Friday, December 31, 2004

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 26, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 20, 2004

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

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

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

Several of the prominent contenders for the party's national chairmanship are already speaking out in favor of a "big tent" approach, including Howard Dean and Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network in addition to Roemer. It's smart politics and would move the party much closer to the "uncomfortably pro-choice" position that majorities seem to hold (and that I hold). Here's Amy Sullivan at the Washington Monthly blog on the same issue:'s long past time for the Democratic Party to realize that they continue to lose voters who aren't one-issue abortion voters but who feel unwelcome in the party because of their beliefs. Rhetoric that verges on being pro-abortion rankles even pro-choice Democrats like me. (For a nice summary of my thoughts, read this excellent piece by Sarah Blustain.) Parents who are uneasy about parental notification laws don't have rocks in their heads--they have to sign permission slips so the school nurse can give their kids Tylenol and they're not wild about the idea of that same kid getting an abortion without their knowledge. I'm not saying Democrats should back down from protecting girls in extraordinary circumstances who need to get abortions on their own. But they don't need to frame the argument in a way that implies that those who disagree with them are stone-age misogynists.

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

Of course, abortion rates have gotten higher under George W. Bush after years of decline during Clinton's two terms. But how often was this fact aired during the campaign? I think never. notes darkly that the party "could be asking for a internal civil war on the abortion front," which strikes me as overblown in the extreme: I don't think there are that many abortion-on-demand absolutists, and nobody is talking about even changing the party platform and established position of "safe, legal and rare" abortions; those of us who favor this change just want to see the Democrats acknowledge that people opposed to abortion rights might have some reason for their belief aside from wanting to order women around.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Thursday, December 16, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 13, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 10, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 09, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 05, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 04, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 03, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 02, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guess we'll see.