Monday, May 31, 2004

Hits and Misses
May comes to an end today with the Phillies above .500 but struggling to stay close to the surging Marlins, who have won five in a row after a weekend sweep of the Mets (who start a three-game set with the Phils in a few minutes' time). Considering the rash of injuries we've experienced (Billy Wagner, Placido Polanco and now Vicente Padilla are on the disabled list, with Jim Thome and Jimmy Rollins hobbled but still active) and the anemic offensive production over the last six games--run totals of 0, 7 (with six of those in one inning and most of them unearned), 1, 3, 3, and 4--the 3-3 split over that time isn't so terrible. The problem is that the Marlins are going crazy, having won something like 9 of 11. Mike Lowell and Miguel Cabrera are terrorizing the league, and the Florida rotation is actually looking better than it did last year. It'll get better still when A.J. Burnett returns from Tommy John surgery, I think sometime in June.

Some good has come out of the injuries. Second baseman Chase Utley might be the toughest out in the Phils' lineup right now, even though I'm not very hopeful that Bowa will do the sensible thing and platoon the lefty-hitting Utley with Polanco--who pounds lefthanded pitchers--once Polanco gets healthy. The young pitchers who have come up to fill in for Wagner, Roberto Hernandez (whose biggest contribution thus far has been those two weeks he was hurt) and others have acquitted themselves well, and there's precedent in Phils history for big contributions from unheralded kids: Keith Moreland, Lonnie Smith, Bob Walk and Marty Bystrom were all key guys for the 1980 World Champs, and who could forget Kevin Stocker's .330 average as a rookie shortstop in 1993? At the least, Bowa and Ed Wade deserve credit for not making a rash of "veteran" signings or panic trades; I doubt any of the guys available through those channels would have performed as well.

Eventually the Phils will get healthy and the Marlins will hit a rough stretch. But last year, the Phils fell so far behind the Braves so early that when our surge came, we still couldn't get closer than four games or so in early July. By the end of that month, all that was left to fight for was the wild card. Here's hoping history doesn't repeat itself.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

The Phillies stole one from the Atlanta Braves last night, rallying from a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 in ten innings. Tomas Perez--whom I've long denigrated as "the Happy Hacker" for his sunny temperament and near-absolute unwillingness to take a walk--was the big hero with a game-tying double in the 8th and a walk-off homer two innings later. Phils starter Randy Wolf continued building his case for a non-support lawsuit, allowing one earned run through six innings but leaving on the short end of the score. But the bullpen was outstanding: Ryan Madson escaped trouble in the 7th, and then Rheal Cormier and Tim Worrell were untouchable over the final three innings.

The Phils had Atlanta starter Mike Hampton in some trouble in almost every inning, but couldn't score until Pat Burrell's bases-loaded walk forced in a run in the 7th. Mike Lieberthal--or as I call him, "DPberthal"--continued to turn in awful at-bats with guys on base, striking out with second and third and one out in the 6th and sending us into extra innings with a 5-4-3 double play in the ninth. But Perez, filling in for still-hurting Jim Thome, took care of business and provided me the illogical but undeniable adrenaline rush of Victory on the Couch.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Neocon Boomerang?
Last night I read an interesting article from The New Republic--the most consistently hawkish and pro-war of the "liberal" outlets--about domestic perceptions of the war and what has gone wrong. Basically, the writer asks the question of whether it was the concepts behind the war that were flawed, or the implementation. He concludes that the doctrine of pre-emptive war and "transformation" in the middle east makes quite a bit of theoretical sense, but was so badly mishanded by the neocons that the entire concept is probably discredited for the foreseeable future.

I'm still not sure how I feel about the first assumption--it does seem to fit into the broad tradition of Wilsonian idealism to which I've always been partial, but also is sufficiently underscored by arrogance and ethnocentrism that I'm skeptical--but I have no doubt about the second.

...the political problem for those sympathetic to democratization is that even if fault does lie with the implementation--which may well be the case--Americans are likely to blame the strategy that got us involved in Iraq rather than the nuances of how we carried it out. Most voters don't have time to reach sophisticated conclusions about the competence of the government's post-war planning; they will therefore respond to our setbacks in Iraq by writing off the neocons' big idea altogether, concluding that democracy promotion in the Middle East was a pipe dream. Without public support, the grand strategy of reforming the Middle East will inevitably fall by the wayside, no matter who wins the upcoming election.

As I've said for awhile now, history shows us that support for military commitment steadily declines over time. I think we're moving into a period that will be very frustrating for war supporters, as every piece of "bad news"--whether in the form of more prisoner abuse revelations, news that Chalabi was exchanging friendship bracelets with Iran's ayatollahs while pocketing U.S. taxpayer money, or the inevitable casualties from insurgent attacks--reinforces the notion that the whole exercise just wasn't worth the cost in blood and treasure. Whatever good news there is, by contrast, will have to hurdle the bar of skepticism raised so high by all the misleading and dishonest statements from the administration and their enablers in the media.

Here's more from the article, in defense of the "vision." I do think this is an argument liberals can't just ignore; none can argue that things were going just swell in that part of the world before we invaded.
Say what you will about the neoconservatives' skills at manners or management; their big idea cannot be dismissed lightly. There is a compelling logic to the argument that the primary source of frustration among Arabs in the Middle East is a sense of powerlessness. Trapped in a region littered with authoritarian and corrupt regimes, they are encouraged by these regimes and their Islamic critics to blame their situation on Israel and the United States. This is an ideal environment for fomenting terrorism. Creating an open society in Iraq would put the lie to this kind of hate-mongering.

To be sure, democracy promotion is far from easy. Indeed, regime change in the Middle East looks like a lousy, rotten policy option for addressing the root causes of terrorism, until one considers the alternatives--appeasement or muddling through...

For all their criticism of Bush's grand strategy, Europeans and left-wingers have offered very little in the way of alternatives to his vision. Some say that American soft power could bring about change in the Middle East. But decades of alternately coddling, cajoling, and ostracizing Arab despots has not led to liberalization or democratization. We have showered Egypt with aid, but have succeeded only in propping up an authoritarian monster in Hosni Mubarak. We have tried to isolate Syria, but have only strengthened that country's anti-American credentials. Maybe U.S. soft power is part of the solution to the Middle East's woes, but soft power alone cannot accomplish our desired ends.

The problem is that in a democracy, you can only go to the well every so often with this kind of ambitious project, and you'd better make sure you do it right. Putting aside for a moment the merits of the Iraq incursion, it's becoming clear that the administration neither committed sufficient resources to do the "nation-building" part of the job, nor did an adequate job of communicating the true costs and scope of the effort to the electorate.

Now they're starting to pay the price for these errors. It's ironic, and it also couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch of guys.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Best Laid Plans

An Elizabeth Drew article in the New York Review of Books provides a nice in-progress assessment of the Bush campaign to date. Among Drew's findings is a point that seems obvious in hindsight but went utterly unremarked upon (as far as I've seen) up this point--it's somewhat surprising, given all the ways in which the Bush administration has parted ways with traditional (read: principled) conservatives, that no third-party challenge has arisen:

The first step Rove and Bush took to assure Bush's reelection was to raise an unprecedented amount of money: at least $187 million by the beginning of May (Kerry had by then raised at least $106 million). Then, virtually unnoticed, Rove sought to make sure that no third-party candidate on the right ran for president. While few people would have considered this a possibility, Rove took no chances. Since many Republicans have been unhappy about Bush's immigration policy and his running up a huge deficit, a third-party candidacy didn't seem out of the question. But Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and a close ally of the Bush White House, told me that "Bush didn't leave enough breathing space to the right of him to allow that to happen, whereas the Dem- ocrats left room for a Nader. If you ask how the campaigns are doing, the first advantage the Republicans chalked up was that Pat Buchanan didn't run and Ralph Nader is running." To keep Buchanan out of the race, Bush put off announcing his proposals for immigration reform, anathema to Buchanan, until late in his first term of office, leaving Buchanan little time to organize a campaign opposing them even if he did want to run.

When you think about it, the pandering Bush has done within his own coalition has been remarkable for its dexterity--and has been so pronounced that it really is surprising that no group has stepped forward to claim their piece of the pie isn't big enough. Sure, the Club for Growth wackos have opined that Bush is an even worse "Big Government" culprit than the despised Clinton, and the Christian ayatollahs grumble now and then that Bush hasn't yet outlawed abortion or even put a stop to those dastardly gay couples looking for a little happiness and acceptance, but for the most part, he's managed to keep everyone in line. This really is a remarkable achievement, and a testament to the political skills of both the president and his team.

Drew also covers some of the ground broken recently in the Times Sunday magazine profile of the "Amway-like" Bush ground operation, which served the Republicans so well in 2002. Not surprisingly, the administration is pushing its core supporters--evangelicals and business types drunk on tax cuts--to turn out every vote. But even with all that, the campaign staffers realize that the election almost certainly will be determined by events beyond their control:

At the Bush reelection headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, I recently talked to Ken Mehlman, the head of the reelection committee, and Matthew Dowd, who is in charge of media and polling for the reelection campaign. Dowd told me that since each party was "sitting on 45 percent of the vote," decisions "made in the campaign, and events, have a bigger impact." Dowd says that the issues of Iraq and the prosperity of the economy will "fill the space"�i.e., that they, and the effects of September 11, will be far more important to voters than, say, positions on abortion or on the environment. (An estimated 40 percent of the job losses in 2001 were caused by the economic shock of the September 11 attacks.) One Bush adviser says, "If the economy turns worse, he's dead."

Considering the steady downward drift of public opinion on Iraq, and the growing perception that the economy is in the toilet despite statistics showing strong GDP growth (a discrepancy I tried to address here two weeks or so back, and one no doubt fueled, so to speak, by spiking gas prices and the uptick in various other costs, like dairy products), I still think the tide is running strong for the Not-Bush campaign (also known, I guess, as Kerry for President). Arianna Huffington writes in Salon that Bush's oil industry buddies are swimming in profits, and unless they act on his behalf to take money out of their own pockets, frustration will continue to build. Even if gas prices drop, I don't see tangible gains manifesting for the non-wealthy, in terms of good job creation, lower prices, or wage increases outpacing inflation, between now and November.

And then there's Iraq. If spending all those hundreds (thousands?) of hours playing Civilization III has taught me anything, it's that democratic societies have a very limited appetite for war. (Note: fairly extensive history reading also supports this hypothesis.) Even if the June 30 "transfer of sovereignty" somehow doesn't turn into the clusterf--k one would expect, given the direction of events since "victory" in April 2003, I think the sheer cost, and the gathering economic effects, of the war will make it almost impossible for the administration to paint this as a success. Putting it simply, Americans are now far more "receptive" to bad news coming out of Iraq than good. They've simply lied about too much, too often. The Chalabi revelations, and the newly underway investigations into what leading neoconservatives inside and outside of government might have fed Their Man in Baghdad, could serve as a second tide reinforcing all the negative perceptions from the prison abuse scandal: not only did we behave abominably, but the main reason we were there to start with was the false witness of a swindler in the pay of Iran's mullahs.

All that said, it's still way, way too close for my comfort. The close of Drew's article provides a chilling reminder just why this is:

Bush has told people that he wants a "mandate" in this election to carry out his deepest wishes. If he receives one, or believes that he has received one, it is altogether likely that the environment will be further damaged, civil liberties will be further threatened, the Supreme Court will likely be set in a radically conservative direction for many years to come, and there will be a greater effort to privatize or cut social programs. The President is likely to feel that he has an even freer hand in foreign policy and in the use of military power, and less need to be accountable to Congress. For these reasons�and probably some that we can't yet imagine�this is the most consequential election in decades.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

I Gotta Say It Was a Good Day

Fruitful meeting on my best project at work, a couple hours spent with an old and close friend I haven't seen in two years, box seats behind the dugout as the Phils whupped the Mets at Shea Stadium, and the "Mr. Burns Casino" episode on the 11:30 Simpsons broadcast. This was a good'un.

He'll Take It

Late word from the AP is that Kerry will accept the Democratic presidential nomination on July 29 at the convention in Boston. Since I vaguely remember writing about this the other night, just wanted to note that I'm fairly sure two factors motivated this decision: a recognition that this could morph into one of those late-night joke staples through which candidates get unfavorably defined, and (more importantly) assurance from his staff and campaign team that whatever financial disadvantage results from having to stretch the $75 million in public funds for the general election over five more weeks than the Republicans won't matter much in the end. Whether this was informed by strategizing with the DNC, winks and nods from "unaffiliated" campaign groups, or just a recognition that Bush will have more money anyway, I'm pretty confident that this is a good and sound decision.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Inauspicious Debut

Well, the Phillies lost their real season opener back in early April, and they lost tonight as I attended my first game of the year at Shea Stadium. The Mets claimed a 5-0 victory and moved to within two games of the Phils and Marlins for the N.L. East lead. Worse, I had to sit through the agonizing Steve Trachsel, on a night when the Phils put plenty of guys on base--prompting Trachsel to shift his working pace from "deliberate" to "glacial"--but couldn't get anyone across. The team's problems hitting with RISP resurfaced, at least for one night.

That said, it was about as impressive an offensive performance as you're likely to see without scoring any runs. (How's that for faint praise?) Mostly due to long, if not always productive, at-bats by Abreu, Thome, and Burrell, the Phils made Trachsel throw some 120 pitches before he was lifted with two outs in the seventh, following a Ty Wigginton error that loaded the bases with two outs. (Jimmy Rollins ended the threat by striking out, on a full count, swinging at a pitch that looked to come in around eye level.) David Bell and Chase Utley turned in repeated good at-bats.

Phils starter Eric Milton was pretty annoying to watch in his own right, issuing walks up and down the lineup. But for the most part he avoided trouble aside from chronic Phillie-killer Mike Piazza (who's not so bad against other teams, either). Milton racked up 7 or 8 strikeouts, relying mostly on a well-located fastball. With this team, allowing three runs in six innings should lead to good results more often than not.

A couple other enjoyable moments from the tail end of the game: I caught 21 year-old pitcher Elizardo Ramirez, fresh from single-A ball, making his big-league bow with a 1-2-3 inning that included a strikeout of ex-Phil Eric Valent, and saw former Met and Shea favorite Todd Pratt get a rare pinch-hitting opportunity, which also gave the Mets fans a chance to show "Tank" some love. A rare classy move by Larry Bowa.

Back tomorrow (sitting behind the Phils dugout, thanks to the generosity of my former employers at NBC), hoping to see my first in-person win of the year.

Monday, May 24, 2004

More Conventional Thinking

Just returned from a weekend wedding in Houston--the unzoned dark heart of Red America, choc-a-bloc with ten-story parking lots and ugly modern architecture. Fireworks stands line the highways connecting downtown to the (ugh) Bush International Airport, and the SUVs are all supersized. A scary place.

At any rate, I'm a little conflicted about John Kerry's currently floating proposal to put off accepting the Democratic nomination at the party convention scheduled to be held in Boston at the end of July. Through a combination of smart planning and good luck, Kerry already avoided what I (and a few million other fretful Dem partisans) was really worrying about six months ago: coming out of the primaries with no money and no defense against the inevitable barrage of Republican efforts to "define" the candidate through negative ads. Opting out of the public finance spending limits and winning the nomination quickly, Kerry has raised more dough than any Democrat in history, and has gotten a further boost from the notionally uncoordinated spending of the "527s"--advocacy groups like, America Coming Together and others. Now I guess the fear is that the campaign still could face a variant of this "going dark" scenario, hamstrung by having five less weeks to raise money than the Republicans. So he can delay accepting the nomination, thus basically circumventing the rules that limit candidates to the $75 million publicly funded allotment for all expenditures after accepting the nomination, and keep taking in those campaign checks for an extra month or so.

I have to be honest here: if the Republicans tried to pull a stunt like this, I'd be screaming bloody hell. Sadly, the campaign finance rules are already so universally sneered at that this sort of stunt could have the unintended positive consequence of getting reformers on both sides fired up to reinvigorate the toothless and pathetic Federal Election Commission. So really the question is how this would play politically: the Republicans are promising to raise a stink, and possibly to stage a "counter-rally" during the convention in hopes that the networks would provide them equal time. I'm waiting to hear what Kerry's bud John McCain, a prophet without honor among his fellow Republicans for his steadfast support of campaign finance reform, thinks of this plan; if McCain speaks out against Kerry on this one, the press is sure to follow his lead.

Michael Tomasky at the American Prospect expresses concern that this maneuver could spark a backlash against Kerry that would more than offset whatever gain he'd realize from having five extra weeks to raise money. Tomasky particularly worries that the TV networks would just ignore the Democrats, especially if the president is speaking in prime time against Kerry.

I love Tomasky, but I think he's worrying too much here. Kerry can ensure media attention by delaying the announcement of his vice-presidential pick until his speech, and really, anyone who's upset about the Democrats' gaming the campaign finance rules isn't likely to abandon Kerry in favor of the most heinously pay-for-play administration since the Gilded Age...

Most exciting, though, is this note that Bruce Springsteen might stage a little counter-programming of his own against Bush's acceptance speech during the Republican convention in New York on Sept. 2 by offering a free concert somewhere. The Boss--a strong Democrat of decades' standing--would suck up media oxygen from the protests against the convention (which I'll be joining, but remain terrified about) and could offer a devastating critique of Bush's policies, virtually in real time. When I was daydreaming about how to counter the convention last year, a Springsteen concert in Central Park was the highlight of my fantasy program. If it comes to life, at whatever venue, I might have to get all my protesting out of the way earlier in the week.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Make Your Own Orwell

Y'know those Medicare "news clips" from earlier this year that ended with the memorable tag line, "This is Karen Ryan reporting"?

Turns out they were illegal:

The General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said on Thursday that the Bush administration had violated federal law by producing and disseminating television news segments that portray the new Medicare law as a boon to the elderly.

The agency said the videos were a form of "covert propaganda" because the government was not identified as the source of the materials, broadcast by at least 40 television stations in 33 markets. The agency also expressed some concern about the content of the videos, but based its ruling on the lack of disclosure.

Now, I doubt this story will get much play beyond our happy echo chamber on the left. Like so much else, this little crime of the Bushistas almost certainly will go unpunished:

The consequences of the ruling were not immediately clear. The accounting office does not have law enforcement powers, but its decisions on federal spending are usually considered authoritative and are taken seriously by officials in the executive branch of the government.


Medicare officials are unlikely to face any penalties. David M. Walker, the comptroller general of the United States, who is head of the General Accounting Office, said, "We do not have reason to believe that this violation was knowing and willful, and we are not in the enforcement business."

Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, said he was drafting legislation that would require the Bush campaign to reimburse the Medicare trust fund for the cost of the videos. The administration put the cost at $42,750, but refused to provide any documentation.

I like and admire David Walker, so I hope he was rolling his eyes and inflecting his voice with major sarcasm when he uttered the first part of that sentence... as for Lautenberg's "legislation," I give him points for political theatricality, but the day Bill Frist brings that up for a vote, those cats the good doctor dissected all those years ago (?) will arise again for the Last Trump of the Felines.

At best, I guess we can hope that this new fact will be appended to whatever news stories around the Medicare bill pop up going forward. But even that seems like a lot to hope for in this media environment. One of the harder truths I've had to accept is that the majority of American voters just don't get as freaked out and upset about stuff like this as I do.

Maybe this is a good thing, but it sure is frustrating. Especially on the heels of this story from Wednesday's New York Times, about how the Bushies are taking credit for goodies disbursed by programs they've tried to cut. This one at least has some humor value.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Happy Belated Anniversary

I missed this yesterday--too busy, I guess, listening to the Phillies blow a 6-0 lead and waste a great start from Randy Wolf en route to a discouraging 7-6 loss in Colorado--but May 17 marked the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision and, remarkably, was also the first day of legal gay marriage in Massachusetts. I don't normally have much use for Andrew Sullivan, but his New York Times column on this milestone was quite good.

As for Brown, many on the left are focusing on the unfulfilled potential of the decision and how far we still have to go before public schools are truly integrated and of roughly equal quality. I agree (though I think these problems have more to do with class and antiquated notions of federalism than race per se), but I think this line of critique somewhat misses the point: the Brown decision heralded a new dawn in American public life, with the most august branch of government coming out against racial discrimination in the most important area of public life. It's tough to quantify, but I have a hunch that without the Supreme Court's decision, the road to ending Jim Crow in America would have been even longer and bloodier than it actually was. With the Brown decision, racists were stripped of a powerful crutch and a great deal of legitimacy.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't remain focused on redeeming the full promise of Brown: of course we should. But it's not inappropriate to appreciate and even celebrate what has been achieved already, and more to the point what has been made possible.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Bush's Watergate?

Could Abu Ghraib prove to be George W. Bush's Watergate?

Short answer: I don't know, but I doubt it. Now I haven't read the latest Sy Hersh piece yet, or any of the current Newsweek stories, so my opinion might not be as well-informed as it could be. But I think if this is what brings Bush down, we might not even know it for a long while to come.

The first problem with the Watergate analogy has to do with the political landscape. If you go back and look at how events played out in '73 and '74, the erosion of Nixon's support as new revelations came to light, there does seem to be a parallel to how events are unfolding now. But remember, at the time of Watergate Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. They had all the investigative machinery at their disposal--and they had the support of a few within the Republican Party (e.g. Howard Baker) who were motivated by some combination of principle and pragmatism, and worried that the Nixon scandals could relegate them to the minority forever if they didn't show up on the right side of history (and the news). So pressure from Congress--and possibly the armed forces and/or other institutional actors, depending on how far down the rabbit hole one chooses to travel in contemplation of "who was Deep Throat"--helped bring all that stuff (the crooked fundraising, the IRS abuses, the CIA stuff, the dirty tricks on the campaign trail) to public attention.

Now, I actually believe that when the history of this time is written, we're going to see a similar array of shady doings (and that's an understatement). I don't generally think of myself as a conspiracy fetishist, but I do believe that the same type of hands-off, if-I-don't-see-it-it's-not-real "management" that led to Abu Ghraib has manifested itself in all kinds of other areas. If you really want to get your blood boiling, check out the current issue of Mother Jones--it could be Your Infurational Reading--and learn about the contracting/outsourcing abuses tied into this Iraq war. Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) has all but admitted that this stuff is going on, but just chalks it up to business as usual during wartime.

Unfortunately, the probable extent of the scandals makes it less likely that this extremely partisan Congress will okay any serious investigation into the wrongdoing. It would take a mass defection of the Republican moderates--McCain, Chafee, Snowe, Collins--out of the Party for the investigative wheels to turn out of the control of administration allies like VA Sen. John Warner, whom I doubt will let this get to a point where it could really cripple the president. I also don't think there's a John Dean or Elliott Richardson or any other people of integrity left inside the Bush administration who would stand up and say "This is wrong." And the biggest difference between Dick Nixon and Dick Cheney is that, without a question, Cheney would have burned the tapes...

Big Difference Number Two from Watergate to today is the media environment. Bush has a quarter of the population mobilized 24/7 thanks to Fox News, right-wing radio and their echo chamber/enablers in the "mainstream media." The reporters can't do it themselves in a world where their corporate bosses are often huge Republican loyalists. Sy Hersh obviously is still out there, and some of the Washington Post reporters have shown signs of life, and even the Wall Street Journal has some pretty good investigative journalists. But I'm very skeptical that a media establishment in which Greg Palast, the very best of his kind in America, can't get a job (he mostly works for the BBC) will give whatever they find a significant airing. If the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent, and the lies about billions of dollars in the Medicare farce didn't get people riled up, what will? Yes, maybe the pictures do make that much of a difference, but we're starting from a place in which a large chunk of public opinion doesn't seem to mind that these dark-skinned furriners got whut wuz comin' to 'em.

Where this really hurts us, for now, is in the court of world opinion. I don't like to write this, but the chance to "succeed" in Iraq is likely gone; we probably should think about least-worst options for disengaging there. Eventually, the right-wingers who see foreign affairs through Mussolini's prism of "many enemies, much honor" will be outnumbered by those who understand on pragmatic grounds that the venality and thuggishness condoned, if not mandated, by the Bush Administration has made the world a more difficult place for Americans. Political re-alignment could follow, and presumably a Democrat--or. maybe, a responsible Republican who adheres to real conservative values--will come along to start cleaning up the mess.

But it will take years to do so. And that doesn't even address the damage they're doing to the economy...

I do think Bush will be defeated this November, if they allow us a relatively fair election. But the verdict of history will be far more harsh than whatever verdict the voters are likely to render.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

First Place, Baby!

I thought they'd get there, but not this quickly. After a 16-5 wipeout of the Colorado Rockies this afternoon and the Marlins' 4-0 loss in St. Louis, the Phillies (19-15) are now percentage points ahead of Florida (20-16) for the top spot in the National League East. Incredibly, the Phils are 19-9 against everyone besides the Fish; Florida has struggled to a 14-16 mark against all non-Phils opponents. Head to head, they've won all six meetings this year and have gone something like 18-3 in the last 21 matchups. Maybe by the time we see them again in July, the baseball gods will find some other joke to play on some other team.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Rollins went 4 for 6 this afternoon, continuing a scalding hot road trip in which he's scored something like 12 runs. Bobby Abreu hit home run no. 10 on the year, and Brett Myers earned his second win of the season (and of the last six days) with a good-for-Coors-Field outing: six innings, five hits, three walks, four earned runs. The rotation has now collected 14 victories on the year; my thought back in the spring was that if the five starters can come in with 65 or more wins between them, the Phils would be in great shape. They're about on pace now.

Granted that they've been beating up on some poor teams--the Diamondbacks, Giants and Rockies are all well under .500--but considering how the bottom-feeders bedeviled us throughout the 2003 campaign, I'm not complaining at all. Considering the presence of Placido Polanco and Billy Wagner on the disabled list, and the likelihood that Jim Thome should be there too, I'm happy to take the good timing and good fortune where we can find it.
Something's Gotta Give

I was at the gym yesterday and was unable to avoid looking up at CNN on one of the TVs there, just in time to catch "douchebag for liberty" Robert Novak trying to spin away the favorable poll numbers for Kerry that I mentioned last night. When the CNN host pointed out that no incumbent with favorability ratings this low at this point in the election cycle has gone on to win a second term, Novak retorted that no incumbent has ever lost in an election year when the economy was growing at the rate it showed through the first quarter of 2004.

He's right. One of the few things I actually remember learning from polisci courses in college was that if GDP grows by 4 percent or more in an election year, the incumbent is home-free.

But if economic growth, as measured by GDP, leads to more votes for the incumbent, why isn't it happening already? Bush apologists likely would argue that there's a lag between the "reality" of economic growth and the perception that things are picking up among the electorate, but I have another explanation: Bushonomics itself.

Yes, the economy has been growing, but its benefits haven't yet "trickled down." Brad DeLong, with an assist from the New York Times explains it a lot better than I can, but the gist is that while corporate profits never really stopped increasing throughout the 2001 recession and the subsequent slow recovery, firms haven't passed those profits along to workers. As we all know, new hiring has been slow to pick up, and while wages have risen in some fields, a lot of other folks are just working more for the same pay as employers have squeezed impressive productivity growth out of current workers rather than adding new names to the payroll. What this means is that while those at the top are doing better than ever, workers aren't seeing their compensation increase proportinally--and as a result, they're not spending enough to really kick-start a strong economic expansion.

The reason people aren't giving the president credit for the economic growth measured in GDP is that they're not seeing the benefits of that growth. If Bush really wants a hand from his buddies in corporate America, he might be well advised to suggest they stop writing him checks and start paying their workers more...

Again, we see here how Bush policies might have planted the seeds of the administration's demise. A few more of these examples and I might have to start going to synagogue again.

Friday, May 14, 2004

The Mess They're In

A new poll released on Friday, May 14 has Kerry leading Bush, 51% to 46%. (With Nader, Kerry drops under 50, but still leads Bush by a few points.) This is the first one I've seen since the race was truly joined in which the Democrat is over 50 percent in a head-to-head.

That's big, but I think the real story here--overlooked in all the Iraq mishegas--is that some of Bush's policy chickens are finally coming home to roost. The other major political news of the day was that Kerry won the endorsement of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, a union with a pretty good recent track record: they endorsed Bush in 2000, and backed Clinton in 1992 and 1996. The reason they're back with the Democrats this time is pretty straightforward: Kerry will pay to put more cops on the streets. Bush can't, and won't.

Why can't he? Four words: tax cuts and deficits. The same four words that are likely to haunt Bush every day between now and November.

Typically, presidents (and other incumbents seeking to stay in power) like to spread the jack around in the months leading up to an election. Government services improve, tax cuts appear, and so on, all with the purpose of making things seem just dandy up to the moment when you go into the booth and reward the incumbent with your vote. But record deficits have a way of chilling the enthusiasm for election-year goodie distribution--especially when the conservatives whose turnout and enthusiasm are key to any re-election hopes already think the government is spending too much.

Why are the deficits so huge? The tax cuts. The same reason we’re having trouble paying for the war. Putting the ideology aside for just a moment, Bush and his advisors made a big bet on the tax cuts actually providing enough economic stimulus to avoid truly ugly deficits--or, more accurately, they made a big bet on a sufficiently strong and timely economic recovery to make it look like the tax cuts, which actually had minimal stimulus value (giving money back to people who haven't had to put off any spending anyway doesn't do much to stoke demand or circulate dollars through the economy), had turned the tide. They’re getting some job creation now, but the jobs being created are largely crap--service work, temp hiring--and tax revenues haven’t grown enough to re-fill the coffers.

Congress won’t spend for putting more cops on the streets, more teachers in the classrooms, or any other measures that might provide a tangible counter-argument to Americans' growing sense that the country is moving in the wrong direction. The Republicans are ostensibly in control of the entire federal government, and they know that anything they do to worsen the deficit will be political manna from heaven for the opposition. So they’re stuck. Kerry, who’s planning to repeal the most egregious of the tax cuts anyway, can look like Santa Claus--the truth is, repeal of the highest-end tax cuts might not even pay for his health care plan, let alone additional domestic spending. But he’s not yet responsible for the numbers; if in 2007 he has to face a disappointed police union threatening to endorse Bill Frist or somebody, that’s a problem to worry about later.

Bush’s absurd and counterproductive tax cuts are sucking the oxygen out of his re-selection bid. Now that’s satisfying.

Perhaps even more satisfying is that Karl Rove’s cultural wedge strategy is similarly foundering on the rocks. The bad news from Iraq seems to be amplifying all the ways in which different Republican constituencies are already dissatisfied with Bush, and they all want satisfaction. The wacko Right wants a stronger push on the anti-gay marriage Hate Amendment; the NRA wants him to kill the proposed extension of the assault weapons ban. But if he moves to satisfy these elements of the base, he makes it much harder to hold on to the “security moms” and other moderate groups who aren’t hot to demonize gays or put automatic weapons in every teenager’s hand. And they’re all upset about the war anyway. The whole idea was to present the moderates with a successful and "moral" war (whoops!) and a tangibly improving economy--in other words, to offer sufficiently good conditions that they wouldn't revolt over throwing a little red meat to the haters who comprise the GOP base. Now the administration has to choose, and either way they could lose.

The dream scenario is that either Roy Moore or a strong Libertarian candidate--or, please God, both--jump into the fray and really shred the center-right coalition. If things start to look bad enough for Bush, his Congressional allies will jump ship, and just maybe some of these groups on the Right will decide that the difference between Bush and Kerry is negligible enough that they can either sit it out or vote third-party (like, um, many of us did in 2000. Mea culpa, except that I lived in a safe “Blue” state anyway.)

It’s ironic that the same guys who once asserted that “Hope is not a plan” are now reducing to basically wishing for Iraq to stabilize somehow, while the economy continues to grow without inflation or an untimely end to the housing bubble. Dependent upon events they can no longer really control, hope is all they have left.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Rumsfeld's Love Missile: Limp

As if Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wasn't in enough trouble for his disastrous mishandling of the Iraq war and the unfolding Abu Ghraib torture scandal, now comes a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists that his first and greatest love, the missile defense shield, is a total washout.

Though the system is scheduled to become operational by late 2004, the UCS finds that the Missile Defense Agency's series of tests have shown no apparent improvement against low-tech countermeasures that an enemy (North Korea, most likely) could use to throw off interceptors--and that basically we're no further along toward a workable missile defense system than we were 20 years ago:

The Block 2004 missile defense will have no demonstrated
capability to defend against a real attack since all flight intercept
tests have been conducted under highly scripted conditions with
the defense given advance information about the attack details...

...The basic goal of these intercept tests has, according to the MDA, been
to demonstrate hit to kill. But hit to kill was first demonstrated more than
20 years ago; the goal here should be to demonstrate hit to kill under
conditions relevant to intercepting long-range missiles. These tests have not
done so because the endgame conditions have been unrealistic.

Right-wing critics often blast the UCS as a liberal-leaning organization, and that's probably true (though it hardly disqualifies their scientific findings; if the program looked effective, they'd probably just keep quiet about it). But the group's findings echo those of the presumably non-partisan General Accounting Office, which just a couple weeks ago found that testing was behind schedule and was inadequate to gauge the effectiveness of the system and that contractors had overrun budgeted costs by some $380 million. "As a result, decision makers in DOD and Congress do not have a full understanding of the overall cost of developing and fielding the Ballistic Missile Defense System and what the system’s true capabilities will be."

Oh yeah--and despite the most favorable conditions, the tests were successful only 50 percent of the time. Even in George W. Bush's world, that's a failing grade. When it comes to stopping nuke-u-lar weapons, there's no "Gentleman's C."

Anyone with the stomach to learn the whole tragicomic development of the missile defense debate since Ronald Reagan first let his imagination soar in the late 1970s should read "Way Out There in the Blue," by Frances FitzGerald. The book not only details Reagan's initial obsession with the idea, but also describes how Rumsfeld and other neocon bigwigs battled to keep the flame burning through their political exile of the Clinton years (typically, Clinton cut funding for the project but never bothered to kill it off altogether--making it that much easier for the Republicans to blow additional tens of billions on this pipe dream since returning to power in 2001).

A much shorter but equally damning summary of this debacle can be found online in a piece from last month written by Paul Waldman of the Gadflyer. Waldman delivers the numbers, noting that Bush wants to spend over $10 billion for missile defense next year, and that about $100 billion has spent thus far--for, basically, nothing.

He also reminds us where the Bush administration's national security priorities really lay back in mid-2001: "Mere days before September 11, President Bush threatened to veto a defense appropriations bill because of a proposed amendment to divert money from missile defense to counterterrorism. They had a clear choice: missile defense or terrorism. Which was more important to them? Missile defense."

Unfortunately, Waldman also notes that John Kerry has offered his own tepid endorsement of the missile shield. As with so much else, on this issue he looks "less bad," rather than actually admirable. It's more than enough reason to work for his election, but hardly encouraging or inspiring... and it also means that he'll likely have to pass up a golden opportunity to blast Bush for dropping $10 billion on this wet dream of the defense industry while asking for ever more money to pay for his Iraq misadventure.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004


It's not too often I find myself in agreement with the front pages of New York's tabloid papers. But today at least, the Post ("SAVAGES") and Daily News ("PURE EVIL") both got it right in reaction to the news from Iraq yesterday that terrorists had beheaded Philadelphia-area native Nick Berg. I haven't watched the clip online; I was never much for the "Faces of Death" movies, and just reading about it made my blood boil. My first reaction, which hasn't changed in the 24 hours since, was that I wanted the perpetrators hunted down and killed. Period. Reading more about Berg has deepened my anger, if anything.

Sadly and inevitably, the right-wingers quickly picked up on this in their efforts to justify, or at least rationalize, the news of torture and prisoner abuse coming out of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Impervious to rational thought as most of them seem to be, they're missing the most important point: just as we argue--correctly--that the world shouldn't judge the United States, or even the U.S. military, on the actions of a few depraved prison guards, we need to remember that there's an important distinction between these monsters and the general Iraqi populace into which they try to blend in.

Appreciating the operational difficulty of making that distinction--and this is the central dilemma and the real parallel to Vietnam, or indeed to any guerilla war--is key to understanding just how difficult a task we've set for ourselves in Iraq. If there's an example in history of a successful effort to simultaneously fight off an insurgency, rebuild a nation's infrastructure and transform its political culture, I'm not familiar with it.

It's not a point I'd expect Rush Limbaugh or Jim Inhofe to grasp, but it is the best way to repudiate their messages of mindless belligerence and hatred.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Elephants' Graveyard
For the last year and a half or so, I've contemplated the arrival of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City with feelings of outrage, dread, and revulsion. I spent time last summer drawing up my dream "Counter-Convention" which would range from Jane Jacobs giving a keynote on how Republican policies are destroying American cities to a Central Park concert featuring Sleater-Kinney and Bruce Springsteen. Mostly, the mere thought that they were coming here to celebrate the "moral clarity" Bush Administration almost literally atop the bodies of our 9/11 dead seemed almost incomprehensible.

One evening last August, I attended a planning meeting of one of the groups gearing up to protest the convention, about a ten-minute walk from my apartment in Brooklyn. In sum, it was a trip to lefty fantasyland that, much as I'm still appalled and outraged at the Republicans' gall in coming here, and still planning to protest, I haven't yet been willing to repeat. Among the first orders of business at this meeting was to kick out a New York Times reporter who had come to check out the proceedings; my protest that this was a damn good way to alienate the media and re-confirm all sorts of stereotypes about the fringe left was quickly brushed aside. They then went on to establish that the planning group for the protest would be anti-racist, anti-homophobic, a "safe space" for transsexuals... all laudable sentiments, but it wasn't exactly like Bull Connor or Jerry Falwell were in the room trying to persecute anyone. I repeatedly tried to steer the conversation to how our protests could serve the larger goal: denying Bush a second term with which to ruin the country, mostly to no avail.

I left very worried that these idealistic people, who had disdained the political process for so long, would play right into the hands of cynical Republican operatives and lazy journalists who'd be more than happy to caricature them as "the America-hating left." My ideal protest would prominently feature veterans, little old ladies, African-American church groups and a sea of those little American flags; we're probably more likely to get the puppets, obscene signs and screaming white college-age women with lots of piercings. The city's refusal thus far to accommodate protesters with a Central Park site seems likely to raise the level of confrontation; my nightmare is that we'll see a reprise of Chicago 1968; it's not primarily the NYPD that worries me, but the Secret Service, who are in charge of security but have remained mum about their plans.

As a policy geek, the argument I'd really like to make centers on just how destructive Bush policies have been to New York City. The current Gotham Gazette gets into some of this, and offers a good overview of some of the issues that have come up for both the city and the Republicans... though the funniest piece of this news package is the "equal time" article attempting to make the case that NYC is in fact a great site for a Republican convention. The author, who has served in state government for nearly a half-century, still has to go back to the days of TR and La Guardia to find any relevant Republican heroes for the city.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Infuriational Imbecility
You could actually make an argument that this is more funny than infuriating, but as someone who's maintained for years that George W. Bush is a walking, talking middle finger in the face of the whole concept of meritocracy, this article by Jacob Weisberg of hits me where I live. Here's a li'l taste:

...if "numskull" is an imprecise description of the president, it is not altogether inaccurate. Bush may not have been born stupid, but he has achieved stupidity, and now he wears it as a badge of honor. What makes mocking this president fair as well as funny is that Bush is, or at least once was, capable of learning, reading, and thinking. We know he has discipline and can work hard (at least when the goal is reducing his time for a three-mile run). Instead he chose to coast, for most of his life, on name, charm, good looks, and the easy access to capital afforded by family connections.

The most obvious expression of Bush's choice of ignorance is that, at the age of 57, he knows nothing about policy or history. After years of working as his dad's spear-chucker in Washington, he didn't understand the difference between Medicare and Medicaid, the second- and third-largest federal programs. Well into his plans for invading Iraq, Bush still couldn't get down the distinction between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the key religious divide in a country he was about to occupy. Though he sometimes carries books for show, he either does not read them or doesn't absorb anything from them.

Again, here's the whole thing.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Ah, That's the Stuff

The Phils stick their collective nose over .500 for the first time this season with an impressive 7-1 win over the Diamondbacks, completing the sweep in Arizona. Great night of redemption for the young guys: Marlon Byrd reaches base five times with two hits, two walks and an HBP, Jimmy Rollins collects four hits, and the much-maligned Brett Myers is absolutely dominant with seven innings of one-run ball. He walked nobody.

How better to say it than with haiku?

Happy to be wrong!
Phils sweep in the desert, and
All's right with the world.

Rollins' four-hit night
Would be a week's worth last month
Start of something big?

Myers' arm looked fine
Seven frames, one run, no walks
A rare easy win.

Always nice to go into an off-day riding the momentum of a few wins. Now we just need Billy Wagner's back to stop spasming and everything would be just ducky...

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Happy Birthday, Thomas Pynchon!!!

America's greatest novelist--living or dead--is 67 years young today. If you see a guy on the New York streets with a big bag over his head festooned with question marks, please wish him many happy returns.

Friday, May 07, 2004

The Road to Victory
Okay. Over the years, people--well, really just Anne--have suggested that I have, in addition to whatever other talents and qualities I might possess, a finely honed strategic sense when it comes to politics. Generally, I've used this the way cooler guys might use a card trick or magic: as a sort of parlor amusement or mildly diverting intellectual exercise. ("If Bob Kerrey had just used x campaign theme in 1992, Bill Clinton never would have been president in the first place!") More often, I think I've been able to take a pretty good recall of American history and a lot of wasted hours reading old Life magazines and the Theodore H. White books and What it Takes, and somehow convince people I knew what I was talking about.

But just in case I do know what I'm talking about, I thought it would be interesting to try and map out a campaign strategy for John Kerry. If nothing else, I'll be able to compare what they actually do with what I prescribe, and clearly I'm not overly (some might say sufficiently) afraid of looking stupid anyway.

So here it is. I'm talking about broad themes here rather than specific episodes of flesh-pressing, cash-calling or wedge-issue-exploiting. (Well, maybe a little of that last one. But see.)

1) Clinton Plus
One of Bill Clinton's biggest challenges was convincing the electorate that he was a grown-up. He evidently lacked personal discipline, and was a bit of a policy slut in that he would flit from one issue to the next... at least while in office. On the campaign trail he was actually quite good at staying "on message," and this was why he was more or less able to convince skeptical voters that he could be trusted with both The Button and The Budget. And while he proved largely unable to keep his trousers up, he also proved a good fiscal steward and economic manager, and repeatedly showed his policy centrist bona fides through the pledge to "end welfare as we know it" (eventually, to keep up appearances, he signed a bill far more harsh than what he wanted) and other measures such as the 1994 crime bill.

John Kerry is well positioned to leverage the trust Clinton won that a Democrat won't just come in and spend like crazy, empty out the jails, legalize every drug on the market and cut the defense budget to the bone. (I offer, for now, no editorial opinion on whether or not some or all of these moves might actually make sense.) He's a somewhat budget-hawkish New Englander, a former war hero and prosecutor, and he just looks responsible (he's shaggy, but more in an Aragorn-ish way than like a '70s-era ballplayer). If anything, he's too much of a grownup, vis-a-vis Bush's Bad Wittle Boy.

So he starts by embracing Clinton's basic policy centrism: fiscally cautious, tough on crime, not beholden to the high-profile interest constituencies on the left. And he's off to a fairly good start here, though the "Contract With the Middle Class" was both clunkily phrased and too quickly abandoned for the next slogan. (The inverse of Clinton's discipline on the stump. Kerry badly needs a message hierarchy, though I think he'll fix that eventually.) But that's not enough.

2) One Big Dream. Maybe Two.
Michael Dukakis trotted out the slogan "Competence, not Ideology" for his 1988 campaign against G.H.W. Bush, but really it was Clinton who ran on that (while coming up with catchier catchphrases like "The Man From Hope") four years later... once Bush's competence could be called into question through four years of his presidency, and at a time when there wasn't all that much ideology floating around anyway: Americans mostly wanted to pick the better manager. Twelve years later, it's a different Bush but half the same story. So far, Kerry's entire campaign has held a critical mirror up to G.W. Bush's administration. He's making a lawyerly case that Bush's job performance doesn't merit another term.

He's right, but unlike in 1992 when Bush Sr. struggled with "the vision thing" and never offered a compelling rationale for his candidacy--leaving his "competence" as the only ground of contention--this Bush has vision out the ying-yang. Ideology is his raison d'etre. So Kerry needs a competing vision (and it had better kick the ass of Clinton's long- and deservedly-forgotten "New Paradigm").

Kerry needs one or two compelling goals by which we, and presumably history one day, can gauge his Presidency--something akin to Kennedy's race to the moon. And no, "Ten Million New Jobs in Four Years" doesn't count. It's a fine pledge, but it just doesn't get the blood racing. Ditto some non-tangible metric about student test scores or "every child gets a quality teacher." This needs to be an accomplishment that, like the Apollo Program, we can all psychologically share. Even better if we all somehow reap the benefits.

The one I would go for is energy independence. I'd pledge to free America from reliance upon Middle Eastern oil by 2025, through reduced consumption, alternate source development and enhanced domestic production. The liberals won't like that last one, but it makes sense on a lot of levels. One, you somewhat undercut the oil industry's support of Bush--they'll still back him, but inevitably some of those petrodollars will flow our way too, and maybe they won't back Bush quite as enthusiastically knowing that Kerry would, say, be open to some ANWR drilling in return for a ten mile per gallon hike in CAFE standards. And that sort of compromise--which you can couch in language of letting the Alaskans determine what to do with their own land--helps build a bridge to independent voters in the short term, while getting them onboard for the big visionary goal of energy freedom. Also, the argument that environmentalism can be an input to economic development, rather than a detriment, is a winner just because it's something that Americans want to believe. Never underestimate the power of the stories we tell ourselves.

Finally, I have a pet theory that a lot of Bush supporters are very uneasy about our close ties with Saudi Arabia (as they should be). I don't think we can peel off a lot of these people, but by flaunting a few examples where he can run to Bush's right--spending discipline is the other big one here--he might just be able to depress turnout and zeal among weak Republicans at least.

3) War--What is it Good For?
This is where Kerry is already closest to my vision of his campaign. Just like Clinton had to convince the voters he was a "New Democrat" on economic and domestic policy matters, Kerry has to do the same on foreign policy. (Clinton tried to do this too with Kosovo and other little interventions, but he didn't have the cred, and the stakes were never anywhere close to this high.) He needs to question Bush's administration of the war above all--it's fertile ground, and to the extent that he can make the argument Bush has needlessly inflamed the enemy and risked American lives, he slices the guts out of Bush's "War President" argument. The sort of question to ask is: "Has the War in Iraq really helped us win the War on Terror? Was it worth the costs? Has it been fought intelligently?" Apply a similar calculus to our larger position in the world--with respect to allies, treaties, and trade--and Bush just can't come off well.

To nail this down, I'd love to see him tap Wes Clark as his running mate. Clark, as I've noted before, has the best biography of any of the contenders--except for Rep. John Lewis, but he's not really a contender outside of my imagination--and offers much more reassurance that the Democrats can be trusted with the national defense. (Plus he probably swings Arkansas, which is currently polling dead even.) Finally, Clark is a walking, talking refutation of the truism that "the best people don't go into politics"--this is a brilliant, totally self-made man who has succeeded in one of the last great meritocracies in American life. As I've noted elsewhere, he's the sort of pol who could make being a Democrat cool again.

So that's it. Reaffirm Clinton's strengths, give us one or two big dreams, and tout a "Stronger--And Smarter" line on defense. Stay on message, don't pick a douchebag running mate, and get ready to party like it's 1933--or at least, 1993--come next January.
'Bout Damn Time

Vicente Padilla gets a little love from his bats at last, and picks up his first win of the season in a 4-1 decision over Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks. Always satisfying to beat a Hall of Famer.

And Bowa finally splits the lefties! The Abreu-Burrell-Thome configuration probably is just a fluke stemming from Johnson's unholy powers over lefty hitters, but maybe Bowa will just choose not to mess with a winning formula and send them out that way again tomorrow. It seems as likely, or not, as any other rationale he might stumble upon for making a move... he did resort to Dumb Managerial Twitch Number Two, using Cormier as a lefty specialist then calling on Worrell for the righthanded hitter. Then he brought in Wagner to "save" a three-run lead. Jerome Holtzman might have been a wonderful guy, but he inadvertantly caused a lot of baseball thinkers a lot of sleepless nights with his gimmicky little stat.

Unfortunately the whole thing isn't online, but this essay in Mother Jones might just be the best summation of where we are at the intersection of culture, politics and psychology that I've ever read. It's not actually as much Infuriational as thought-provoking and somewhat saddening, but worth a read in any event.

In the full version, by the way, the author takes Clinton to task for coming up with the ultimate political slogan for impenetrable selfishness (my phrase, not his): "It's the economy, stupid." In other words: if I got mine, then Screw you, Jack...

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Polls Go Up, Polls Go Down. Polls Go Up, Polls Go Down...

Still recovering from my Invasive Medical Procedure (tm) from Thursday afternoon, I report with some deflation that the daily Rasmussen Election 2004 Tracking Poll for May 6 has Kerry and Bush once again tied with 45 percent each, after three straight days of Kerry leading by three or four points. Even if your computer doesn't have a talkbox, you can almost actually hear the sigh of relief as Rasmussen--known for its Republican tilt--announces that the Kerry lead of Monday through Wednesday was a result of Sunday night's "unusually strong sample" for the Democrat; dropping it from the three-day running average brings us back to par.

I'd categorize my excessive attention to Rasmussen and other polls as a guilty pleasure, except it's not so much a pleasure as a compulsion, and it doesn't inspire feelings of guilt so much as feelings of idiocy...

Anyway, I had hoped that the apparent trend was a reflection of popular revulsion at the Iraq prisoner torture revelations. To me this seemed to undercut, even for the willfully know-nothing 40-50 percent who remain "behind" the Preznit, his whole story of American benevolence, liberation, democratization and the rest of those words he probably doesn't understand. I've broached this theory on Kos and other sites, and have gotten a response basically amounting to "those rednecks actually like the fact that we're torturing Iraqazoid Islamiacs" (I'm paraphrasing here). I still can't believe that: pictures of torture and humiliation have to evoke emotions of empathy and compassion, don't they? If just because we're all prone to nightmares and fear of helplessness in the face of inhumanity and evil. I guess we'll see.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Despite Himself

Good Phils win tonight: they rode a strong start from Kevin Millwood and home runs from Marlon Byrd and David "Mr. Clutch/Cool Pop-Up" Bell to a 5-4 victory. And once again they managed a victory despite the waves of idiocy radiating out of the home dugout. Notably, Bowa semi-repeated several of his boneheaded moves from last week's 5-4 extra-inning loss to the Cards: with a man on second, no outs and the Phils up 5-3 in the eighth, he brought in Rheal Cormier to face lefty Jim Edmonds. Edmonds grounded out, advancing the runner to third. Then, rather than leaving Cormier--who handles lefties and righties about equally--in to face Scott Rolen, Bowa stayed true to platoon-crazy form, just as in the game last week. Again, he called on a right-hander--this time Todd Worrell rather than the injured Roberto Hernandez, to face Scott Rolen instead of Reggie Sanders. Worrell got Rolen to ground out, scoring the run but leaving the bases empty with two outs, and ended the inning without further disaster.

In the bottom of the eighth, with the Phils looking for insurance, Bowa's worst and most common strategic misstep bit us in the butt yet again: with lefty sluggers Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome hitting back to back, the Cardinals brought in a lefty reliever to face those two and then switched to the right-hander when Pat Burrell came to bat. All three of those guys are much less scary against pitchers from the same side; split Burrell between the lefties and you're going to get at least one real good matchup. But in game after game, Bowa sends them out lefty-lefty-righty, and opposing managers adopt. Sometimes, as was the case tonight, we win anyway. Sometimes it costs us a potential big edge in a close game we go on to lose.

Meanwhile, Wagner came in for the ninth and faced Reggie Sanders, who hit the big three-run triple against Hernandez in the loss last week while Wagner sat in the bullpen. Tonight, he struck Sanders out for the ninth time in 15 career at-bats. Sanders is still looking for his first career hit off Wagner. Sure would have been nice to see that matchup last Thursday.

The Phils once again try to finally scale Mount .500 again tomorrow afternoon. They're something like 1-6 this season in their efforts to reach the break-even mark, with the lone win coming in the second game of the season.
The Big Chill

One of my pet theories about the consolidation of American culture is that it will obviate the need for government censorship as corporate leaders and government officials find themselves sharing values and interests to the point that "inflammatory content" will be squelched before ever even seeing the light of distribution. If you can get everybody--or at least everybody important enough to make a difference--thinking on the same page, there's no reason to impose restrictive standards: companies will be happy to censor themselves.

So on the heels of the FCC/Clear Channel jihad against Howard Stern, and the rabidly pro-Bush Sinclair Broadcast Group's refusal to allow its eight ABC affiliates to air last Friday's "Nightline," in which Ted Koppel read the names of the Iraq war dead, we have the Disney Corporation's announcement that it will not allow its Miramax subsidiary to distribute Michael Moore's film "Fahrenheit 911," a reportedly blistering attack on the Bush administration's conduct before, during and after September 11. Not surprisingly, the repulsive Michael Eisner--whom I've detested ever since he accepted the Anaheim Angels' World Series trophy in 2002 in Mickey Mouse corporate garb--is at the center of this move:

Mr. Moore's agent, Ari Emanuel, said Michael D. Eisner, Disney's chief executive, asked him last spring to pull out of the deal with Miramax. Mr. Emanuel said Mr. Eisner expressed particular concern that it would endanger tax breaks Disney receives for its theme park, hotels and other ventures in Florida, where Mr. Bush's brother, Jeb, is governor.

"Michael Eisner asked me not to sell this movie to Harvey Weinstein; that doesn't mean I listened to him," Mr. Emanuel said. "He definitely indicated there were tax incentives he was getting for the Disney corporation and that's why he didn't want me to sell it to Miramax. He didn't want a Disney company involved."

In other words: sorry, artists, but there's money to be made. Deregulation to be lobbied for. Favor to curry. Nobs to hob.

Oh, and if you're curious, Mr. Eisner donated $5,000 to the National Republican Campaign Committee last September, presumably earning a big wet sloppy kiss from Tom DeLay and pals. (God bless you,!)

I've found that Michael Moore is more than occasionally full of it; his primary-season support of Wes Clark probably did more harm than good, and like many on the far left he has a bad habit of undermining his important points through over-the-top rhetoric or just needlessly offending potential supporters. But if there's any justice in this world--funny how often I find myself using that phrase these days--this flap will drive many more Americans to see his movie than if the corporate zombies at Disney had just let the work stand for itself.

More interesting in the longer term (and a point made in the Nation article about Stern and the FCC) is whether and how "the market," that all-purpose deus ex machina of the right, will respond to the real but increasingly suppressed demand for programming that falls outside the boundaries of what people like Eisner, Donald Wildmon and Michael Powell find acceptable. Will we all be on satellite TV in five years? Are we likely to see a fleet of little boats sailing around Manhattan, firing pirate radio into the ether? I don't know, but there has to be some answer when the overwhelming corporate power of the Disneys infringes upon your and my brainspace.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Most Disturbing

This is from Philliesphans (which I've really got to put up a permanent link to, already), from a poster who claims to have inside information about the team and/or work in the front office. I believe him, based on several occasions when this poster informed the community that something big--a trade, a signing--was in the works and then hours later the event did in fact come to pass.

The topic specifically at hand has to do with whether the Phillies will bring up a reliever to expand the staff and/or cut ineffective vet Roberto Hernandez to give someone else a shot. But in general it seems to accurately reflect the Phils' philosophy on acquiring and "proven veteran relief pitchers"--something that has driven me friggin' nuts about this team for four years running--versus giving minor-leaguers a chance to contribute from the bullpen. So here's his post, with my response following below:

If you are management, this is the year. This is the year to put the best possible team on the field. Roberto Hernandez has a career ERA of 3.31 with 320 career saves. He has experience. He has experience in big games. Is he still in his prime? No. Has he given up a few big hits so far this season? Yes he has, but who doesn't? So has Worrell, even Wagner blew a game. It happens. But Hernandez has very good stuff and he has experience. If the Phils were to bring up one of these young guys that are being discussed, and they get hit, then everyone will say what an idiot Ed Wade is to bring up unexperienced pitchers in a possible championship season. Either way, people will find a way to complain.
There are other teams in this league that would go for the rookie [over Hernandez]...why? because they won't spend the money like the Phils have. All you had for 8 straight years were inexperienced rookies. Year after year a young Phillies team would get clobbered. And year after year the fan base complained to spend money. So now the Phils spend money, but now you want some young kids back. Either you were not a phan a few years ago or you are being too critical.

(And I wrote:)

...this is a straw man argument... and, disturbingly, it suggests that pricetag is more important than performance in terms of the Phils' personnel decisions. Hence the acquisition of a washed-up and ineffective--but certainly well-compensated--Mike Williams last summer.

Wade has made this mistake again and again and again. Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook--both veteran relievers with plenty of "big game experience"--arguably cost us the playoffs in 2001. Timlin did little of value after coming aboard in 2002. Plesac was marginally helpful, but ultimately not a difference-maker. They all represented "spending money"... unwisely.

For everyone but the Yankees and the truly poor teams at the bottom, success depends on using your resources wisely. To me, this means paying top dollar for the superstars, getting cost certainty for the up-and-comers, and being resource-efficient everywhere else. Wade has established his big-spending cred by signing Thome and taking on a lot of salary for Wagner and Milton in trades this past winter. YOU DON'T NEED TO DO IT IN THE BULLPEN!

Look at the Anaheim 'pen from 2002, when they won the title. Aside from Troy Percival, how many of those guys made appreciably more than the minimum? By your philosophy, though, Ben Weber and Brendan Donnelly wouldn't even have merited a shot--and the lame (and dishonest) excuse would have been that "the fans" wanted Mike Timlin, Todd Jones, Rod Beck or some other guy in his late 30s who once saved a lot of games but can't get it done anymore.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again while expecting a different result. Wade needs to get over his fetish for veteran relievers. What Roberto Hernandez did in 1995, or where he ranks on the all-time saves list (saves is a crap stat anyway), isn't just irrelevant to his ability to get it done in 2004--it's actually harmful.

The "back of the baseball card" might not lie, but past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Mission of Burma: Act Two

One nice thing about the acceleration of culture caused by the blooming of a million media outlets and new markets for every niche that the notion of "prophets without honor" is fast becoming obsolete. Bands of thirty years ago and painters of the last century might have died unknown and penniless only to have their greatness discovered later; today it's much more likely that any worthy artistic accomplishment will meet with recognition and praise. (The downside of this, of course, is that a lot of crap gets lionized, and some of it even becomes canonical. But that's a different story.)

So it makes me happy to note that today, the Boston band Mission of Burma releases its first new album in more than 20 years. A great if mostly unheralded quartet that fused punk aggression, musical accomplishment, terrific songwriting chops and radically advanced production and sound manipulation, MoB released a single, an EP and one full-length album between 1979 and 1983, when the band amicably split after singer/guitarist Roger Miller's tinnitus became too much to deal with. The three Burmen went onto other musical projects and other careers and started families, but reunited in 2002 for a few shows. They were amazed to find that in their two decades of hiatus, they'd not only inspired bands from R.E.M. to Moby but also had found the large audience that had eluded them in their heyday. Michael Azzerad's excellent book Our Band Could Be Your Life, which included a lengthy essay on Mission of Burma, probably had a lot to do with this--but the music also just held up incredibly well.

Burma started writing new songs and touring extensively, filmed a documentary titled "Inexplicable" about their unlikely resurrection, and finally signed with Matador Records early this year. The new LP, ONoffON, reportedly sounds much like the band's superb 1982 album Vs., and from seeing them perform in New York this past January I can vouch for the continued excellence of the new songwriting. A couple MP3s are available on Matador's site, and I'm hoping to pick up the CD soon.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American life. But these three over-45 guys rock hard enough to put most 20somethings to shame, which should give hope to all of us trying to age with more style than grace.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Wilson's Wisdom

Here's Ambassador Joe Wilson on the modern Republican Party:

If you're fiscally responsible, this is not your party. If you believe in a moderate foreign policy characterized by alliances, free trade and the ability to operate in an international environment, this is not your party. If you believe that the government should stay out of your bedroom, this is very definitely not your party. In fact, I would argue that unless you believe in the American imperium, imposed on the world by force, or unless you beliver in the literal interpretation of the Book of Revelations, this is not your party.

This is a man who comes from a "staunch Republican family," entered government service under Reagan, was praised as "an American hero" by the first President Bush, and donated two grand to Dubya just four years ago.

Just another Democrat hack attacking the honor and integrity of Dear Leader, much as O'Neill, Clarke, DiIulio, Beers...

...and Richard Foster, the Medicare actuary who revealed that his boss in the Bush Administration-turned-industry lobbyist Thomas Scully forbade him from informing legislators about the true cost of the prescription drug benefit that narrowly passed Congress last year. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has found that the administration "probably violated federal law" by muzzling Foster.

Truth--and dedicated, nonpartisan public servants like Wilson, Richard Clarke, and Foster--presents the biggest threat to this bunch of ideologues, madmen and pathological liars. As noted on The Daily Show this evening, the facts themselves seem to have a strong anti-Bush bias.
A Convert's Fervor

If there are any cowards of conscience remaining on the fringe Republican right, David Brock is probably their bogeyman of choice. A former flunkey of Richard Mellon Scaife and other wingnut financiers who wrote hit pieces against the Clintons and others through the 1990s for publications like The American Spectator, Brock turned on his erstwhile masters with a vengeance in his memoir Blinded by the Right. The book exposed just how deep the hypocrisy runs on the other side, and unearthed a lot of skeletons from a lot of closets. (Brock himself came out of the closet around the time the book was released, and included some bitchily funny digs at Matt Drudge and others in his volume.)

Now he's back with an incredibly useful and timely website that should quickly takes its place alongside Air America, Daily Kos and other touchstones of the progressive blogosphere: Media Matters. Brock's intention is to spotlight the most disgraceful, offensive, and flat-out false incidents of vocal flatulence from the Limbaughs, Hannitys and Foxfolks of this world, and he's off to a pretty kick-ass start. Here are some of the initial headlines:

And here's Brock himself on the what and the why:

The conservative media machine dominates our discourse, not because it is based in fact or logic but because it operates with almost total impunity. That ends today, as Media Matters for America puts in place, for the first time, the means to systematically monitor the media for conservative misinformation -- every day, in real time -- in 2004 and beyond.

As William Shatner once said: This is gonna be big. Bravo, David Brock.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

They Did What?!?

Unlikely Phils win today that did a lot to take the bad taste from last night's debacle out of my mouth. Down 4-0 against Brandon Webb who retired something like 12 in a row over the middle innings, the team rallied with a two-run jack by Tomas "the Happy Hacker" Perez in the 7th and a pinch-hit bomb from Burrell to tie it in the ninth. (I'd done the sit-at-home equivalent of leaving early, turning off the choppy web radio signal a few minutes before. Fortunately it's easier to re-engage pushing a few buttons than turning the car around and trying to convince some zit-faced usher to let you back into your seats.) After a frustrating missed opportunity with the bases loaded and one out in the 11th, then an Arizona run following a Rollins error that would have ended the top of the 14th, the Phils came back one more time with a pinch-double by David "Mr. Clutch" Bell, who was immediately pinch-run for by Randy Wolf. Following an IBB to Abreu and a more-or-less IBB to Thome, they won it on a presumably unintentional walk to Ricky Ledee that forced Wolf home. Young Ryan Madson picked up his second win--and a good thing too, because if not for the two-spot in the 14th he would have earned his second loss to go with a 0.00 ERA for the season. That's no fun.

This was one of those games where the losing vibe seemed overpowering. But maybe the Phils are the baseball equivalent of a fighter who needs to get punched a few times just to wake up. Now let's see if we can finally scale Mount .500, and then catch the evil Marlins.

Meanwhile, the release of Joe Wilson's book this weekend reminds me that the Valerie Plame scandal could yet be the figurative pony in the big pile of manure under the Xmas tree we call the Bush administration. (Take your time figuring that one out.) Here's a good interview with Wilson himself.

If there's any justice, the bastards will burn for this one. My question is why none of our tribunes in the press corps(e) have ever questioned Bush the Elder about this disgraceful violation of a law he pushed to enact back in the day, and whether he thinks his son's flunkies are indeed "the most insidious of traitors."

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Now *That's* Infuriational

Few journalists working today bring the rage at the level of Greg Palast. Few topics inspire anger and frustration like the disenfranchisement of African-American voters. Bring the two together and reach for the Tums.

The mere fact that officials can contemplate these shenanigans speaks volumes about the disengagement on the left, including the African-American community that just forty years ago spearheaded the greatest moral advance in the history of American civilization, the modern civil rights movement. But who will take the lead? I don't trust anyone whose instinct for self-promotion seems to eclipse their instinct for social justice, and sadly that seems to describe most of the aspirants to leadership in black America. He provided some entertaining moments during the campaign, but I still just can't stand Al Sharpton, and it goes beyond a history of misdeeds that includes slander, police informing and all manner of back-channel deals with the same right-wing scumbags he publicly rails against. Lenora Fulani's a kook with some unsavory associations of her own; Farrakhan and his associates are anti-Semites. Jesse Jackson actually has done some admirable things in a generally mixed career, but he probably destroyed whatever credibility he had left when the story of his illegitimate child came out. There are surviving heroes of the civil rights movement still on the scene, from my dream vice-presidential pick Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) to Julian Bond to (I think) Wyatt Tee Walker. But they don't seem to connect in mainstream culture. Hip-hop cultural icons like Chuck D don't seem to have big-picture aspirations (though I like Chuck's radio gig on Air America and it seems like he keeps busy speaking and organizing).

The point of all this is that there's a leadership void. The story Palast tells in this article should prompt rage in the streets: any budding Katherine Harris types out there should feel actual fear that if they pull this nonsense again, they're going to see tens of thousands of enraged citizens outside the front door (not to mention a small army of lawyers working to restore voting rights). Where is the King or Malcolm figure who will stand up and lead this effort? If this isn't worth fighting for, I honestly don't know what is.
Happy Loyalty Day!

To my surprise, this exercise in red-baiting has its origins not with the neo-Orwellians in the Bush administration, but in an earlier time of fear and loathing...

But I'm sure the folks in the White House have a special zeal for any holiday from critical thinking, particularly on this one-day anniversary of Operation Flight Suit.
Captain Anti-Jinx

A couple weeks ago during a Phils-Expos game, I wrote the following about Randy Wolf on

I'm getting a little depressed about Randy Wolf.

It's not that I don't think he'll turn it around this season; if he's healthy, I'm confident he will. But with yet another slow start this year, I think the third in his last four seasons, it's just starting to look to me like he's never going to grow into the wire-to-wire staff leader I'd hoped he would be. He's young enough to resume a path toward stardom, and lefties often don't really blossom until late, but his forward progress seems to have stalled.

Not that there's anything at all wrong with winning 12-16 games every year with 200 innings and an ERA between 3.50 and 4, but maybe because he's homegrown and just seems to be a likeable guy, I had hoped for more.

Wolf had allowed three runs in the first inning that day, and as I wrote he was trying to wriggle out of a jam in the third, which he managed to do. He held the Expos off the board the rest of the way and left that game with a 4-3 lead but wound up with a no-decision as the Phils eventually won, 5-4.

As it happened, Wolf started a stretch of 21 straight scoreless innings that afternoon, which he extended with a complete-game shutout against Montreal last weekend and seven more last night against Arizona as the Phils won 4-0.

Granted, these aren't exactly the '27 Yankees he's faced, but it's still unusually nice to see myself apparently proven wrong...