenge the electors on January 6? I'm not holding my breath. And if not, we face a political reality pretty close to what's described here:

Suffice to say that the evidence of fraud is compelling, and is accumulating by the day. The statistical evidence is overwhelming, reports of anomalies are almost all one-sided accounts of “errors” favoring Bush, and there is no credible explanation of how Bush gained eight million additional votes over his 2000 total. Still more startling is the failure of the “conventional view” to refute this evidence – other than a couple of early criticisms of marginal issues. Instead, the media response is either no response, or ad hominem attacks on the critics. Note the headlines in the mainstream media: “Vote Fraud Theories, Spread by Blogs, are Quickly Buried.” (New York Times), “Internet buzz on vote fraud is dismissed” (Boston Globe), “Latest Conspiracy Theory – Kerry Won – Hits the Ether” (Washignton Post) “Election paranoia surfaces: conspiracy theorists call results rigged” (Baltimore Sun)... [t]he three private GOP-oriented companies that built and programmed 30% of the voting machines, and that compiled 80% of the vote totals, used secret (“proprietary”) software codes. If these companies did not finagle the totals to assure a Bush victory, then they played it straight out of their own unverifiable public-spirited volition. If they rigged the election, there is no direct paper record or access to the source code to prove the crime. So in answer to the question, “How do we know the reported results were fair and accurate?” the only possible answer from Diebold, ES&S and Sequoia corporations is “Trust us.” Period.

...Suppose now that the election was stolen, that Kerry in fact would have won an honest and accurate election, but that Bush’s corporate allies in the vote-counting business rigged the totals to give Bush the election. Though very few American citizens were aware of it, Bush’s “victory” was fore-ordained, regardless of the will of the voters. A Kerry victory was ruled out at the pre-election get-go. Bush’s electoral defeat at the polls was as unlikely as Josef Stalin’s.

If all this is so, then consider the current posture of the Democratic Party. Clearly, the Democrats will have opted, either deliberately or naively, to play the role of “The Washington Generals” in the next elections and far into the future. They will never retake power, for the private corporations that count our votes with secret software, in collusion with the Republicans, will never allow a transfer of power. The Democrats will instead serve as “window dressing” for this travesty of “democracy.” “Of course we are a democracy,” the new autocrats will tell the American people and the world, “after all, don’t we have an opposition party? And haven’t the American voters repeatedly preferred us Republicans to the Democrats?”

I'm still not ready to embrace the notion that the election was stolen. But the symptomatic behavior the author talks about is real enough: the Democrats repeatedly fail to stand up to Republican bullying, and thus essentially enable all kinds of atrocious behavior--not to mention unilaterally disarm within a political context. We didn't highlight Abu Ghraib, despite the now-revealed reality that the decisions to employ torture were made at the highest level, because Kerry likely feared that he'd be accused of "blaming the troops." We didn't stand up for gay marriage, or even civil unions, on a principled anti-discrimination argument because the "professional election losers" simply hoped that low-income cultural conservatives would vote their pocketbooks, not their Bibles. And now I'm guessing the Democrats won't speak out against the transparent misdeeds of Ohio (and elsewhere) out of fear of again being dubbed sore losers, contemptuous of the electoral majority.

So where does this leave us? I'm not terrified of "overt fascism" in the sense of punishing dissent and filling the jails with political prisoners--because that's bad for business. Even the ideologues on the Republican side probably understand that the First Amendment is a great support for capitalism--the freedom to innovate in the economic sphere would be difficult, maybe impossible to sustain while taking away freedoms of speech, assembly, and press. But they can and are imposing economic consequences for what they might deem the "misuse" of those freedoms: thus we have a corporate media that shies away from too-close examination of electoral fraud, official lies or, for that matter, the truth about Social Security (namely, that there is no "crisis" and the proposed Bush plan is both a giveaway to his finance-industry donors and a mammoth shift of economic risk from the public to the individual and her/his family).

In other words, they won't shut down Josh Marshall or Paul Krugman or any other liberal voice--they'll just build firewalls to ensure that these voices won't get anything close to an equal hearing in the court of public opinion. So the society remains "free", but the playing field tilts ever more against those of us who believe in economic equity and social justice. We're free, but powerless.

Monday, December 20, 2004

More Nuance, Redux
We take a short break from the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth over Terrell Owens' injury to note that the debate within the Democratic Party over the politics of abortion is moving in an interesting direction, as this Boston Globe story points out:

Leading Democrats, stung by election losses, are signaling they want the party to embrace antiabortion voters and candidates, softening the image of the party from one fiercely defensive of abortion rights to one that acknowledges the moral and religious qualms some Americans have about the issue.
...
No prominent Democrat has suggested that the party change its long-held stance that a woman should have the right to an abortion if she chooses. But as Democrats assess what went wrong for them in November, some are urging a "big tent" approach that is more welcoming to those who oppose abortion. Democrats say that attitude might be especially useful with Hispanics, a critical constituency that tends to be Roman Catholic and whose majority support for Democrats has slipped in recent elections.
...
Offering a warmer welcome for antiabortion voices would give Democrats a chance at bringing back voters who might agree with the party on economic and foreign policy issues, but balk at what they perceive is an uncompromising stance on abortion, Democrats said. Republicans, they note, finessed the matter so that the party retained its staunch antiabortion platform, but paraded Republican supporters of abortion rights such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at the GOP convention this summer.

Both camps on the abortion issue claim to hold majority support for their positions; national polls tend to differ based on how the question is phrased. Representative Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat who strongly supports abortion rights, noted that more than a million people thronged the streets of the Capitol earlier this year to demand that abortion be kept legal. But a Zogby poll conducted last year also indicated a red state-blue state divide; 57 percent of voters in states that voted for President Bush in 2000 favored restrictions on abortion or a ban on abortion, while 46 percent of voters in states that favored Democrat Al Gore would approve restrictions or a ban on abortion.

Several of the prominent contenders for the party's national chairmanship are already speaking out in favor of a "big tent" approach, including Howard Dean and Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network in addition to Roemer. It's smart politics and would move the party much closer to the "uncomfortably pro-choice" position that majorities seem to hold (and that I hold). Here's Amy Sullivan at the Washington Monthly blog on the same issue:

...it's long past time for the Democratic Party to realize that they continue to lose voters who aren't one-issue abortion voters but who feel unwelcome in the party because of their beliefs. Rhetoric that verges on being pro-abortion rankles even pro-choice Democrats like me. (For a nice summary of my thoughts, read this excellent piece by Sarah Blustain.) Parents who are uneasy about parental notification laws don't have rocks in their heads--they have to sign permission slips so the school nurse can give their kids Tylenol and they're not wild about the idea of that same kid getting an abortion without their knowledge. I'm not saying Democrats should back down from protecting girls in extraordinary circumstances who need to get abortions on their own. But they don't need to frame the argument in a way that implies that those who disagree with them are stone-age misogynists.

If Democrats can change the perception that they are pro-abortion, they will finally be free to go on the offensive. A majority of Americans believes that abortion shouldn't be illegal, but also shouldn't be completely unrestricted. These are people who just want to see fewer abortions taking place. Guess what? So do most Democrats--that's just not how they talk about it. A Democratic candidate should never find him- or herself arguing about who believes in a phrase like "the culture of life"; they should debate who actually does more to reduce abortion rates.

Of course, abortion rates have gotten higher under George W. Bush after years of decline during Clinton's two terms. But how often was this fact aired during the campaign? I think never.

Salon.com notes darkly that the party "could be asking for a internal civil war on the abortion front," which strikes me as overblown in the extreme: I don't think there are that many abortion-on-demand absolutists, and nobody is talking about even changing the party platform and established position of "safe, legal and rare" abortions; those of us who favor this change just want to see the Democrats acknowledge that people opposed to abortion rights might have some reason for their belief aside from wanting to order women around.

There's much to gain here politically, and little to lose: given the choice between a party that supports abortion rights but doesn't blanket-condemn all those who disagree; a party that opposes abortion rights but doesn't blanket-condemn all those who disagree; and an independent, 100 percent pro-abortion rights party that could never hold any policymaking authority, I would guess that most voters for whom pro-choice is the top priority will stay with the Democrats.

But please, can we get a spokesperson on this issue who isn't named "Slaughter"?
Department of Just Don't Get It
A few hours after I called the subscription department to complain, my Washington Monthly finally arrived. Talk about service!

I got to read some of it at the gym yesterday and found this upsetting nugget in founding editor Charles Peters' regular "Tilting at Windmills" feature:

After the election, two things happened that I found close to heartbreaking. One came at the point in Kerry's concession speech when he said, “I wish I could take each of you in my arms....” There was something so touchingly genuine about him at that moment that I couldn't help wishing that he had shown more of this side of himself during the campaign.

Another was when I read in Newsweek that, when it became clear that the lies in the Swift Boat ads were doing serious damage, Julia Thorne told her daughter Vanessa that she was willing to break her silence about her relationship with John Kerry and speak out publicly against the ads. She knew how Kerry had suffered, that she “had seen the scars on his body and heard him cry out in his nightmares.” But the geniuses that ran the Kerry campaign said not to bother, they were taking care of the matter.

Yeah.

If you didn't catch it last night after the seemingly endless Jaguars-Packers game concluded, the "60 Minutes" interview with Ricky Williams was pretty riveting television. The video is available for free online. Williams himself seems like an interesting guy, with a lot more going on upstairs than many pro athletes (faint praise, perhaps)--I'm sure I'd hate him if he played for my team, but in the abstract I admire his decision to preserve his body and pursue deeper happiness by walking away from the NFL at 27, even if it took the embarrassment of having his marijuana use revealed to push him out.

The interview is really remarkable, though, for reminding all of us what a miserable and mean-spirited prick Mike Wallace is. His contempt for Williams is transparent throughout the conversation, and you can almost see him straining not to call the former Dolphins RB a "long-haired hippie punk" or something similar. The moment when Wallace asks whether Williams has tried any drug "worse" than pot, and Williams responds "sometimes I eat sweets" is classic.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Warning: Bummer Ahead
This Bill Moyers speech is depressing, but well-nigh a must-read.

One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the oval office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington. Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. When ideology and theology couple, their offspring are not always bad but they are always blind. And there is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.

Remember James Watt, President Reagan's first Secretary of the Interior? My favorite online environmental journal, the ever engaging Grist, reminded us recently of how James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, "after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back."

Beltway elites snickered. The press corps didn't know what he was talking about. But James Watt was serious. So were his compatriots out across the country. They are the people who believe the Bible is literally true - one-third of the American electorate, if a recent Gallup poll is accurate. In this past election several million good and decent citizens went to the polls believing in the rapture index. That's right - the rapture index. Google it and you will find that the best-selling books in America today are the twelve volumes of the left-behind series written by the Christian fundamentalist and religious right warrior, Timothy LaHaye. These true believers subscribe to a fantastical theology concocted in the 19th century by a couple of immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them into a narrative that has captivated the imagination of millions of Americans.

Its outline is rather simple, if bizarre (the British writer George Monbiot recently did a brilliant dissection of it and I am indebted to him for adding to my own understanding): once Israel has occupied the rest of its "biblical lands," legions of the anti-Christ will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. As the Jews who have not been converted are burned, the messiah will return for the rapture. True believers will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven, where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts, and frogs during the several years of tribulation that follow.

I'm not making this up. Like Monbiot, I've read the literature. I've reported on these people, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious, and polite as they tell you they feel called to help bring the rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That's why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers. It's why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act, predicted in the Book of Revelation where four angels "which are bound in the great river Euphrates will be released to slay the third part of man." A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed - an essential conflagration on the road to redemption. The last time I Googled it, the rapture index stood at 144 - just one point below the critical threshold when the whole thing will blow, the son of God will return, the righteous will enter heaven, and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire.

I Googled the Rapture Index today after reading this speech last night, and found that it's now at 156. Of course, we're still here; somebody obviously is reading the signs wrong. I guess none of this is "official" or anything, but still.

Why is it that people are so fired up to be living in "End Times"? Whether it was the defeated Puritans of England looking for the apocalypse in 1666 (as detailed in Quicksilver), the Jehovah's Witnesses a couple times since then (as detailed in White Teeth--yes, I know this stuff mostly from recent fiction) or the various Branch Davidians, Jim Jones disciples or millenarian weirdos from five years ago, we all just have this self-importance that the world can't possibly go on beyond when we happen to be here.

Then again, the "Christians" now in power in the U.S. can do much more to make this a self-fulfilling prophesy than any previous fringe-thinking religious group that comes to mind. Which is why you really need to check out the Moyers piece.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Best of the Gym Reading, Volume One
I failed to keep most of my 2004 New Year's resolutions, including the ones about weight loss and, barring some minor miracle in the next two and a half weeks, finishing my novel. The good news, of course, is that I can simply re-make these ere the clock strikes midnight 17 days hence, and I did accomplish some things (career-related, got engaged, etc). Another good life change was that I've gotten into a routine of exercising four to six times a week... which gives you some idea of just how much, and how badly, I eat, having failed to lose weight despite spending about six hours each week in the gym.

What's made this possible, as much as anything, is finding that I don't have sufficient "other" time in my life to read everything I want to read that I come across on daily jaunts through the internet. Thanks to the magic of the stationery bike, I can do this while burning calories. It's been bad news for the City Futures Inc. computer printer, but otherwise a good arrangement for all concerned.

So I will start linking to the best of my gym reading, once a week or so, as entre into various topics of interest and as public service (albeit to a pretty damn limited public). If you've seen anything else that you think I might be interested in but probably missed, please let me know.

  • Marshall Wittman: Back from the Brink. By the author of the Bull Moose blog, a reformed right-winger suggests what comeback-minded Democrats might have to learn from... well, I can't bring myself to name the guy. But this is a worthwhile piece anyway.
  • Ed Kilgore: Reform! Yes, another New Democrat. Put aside his pissing contest with David Sirota (also a worthwhile read, which I linked to in an earlier post) and focus on the political and spiritual benefits of an agenda that includes fixing electoral processes, fighting against out of control gerrymandering that lets officeholders "choose which constituents they want to represent, rather than the other way around," and railing against the universally loathed lobbyists who constitute so much of Washington's permanent ruling class--and who are now mostly Republicans, as the next piece shows.
  • Andrew Ferguson: A Lobbyist's Progress. Forget where it's coming from: this is an astonishing story, told with great skill and style. (I read about this same scandal here in the Texas Observer, and Ferguson's piece blows it away... though I wonder if Lou Dubose's determination to tie Jack Abramoff to Tom DeLay is perhaps echoed in Ferguson's near-total avoidance of DeLay's role. At least he gets in some choice shots at Ralph Reed.) It's also Exhibit A of how the Democrats could--I emphasize "could"--tie dysfunctional policymaking and flat-out lousy human behavior to Republican priorities and, dare I say, "values."
  • Peter Dreier and Kelly Candaele: A Moral Minimum Wage. One of several good recent pieces in the venerable lefty publication (also check out this Micah Sifry article, and the Robert Scheer piece noted below). The authors point out that the minimum wage issue seems to resonate with voters far more than do certain Democratic candidates, and that a broader linkage to economic justice--egads, a "value"!--offers as good a road to electoral renewal for our party as anything else currently in circulation.

Now, I just wonder if the otherwise-estimable Mr. Kilgore, and his DLC compatriot Bruce Reed, are amenable to minimum wage fights, or if their loyalty to the corporate entities they've tried to cultivate goes so far as to turn off millions of folks who are evidently for increasing the wage, but against most Democratic candidates for national office. I honestly don't know the answer to this one, but I'd really like to find out.

Worthy of separate comment is this Robert Scheer article from The Nation, which--finally--fleshes out the Thomas Frank thesis that Republican candidates in many "heartland" states play a simple but devastatingly effective bait-and-switch on low-income, socially conservative voters. Scheer--another one of those Nation columnists with whom I generally agree, but can't stand for his evident humorlessness, finger-wagging, and other stereotypically obnoxious libburl behavior--says what the candidates never say: the "filth" that's purportedly debasing our culture essentially comes from the same corporate folks who benefit so spectacularly from Republican governance. And, of course, it's quite popular in its own right.

If anything is to blame for what appears on our screens it is the free market, a deregulated and hypercompetitive mediascape where a right-wing mega-capitalist like Rupert Murdoch can simultaneously make millions off satires like Married With Children and The Simpsons and a right-wing news channel that wraps itself in the very "God, country, family" tropes that those satires so crassly yet cleverly spoof.

Yet even some liberals have apparently bought the Big Lie, spewed with a vengeance throughout this election year, that a liberal, permissive, secular, coastal culture has perverted the otherwise pristine heartland of our nation. In reality, what we have here is Econ 101: supply and demand. Adam Smith's invisible hand, combined with mass media technology, now allows the best that humanity has to offer to compete with the lowest common denominator. And guess what is winning.
...
The bottom line of capitalism is that if somebody will buy it, somebody will make it. Yet instead of insisting that cultural consumers take personal responsibility for the choices they make--or, better yet, providing new resources for public education and nonprofit media--the professional tsk-tskers feign outrage at the sullying of televised football with Janet Jackson's breast or a naked Desperate Housewife jumping into the arms of an NFL player.

Worse, these national moralists--dominated these days by evangelical Christians--politicize the issue by blaming "liberal Hollywood" for what deregulation and the free market have wrought. Never mind that Arnold Schwarzenegger made all those violent movies, it is the Democrats and their ilk who are corrupting youth by promulgating our "relativistic" morality. But that's just bunk. The real engine at work here, for better or worse, is the profit motive. If this patently obvious point is absent from the complaints of social conservatives, it is because the truth of the matter is inconvenient to their agenda.

If any politician of either party were ever able to boil this down into a usable campaign message, our politics might well be transformed. Of course, the same media culture would probably respond to such audacity by chewing up and spitting out anyone who tried it. But it would be interesting to watch such a gambit play out.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Who Knew?
Outside of state-capital organs like the Albany Times-Union, state-level politics and policymaking is generally ill-covered in the U.S. on the specifics, let alone larger trends and truths. So you might not know that, in terms of policy priorities, the fabled Red/Blue distinction doesn't mean what you think it means in states like Alabama, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, among others. The first two states, deep Red strongholds that neither George Bush nor John Kerry ever regarded as "in play" this year, have Democrat-controlled legislatures; the latter two, both Blue states where Kerry managed to beat back Republican challenges, are run by Republicans. Other states that aren't considered especially competitive in presidential politics but are "split" at the state level, with each party controlling one house, include Kentucky, New York, Oklahoma, and Oregon. Check out the map.

Now, I understand that the presence of (nominally) Democratic legislative majorities in certain Deep South states can be dismissed as historical anachronism, a lagging indicator of the 40-year realignment that kept Al Gore and John Kerry off the scoreboard in the states of the Old Confederacy. And New York, the state I know best, has returned Republican majorities to the state Senate for decades (though the majority shrunk this year, and few expect it to last all that much longer as the state trends more and more Democratic). The same polarizing trend, in reverse, tilted the Georgia legislature to the Republicans this year. Pennsylvania and Michigan are probably best explained by the urban/rural divide, with "cultural conservatives" better spread out across the miles.

But the map suggests a couple questions for Democrats that we might do well to ponder in this latest season of our discontent: why do states that support us in presidential elections cede legislative control to Republicans, and what (if anything) are Democrats doing in Alabama, Arkansas, Montana, Oklahoma, and other unlikely locales to shuck off the "brand problems" that evidently doom all candidates for higher office who run with the "D" after their names?

In the near-desperate search for good news after November 2, many pointed out that Democrat Brian Schweitzer won the governorship in Montana, and that both legislative houses in Colorado went to the Dems as did the Senate seat and a House seat, won by the brothers Salazar. Here's one Colorado Democrat on what happened, emphasizing the importance of local issues. From the other "side", David Sirota's apparently controversial piece in The American Prospect touts the primacy of economic populism. (Yes, I know Sirota also wrote the Monthly piece on Schweitzer.)

I don't know what the answer is, but at the least we'd better start talking through the questions.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Bloodletting
My retreat from the position of semi-principled indifference from partisan-Democratic web destinations and activity that I set out last month accelerated this morning. I responded to a note from Moveon.org calling for members to weigh in on the pending selection of a new Chairman for the Democratic National Committee--following a very combative message from MoveOnPAC head Eli Pariser calling for the ouster of the Democrats' "professional election losers"--with the following note to New York state Dem officials:

In times of crisis, we must look for opportunity. The great political message of 2004 is that we will either reclaim our citizen-led democracy, or drift toward a dysfunctional politics that offers--as Barry Goldwater might have put it--an echo, not a choice. The future of the Democratic Party must be that of reform and utilitarian policy choices, and that means stepping away from the corporatist toadying that has characterized Terry McAuliffe's tenure as DNC Chair.

The divide between "New Democrats" and "activists" is really a false choice: on the matters of greatest importance, from fiscal responsibility to moral, muscular and multilateral foreign policy to cultural pluralism and tolerance, we enjoy broad consensus. The question is how we make the fight: on matters of principle (which also have the advantage of being broadly popular in the country) or with one hand tied behind our back in deference to special interests which will always give more support to the Republicans anyway.

There is much to be gained and little to be lost by rejecting this old approach. Freed from the constraints imposed by special-interest donor constituencies, we can become the "party of ideas" again--and reclaim our mantle of defending the middle class and standing for the best in America.

More and more, I find myself hoping that Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network--supposedly "everybody's second choice"--beats out Howard Dean and the other leading contenders and gets the job. The guy is young, media-savvy, and understands that both "sides" in this intra-party argument have merit. Of course, this is pretty close to my own position: I'm with the New Dems on substance but deplore their occasional corporatism and toadying, and the "Dean wing" (for lack of a better term) compels me on style but seems strategically wanting. We need them both if we're ever going to get back any kind of power to make policy.

Josh Marshall, as usual, puts it much better still, describing the trap of lazy thinking that seems to have ensnared so many of the DLC haters in evidence at sites like Daily Kos:
The thinking goes that those behind the "corporate/DLC agenda" are simply closet Republicans, whose aim is to put a Democratic label on Republican policies or kow-tow and make nice to Republicans so much that the Democratic party becomes even more impotent and enfeebled than it already is. Whether these points are true or not, their model for successfully winning elections has been endlessly discredited and in any case all they're really about is serially abandoning the various groups that make up the Democratic party. And what right do they have to screw, or sell-out, of $%#& blacks or unions or the poor or gays or the environment, when these guys aren't even real Democrats anyway?

...I can see kernels of truth in the caricature. But this is a highly misleading portrayal of who almost all of these people are. And the caricature is sustained by a lot of people who only know what these folks are about from left-leaning anti-DLC polemics -- though I would say the DLC folks come in for a good deal of criticism for that being the case.

So before everyone goes off half-cocked, with misleading slogans and impressions, trying to purge this or that wing of the party, I would say, find out a bit more about the groups you're talking about. There are plenty of real differences to argue about without getting into shouting matches with folks who might agree with you about more than you imagine.

I've been meaning to update the links on the left side of the blog for awhile now, and the revised list will include NDN's site as well as "New Donkey," the blog of the DLC policy director Ed Kilgore. It might be that I like these guys--as well as the invaluable Bull Moose--because they seem more independent-minded and less predictable than the leading voices on the Kossite side of the party... though, to keep a little balance, I'll probably be adding Wolcott and Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly--unquestionably the best policy/politics magazine in the country, even if their subscription services suck ass (still waiting for my December issue, fellas), as well.

I also hope to convene a mini-version of this debate at the end of this month or in January with the "What is to be Done" conference here in NYC, already postponed a couple times because of sibling illness, unforeseen betrothal and inclement weather. Less bloodletting, more good thinking with good friends.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Winter Ball
As the Democratic Party continues its months-long process of overreaction and navel lint review, I figured this might be a good time to get back to the other ostensible major subject of this blog. The Phillies have been busy early Xmas shoppers this past week, making a trade for outfielder Kenny Lofton last Friday; re-signing two veteran role players, catcher Todd Pratt and reliever Rheal Cormier; and then adding former Yankees starter Jon Lieber to their rotation. They also offered salary arbitration to infielder Placido Polanco (and, ugh, Doug Glanville), and cut ties with starting pitchers Eric Milton and Kevin Millwood by declining to offer them arbitration.

I'm never particularly jazzed when the team makes a bunch of moves that has the combined effect of getting older, and Pratt, Cormier and Lofton will all be 38 next season while Lieber turns 35 just before Opening Day. But, taken one at a time, all these moves--aside from the team's puzzling and infuriating obsession with Glanville's dazzling smile, quick wit, and utterly craptacular game--make some sense and probably help for next season.

Adding Lieber is the most significant action. He's neither a proven ace like Oakland's Tim Hudson, a rumored trade target, nor an ace-level talent like Matt Clement or Odalis Perez, two other free agent possibilities. But the guy eats innings (480-plus innings and 11 complete games with the Cubs in 2001-2002, and an average of better than 6 IP per start with the Yanks last year), and doesn't give up walks (second-best ratio per 9 IP in MLB last year, I believe). In his second year back from the Tommy John surgery that kept him out for all of 2003, he should be even stronger, and his contract is quite reasonable for this year ($5.25 million) and not so bad in the two following years at around $7 million per. Philosophically, I'm pleased to see Ed Wade not running away from last season's rotation model--find five guys who perform like #2 or #3 starters rather than an ace and a bunch of question marks--just because single-occurence (hopefully!) injuries and Larry Bowa's incompetence torpedoed the concept in 2004. Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers are all pretty good bets to improve next year, and the team even has some depth now with Ryan Madson in the bullpen and Gavin Floyd starting the season at AAA.

I'm not quite as happy with the Lofton move, which sent setup reliever Felix Rodriguez to the Yankees, but it could prove to be a cost-effective solution to another fairly significant problem. Lofton wasn't great in 2004, but over the last three years he's still hit right-handed pitching fairly well. If Charlie Manuel uses lefty-mashing Jason Michaels as the right-handed half of a platoon with Lofton, it's reasonable to expect the Phils to get decent production from centerfield at a cost of below $4 million (less if you factor in the $1.5 million New York sent back with Lofton in the trade). If he tanks, it's only a one-year deal and either way, hopefully the team is that much closer to having one of its three centerfield prospects--Chris Roberson, Michael Bourn, and Greg Golson--ready to take over.

The Pratt and Cormier re-signings are what they are; both should be fine in the roles they're given, and neither is unduly burdensome from a cost standpoint (though two years with an option, at just under $6 million total, seems a lot for a 38 year-old reliever). That leaves the Polanco arbitration offer. I'm liking this, too, because it shows that Wade is more comfortable with risk than I would have thought: clearly, the team wants Polanco to sign elsewhere, so it can recoup the draft pick it forfeit to sign Lieber. Since Polanco wouldn't start in Philadelphia next year, and would surely prefer a multi-year deal for more guaranteed money and a starting job elsewhere than the $5 million or so he'd make as a "super-sub" with the Phillies, it's not likely that he'll take the arbitration unless his market proves non-existant. Given his versatility, strong defense and very solid offensive production the last two years, I think he'll get an offer and some team (St. Louis?) will consent to giving up its draft pick. If the Phils do get "stuck" with him, though, that's not so bad either: Polanco would make a great platoon partner for 2b Chase Utley, and a useful caddy for creaky 3b David Bell. Finally, even if a team doesn't choose to give up its draft pick for Polanco, it still might want to trade for him come springtime or summer--giving the Phils a good bargaing chip for injury replacement or other as-yet unforeseen need.

Given that the Yankees are evidently close to finalizing something with Eric Milton, I might have offered Milton arbitration as well and hoped to collect another supplemental draft pick. But, strange as it is to say, Ed Wade had a pretty good week for himself. Let the countdown to Spring Training begin...

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Political Mischief
I was thinking this morning about what the Republicans might do if they found themselves in the position the Democrats now face: out of power, totally marginalized in terms of federal policymaking, utterly detested by a large segment of the electorate and the media. The answer, of course: mischief!

I don't just mean TP'ing the Senate majority leader's office, replacing the donuts in the Repub House caucus with Play-Doh, or that kind of thing: I mean taking the policies and worldview of the majority to their logical conclusions through legislative proposals, and forcing them into choices between hypocrisy and irrationality.

Example: One of the preferred Republican rationales for their tax cuts is the simple and politically effective slogan, "It's Your Money." Indeed--so why not give taxpayers some "ownership" of what their government does by letting them choose what their tax dollars can and can't be spent on?

Yes, there are all sorts of administrative nightmares involved in this, and it's probably unworkable in practice. But wouldn't it be nice to see the other side have to resort to the process argument for a change? It would also probably appeal to a lot of right-wing voters who could explicitly forbid their taxes to go toward abortion, stem-cell research, foreign aid... or corporate welfare. And of course it empowers the "Blue states" that pay more into the federal till than we get back in services. Done right, this could be one of the few levers of control available to us.

Newt Gingrich's movement came to power with pranks of this stripe. The press loved the unconventional thinking, and they didn't really pay a price for their failure to pass any significant reforms. With the country likely to go to hell anyway over the next few years, we may as well have some fun watching the bad guys sweat a little.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

GbV, RIP
Last night I saw Guided by Voices at Irving Plaza, on the first night of their last-ever trip to New York City. It was, in a word, sublime--one of the best shows I've ever seen, and easily the finest of the seven or eight times I've seen GbV over the last ten years. The set featured probably two dozen chestnuts from deep in the back catalogue--B-sides from forgotten 12-inch releases, outtakes from the early 1990s, songs from the days when the band would only press 500 copies of their records because nobody else was interested, or even aware of them. By last night, every track had singers-along, ecstatic obscurists, feeling like their love for this band was somehow validated by five guys who, clearly, are first and foremost fans themselves. It was as if they'd programmed their entire catalogue--a matter of hundreds and hundreds of songs from the incredibly prolific Robert Pollard--into a collective iTunes, and the god of random song selection was munificent indeed...

Few bands have ever built, much less maintained, the sort of close, almost co-dependent relationship Guided by Voices has with its fans. Maybe this is because they never got too big--certainly not big enough to alienate the true believers and draw in the casual fans in large numbers, as happened with U2 and REM and some of the other groups I loved as a wee lad in suburban Philadelphia almost 20 years ago. They did get big enough to easily sell out venues like Irving Plaza, and raised a flag for the "low-fi" and indie rock movements with, I'd guess, a few hundred thousand avid fans around the world. But I doubt too many teenagers or pop-radio listeners are counted among them: at the show last night I probably was among the younger half of the audience, which doesn't happen too often at age 31.

Great rock music has a sort of unique ability to be both intensely personal and enhanced by its being shared: think of Springsteen, Dylan, the Who, U2, the Velvet Underground, probably any band with a fanatical core following regardless of how big they eventually got. GbV had this in spades, with dozens of songs that root the listener (or at least this listener) to one moment or period in his life while remaining immediate in the here and now. In the case of Guided by Voices, there's something else too: as I said to Annie during one of the songs last night, in some better, alternative universe they really would be the most famous and popular band in the world. It's as if they took the direction music was headed in the late 1960s, when brilliant and passionate songwriting was rewarded with commercial success, and projected it forward three or four decades. Songs like "My Impression Now"--the featured track on a barely-noticed EP from 1993 titled "Fast Japanese Spin Cycle"--have more hooks and charm and power than anything the average corporate rock band could come up with in 20 years of effort.

All that said, I am somewhat glad they're hanging it up. Pollard is 47, and though he's still manifestly able to play for three hours, pounding beers and harder stuff all the while, jumping around stage and swinging his mic like Roger Daltrey on speed, he recognizes that it's best to end the band at the top of its game rather than coasting on past accomplishments into a long period of decline, simulating rock for a paycheck. GbV's final album, "Half Smiles of the Decomposed," is probably their best effort since the mid-90s, when they seemed to crank out a classic every year, and it was fitting that last night's marathon show featured both a half-dozen songs from that last release and, I think, six or seven from the band's 1994 masterpiece, "Bee Thousand."

Here's wishing a Drinker's Peace, and many more fruitful years of music, to Bob and his band.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Misinformation, Please
Two articles I read yesterday further support my fear that the long-blurred line between news and "infotainment" is now gone, and that this will lead to severe consequences when the proverbial ca-ca hits the proverbial fan.

First is this Frank Rich piece from the Times, which both slams the pandering of the major networks' news divisions to the perceived New Realities of American politics and culture (which, of course, the nets have some power to make into a self-fulfilling prophesy) and points out the very real risks associated with the journalistic ethos of "no bad news":

There's a war on. TV remains by far the most prevalent source of news for Americans. We need honest information to help us navigate, not bunkum skewed to flatter one segment of the country, whatever that segment might be. Yet here's how Jeff Zucker, the NBC president, summed up the attributes of Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw's successor, to Peter Johnson of USA Today: "No one understands this Nascar nation more than Brian." Mr. Zucker was in sync with his boss, Bob Wright, the NBC Universal chairman, who described America as a "red state world" on the eve of Mr. Brokaw's retirement. Though it may come as news to those running NBC, we actually live in a red-and-blue-state country, in a world that increasingly hates all our states without regard to our provincial obsession with their hues. Nonetheless, Mr. Williams, who officially took over as anchor on Dec. 2, is seeking a very specific mandate. "The New York-Washington axis can be a journalist's worst enemy," he told Mr. Johnson, promising to spend his nights in the field in "Dayton and Toledo and Cincinnati and Denver and the middle of Kansas." (So much for San Francisco - or Baghdad.)
...
Kevin Sites, the freelance TV cameraman who caught a marine shooting an apparently unarmed Iraqi prisoner in a mosque, is one such blogger. Mr. Sites is an embedded journalist currently in the employ of NBC News. To NBC's credit, it ran Mr. Sites's mid-November report, on a newscast in which Mr. Williams was then subbing for Mr. Brokaw, and handled it in exemplary fashion. Mr. Sites avoided any snap judgment pending the Marines' own investigation of the shooting, cautioning that a war zone is "rife with uncertainty and confusion." But loud voices in red America, especially on blogs, wanted him silenced anyway. On right-wing sites like freerepublic.com Mr. Sites was branded an "anti-war activist" (which he is not), a traitor and an "enemy combatant." Mr. Sites's own blog, touted by Mr. Williams on the air, was full of messages from the relatives of marines profusely thanking the cameraman for bringing them news of their sons in Iraq. That communal message board has since been shut down because of the death threats by other Americans against Mr. Sites.
...
...the networks were often cautious about challenging government propaganda even before the election. (Follow-ups to the original Abu Ghraib story quickly fell off TV's radar screen.) As far back as last spring Ted Koppel's roll-call of the American dead on "Nightline," in which the only images were beatific headshots, was condemned as a shocking breach of decorum by the mostly red-state ABC affiliates that refused to broadcast it. If full-scale Nascarization is what's coming next, there will soon be no pictures but those promising a mission accomplished, no news but good news. And that's good news only if you believe America has something to gain by fighting a war in the dark.

As if to provide a more concrete and sustained example of what Rich is talking about, here is Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books, discussing major-media coverage of Iraq in the months before the election. Two major, interrelated problems dominate here: the universal reluctance of media outlets to be seen as "politicizing" their coverage, and the government's insistence upon--and stunning success with--managing access to key elements of "the story."
"At the moment, there's real sensitivity about the perceived political nature of every story coming out of Iraq," a Baghdad correspondent for a large US paper told me in mid-October. "Every story from Iraq is by definition an assessment as to whether things are going well or badly." In reality, he said, the situation in Iraq was a "catastrophe," a view "almost unanimously" shared by his colleagues. But, he added, "editors are hypersensitive about not wanting to appear to be coming down on one side or the other."

Allawi's visit to the United States was part of an intensive campaign by the Bush administration to manage the flow of news out of Iraq. As a matter of policy, any journalist wanting to visit the Green Zone, that vast swath of Baghdad that is home to US officialdom, had to be escorted at all times; one could not simply wander around and chat with people in bars and caf├ęs. The vast world of civilian contractors—of Halliburton's Kellogg, Brown & Root, of Bechtel, and of all the other private companies responsible for rebuilding Iraq—was completely off-limits; employees of these companies were informed that they would be fired if they were caught talking to the press. During the days of the Coalition Provisional Authority, its administrator, L. Paul Bremer, and the top military commander, Ricardo Sanchez, gave very few interviews to US correspondents in Baghdad. They did, however, speak often via satellite with small newspapers and local TV stations, which were seen as more open and sympathetic.

Massing's piece is important in that it presents the real question of just how much (or how little) voters understood about the situation in Iraq before Nov. 2. I doubt that most knew, for instance, that insurgent attacks had risen from an average of 50 a day to 70 after the "transition of power" back in June--or that they have more recently increased to about 100 per day, all over the country. And his accounts of the day-to-day interactions between American soldiers--young men and women with virtually no Arab-language skills and wholly insufficient cultural understanding, in a hostile environment and fearing for their lives--and Iraqi civilians are both heartbreaking and illuminative of why we have so little chance to successfully conclude this war.

But what I find worrisome about both these pieces has little to do with the specifics facts they cite. I fear that the trend away from substantive analysis, and toward politically "sensitive" coverage (by which I mean sensitive to fear of government reprisal for unflattering reportage), bodes ill for what will happen when things go south: a Tet-like series of attacks in Iraq, the sharp economic downturn I think is coming (see posts below), or, God forbid, another terrorist attack on the United States. The government--the same folks who have spent us into a deep hole, charged blindly into Iraq, and thoroughly politicized homeland defense--might not be called to account for its failures. Instead, there will be scapegoating, in the grand tradition of all autocratic regimes. As a people, we might be watching the erosion of our own capacity for critical thought.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Necessity
A good piece of analysis in the Times today about the politics of abortion--evidently my new favorite issue at AIS, after years of studiously avoiding the subject--and the 109th Congress:

...the strengthening of Republican control and the addition of senators for whom the abortion issue ranks very high, like Mr. Coburn, Representative David Vitter of Louisiana and former Representative John Thune of South Dakota, could have a deeper effect on the Senate than a simple vote count suggests.

In fact, several leaders of the abortion-rights movement indicated in interviews that they felt very much on the defensive these days, both in terms of fending off new legislation and in dealing with the prospect of a Supreme Court nomination fight, given new urgency by the illness of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

"We are all expecting a battle on the Supreme Court," said Nancy Keenan, the new president of Naral Pro-Choice America. And, she added, "The number of anti-choice restrictions will be increasing. We'll be fighting that day in and day out."

Many analysts speculate that Mr. Bush could end up appointing as many as three justices to the Supreme Court; depending on the justices replaced, that could have major implications for Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that declared a constitutional right to abortion. Mr. Bush said during the campaign that he would not impose a "litmus test" on his nominees, but his conservative supporters clearly expect him to name someone who opposes Roe.

That's an understatement, considering that right-wingers have already opined that Alberto Gonzales--the Attorney General-designate who shrugged off the Geneva Convention and helped enable Abu Ghraib, but was insufficiently fanatical on the abortion issue in a previous job in Texas--is "Spanish for Souter," referring to Bush 41's Court nominee who proved surprisingly liberal.

Back to the article:
Abortion-rights advocates say their primary challenge these days is to highlight the stakes. They argue that the anti-abortion movement's incremental restrictions are just part of a long-term plan to marginalize and undermine the constitutional right. "This issue has to be brought to the American people in a very straightforward, clear way," said Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, an abortion-rights advocate.
...
Naral Pro-Choice America now considers 50 members of the new Senate to be "anti-choice," 21 to be "mixed" on the issue, and 29 to be fully "pro-choice." In the previous Senate, that Naral tally was 49 "anti-choice," 22 "mixed" and 29 fully "pro-choice."

Abortion-rights groups say they are convinced the public is with them on the basic right. The New York Times/CBS News Poll shows the public continues to favor keeping abortion legal, but many people would like to see stricter limits than currently exist. The most recent poll, conducted last month, found that 34 percent said abortion should be generally available to those who want it, 44 percent said abortion should be available but under stricter limits than it is now, and 21 percent said abortion should not be permitted.

Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who has worked for Naral, said: "No one can deny that the Senate has gotten harder for proponents of abortion rights. That's undeniable. However, I don't believe the country fundamentally changed on this issue."

Is it too much to hope that this "highlighting the stakes" might include a move away from the psychologically tone-deaf strategy of championing abortion rights without acknowledging the painful and deeply personal nature of every decision to exercise those rights? This would seem to be the approach that would resonate with a public that remains, as I've described myself, "uncomfortably pro-choice."

Guess we'll see.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Cities' Limits
A couple weeks ago, I linked to this piece about the need for a new, urban-centric agenda that "Blue America" could call its own. While that article was really speculative (not to mention incendiary), I wonder if the results of Red governance, as described by David Broder here, might help push it from the drawing board into reality:

The blue dots are not just political blotches, however. They are the cities from Atlanta to Seattle, home to tens of millions of Americans. They are also the places where in the past federal programs -- subsidies to schools, police departments, transit systems and, most notably, housing agencies -- were vital.

The impact of these election returns was exhibited vividly and in damaging fashion in the catch-all government spending bill the Republican-controlled Congress cleared three weeks after Election Day.

The legislators who fashioned that bill and the president who will sign it get their votes from red America. The legislators and advocates who counted up the consequences come from the blue-dot city constituencies.
...
Recognizing this change, the U.S. Conference of Mayors -- the most potent of the city lobbies -- is adopting new tactics. After lamenting the losses in programs that subsidized police hiring and encouraged urban development projects, Tom Cochran, the veteran head of the mayors group, said it was shifting its focus from the cities themselves to entire metropolitan areas -- highlighting their economic power and hoping to harness their political clout with Republicans.
...
Because business has a huge investment in America's downtowns, the alliance makes sense. By themselves, those who live in -- and lead -- the blue-dot cities are clearly the big losers in this election year. Unless they get help, their programs are on the chopping block.

This is another theme I keep meaning to explore in greater detail: the need for progressives and moderates alike to look to the business community in preserving those aspects of our country that are conducive to a healthy bottom line. There's still a great deal of buying power in the cities--this is the whole concept underlying the efforts of community development corporations to attract big-box retailers to underserved urban areas--and maybe that's the thread by which we can attach the utility of the cities to the engine of national policymaking.

We need something. Because as this Philadelphia Daily News column suggests, in many states the urban/rural divide is getting larger, not smaller--the result of a political division that increasingly matches the long-standing cultural schism:

Philly is increasingly Democratic. The Democratic registration edge in the city jumped this year to better than 4.5-to-1. The Legislature is increasingly Republican. Even as John Kerry carried the state, the GOP hiked its majorities in the House and the Senate.
...
And as GOP majorities (with core constituencies far more rural than urban) continue to grow, issues of import to the city diminish.

Urban blight, school funding equity, gay rights, gun control and mass transit, for example, are more likely to end up on legislative ice floes than action agendas.

Seriously, would the EU consider a membership application from the Eastern Seaboard megalopolis sometimes known as "BosWash"?
Convergence?
This weekend's retail numbers weren't quite what merchants had hoped, and otherwise the economic picture seems mixed. Increasingly, though, a lot of smart people seem to see a bad moon rising: any article titled "Economic 'Armaggedon' Predicted" is probably worthy of attention, and the view of someone like Stephen Roach, chief economist at Morgan Stanley, is probably less impeachable than that of Paul Krugman (who's been saying this for a year now).


Roach met select groups of fund managers downtown last week, including a group at Fidelity.

His prediction: America has no better than a 10 percent chance of avoiding economic ``armageddon.''

...
Roach sees a 30 percent chance of a slump soon and a 60 percent chance that ``we'll muddle through for a while and delay the eventual armageddon.''

The chance we'll get through OK: one in 10. Maybe.

In a nutshell, Roach's argument is that America's record trade deficit means the dollar will keep falling. To keep foreigners buying T-bills and prevent a resulting rise in inflation, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan will be forced to raise interest rates further and faster than he wants.

The result: U.S. consumers, who are in debt up to their eyeballs, will get pounded.


Appropos of this issue of the weaker dollar was this article I read yesterday in the Philadelphia Inquirer, making the same argument in more down-to-earth language, while skewering the simplistic thinking of those who urge consumers to "buy American". The key point is that a weaker dollar will lead to more expensive imports, with domestically made goods eventually following suit by raising prices:

There are two ways Americans can respond to rising prices. One is to simply buy less. Nothing wrong with that - as long as the fall in domestic consumption is matched by a rise in production for export.

If it is, then the economy overall grows at about the same rate, and we're fine.

But what if foreign demand for U.S.-made goods doesn't increase, even with a weaker dollar?

That's a possibility: Some Europeans, for instance, have recently talked about boycotting U.S. brands to protest the war in Iraq.

A slowdown in consumption here without growth in U.S. exports could equal a global recession.
...
Underlying the dollar's fall is a large, and growing, imbalance in the world economy. In short: We consume more than we produce, while our trading partners in Asia and elsewhere produce more than they consume.
...
Not only have they been aggressive, low-cost producers of the things Americans want; they have also financed our consumption by investing the dollars we send them in U.S. securities.

The only problem with this arrangement is that it can't go on forever. At some point America's debts become overwhelming, and the cycle collapses.


Another problem with dissing "Old Europe" is that they've got the do-re-mi to keep the U.S. economy humming, to the extent that we can't afford to do so ourselves. As personal and shared (government) debt levels keep rising, however, we fall deeper into the trap: only sustained spending keeps the economy afloat, but our individual and collective capacity to keep spending eventually hits a wall ("the cycle collapses").

Krugman's variant of the argument is that eventually our foreign creditors will call in their debts, prompting a substantial spike in interest rates and a sharp reduction in consumer spending. Ever-larger government debt, in part to finance Scial Security privatization, will set the dominoes tumbling:

"The break can come either from the Reserve Bank of China deciding it has enough dollars, thank you, or from private investors saying 'I'm going to take a speculative bet on a dollar plunge,' which then ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy," Krugman opined. "Both scenarios are pretty unnerving."


Now add in the likelihood--hell, the near-certainty--that Bush's enablers in Congress will authorize "vast borrowing" to support the deformation of Social Security, and I wonder if we're at the leading edge of what I think will become known to history as the "Bush Depression."

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Excellence
Coming back from an eventful weekend in Philly, I read two articles on the train that I want to link to later on. But first things first: The Eagles are NFC East champions again, improving to 10-1 after a 27-6 win over the fading New York Giants. With Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens relatively quiet, the heroes were Brian Westbrook (two TDs, about 130 total yards from scrimmage), a defense that intercepted Eli Manning twice and sacked him five times while holding Tiki Barder to a merely good game rather than a 200-yard detonation, and an offensive line that included two guards I'd never heard of before but kept McNabb's jersey relatively clean and opened holes for Westbrook and Dorsey Levens. Oh yeah, and the special teams were outstanding, with David Akers nailing two longish field goals when the game was still close and Jevon Kearse blocking a punt to set up Westbrook's first score and essentially remove any doubt about the outcome.

This is the fourth straight division title for the Birds, and as they started to celebrate, just a little, it occurred to me why this looked familiar beyond the literal sight: they've become the Atlanta Braves. Now, they're still NINE division championships short of what the Braves have achieved, but in terms of year-in, year-out superior performance, it's a similar type of achievement... and considering the salary cap, injuries, and the theoretical leveling effects of the draft and the schedule, one could make an argument that four NFL division crowns isn't that much less impressive than what Atlanta has done.

What I worry about, though (and remember: I'm a Philadelphian; worry is inevitable as breathing and mispronouncing "water"), is that the Eagles face a similar block against reaching the true heights as the Braves seem to have. Every year, Atlanta towers over their division rivals, dominates the regular season, and then goes belly-up in the playoffs. The Eagles have done the same these last three years, though they've advanced further than the Braves recently have. Just as Bobby Cox always seems to get out-managed in October, Andy Reid has been out-coached in January. The result, in both cases, has been intense frustration.

The counter-argument, which I hope will prove determinative this NFL playoff year, is that while the Braves teams have obviously become less talented over the years--especially with the recent departures of Greg Maddux, Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez et all--the Eagles have more raw ability on their current roster than they have at any point in Reid's tenure. Owens and Kearse have no ownership of those three NFC Championship Game losses; they have no ghosts to exorcise. Hopefully that will make the difference this winter.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

More Nuance, Not Less
Regular AIS readers (all six of you) know that I've been groping toward a formulation of how Democrats can maintain their principle-based support for abortion rights while being more politically effective in articulating this position. I'll have more to say about the substantive case for this when I get into "Community Values," one of the Democratic agenda pillars I noted a couple days ago, but for now I want to recognize that I'm apparently not alone in trying to think this through--and that Sarah Blustain at the American Prospect has written about it in a much more compelling way than I have, or probably could:
I’m tormented by the idea that even as I support Democratic candidates -- and, yes, on this issue -- I’m turned off by their abortion rhetoric.
...
To this generation, the “choice” of a legal abortion is no longer something to celebrate. It is a decision made in crisis, and it is never one made happily. Have you ever talked to a woman who has had an abortion? Even a married, intentionally pregnant woman who has had a “D and C” for a dying or dead embryo? A college student whose birth control failed? I promise you, such a woman does not talk about exercising the “right to choose.” You may accuse her -- and me -- of taking such rights for granted, and maybe you’d be right. But mainly she will tell you how sad she is, how she wished she hadn’t had to make that “choice,” how unpleasant the procedure was. She is more likely depressed than defiant.

That’s why liberalism’s vocabulary of “rights” when it comes to abortion rings a little hollow. It’s constitutional, intellectual -- and not nuanced enough to absorb the emotional or even legal complexity... abortion is a right that ends in sorrow, not celebration. It’s not like women’s suffrage or the equal access to public accommodations, rights whose outcome is emotionally unambiguous.
...
[Democratic politicians should] acknowledge that every woman would rather not have an abortion, and that might enable them to talk more genuinely about the impossible situations women who consider abortion face. It might humanize the mothers, and allow Democrats to argue for all the health benefits to women and their families when abortion is legal, without sounding so darn cheerful about it.

Talking about the human element of abortion also might help lessen Democrats’ dependence on the vocabulary of “rights,” which John Kerry invoked during his campaign... The language of “rights,” Elizabeth Cavendish, interim president of NARAL, told me, mainly speaks to the college-educated crowd. For others, she says, the left needs to talk about women’s health, including sex education and birth control, and about the opportunity to make personal decisions based on personal values.

This makes sense. Much of Blustain's article details her experiences and impressions at the March for Women's Lives, held in DC last April. I didn't go to this event myself, but several friends of mine who work in the reproductive health field did. I was hesitant to talk with them about it because of concerns similar to what Blustain gets into here: as Democrats, we are tone-deaf to the reality that this is a tragic choice, not a joyful one--and we come off as almost ghoulish when we respond to the abortion issue with such vehemence and what I suspect is perceived as insensitivity. We need to acknowledge the complexity of this issue and the valid moral concerns of at least the more principled "comprehensively pro-life" anti-abortion thinkers--and I believe we can do that while still making the argument that abortion rights should be preserved (a view that voter majorities still share, by the way).

Like Blustain, I still think Bill Clinton had it right when he envisioned a country in which abortions were "safe, legal and rare." The "rare" at least sent a signal that this wasn't really something to desire--a key point that has been obscured since the Big Dog left the stage. Further, acknowledging that we are not "for" abortions makes it easier to shift the debate to the hypocrisy of Republicans who seem far more concerned about embryos--or even clumps of stem cells--than real children, post-birth, whose "rights" to housing, equal education, ample and nutritious food, and stable, loving families are transparently of little concern to the moralizing majority.

On a totally different subject, Matt Miller's latest column offers a nice vent at John Kerry's inexplicable and extremely frustrating decision to withhold $15 million from Democratic campaign efforts. I'm with Jody: I want my money back!

Happy Thanksgiving, folks. Back next week.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Angry Cranks Unite!
In some sense, it's probably not as much fun to be a conservative these days as it was in the late 1980s, when they could attack George H.W. Bush for ideological wimpiness while still leveraging his control of the executive to do some things, or the early Clinton years, when the bombthrowers enjoyed both media superstardom and the authentic thrill of insurrectionary politics. Now they control everything, which brings its own pleasures but also confers a wearing sense of reality-based responsibility--or at least, it should...

Here's a cure for those grown-up governance blues: let's waste a federal agency. James Wolcott, Jeff Jarvis and the right-wing blogger Steve Verdon have the target in sight: the Federal Communications Commission.

I love it. The FCC isn't doing what it's supposed to do--regulate the airwaves in the public interest--anyway, unless you define "public interest" strictly in terms of private profit and appeasing a handful of moralists. (Funny how the same people who sneer at liberals for "thinking they know best" don't have a similar problem with those who would define what is and isn't an acceptable standard of discourse...) And Michael Powell's hypocrisy, arrogance and will-to-pander have pissed off people from left, right and center--the campaign against last year's proposed media ownership rules changes included, among others, the Family Research Council, the National Rifle Association, MoveOn, and Common Cause. And now with Powell butting in on "scandals" like the Terrell Owens/Monday Night Football flap, it should be even easier to mount an effort against this pointless and corrupt agency and its junketeer-in-chief.

Tom Shales of the Washington Post opens up the journalistic can of whoop-tushie on both Powell and the FCC:
"Arrogant" is the adjective used most often in any discussion of Powell and the way he pushes his personal agenda, an extension of the fanatical deregulation that gathered steam under Ronald Reagan's FCC chairman, a reckless loudmouth named Mark Fowler. Basically the theology is this: Commercial interests come first, second and third among priorities, and "the public interest, convenience and necessity," which the FCC is mandated to uphold, straggles in a distant fourth. Powell is much better tailored and milder mannered than Fowler but equally stubborn and self-adoring.

He seems never to have met a media merger he didn't like, which will result in the virtual death of local television and radio in America as station after station is sucked up into one enormous unfeeling conglomerate or another. Powell scorns the pleas of public-minded groups that try to meet with him, critics say, but will rush off eagerly to any luncheon, dinner or cocktail party sponsored by big corporate powers.

When criticized heavily for this during the uproar over Powell's attempts to jettison the rules against media concentration (rules designed to promote diversity in American broadcasting and keep one company from acquiring too much media power, as Fox has now), Powell grudgingly and belatedly scheduled a series of public forums on the matter. "But he skipped half the public hearings he authorized," laments one of his many detractors.

To be fair, Shales' piece is screed, not analysis. But I've read and heard some of Powell's attempts at justification for his water-carrying on behalf of Rupert Murdoch, Viacom and other Big Media heavies, and they don't hold up: his view that major-media consolidation in local markets (or in larger settings) is justified because of the proliferation of cable and online alternatives neatly elides the fact that in terms of numbers, the big players in over-the-air broadcast and journalism are moving toward a position of dominance in newer media as well.

Like many ideologues, he's not lacking brain wattage, and I've heard he was a pretty good antitrust lawyer. But his tenure at FCC is a disaster, and since we know Bush won't fire anyone for ineptitude--and Powell, unlike his dad, won't admit to his own mistakes--let's find the win-win here: conservatives get to feel like revolutionaries again and really "shrink" government, and liberals get rid of this self-important, self-appointed moral scold-slash-corporate whore.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Toot, Toot
Words I wrote have now been published in the New York Times, in Bob Herbert's column today:

A new study by the Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit research group, found that more than 550,000 families in New York - a quarter of all working families in the state - had incomes that were too low to cover their basic needs.

We just had a bitterly contested presidential election, but this very serious problem (it's hardly confined to New York) was not a major part of the debate.
...
In its introduction, the study says, "The implied bargain America offers its citizens is supposed to be that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can support his or her family and move onward and upward."
...
Franklin Roosevelt, in his second Inaugural Address, told a rain-soaked crowd, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

I can hear the politicians in today's Washington having a hearty laugh at that sentiment.

I wrote that introduction. While Herbert is sometimes too predictably left-ish for my colleagues and me, I have to admit it's still kind of thrilling to see words I wrote in the Paper of Record.
Say it Loud, Say it Proud
Over the last two-plus weeks of soul-searching and hair-pulling, I've gradually come to a surprising but increasingly satisfying conclusion: I am a "New Democrat."

This is a group that has been calumnied and villified and distorted and slandered by the "party core" over the last few years, so I want to be careful to explain what this means (to me, at least) and why I think it's actually not accommodationist, as the Howard Dean faction (though not always Dean himself) and other diehards have charged, but instead the best way for the Democrats to get back to where they (we) were from about 1932 till 1978, give or take a few years at the end.

Former President Clinton had an amazing formulation in his library dedication speech last week:

America has two great dominant strands of political thought... conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barrier that are no longer needed or should never have been erected in the first place.

It seemed to me that in 1992 we needed to do both to prepare America for the 21st century: to be more conservative in things like erasing the deficit and paying down the debt and preventing crime and punishing criminals and protecting and supporting families, and enforcing things like child support laws and reforming the military to meet the new challenges of the 21st century.

And we needed to be more progressive in creating good jobs, reducing poverty, increasing the quality of public education, opening the doors of college to all, increasing access to health care, investing more in science and technology, and building new alliances with our former adversaries, and working for peace across the world and peace in America across all the lines that divide us.

This was the core of his politics, and it's why he was a successful president. And it's where the Democratic Party needs to go if we're going to get back in.

The superb Bull Moose blog lamented last week that America is currently lacking a true conservative party. I think this is 100 percent true, and it's amazing how many of my lefty-ish friends are noticing their inner conservatives now: we're upset about the mounting debt (anyone catch what Greenspan said on Friday about the risks of ever-mounting deficits, or how Bush signed legislation last week allowing the annual budget deficit to cap at $800 BILLION?!?) and the foreign-policy adventurism.

The Republicans are "conservative" in the sense that they stand against social change and for (a very limited conception of) "traditional values": gay relationships are sinful, any sex outside of marriage is wrong, we shouldn't say the f-word on TV, and so on. But the Cheney/DeLay/Norquist ruling faction is clearly NOT conservative in their beliefs that "deficits don't matter," that war is an option of choice rather than a last resort for policymaking, and that American traditions of checks and balances--not to mention foreign treaties--are outmoded barriers to the use of power.

(This isn't to say that every international treaty, or even our own traditions of governance, should be accepted uncritically. But the way we properly revisit and revise these things is by open debate and relative consensus, not the political equivalent of smash-mouth football.)

So how do the Democrats--"New" and otherwise--build a message that's more positive than "Anybody but Bush" and more compelling than "what they're doing, but smarter and better"? This will be the thrust of my next few posts here. Basically, here are the four thematic pillars I'm thinking about:

1. Shared Prosperity
2. Community Values
3. Strength and Prudence
4. Leading the World by Example

To be continued.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Miscellany and (More) Self-Promotion
Josh Marshall is doing a great job of both keeping tabs on the DeLay Disgrace--which Republican legislators voted for it and which ones didn't (the "Shays Handful," an appellation that reminds me why I'm glad, in the end, that Connecticut Republican Chris Shays, the campaign finance reform crusader who represents Annie's family, pulled out a close win a few weeks ago). If you haven't been reading it, check it out.

Also worth noting is how the corporate media is snarfing up the Republican meme that Austin prosecutor Ronnie Earle is engaged in a "partisan witch hunt" against the uber-partisan Bug Man. For the record, Earle has gone after three times as many Democrats than Republicans for corruption over his long career--not that you'd know it from watching Judy Woodruff or her fellow whores (a non-gender adjective in this case).

I was thinking again yesterday about the Thomas Frank hypothesis: Republicans get "heartland" voters in places like Kansas to pull the lever against their own self-interest, by campaigning on "social issues" and then relentlessly deregulating and concentrating wealth once in office. (Apparently Frank was on the Daily Show a couple nights ago; I missed it.) I think this is a substantially compelling theory, but intellectual honesty demands that we acknowledge the Democrats have a version of this too: we could call it "racial resentment politics." It's how, for instance, Marion Barry has survived multiple incidents that should have ended his career: his voters use Barry to raise a figurative middle finger at The Man, a rationale he encourages with his style of politics, but once in office he acts like a classic Machine thug, enriching friends and allies and irresponsibly spending public money. Sadly, the Democratic Party organization in Brooklyn acts much the same way.

If "spite voting"--the phenomenally descriptive and arguably prescient term used in this New York Press feature from last June--is wrong for the Republicans, it's wrong for our side too.

Self-promotion: I recently wrote a book review of Jason DeParle's magnificent American Dream, a sprawling and richly told history of welfare reform that embraces both the headline-making moves of people like President Bill Clinton and Wisconsin Governor/Bush HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, and three Milwaukee women and their families trying to get ahead after welfare as we knew it was ended. As usual when I write for City Limits, there was a little editorial distortion of my perspective--I wouldn't have used the verbiage of "the myths of welfare reform"--but the real point is, you should read DeParle's book. It's a classic, and should be instructive for both left- and right-wing partisans that nobody has a monopoly on wisdom in this complicated area of policy.

The Center for an Urban Future also released the biggest, most ambitious report of my tenure here last week, on low-income working families in New York. I was a lead author on this project, and we tried to strike a similarly balanced tone here, and got great cooperation from (some) Pataki administration agencies as well as folks in the advocacy community and independent researchers. Hopefully this is the start of something big for our organization, and a step on the road to a more thoughtful debate on how to craft policy that better supports people who are working hard but not getting ahead.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Liberal Heresies, Part II
Last week I suggested that Democrats should back off their to-the-death defense of Roe v. Wade and come out strongly for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. Then I ran away for a few days.

I'm ready to defend my points now. On the abortion issue, I think the Democrats are well past the point of diminishing returns--and I'm not at all certain that they need to push to defend a (badly written) law that, if overturned, could fracture the Republican electoral coalition and undo everything Karl Rove has worked toward in his long years of Satanic servitude. (Hey, I'm just trying to stay in tune with the times.) Check out this Boston Globe piece on the possible ramifications of overturning Roe.

This is not to say that Democrats should speak out against the law--just that it shouldn't be a bright-line issue for judicial appointments or other political prizes. It's a matter of practicality: if Bush wants to overturn Roe, he'll probably be able to do it. So the question is whether this is the right fight to keep waging, given the lack of effective weaponry.

On the Balanced Budget Amendment, I don't think we have anything left to lose here either. The deficit will only get worse in Bush's second term: as Robert Reich points out in this piece, the pork-driven Republican Congress won't discipline itself, and Bush won't act to restrain them.

At some point, this excessive spending will be felt in the economy, and we might tip back into recession or worse. But there's a "values" question in here too, and that's what the Democrats should focus on: Deficit spending is essentially a means by which to defer tough choices. Without any structural constraints, Congress can appropriate funds for bread, circuses, missile defense, corporate welfare, "faith-based" whatever, and other New Deal/Great Society-era programs like Head Start that remain too popular to be directly attacked. Let our grandchildren pay for it, they seem to be saying, unless the Rapture comes first.

Democrats have long bemoaned the seeming contradiction that majorities agree with us in terms of "priorities," but don't vote for our folks. The key to resolving the contradiction might be to bring those choices into much sharper context: a BBA would force the choice between missile defense and job training, subsidizing ADM or investing in schools.

Would such an amendment have any chance of passing? Hard to say. The Republicans proposed it in 1995 and it failed by one vote in the Senate--but that was when they had a Democratic president to face down, and the balance between idealism and power wasn't quite as tilted toward the latter. (To see what I mean, just consider that they're about to rescind the "Rostenkowski rule" to allow Tom DeLay to continue his pillaging despite a pending indictment.)

Still, it would be fun to point out the hypocrisy of the one-time revolutionaries becoming addicted to fiscal irresponsibility--and it would play well with another idea I have, the "Generational Compact." The way this one would work is that a group, preferably non-partisan but left-leaning if necessary, would present all candidates with a pledge not to cast votes that would increase the national debt between when they take office and when they leave. The anti-tax absolutists within the Republican Party have used a similar "pledge" to get their candidates on record; the Compact would merely exert a counterveiling force, and hopefully help reduce the spiking per-capita share of national fiscal obligation.

What do you think?