Saturday, July 31, 2004

The Slow-Motion Collapse of the 2004 Phillies

This was the post I really didn't want to write. But after five straight losses, the annual Braves afterburner activation, and two baffling, stupid, pointless trades to sate Ed Wade's perverted fetish for veteran relievers--and considering how said trades strongly suggest that Larry Bowa will finish the year in the Phillies' dugout--I don't know what other conclusion to draw.

Let's start with the Marlins series--two close, late, painful losses bookended by blowouts. We saw mediocre (at best) starting pitching, a series of bullpen meltdowns, and very quiet performances from the lineup core of Abreu, Thome and Burrell. And while the Phils did come back to tie the score in both the Tuesday and Wednesday games, consensus reports had it that the team looked beaten. Every day the Philly media carried stories with quotes from guys like Rheal Cormier and Roberto Hernandez--themselves veteran relievers of the type that reduces Wade to slobbering, incoherent GM lust--taking unmistakeable shots at Bowa even as their own horrible performances doomed the team in the close games. (Cormier took a second loss this week Friday at Wrigley Field in Chicago, even as Wade was presumeably closing the deals for his new bullpen pals.) Everything indicated that Bowa was within days, maybe hours, of his well-deserved dismissal; ESPN radio reported that Bowa likely would be canned before the team headed to San Diego Sunday night. The team held a 35-minute closed-door meeting after Thursday's 10-1 annihilation in Florida--their 14th straight road loss to the Marlins.

Then some good news from the minors yesterday: AA stars Gavin Floyd and Ryan Howard both earned promotions to AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. And while the team lost to the Cubs, the offense showed signs of life as Abreu and Burrell both homered twice in the game. (Bobby added another one today, giving the Phils the slender 4-3 lead they hold as I write this. In the top of the 7th just concluded, Lieberthal's one-out single was erased as Millwood bunted into a 3-6-4 inning-ending double play. Bold prediction: we will be behind by the time this post goes live.)

And then I heard about the trades last night, after coming home from an enjoyable evening watching They Might Be Giants at the Prospect Park bandshell here in Brooklyn. Ledee and a minor-league prospect to San Francisco for Felix Rodriguez... okay, Rodriguez has a good arm, though I was sorry to see Ledee's pop and professionalism subtracted from the dugout. And ex-Reds reliever Todd Jones, aging vet reliever and self-professed homophobe, along with a prospect for Josh Hancock, one of Bowa's three "AAA relievers" and another prospect. Happily I went to bed without finding out who the prospects were.

Good thing I did. (By the way, Millwood has walked Aram-Ram Ramirez on four pitches to lead off the home seventh.) The "throw-in" in the Giants trade was Alfredo Simon, a big kid with mid-90s heat who has thrown complete-game wins in his last three starts for High-A Clearwater. To the Reds goes Anderson Machado, a AAA shortstop with a great glove and advanced on-base skills. The prospect we got back in that deal is a 23 year-old high-A outfielder who's done nothing of note in his pro career. It is to vomit.

(Michael Barrett grounds out, 5-3; Aram-Ram to second.)

Adding two relief pitchers while weakening the overall talent in the organization is a classic Dead Weight move. Yes, he can now claim to have "done something," and admittedly there was a need for bullpen help with Ryan Madson and Billy Wagner disabled and none of the starters showing consistent ability to pitch beyond the sixth inning. But right now, what's the point? The Phils are 4.5 back of the Braves, who have won four straight while their rivals have lost. Worse, by addressing Bowa's top complaint--that he didn't have reliable big-league relievers--Wade indicates that his manager will be given the rest of the season. Yeah, he'll probably be canned in October or November, but that just pushes the hoped-for dismissal of Wade back another year beyond that.

(Millwood strikes out Alex Gonzalez... and then leaves the game, apparently injured. Shit, now what? The aforementioned Cormier is coming on to face pinch-hitter Tom Goodwin. Give credit to Millwood--this was his third quality start in four since the all-star break.)

This team just doesn't get it. Bowa can't construct a lineup, he's still wasting roster spots with worthless Doug Glanville and Roberto Hernandez, Chase Utley should be playing at least against every right-handed pitcher. The players seem to have given up on him, and none of the young players at the big-league level have shown much progress, arguably aside from Jimmy Rollins: god knows what it would take to get Pat Burrell straightened out, and he's supposed to be a franchise cornerstone. Worse, the pitchers evidently detest pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, whom many of us saw as a savior when he was hired in late 2002. But Randy Wolf's development has stalled, Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers remain enigmas, and Millwood certainly has been a huge overall disappointment since coming over from Atlanta. It's possible the team would want to see Kerrigan fired even more than they'd like Bowa's head.

Worse, I don't see any of this getting much better until Bowa and Wade are both gone, assuming the team doesn't hire other incompetents--like Bob Boone and Ruben Amaro Jr.--to replace them. Incredibly, considering their seeming great luck in signing Jim Thome, trading for Millwood, Wagner and Eric Milton, and getting a revenue boost from the new park, they could easily fail to see the playoffs for years to come.

(But they did get out of the Cubs' seventh; Cormier got Goodwin to fly out to center, and it's still 4-3 with one out in the 8th.)

Non-baseball note: Will Saletan of has a very strong analysis of Kerry's acceptance speech from the other night and how the campaign might play out from here.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

The End of the Beginning
The Democratic convention is over. Now we catch our collective breath for four weeks, hope that the Republican convention comes and goes through this city I live in without undue damage to either the protestors or the collective effort to liberate our country from the right-wing thugocracy currently in control, and then watch the final two-month sprint that starts right after Labor Day.

I watched more of this convention than I'd planned to, and I'm mostly glad that I did. John Kerry wasn't my first choice to be the Democratic presidential nominee, but I think this week he moved me, and probably a lot of others, from supporting him as "not Bush" toward a belief that this man is worth entrusting with the leadership of the government. In his acceptance speech tonight, at the very least, he presented himself as credible, serious, and substantive.

Though it wasn't a slam-dunk from the get-go. Kerry will never be the natural orator that Bill Clinton is, or that Ted Kennedy once was. He still steps on his own applause lines, and he slips and stumbles over words--certainly not like Bush, but that's a low bar indeed. He seemed a bit goofy, a bit forced at the outset, and the stuff about his family and background seemed more de rigour than truly heartfelt. But he caught a rhythm about twenty minutes in and stayed on it for the rest of the way, with a series of great riffs on economic disparities, health care, and energy independence--the three issues where he can absolutely pummel Bush with confidence that he'll have three quarters of the electorate with him. And he closed with an honest-to-goodness rhetorical flourish, asking why we shouldn't dream again of a world where we cure diseases, build a truly new economy on the gains to be realized from new fuels and new technologies, and reconnect with our shared tradition of optimism and audacious dreams.

He was more than credible on the national security stuff as well... which, after all, is why the party nominated him. (Right?) I've thought for a long time that where Clinton did the Democratic Party a long-term favor by neutralizing the issues of crime and welfare which had long swung against the Dems, Kerry could finish the job by restoring general confidence that the party can be entrusted with the "defense" of the U.S. He knows this stuff cold, he's thought about it all very seriously, and unlike most of his former rivals (including the guy he picked to run with him), he doesn't seem eager to change the subject when security matters come up. I look forward to the foreign policy-themed debate; that's where Kerry truly could seal the deal.

Kerry's speech was effective and I think it marks an important milestone on his road to convincing the voters to change presidents. But the speeches earlier in the week by Barack Obama and John Edwards reminded me of why I am a Democrat. It really boils down to one thing: the Republicans, by and large, are content with a certain level of human misery in the world, and the Democrats are not. Whether poverty represents a dimly revealed divine judgment of some kind, or just the invisible hand of the capitalist system, with a few honorable exceptions of the Jack Kemp stripe, they're not really concerned with material want or with corrupted democratic or governmental processes unless it directly challenges their position. Perhaps this wasn't always so, but in my conscious lifetime (I'm 31), the Republicans have demonstrated a consistent love for power over principle. One of the very best things that might come of a Kerry victory this year would be for the Republican Party to re-examine the cynicism and compromises that underscore the strength of their current electoral coalition. A reformed Republican Party restored to its best self--fiscally responsible at home, cautious in foreign affairs, mindful of libertarian traditions and individual rights and freedoms--would be a great thing for the country. It would be nice to feel about more Republicans the way I feel about John McCain: I disagree with him on 75 percent of "the issues," but I trust his judgment and his character, and I believe he venerates the Constitution. Too many Republicans in the current ruling clique seem to view that document as an impediment to amassing power.

To be sure, the Democrats want power as well; that's why this convention was so much more disciplined and controlled than past Democratic events. But I believe the Democrats are much more prone to see power as a means to worthy ends, rather than for simple self-enrichment or self-aggrandizement. We are the party of ideals, the party of community, the party that values both individual freedoms and shared endeavor for mutual good. We recognize that responsibility is a part of enlightened self-interest; Republicans' self-interest is benighted and often mean-spirited. (Clinton's point Monday night about how the Republicans need a divided America, but Democrats don't, was right on.) I have often found myself in the ranks of "Democrats by default," but hearing from Obama, Edwards, Kerry and others, this week I enjoyed the rare and welcome feeling of pride in this party.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Taking Orders from the Phoenix?

By now you might have heard about Matt Bai's impressive and very important piece in last Sunday's New York Times magazine, about the emerging network of deep-pocketed donors, activists and thinkers who are trying to build a new infrastructure to advance progressive politics. In the surest sign that a piece is rippling through the intelligentsia, it's already inspired a meta-analysis from the usually worthwhile Michael Tomasky at The American Prospect, which in turn sparked a retort from the usually annoying Eric Alterman at The Nation. (I can't find the exact link, but trust me, you're not missing much.)

Bai's story works well as instant history, but somewhat less so as snap analysis. Toward the end of the article, he suggests that just as the network of conservative activists financed by Richard Mellon Scaife and the Olin and Coors Foundations, among others, drove the Republican Party hard to the right, the Phoenix Group--for so this entity, led by liberal philanthropists George Soros and Peter Lewis, has dubbed itself--could push the Democrats leftward, and totally extinguish its chances to compete in much of the country:

To see the potential effect of such motivated ideological donors on a political party, you need only study the modern Republican Party. The families who contributed the seed money for what would become the conservative movement were philosophical rebels who followed Barry Goldwater. Like the new venture capitalists, these ideologues started out not with specific policy ideas but with a broad sense of fear, a notion that the system of free enterprise was under siege from radical forces. (The guy who most kept them up at night, oddly enough, was Ralph Nader.) Their money spawned academic proposals, some of which, like privatized Social Security or missile defense, were so far beyond the mainstream of their time as to be considered ludicrous. Not only did these ideas ultimately infiltrate mainstream Republican thought, but much of the agenda ultimately triumphed in the broader arena of public opinion.

That success built a governing majority for Republicans, but it may have come at a cost to politics as a whole. In 1965, the Republican Party was an inclusive organization, comprising not just Nixonian pragmatists and Goldwater zealots but also liberal followers of Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Cabot Lodge. Forty years on, it is getting increasingly difficult to find a true moderate in the Republican Party, let alone a liberal, so far to the right has the party's equilibrium tilted. This was in large part -- if not entirely -- a consequence of the kind of political philanthropy that Stein and Rosenberg have come to emulate. The culture of the party came to reflect the ideology of the men who subsidized it, and the national dialogue, as a result, has grown less temperate and less tolerant.

Perhaps the New Age, liberal analogue of this can already be seen in a group like, which has leveraged its big donations to create a remarkably committed and democratized membership; in April, the group raised $750,000 from its followers in a national bake sale. As a reactionary force, it also demonizes Republicans with an apocalyptic fury. MoveOn was castigated by its critics for displaying on its site an amateur ad comparing Bush to Hitler. Lately, MoveOn has called, repeatedly, for Congress to censure Bush and for Donald Rumsfeld to resign.

Every time I talked with someone about the Phoenix Group, I posed these questions: even if you succeed in revitalizing progressive politics, might the Democratic Party, like the G.O.P., be pushed toward extremism? And if so, might that make it all but impossible to repair the party's standing in huge swaths of the country -- the South, the West -- where Democrats are fast becoming a permanent minority?

''Deep down, that question is in the subconsciousness of all the people who are involved in this, if not in their consciousness,'' Stein said. But he didn't have an answer. Perhaps the most illuminating reply came from Robert Boorstin, a former White House aide who now works on national security at the Center for American Progress. ''Everything has risks,'' he said. ''I would rather take that risk than keep it the way it was.''

This is a bit silly. Obviously, the Republicans' rightward drift hasn't cripped the party in statewide or national electoral contests. Yeah, there are probably fewer voters in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago who support Republican presidential candidates today than there were in 1968 or even 1980... but then again, Republicans have held City Hall in New York since 1994, and they control the governorships in the country's two most reliably liberal states, New York and California. In all these cases, local Republicans remain competitive because they "agree to disagree" with their national leadership on selected issues like abortion or affirmative action, and they offer other points of appeal to the voters. There's no reason why Democratic candidates can't do the same--as they are already in states like South Dakota, where the Dems hold both Senate seats and the one House seat despite Bush's overwhelming win there in 2000, and Oklahoma and Kansas, which elected Democratic governors despite their deep red national orientation.

But this also assumes that voters make choices based on ideology and party identification, not individual candidates. Could a Republican without Rudy Giuliani's personality and charisma, or Mike Bloomberg's wealth and trans-partisan appeal, win in NYC? I doubt it. Similarly, even when you take the temperature of rabid conservatives regarding past Democratic icons like John F. Kennedy, FDR or Harry Truman, you'll generally hear more praise than condemnation. They offer nonsense about how "the Democrats have drifted to the left," which is absurd on its face: these were the proud liberals who championed the 70 percent top tax rate, national health insurance and unprecedented growth in the public sector. Ask most mainstream Democrats--at least before Bush radicalized us all--about Reagan, and you'd probably hear somewhat the same story. It's personal attributes, not ideology, that's generally decisive when voters evaluate politicians.

Which is not to say that infrastructure doesn't matter. If this Phoenix Group is going to accomplish anything, maybe it will be to bring in all the disparate entities that have sprung up or grown since Bush took office--many of which, from to the Center for American Progress to America Coming Together to Music for America, were either founded or substantially funded by the same donors at the root of this effort, like Soros and Lewis--and organize them within an integrated flow of policy thinking, message generation and propagation, and advancement of champions on a range of issues. It took the right wing a good twenty years to get their act together; the Democrats don't have that kind of time, but with so much energy out there already, they might not need it.

The one thing in Bai's article that really bugged me was the sentiment that the drive to rebuild and reorient the party might be better served if Bush won this year. This logic, which echoes Ralph Nader's "worse is better" rationale from the 2000 campaign (a logic that I, to my enduring shame and dismay, somewhat bought into that year), neatly evades the possibility that after four more years of one-party government led by Bush and the jihad wing of the Republicans, the fiscal problems and the continued erosion of public discourse both could be so severe that there just wouldn't be enough left to build upon.

In other news, the Phils are now just three outs away from a mind-bending 21st loss in 24 games against a not-all-that-good Marlins team, and I think their 12th straight loss at Pro Player Stadium or whatever the f**k it's called. And with Abbott and Myers on tap to pitch the next two games, it's likely to get worse before it gets better. Un-freakin'-believeable.

But Barack Obama's speech--at least, the half of it that I saw--was also un-freakin-believeable, in the good way. The transcript is probably up at C-Span's website. This guy is really gonna be fun to watch.

Monday, July 26, 2004

"Big Public" and the Blogs

The Democratic Convention begins today in Boston, and somewhat to my own surprise I really couldn't care less. I'll probably watch Kerry's speech out of a sense of curiosity, and maybe Barack Obama's keynote tomorrow night if I'm home and the Phils game isn't super-compelling, but otherwise, I don't see much of interest. And I find the ubiquitous, somewhat breathless mini-stories popping up all over the internet about "convention bloggers" somewhere between silly and flat-out self-indulgent and annoying. What will these intrepid knights of the keyboard really have to tell us? Probably a lot of star-fucking trivia and notes on the human foibles of the self-important assembled.

More interesting to me is the question of whether this still-amorphous "virtual constituency" can eventually play a role in pushing for enlightened public policy, if/when some of its champions come to power. A year from now, when President Kerry is trying to push his health care package through a Congress still likely to be controlled by Republicans, will we be able to rebut whatever crap the insurance agency throws at his proposals? Or will we be so fatigued from endless requests for online donations--the inevitable next step after the flood of liberal junk mail I receive and discard on a daily basis--that we won't recognize the opportunity to counter the dedicated direct-mail jihadists of the right and Grover Norquist's K Street minions?

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Brooks, Brother

I'm hardly the first guy to point out that New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks can be singularly exasperating to read. As the Washington Monthly pointed out recently, a sharp-eyed observer who transcends partisanship and a lazy, uber-partisan hack seem to co-exist under Brooks's bald pate. But the "good" Brooks was clearly in evidence today, trying to take a long view of the war on terror:

When you see that our enemies are primarily an intellectual movement, not a terrorist army, you see why they are in no hurry. With their extensive indoctrination infrastructure of madrassas and mosques, they're still building strength, laying the groundwork for decades of struggle. Their time horizon can be totally different from our own.

As an ideological movement rather than a national or military one, they can play by different rules. There is no territory they must protect. They never have to win a battle but can instead profit in the realm of public opinion from the glorious martyrdom entailed in their defeats. We think the struggle is fought on the ground, but they know the struggle is really fought on satellite TV, and they are far more sophisticated than we are in using it.
We also need to mount our own ideological counteroffensive. The commissioners recommend that the U.S. should be much more critical of autocratic regimes, even friendly ones, simply to demonstrate our principles. They suggest we set up a fund to build secondary schools across Muslim states, and admit many more students into our own. If you are a philanthropist, here is how you can contribute: We need to set up the sort of intellectual mobilization we had during the cold war, with modern equivalents of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, to give an international platform to modernist Muslims and to introduce them to Western intellectuals.

Most of all, we need to see that the landscape of reality is altered. In the past, we've fought ideological movements that took control of states. Our foreign policy apparatus is geared toward relations with states: negotiating with states, confronting states. Now we are faced with a belief system that is inimical to the state system, and aims at theological rule and the restoration of the caliphate. We'll need a new set of institutions to grapple with this reality, and a new training method to understand people who are uninterested in national self-interest, traditionally defined.

Of course, by this logic Brooks and those who agree with him should be backing John Kerry this year. While the Bush junta continues to focus on threats from nation-states--as seen in the counterproductive Iraq incursion and their ongoing, infuriating fixation with missile defense--Kerry and the Democrats have been focused on assymetrical conflict since the late 1990s. But this is probably where "Brooks the journalist" would give way to "Brooks the hack," and logic would take a holiday.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Darko's Second Dawn

[Note: I've meant to opine, over the last three days, about this thought-provoking editorial in Thursday's New York Times about the nature of recent job growth; today's utterly bizarre, ultimately frustrating, yet basically fun Phillies game; and Thomas Frank's interesting political hypothesis fleshed out in his new book What's the Matter With Kansas? and alluded to more briefly in this article. But if not having one's shit together is a lifestyle choice, as I'm increasingly coming to believe it is, the lack of detailed thoughts on any of these worthy subjects could be said to be a consequence of this choice of mine. So let's get to business.]

This weekend, the motion picture industry offers us the chance to collectively right a great market wrong... or more likely, just to get constructively freaked out all over again. Donnie Darko, the best movie of 2001 and one of the most intriguing, perplexing, moving and entertaining films in years, gets a theatrical re-release with 20 minutes of added footage and apparently spiffed-up special effects. (And another thing: try the link. The film's website is a trip unto itself.) If you've seen it before--I think I've watched it five times now--the thrill is going back to the big screen and the Echo & the Bunnymen, Church and Tears for Fears soundtrack cranked up in surround; if you haven't caught it yet, do yourself a favor and check it out. has my eternal gratitude for the rave review it offered up three years ago that compelled me to catch the movie in the first place--has an apparently detailed exegesis of the story, and a site devoted to director Richard Kelly--one of those wretches who have accomplished so much more than I have, at a younger age--offers a more traditional fanboy (or fangirl) experience.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

George W. Bush, the "War is Peace" President

In a better world, we could all just laugh our asses off about something like this:

With polls showing public support for the war in Iraq (news - web sites) in decline, the Republican president cast himself as a reluctant warrior as he campaigned in the battleground state of Iowa against Democrat John Kerry (news - web sites) and his running mate, former trial lawyer John Edwards (news - web sites). Bush lost the state in 2000 by only a few thousand votes.

"The enemy declared war on us," he told a re-election rally. "Nobody wants to be the war president. I want to be the peace president."

Bush has called himself a "war president" in leading the United States in a battle against terrorism brought about by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.

"I'm a war president. I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy matters with war on my mind," he said in February.

Ah, "the enemy." It's a moving target, donchaknow. For a supposedly dumb guy, you've got to admire how Bush elides the question of whether the enemy who "declared war on us" on 9/11--also known as The Day That Saved the Bush Presidency-- is the same enemy we invaded last spring. As Ed Helms said on The Daily Show, the facts themselves have "an anti-Bush bias."

Also gotta love how "the president who doesn't look at polls" talks war in February, when support for the Iraq incursion remained reasonably high, and then goes all Gandhi in July, after majorities indicated disapproval of the war.

But my favorite chestnut from this story has to be this less-noticed liberty with the facts:

Bush and Cheney have sought to cast Kerry and Edwards as on the side of trial lawyers, who the president believes are responsible for a flood of personal injury litigation that burdens the courts and is costly to small business. Democrats get campaign contributions from trial lawyers, while many businesses tend to favor the Republicans.

"I'm not a lawyer, you'll be happy to hear," Bush said to cheers. "That's the other team. This is the pro-small business team."

Anti-lawyer talk has been around at least since Shakespeare's day, and I guess it plays well in "the sticks." (Bush doesn't seem to have a problem with James Baker 3d or Ted Olson, and I somehow doubt those are the only two legal stars in the right-wing sky.) But the small business dig is what's really offensive here. As the Gadflyer noted last month, Bush's record on small business issues is atrocious, particularly considering rhetoric like this. He's stripped the head of the Small Business Administration of Cabinet rank and has tried repeatedly to slash the SBA budget, successfully cutting it by 25 percent. In the words of Joel Marks, executive director of the American Small Business Alliance, "Bush has dumped on [the small business community] from nearly day one of his administration."

Close observers of Bush talk versus action on issues from homeland security to community college and workforce development won't be surprised by any of this, but it sure would be nice if our press cadres would sit up and take notice beyond the Republican National Committee talking points. Of course, it also wouldn't hurt if the Kerry campaign spoke up on this one.
Siren Blaring

At Coney Island this past Saturday for the Village Voice’s annual Siren Festival, I had one of those H.L. Mencken--or maybe Yogi Berra--formulations pop into my head: "Most things that are free, aren’t worth the cost."

Okay, that’s probably a little harsh. I did get to hear two of my favorite bands going right now, and it was a good day to hang around outside. But crappy sound, the logistical mishegas of trying to alternate between two separate stages while naviaging general Coney Island crowding and teeming throngs of hipsters did dampen the experience somewhat. And that hour we spent in line at Nathan’s—I am not exaggerating here—was also somewhat less than cool.

All that aside, it was a worthwhile day overall. Brooklyn's own TV on the Radio probably aren’t best heard outdoors, where their dense sound would probably turn to mud with God Himself at the mixing board, but I’m dying to see them in a small venue, hopefully somewhere here in Brooklyn. They’re one of the most interesting bands around today, a compelling melange of Fishbone, doo-wop and a million lost FM radio bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Despite the fact that four of the five members are African-American, however, I don’t think they’ll be asked to play at next month’s Republican convention minstrelsy: after finishing their last song, the vocalist spoke of George W. Bush, asking almost plaintively, "Can’t we just fucking get rid of him already?"

We spent most of the 90 minutes or so between TV on the Radio and Mission of Burma in the aforementioned Nathan’s line, which undid my plan of getting up close for MoB’s set. They still sounded damn good where we were, despite the inevitable diminution of the great outdoors; if the band even bothered to deploy their trademark tape loops or anything else from the bag of sonic tricks, I didn’t notice. Bassist/singer Clint Conley’s voice was a little strained as well; he couldn’t quite carry the melody on classics like "Academy Fight Song" and "That’s When I Reach for my Revolver." On the other hand, the new songs all sounded great—and I noted with amazement that you really can’t tell what was written in 1981 and what they came up with in 2003. The whole set reminded me of that Simpsons episode where the family stumbles across Bachman-Turner Overdrive playing at some outdoor festival and Bart asks, "Who are those kindly old gentlemen?" If I’m in half as good shape when I hit my late 40s, I’ll be quite pleased.

We also stuck around for Death Cab for Cutie, one of those bands I’ve read tons about but heard little of. Here was where the bad sound really took its toll; through the hour or so that they played, we moved steadily forward through a crowd of some thousands, but never quite got to a place where anything but bass guitar, bass drum and high hat, and faint vocals were audible. What I heard sounded fine, and their cover of Julian Cope’s "World Shut Your Mouth" called back long-buried memories of watching MTV’s "120 Minutes" in eighth grade or so, but I’m not quite ready to buy into the Death Cab hype.

In other music doings, Guided by Voices has released info for their last-ever tour, the final 25 shows of a career largely defined by on-stage inebriation. I find it deeply satisfying that they’ve dubbed this the "Electrifying Conclusion" tour, referring back to a lyric on 1991’s "Same Place the Fly Got Smashed." GbV is doing a free outdoor show in Manhattan on August 19, then two last appearances at Irving Plaza this December. The band’s final album comes out in late August.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

We Won't Go Die Politely

(With apologies to Fugazi and the late Justice Brennan.)

Well, this is welcome news. I've been depressed tonight at the general drift of politics and free-floating anxiety over the nightmare of a second Bush term (and it probably didn't help that the Phils lost again, with Brett Myers reprising his dead-on Nuke Laloosh "million-dollar arm, five-cent head" thing), and here's news that at the least, Kerry is taking steps to prevent another stolen election:

Aides to Mr. Kerry say the campaign is taking the unusual step of setting up a nationwide legal network under its own umbrella, rather than relying, as in the past, on lawyers associated with state Democratic parties. The aides said they were recruiting people based on their skills as litigators and election lawyers, rather than rewarding political connections or big donors.

Lawyers for the campaign are gathering intelligence and preparing litigation over the ballot machines being used and the rules concerning how voters will be registered or their votes disqualified. In some cases, the lawyers are compiling dossiers on the people involved and their track records on enforcing voting rights. The disputed 2000 presidential election remains a fresh wound for Democrats, and Mr. Kerry has been referring to it on the stump while assuring his audiences that he will not let this year's election be a repeat of the 2000 vote.

"A million African-Americans disenfranchised in the last election," he said at the N.A.A.C.P. convention in Philadelphia on Thursday. "Well, we're not just going to sit there and wait for it to happen. On Election Day in your cities, my campaign will provide teams of election observers and lawyers to monitor elections, and we will enforce the law."

Its plans include setting up SWAT teams of specially trained lawyers, spokesmen and political experts to swoop into any state where a recount could be needed.

"The U.S. has had a policy of being able to fight two regional conflicts and still defend the homeland," said Marc E. Elias, the Kerry campaign's general counsel. "We want to be able to fight five statewide recounts and still have resources available to the campaign."
Kerry aides say the campaign has set up a national steering committee with task forces tackling different issues: one on ballot machines, another on voter education, and a third on absentee, early, and military voting, to name a few.
Democrats say they learned from the Florida vote, and from the Supreme Court rulings that arose from it, that the most important legal battles are those fought before Election Day, over how election laws are to be carried out, who is allowed to register and who will be allowed to vote.

Watching Kerry's speech to the NAACP last week, I found myself nodding along more than nodding off--always a good sign. He was connecting with his audience, and offering up that mix of anger and hope that always should be at the core of progressive political appeal. This move happens to be good politics in two senses: he's showing that he'll fight, and he's reminding Democrats that there is a historical wrong to be set right. It also might have some deterrent effect on whatever dirty tricks the right-wingers might be tempted to pull. If nothing else, the party picked a fighter this time.

Still, it would be nice if the election turned out to be such a romp for Kerry that this all turned out to be a historical footnote. Then again, making sure that new voters register and vote is probably key to any such outcome. So it could be important in any event.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Free Baseball Thursdays
It wasn't quite the spectacular contest I caught two weeks ago, but I did see the Phils and Mets go beyond the alloted nine last night at Shea. The Phils lost the game, though I was gone by then: I've seen Jose Mesa pitch in Shea enough times that I didn't feel the need to watch Roberto Hernandez--Shemp to Mesa's Curly--give up the game. It was actually funny listening to the Mets' (excellent) radio broadcasters while walking out, trying not to just slag the man we've dubbed Roblowto: "You have to be patient with Hernandez, because he will walk people... of course, he's also surrendered over a hit per inning, so he's been, um, far from effective..." Sure enough, Hernandez walked Mike Piazza--who can't buy a hit right now--to lead off the inning, then retired Richard Hidalgo on a hard-hit line drive Ricky Ledee ran down. Then a single to Cliff Floyd, a walk to Shane Spencer, and the game-winning infield single to Ty Wigginton... but by then I was on the 7 train bound for home. Of all the stupid, silly "by the book" strategems of pro baseball, I think the one that holds you don't bring your closer into a game late on the road unless and until you get the lead is the dumbest. The difference in last night's game was that the Mets deployed Braden Looper for two innings, while the Phils lost with Billy Wagner still sitting in the bullpen. (I also just really wanted to watch Wags pitch in person). To be fair, the reverse was true in the Phils' win last Thursday night: Art Howe isn't much better as a strategist than Bowa... though he does seem to be a much better clubhouse guy, and his A's played meaningful games in October--unlike any of Scary Larry's clubs.
The frustrating denouement aside, it was a pretty good game. Eric Milton pitched very well for the Phils, giving them I think just their third quality start in the last month or so. A week after single-handedly beating the Mets in Philly, Bobby Abreu tried to do it again with a two-run homer off Slow Steve Trachsel. And Ryan Madson showed a lot of guts and skill working out of a first and second, no out jam in the home ninth. But Mike Lieberthal twice came up small with guys in scoring position--in the 6th and the 9th--and increased the gap between his average with RISP and the Mendoza line.
This is a scary time for the Phillies. They're now tied with the surging Braves for the division lead--and with Atlanta hosting hapless Montreal this weekend, it's hard to conclude other than that the Braves will be back in their accustomed spot by Monday. The Phils have 18 of their next 23 on the road, and all are against teams with records over .500. Meanwhile, Bowa continues to smolder, Ed Wade--or, as I like to call him, "Dead Weight"--continues to fiddle, and the season slips away.  

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Cookin' With Charlie

Probably like a lot of people, I've signed up for various e-mail briefs that I don't read as regularly as I should. One I rarely skip, however, is Charlie Cook's "Off to the Races." Maybe it's because it only comes once a week, maybe it's that Cook just seems less banal and less blatantly biased than almost any other pundit out there. But I generally appreciate his analysis, and rarely more so than this week:

Welcome to the official start of the silly season, the time in a presidential election campaign when only fools and the truly, hopelessly addicted pay attention to the presidential horse race numbers in polls.

(Um, guilty as charged...)

From now until Labor Day, these polls will reflect the vice presidential selection bounce, then the Democratic convention bounce, and finally a Republican convention bounce -- assuming there is no GOP vice presidential selection bounce. At that point, things should begin to settle down and by about mid-September, the numbers should begin to have some meaning again.

The question will then become how do the race and President Bush's approval ratings look, compared to just before Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., picked North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as his running mate when the race was tied at 45 percent and Bush's approval rating averaged about 48 percent.

I like this thinking, but it seems to rest on the assumption that this will be a "normal" year--like 1988, or 1996, or even 2000. Instead, I think we'll see independent fluctuation prompted by outside factors like the 9/11 Commission Report (late July), possible terror at the Olympics (mid-August), or protest and police violence at the Republican Convention (late August). As Theodore White wrote of the 1968 election (and I'm paraphrasing here), events spin out of control.

Cook goes on to break down the Edwards selection:

Some observers foolishly tout the selection of Edwards as a play for the South. It isn't, but the selection of Edwards firmly puts North Carolina into play. I am tentatively moving it from the Likely Republican column to Lean Republican, but it could easily end up in the Toss Up column before November. This is not just because of the Edwards pick. Even some well-placed Republicans point out that there was some softness for the president in the state as a result of the badly damaged textile and furniture industries and misgivings over the administration's position on the proposed tobacco buyout.

Indeed, Republicans, who scoffed at the idea that Virginia is in play as some Kerry strategists suggest -- acknowledged that North Carolina worried them more. And that was before the Edwards pick.


Apart from the fact that Edwards is someone who is incredibly energetic and charismatic, Kerry's selection of Edwards is much more of a socio-economic play. It is a concerted effort to reach downscale white voters, who may or may not live in small towns and rural America, who might be more open to a message delivered by Edwards than Kerry, and who might better identify with Edwards' roots more than Kerry's.

This strikes me as right on, and the best reason to feel good (and not just relieved) that Kerry tapped Johnny Sunshine over Drippy Dick Gephardt.

And here's the big finish from Cook:

The dynamics of this race do not look good for President Bush.

The political mortality rate for well-known, well-defined incumbents tied at 45 percent is extremely high, even if there are 3 percentage points or so that are likely to go to independent and third party candidates. The mortality rate for incumbents with 48 percent job approval ratings is not much better. While this is almost certainly going to be a very, very close race, I'd rather be John Kerry today than George W. Bush.


Bush, Cheney and company got caught off-guard in 2000, losing the popular vote and coming within 537 votes of losing the election when they thought they were in better shape than that. This time, the Bush campaign is on notice that it is in trouble.

Cook suggests that these "dynamics" could impel Bush to drop Dick Cheney from the ticket. This strikes me as a longshot, just because the dilemma is that of the three guys who'd make the most impact as replacement running mates, two of them--John McCain and Colin Powell--almost certainly wouldn't take the job, and the third, Rudy Giuliani, would make the fundamentalist base Karl Rove is so assiduously cultivating unhappy with his moderate positions on gay rights and abortion.

I guess Bush could ask Tennessee Senator Bill Frist to run, but Frist hasn't exactly done a bang-up job as Republican leader in the Senate, and if he won (or quit), a Democratic governor would appoint his replacement, restoring a 50-50 partisan split and opening the door for Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee to pull a Jeffords and throw control back to the Democrats. Polling doesn't indicate that Frist would help all that much anyway--and that's even before the Democrats spread the news that the guy killed cats as a medical student. Bottom line: I think Bush is stuck with Cheney, and will fight it out that way.

By the way, you can sign up for the free Charlie Cook weekly e-mail here, if you're so inclined. I recommend it.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Let Them Eat Hate

One problem with coalitions in power is that the longer they stay in, and the thinner their majority, the more carefully they have to balance between satisfying the rabid base and reaching out to the uneasy moderates. A look at the speaker lineup for next month's Republican convention shows Karl Rove's nod to the latter imperative: non-reactionaries (it really is too much of a stretch to call them moderates) Arnold Schwarzenegger, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani will carry a message of reform and tolerance to the country via TV cameras. The DeLays, Santorums and the rest of what Lee Atwater once called "the extra-chromosome crowd" will remain off-camera.

But not to worry: Rove has another trick up his sleeve to rally the "faithful": the anti-gay Hate Amendment.

In interviews, conservative leaders said they had complained to the White House that the campaign was blocking opponents of gay marriage from prime-time speaking slots at the Republican National Convention.

"The Republicans have got some explaining to do," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobbying group, noting that several of the speakers at the convention have come out against the amendment. "Social conservatives are not happy."

Mr. Bush's conservative base clearly supports the amendment, but polls have shown that while a majority of undecided voters oppose gay marriage, there is little enthusiasm among them for amending the Constitution to ban it.

Some analysts suggested that might account for the tentativeness with which the White House has approached this issue this year, as it seeks to turn out the evangelical voters that advisers have described as critical to Mr. Bush's re-election without alienating the undecided voters who are the central focus of both campaigns.

The Senate will take up this farcical non-issue this week, and the Republicans' admitted strategy is to get Kerry and Edwards on record voting against the Amendment. Rove is betting, probably correctly, that this aggressive move on gay marriage will do much more to fire up the haters than it will to alienate the suburban moderates who are more concerned, for some weird reason, with the economy and war in Iraq than whether we can write bigotry into the Constitution. Besides, he's got Ah-nuld, McCain and Rudy--none of whom support the amendment, but none of whom are likely to use their prime-time platform to talk about it either--to reassure the voters that the mouth-breathers off camera don't have any real power, and even if they do the tax breaks will keep coming.

Not that Kerry and Edwards are particularly admirable on this issue either. Both claim to be "against" gay marriage, but see it as an issue for the states to judge on. Setting aside the obvious inconsistency with their defense of abortion rights, this makes no sense on its face; marriage rights are designed to be portable from state to state. This really looks and smells like Bigotry Lite, and it's more egregious for the strong likelihood that neither of these guys really has a problem with gay marriage at all.

This issue, like so many others, cries out for the principled leadership we lost when Paul Wellstone's plane crashed on that black day in October 2002.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Niall's Headwaters

I've been behind on a lot of my policy-geek reading lately, so it was only last night that I got to a very interesting piece in the last Washington Monthly about the British historian and all-purpose intellectual gadfly Niall Ferguson. Maybe it's because he's a Scotsman, maybe it's that he's a historian, maybe it's his affection for courageously counterintuitive historical theories (e.g. the British entry into World War I was the root tragedy of the 20th century), but I've long had a fondness for Ferguson incongruous with his consistent right-wing leanings. He was ubiquitous during the run-up to the Iraq war last year, and I suppose it's to his credit that he's still out there 15 months later, defending his position, when even war supporters like Bill Kristol and David Brooks have conceded that, in the words of the late Ronald Reagan, "mistakes were made."

Now, Ferguson also concedes that mistakes were made. But instead of taking issue with the theory behind the invasion, his basic position is that the U.S. didn't go in heavy enough. Our major mistake was trying to do empire-building on the cheap:

Had President Bush been willing to see the United States' role in the world as essentially imperial, Ferguson argues, he would have understood the depth of commitment, the hundreds of thousands of troops and tens of thousands of civil administrators, needed to really turn Iraq into a democracy. The failures in Iraq don't, for Ferguson, mean that the project of American empire was deeply misguided; rather, they affirm that an imperial attitude is the only one that might have done the job in Iraq.

The article notes that when pushed, Ferguson will concede the fundamental implausibility of his project: the U.S. has neither the economic heft (because of the incipient spike in cost for the big elder-focused entitlement programs) nor the political will to really pursue empire along the lines of the British in the 18th and 19th centuries, his model of choice. In fact, he strongly implied as much in a New York Times op-ed I remember reading in early 2003. But it seems he finds this idea so compelling that he still tries to make the case that in some sweeping historical sense, this is the path America should take:

...Ferguson argued that not only was the British empire good, but that a similarly liberal American empire could also play a crucial role in the world today. "Capitalism and democracy," Ferguson wrote, "are not naturally occurring, but require strong institutional foundations of law and order. The proper role of an imperial America is to establish these institutions where they are lacking, if necessary ... by military force."


When Ferguson says the United States ought to be an empire, he meant precisely that: He wants America to use her might to exercise benign, formal control over other countries. He does not mean a cultural hegemony or a network of economically and militarily dependent regimes, like the United States worked through in the Cold War... [i]f an American empire is going to work, Ferguson argued, it is going to have to look as much like its British predecessor as possible.

This is what I can't quite wrap my brain around. Apparently (and I haven't read the book yet), Ferguson isn't suggesting a mandate-type arrangement of the kind formalized after World War I, when the writing already was on the wall for eventual independence of the former colonies of Europe and the idea was that established liberal states would help guide emerging nations toward sustainable civil societies in the tradition of the Enlightenment west. No, this guy is talking about conquest, open-ended, with power as its own justification. And remaking the internal culture of the United States to bear the burdens of empire, cultivating new bureaucracies to administer our colonies, incurring both mind-bending expense and, inevitably, the ill will of the subjugated along the way.

Not even the most messianically-minded Republican would advocate such a position: the hoary non-intervention stance best articulated in George Washington's farewell address certainly was diluted in the 20th century, but it retains enough validity in the national consciousness that this view would lead to electoral disaster for whichever party advocated it. But I don't even grasp how the logic withstands practical arguments: has there been one long-term occupation in the last hundred-plus years that didn't end in disaster? And what does it say about a people willing to countenance repression, even massacre, in defense of its colonial holdings? Abu Ghraib was horrific, certainly, but it doesn't come close to the British massacre of peaceful Indian protesters at Amritsar in 1919. The logical end point of Ferguson's theory is that mass killing is an acceptable tool of colonial governance, and we should just have the stomach to accept that. If the world community doesn't approve, they can lump it.

The article is interesting for another reason as well, at least to me. It was written by Monthly staffer Benjamin Wallace-Wells, who's 23 or 24, and quickly making a place for himself in the odd club that includes MLK Jr., Trotsky, Mozart, Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly and Ferguson himself, among others: people who accomplished vastly more at a younger age than I have at 31. Wallace-Wells is a versatile writer: his piece in last month's magazine about the popularity of poker among Generation Y types like him was both entertaining and perceptive in its subtly made sociological points. He does resort to some disingenuous writerly tricks in his Ferguson piece, framing it around an interview with the historian but almost entirely omitting the substance of that interview in favor of his own thoughts and observations about Ferguson and probably overdrawing the comparison between Ferguson and Bushista ideologues like Paul Wolfowitz.

But this sure looks like a guy I'll be reading, in different prestige venues, for decades to come. The fucker.
Wish I'd Thought of This One

As I sit here, the Phils trail 4-0 late against the odious Braves lefty Mike Hampton. I guess the thrilling walk-off wins of the last two nights were likely to precipitate a hangover, though I think it's pretty important to take this series and leave Atlanta further back heading into the all-star break than they were when they got to Philly for this series.

To ease the pain, I recommend checking out The Love Song of Larry Bowa. This is the best "imitation writing" I've seen since Robert Coover wrote as Richard Nixon some 30 years ago in The Public Burning... and it's even funnier than what Coover did.

Thursday, July 08, 2004


I was remiss this week in not exhorting the however many people who read this to stuff the virtual ballot box in favor of Phils RF Bobby Abreu, who was one of five guys eligible for the final slot on the National League all-star roster. I probably cast a couple hundred votes for Abreu myself, and he narrowly beat out the also-deserving Cubs 3b Aramis Ramirez (or as I like to call him, "Aram-ram"). Abreu is on pace to go 30/30, score about 130 runs and hit .300 with well over 100 walks, which would be the best season of Bobby's eight-year career.

Tonight, he gave some love back to the fans, almost single-handedly carrying the Phils to a thrilling 5-4 win over the Mets and a split in the four-game series despite being thoroughly outplayed by the suddenly impressive Metropolitans. Abreu went 4 for 5 with two doubles, the game-tying single in the 7th and a walk-off home run, his 18th of the season, against John Franco in the bottom of the 9th. Franco had previously allowed just six hits in 54 at-bats against lefty hitters this season, though Abreu has always hit the forty-something reliever pretty well.

This was a great win for the Phils, particularly after twice taking the lead--on Jim Thome's two-run homer and then on Abreu's second double--only to see supposed ace Kevin Millwood give it right back in the following inning. Millwood walked Mets starting pitcher Matt Ginter to lead off the 5th, then gave up a two-out hit to Cliff Floyd that tied it. After Abreu put the Phils back up, Millwood surrendered a leadoff single to Ty Wigginton in the 6th, then served up a meatball that Mike Cameron crushed for a two-run blast and a 4-3 New York lead. It was like Millwood couldn't give it back fast enough. The bullpen was excellent again, however, as Rheal Cormier put out the fire later in the inning, Madson followed with two scoreless--getting a big double play with a guy at third in the 7th to keep it a one-run game--and Billy Wagner set the Mets down in the 9th. In the Phils' wins Monday and tonight, the bullpen tossed a combined 8 scoreless innings. Considering we've gotten something like two quality starts in the last month, they've done a very commendable job.

But tonight belonged to Abreu, who has been out of his mind for the last month: six homers, six steals, 28 runs scored, 21 RBI and a Bonds-esque on-base percentage of .500. He's in the league top ten in about six different categories, and finally starting to shut up the talk-radio blowhards and other philistines who have ragged on the guy for five years. In an alternately exciting and frustrating season for the Phils, he's the best story going, and probably the team's MVP to this point.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

They Might Be Giants

(Get it--John and John? Ah, never mind...)

My main reaction to yesterday's news that Kerry picked Edwards to join him on the ticket was relief--probably not surprising given my strong antipathy toward Gephardt. Now I'm feeling more confident, both in the competence of the campaign and even in Kerry's decision-making capacities. It seems clear to me he didn't want Edwards and he probably doesn't especially like Edwards, but he resisted what I call the Kotite Temptation--named after the stunningly inept Philadelphia Eagles coach who led superbly talented teams to undistinguished performances from 1991-94--of choosing comfort over competitiveness. The guy realized that Edwards both helps in a number of battleground states in the midwest and possibly the border south, and that adding Johnny Sunshine ensures that the base will remain fired up. As Adam Nagourney observes in today's Times:

In the end, this might be the single most instructive thing about the choice that Mr. Kerry made on Tuesday. He is, it seems, not very different from the Democratic voters he encountered across the country this year: Ravenous for victory against Mr. Bush, and prepared to do almost whatever it takes to win.

Thematically, Kerry and Edwards actually match up quite well: both offer core messages of enlightened self-interest (Kerry's muscular multilateralism, Edwards' denunciation of the "Two Americas"), in what I think is the best tradition of both the United States and western capitalism itself. And it should offer a welcome contrast to the benighted self-interest on offer from Bush, Cheney and the rest of the radical right-wing demolition crew. According to the always-invaluable Carpetbagger, early polling returns are very favorable.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Clip Show for Freedom!

Happy Fourth of July. Unfortunately my turntable has been busted for years so I can't favor Prospect Heights with the X classic of the same name, but I can offer some of the best readings I've seen for the occasion.

Here's a great editorial from today's New York Times, on the uneasy fit between this day when we celebrate our greatest American ideals, and the administration now in power that seems so intent on making a travesty of those ideals:

This nation was founded upon a statement of principles, the Declaration of Independence, that represents a striving after philosophical perfection, a standard of freedom that our lives and institutions can rarely live up to. Against that lofty standard, our actual history all too often looks like a sprawling, brawling free-for-all that uses the high language of our principles as a kind of camouflage for what the market will bear.

Filmmaker and right-wing Enemy No. 1 Michael Moore had a surprisingly thoughtful and even touching op-ed in today's LA Times that's worth a read as well:

...For too long now we have abandoned our flag to those who see it as a symbol of war and dominance, as a way to crush dissent at home. Flags are flying from the back of SUVs, rising high above car dealerships, plastering the windows of businesses and adorning paper bags from fast-food restaurants. But these flags are intended to send a message: "You're either with us or you're against us," "Bring it on!" or "Watch what you say, watch what you do."

Those who absconded with our flag now use it as a weapon against those who question America's course. They remind me of that famous 1976 photo of an anti-busing demonstrator in Boston thrusting a large American flag on a pole into the stomach of the first black man he encountered. These so-called patriots hold the flag tightly in their grip and, in a threatening pose, demand that no one ask questions. Those who speak out find themselves shunned at work, harassed at school, booed off Oscar stages. The flag has become a muzzle, a piece of cloth stuffed into the mouths of those who dare to ask questions.

I think it's time for those of us who love this country — and everything it should stand for — to reclaim our flag from those who would use it to crush rights and freedoms, both here at home and overseas. We need to redefine what it means to be a proud American.

And finally, let's go old school and remember the last written words of Thomas Jefferson, penned shortly before his death 178 years ago today. Referring to the Declaration on the eve of its 50th birthday, Jefferson wrote:

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

Happy Fourth.
Phils Phlourish on Phourth

Two years ago today, I attended one of the more excruciating Phillies losses I've ever seen (which is saying something): on July 4, 2002, in front of a surprisingly sparse crowd at boiling hot Veterans Stadium, the Phils were within one strike of a win over the Montreal Expos before Brad Wilkerson torched Jose Mesa for a two-run homer off the right-field foul pole to lift Montreal to the victory. Not even the Jamba Juice I picked up at the Fresh Foods on South Street really redeemed the day.

The team had better luck this afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, knocking off Baltimore 5-2 to take a 2 1/2 game lead on the Mets and Marlins (both winning as I write this) and tie their high-water mark for the year by going six games over .500. Eric Milton won his league-best 11th game despite 12 fewer runs of support than he had in last Tuesday's 17-7 win, while Bobby Abreu went 2-4 with a homer, a double and three RBI. Abreu is now hitting .304 with 17 home runs and 56 knocked in for the season, and he's among the league leaders in runs scored, steals and walks as well. His OPS is over 1.000 for the year. And yet I don't expect Phils-phobic National League all-star manager Jack McKeon of Florida to give Bobby a well-deserved spot on the team. (Thome is a near-lock, Milton could make it despite his high ERA, and Billy Wagner could go just because McKeon, in theory, would like to win the game and Wags is the best lefty short man in the league.)

Here's hoping I'm wrong, but either way, Abreu is on pace to pick up some down-ballot MVP votes and turn in one of the best all-around offensive seasons in the team's 121-year history. Not too shabby.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Kerry at a Crossroads

With the nomination long since decided and the vice-presidential pick probably just days away, it's a good time to think about where the Democratic Party has come over the last year, and where they're going not just in 2004, but probably for the next decade-plus.

I don't think many people saw it this way at the time, but the Dems presented the country with a pretty interesting menu among the six most viable presidential contenders this year. On one side, you had the throwback choices: Dick Gephardt the robo-populist, and Joe Lieberman the anachronist moderate. Gephardt's free-spending paleoliberalism features a pander for every audience, and would have fit right in--and, in fact, did--with every loser Democrat from the dark years of the 1980s, when the Republicans ate their lunches with numbing regularity. Lieberman I think wanted to be the John McCain of the Democrats, but while McCain has made a name for himself as a maverick, Holy Joe just looks like a wuss in his efforts to make nice with the Republicans despite the political toilet swirlie they gave him in the 2000 election. A more sympathetic way to look at it would be to say that Lieberman's accommodationist stance would have been just fine in the days when Dwight Eisenhower led the Republican Party, but it amounts to unilateral disarmament with madmen like Cheney, Rove and DeLay running things.

On the other side, we had forward-looking Democrats who took Bill Clinton's winning formula of centrism and fiscal conservatism and tried to marry it with core progressive principles. I'm talking about Howard Dean, Wes Clark and John Edwards, three guys who almost made it seem cool to be a Democrat again. Their divergent storylines--Dean the insurgent-turned-frontrunner, Clark the general, Edwards the pretty-boy class warrior--overshadowed strong underlying similarities of responsible fiscal stewardship coupled with attention to socioeconomic "equity" issues at home and a return to the traditional (pre-Bush 43) foreign policy consensus abroad. If the Democrats are going to regain a durable majority, their views will lead the way. (It's not a coincidence, by the way, that these were the three most charismatic contenders.) I don't doubt that their stance eventually will define the party, but I'm worried that their time might not have come just yet.

You'll notice I haven't included John Kerry in either of these camps. The fact that he won probably indicates success in blurring those differences, as well as his greater credibility on national security. But I'm also just not really sure where Kerry stands on this question.

Is Kerry a "special-interest Democrat" in the mode of Mondale, Dukakis and Gephardt? Or a pragmatic progressive as Clinton could and should have been, as Robert Kennedy once was? The vice-presidential pick could give us the answer, and that answer could determine the outcome of the election.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Squeeze Play

The Wall Street Journal and NBC released a big chunk of polling information today. The full piece is apparently on the WSJ premium site, but Daily Kos has the high points. Overall the news is bad for Bush, but not particularly encouraging for Kerry; it's clear that he hasn't closed the sale with a lot of voters, and an uptick in the news from Iraq or on the economy probably could swing a fair number of people back toward Bush.

But I did see one piece of potentially very good news for Kerry:

While a plurality disapproves Bush's economic stewardship, just 29% rate Kerry highly for "having the right economic policies; 28% give him low marks and 43% are neutral or have no opinion. But when voters hear his argument about the middle-class "being squeezed," it outpolls Bush's message that the economy "is getting stronger" by 65% to 35%.

This could be the key to the whole election, and the way Kerry might connect with voters on a level that pushes them toward a positive vote "for Kerry," rather than against Bush.

The reason has to do with the nature of these two arguments about the economy. In saying, "it's getting stronger," Bush is speaking to a bloodless statistic and hoping that this statement, along with media repetition of the same message, will become an accepted "truth." Kerry, in talking about the "middle class squeeze," is speaking to something that families feel--a sense that whatever wage and job data might say, the gap between their means and their wants/needs is steadily growing.

It helps that the stats bear this out: the cost of health care, college education and housing, three typical priorities for middle-class families has risen over the last couple decades much faster than have wages. And we know that in this "recovery," wages have stayed stagnant while corporate profits have spiked.

A book that came out last year, The Two-Income Trap, detailed a lot of this. Written by Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Warren and her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi, the book sets out the case that middle-class families are actually less economically secure than they were 30 years ago--despite the fact that now, both parents are far more likely to have jobs.

I haven't read Warren's book yet, but I saw her speak at a CUNY event this past March. She makes a very powerful case, and has drawn the favorable attention of Bill Moyers and NOW, among others.

I don't know if someone in Kerry's campaign picked up this book and saw the strength of the case to be made, or some smart consultant came up with the theme. But in any event, I think they've found something that should resonate with the voting public. (It's also a very nice fit with the "Two Americas" message John Edwards rode into a surprisingly strong showing against Kerry for the Democratic nomination last winter. Coincidence?)
Rumble in the Bronx

Quite a bit to talk about here, from the Kerry campaign's record-breaking fundraising to the disappointing June job growth and even a certain Philadelphia baseball team retaking sole possession of first place after six lean weeks of also-ran status. And we'll get to most of it over the holiday weekend. But I had the absurd good fortune of attending another ballgame last night, the latest chapter in the greatest one-sided rivalry in sports: Red Sox-Yankees at the Stadium.

Like most ridiculously amazing baseball games, particularly those that go 13 innings, this one had so much good stuff that most of the juicy elements are already forgotten, superceded by the madness at the end. In that vein, you had the 23 year-old New York rookie pitcher Halsey--I don't know his first name, and we just referred to him as "the Admiral"--outpitching Pedro Martinez for the better part of six innings. Pedro--who has a bit of history with these Yankees--plunking Gary Sheffield in the first inning and almost triggering a brawl at the outset. Jorge Posada, no fan of Martinez, hitting a second-deck home run to put the Yanks up 3-0 in the bottom of the fifth. Two defensive misplays by Yankee outfielders Hideki Matsui and Kenny Lofton, both leading to Boston runs and a 3-3 tie. Flash Gordon's dominance coming out of the bullpen (I really wanted the Phils to get this guy last winter, but I didn't realize just how sick his season numbers have been). Terry Francona's I-Want-This-One-Bad move to bring in his closer, Keith Foulke, in a tie game, on the road, in the 8th inning. The Yanks coming thisclose to ending it in the ninth, before Ruben Sierra struck out with the winning run on third and one out against a tiring Foulke. (Sierra would redeem himself.)

And then free baseball--man, that must cheese Steinbrenner off--and the really weird stuff beginning. Boston loading the bases with no outs and getting nada as Alex Rodriguez--who will win the Gold Glove at his new position this year--turning a 5-2(-5) double play that we initially thought was a triple play before realizing he'd gotten the same runner out twice. Miguel Cairo, a late-game replacement, leading off the home 12th with a triple, and getting stranded at third after Sox reliever Curt Leskanic struck out parasite-wracked slugger Jason Giambi and then got the next hitter to ground into a fielder's choice at home. Giambi was pinch-hitting for Jeter after the Yankee captain got up close and personal with fans along the left-field line while making a superb catch to hold Boston off the board in the top of the inning. Leskanic then plunked Sheffield for a second time, drawing harsh criticism after the game from the usually gentlemanly Joe Torre. Along the way, we saw Boston go to five infielders, with multi-positional Kevin Millar shuttling from right field to third base to first base and back, and Sox first baseman David McCarty changing gloves between every hitter. (This was either a righty/lefty thing or the most bizarre in-game superstitious ritual I've ever seen.) Pokey Reese was guiding Boston outfielder Manny "Man-Ram" Ramirez in and out, left and right, on seemingly every pitch.

After Cairo was stranded, my friend Feral said to me that the Yanks would lose the game. It looked like he'd be proven right when Ramirez smashed his second homer of the game off end-of-the-bullpen guy Tanyon Sturtze in the 13th. Then Sheffield--playing third base for the first time in years, as A-Rod switched to shortstop for the departed Jeter--overthrew gargantuan Yanks first baseman Tony Clark for an error, and Sturtze issued a walk. But Rodriguez, a Gold Glove shortstop in Texas, neatly turned a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning and keep the score at 4-3.

It didn't look like it would matter. In his second inning of work, Leskanic recorded two quick outs and got to two strikes on Sierra, and the (many) Boston fans in attendance-whose faces throughout their team's great escape in the home 12th and their taking the lead in the top of the inning never really wavered from what I'd call pre-tragedy--began to exhale. Then Sierra bounced a seeing-eye single up the middle. The two Sox fans sitting behind us scowled, and both held their hands together in front of them in a manner that looked a lot like prayer.

But we all knew where this was going. Cairo watched two strikes go by, and then belted his second extra-base hit in as many innings to plate Sierra with a double. And John Flaherty--the Yankees' last position player, technically pinch-hitting for pitcher Sturtze since DH Bernie Williams had been sent in to play center field after Lofton was lifted--won it with a double that dropped fair by a few feet in left field, with Manny Ramirez looking on like he was watching the end of a Little League game played by strangers. The Boston guys scowled and left, chants of "Nine-teen eight-teen! Nine-teen eight-teen!" ringing in their ears.

I've always maintained that none of us get to choose the MLB marketing area we're born into, and that rooting for an accursed baseball team builds character. If this is true, then Boston over the last 86 years has been populated with some of the great moral giants in human history. What's really amazing is that the Yankee fans, who have been on the winning end of this rivalry pretty much without exception, still take such joy in the pain of the Sox fans. They have shirts that read "Babe, Bucky, Buckner, Boone." I never believed in The Curse until the 1999 ALCS, which I remember watching in grad school--balls hit off Boston bats that looked to be way out of the park, bouncing off the wall for doubles, runners to be stranded. Last year's seven-game war offered still more proof (though the Sox can probably claim a Pyrrhic victory considering that New York clearly had nothing left for the World Series, losing to a probably inferior Marlins team). But last night was just something else altogether. At one point in the top of the 10th, a Boston runner was going first to third on a single, and the cutoff man missed A-Rod at third base. Rivera was backing up the play, and he missed the ball too--but it hit his foot and died. The runner was left at third, and the rest, though I couldn't see it at the time, was obviously foreordained.