Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Good Bureaucrat
I'll briefly interrupt my holiday blogging hiatus--as if I ever really need a pretext--to point out a Times editorial today about a rare Republican appointee who has shown professionalism and a loyalty to country above party: Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin. Of course, he's retiring this week, so this could prove a mere blip in the general pattern of Brownies and Manns.

Often, what Mr. Holtz-Eakin said wasn't what his bosses wanted to hear. He went on record in 2003 saying that President Bush's tax and spending plans would do little or nothing for long-term economic growth. One report issued under his leadership showed that Mr. Bush's tax cuts heavily favored the wealthiest Americans. Another debunked the politically potent but false contention that the estate tax hurts farmers.

By going where the facts and figures led, Mr. Holtz-Eakin also protected his agency, which may be the last bastion of neutral government analysis in Washington. To succeed him, Congressional leaders need a top economist who has a reputation to protect and is a superb number cruncher, fluent communicator of complex issues and good manager.

Given the new raft of obscene tax cuts for Bush Pioneers now on the table, I half-expect them to just synthesize a clone from Arthur Laffer's nose hair or something. Paul Krugman's recent characterization of congressional Republicans as "tax cut zombies"--mindlessly shambling after more, forgetful or indifferent as to why they thought cuts made sense in the first place, much less what their effects might be in the current context of decent macro growth and scary debt accumulation--is all too apt, and I fully expect a (very late) Night of the Living Capital Gains Cuts coming soon to a Capitol near you.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

A Few Thoughts on the Transit Strike
So here we are, back to normal in the city, and people are trying to determine what it was all about. Was anything accomplished, other than great inconvenience to the city's seven million commuters?

There were cultural, legal, economic and citizenship aspects to this labor action and its consequences; the more I think about it, the more interesting it really is. Probably a book is in here for someone. I don't really want to spend much time dwelling on the cultural/racial aspects to this: yes, you've got a bunch of white MTA members in suits on one side, opposed by darker-skinned union leaders speaking in accented English. Did that influence perceptions and press coverage? I'm sure it did, but I'm much more skeptical that it really meant anything extra in either the breakdown of talks or the eventual resolution. Similarly, I think we can dismiss the legal angle: the Taylor Law is little more than a club with which to beat public employee unions, and I would be very surprised if the fines imposed on the TWU as a result of their "illegal" strike are actually assessed. They're leverage, window dressing. And as I'll note below, they're arguably counterproductive in terms of resolving the actual issues.

It's the economic and "citizenship" (for lack of a clearly better word) aspects that really interest me here. A week ago I didn't have much sympathy for the strikers: the work I do has made me very aware--perhaps overly aware--of how closely related are educational attainment and earning power in this economy. The transit workers, most of whom I believe aren't college-educated, earn an average wage considerably higher than the city mean, with much more generous benefits including the pension that ultimately proved the sticking point in negotiations. Who were they, I figured, to stand athwart a macroeconomic trend that shifts the burden of retirement security to the worker?

As I thought about it more, though, I became disgusted by my own position. What I'd half-articulated was that the union should, in effect, lie back and enjoy it as a corrupt agency that logically shouldn't even exist moved to take away compensation they'd fought for. To put it another way (a way that's been put pretty widely, for the little that's worth), why should they have it better than the rest of us who are doing without pensions?

The answer, of course, is "because they can." And the reason why they can is because they're organized. Public sector unions comprise much of what's left of the American labor movement; those of us who believe we need to re-unionize the workforce, particularly among the less-skilled who have next to no individual bargaining power, damn well shouldn't be encouraging the current remnants to roll over. Particularly when the Authority they're battling has a terrible track record of dishonest bookkeeping and no accountability.

I'm not inclined to get into the specifics of the proposals kicked around between the two sides, others than to note that MTA's last pre-strike offer on wages was barely enough to keep up with projected inflation. If you were negotiating with an employer who admitted to a $1 billion surplus, you'd probably want more too.

So that leaves us with the citizenship question: was it simply a dick move to strike in the last week before Christmas? Critics of the union, from Mayor Bloomberg to many of the posters here, point to the pain and inconvenience inflicted on the city and/or its low-income workers. This is an unarguable point, and one the union leaders claim not to have taken lightly. Many of these same critics, at the link above and elsewhere, have said that their issue isn't with the union's demands, but rather with the action they took.

The problem is, I'm not sure what else they could have done. A commentator on NY1 yesterday made a great point about the above-mentioned Taylor Law: if you obey it as a public employee union, you've got no leverage to push for a settlement. I couldn't believe this hadn't occurred to me before: the NYC teachers and cops have both gone years recently working on expired contracts. Individuals in very difficult and very important jobs went without raises, changes to work conditions, anything even that might have indicated the city took them seriously. How many cops took retirement, how many teachers left for suburban districts or the private sector during those periods? The union got its nose bloodied and might face some fines, but they've also moved the ball dramatically on getting their deal. Perhaps the problem is with the Taylor Law, not the strike.

A final thought. New Yorkers are tough, and they surely hated the inconvenience of the strike for what it cost them personally. But despite the rantings of the tabloid papers, a large majority ultimately didn't blame the union:

According to an exclusive NY1 poll, 41 percent of New Yorkers think both the MTA and the Transport Workers Union are to blame for the strike. About 27 percent solely fault the MTA while 25 blame the union for the walkout.
The poll does find, though, that 54 percent of New Yorkers think what the union wants is fair compared to 36 percent who do not.

Emphasis mine. It's a heartening notion that New Yorkers might value the idea of a fair shake for workers as much as a more-convenient commute.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The End of Welfare Reform as We Knew It
I really am going to write about the NYC transit strike soon. My problem has been that, as when one watches a Cowboys-Redskins football game or a Marlins-Braves diamond contest, I want both sides to lose; and while the strike has been a terrible imposition on millions of my fellow New Yorkers (including my wife, who needed two hours to get from Prospect Heights in Brooklyn to the Columbia campus today), for me it's meant the cancellation of meetings and a chance to watch Battlestar Galactica all day on Sci-Fi yesterday, with probably a matinee of the Harry Potter flick this afternoon... but I do think the strike brings into focus some very important issues about both the changing nature of employment and the profoundly fucked up budgeting/policymaking process on the state and federal level which has led the TWU and the MTA to fight over a pie that should be much bigger than it is.

Which brings me to today's subject: how right-wing Senate Republicans ended the welfare reform debate today with a Trojan-Horse provision to a budget bill. Big Swinging Dick Cheney cast the tie-breaking vote this morning on a measure that, per the Times, "imposes the first restraints in nearly a decade in federal benefit programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and student loans." But it also rewrites the country's public assistance policy, which has been stalemated in debate over the long-pending reauthorization of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. (I referenced this the other day in my discussion of the Patriot Act.) New Donkey explains:

[W]ith relatively little notice, our Republican buddies have also sought to pull off a back-door maneuver that could unravel the consensus supporting welfare reform... there's been a deadlock in the Senate over the administration's demand that work requirements for welfare recipients be increased without additional money for child care assistance, and the Democratic position (most notably promoted by Sens. Evan Bayh and Tom Carper) that the tighter work requirements will fail without the child care resources that make it possible for single mothers to go to work (a smaller group of Democrats oppose increased work requirements altogether),

So now the GOPers are using the budget bill, which can't be filibustered, to simply impose their position on welfare on the Congress and the country, even though some of these provisions were not in either the House or Senate version of the bill.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an outstanding social policy research organization, has the gory details. Essentially, this action does the following:

  • Forces states to herd more public assistance recipients into work, while extending only $1 billion in new assistance for childcare. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that to meet the much higher work participation requirements the law imposes, states would need $12 billion in new childcare funding. Already in New York--one of the most generous states in the country for providing supports to low-income working mothers--we've got several hundred thousand kids in need of child care going without it.

  • Imposes crippling unfunded mandates on the states. Long gone, evidently, are the days when Newt Gingrich's newly empowered Republican majority pledged not to pass legislation driving state expenditures without allocating federal resources to help pay the freight. This was, in my opinion, the single best thing the Republicans in Congress did in their now 11 years in the majority; it's been under assault for awhile in measures like homeland security and No Child Left Behind, but this seems to render it an utterly dead letter.

  • Standardizes and nationalizes policy that states previously had been largely free to set in response to local conditions. Federalism--the idea that policymakers "closest to the ground" know better what best suits their communities than their counterparts in Washington--seems to be another one of those principles that Republicans once honored but have discarded when they didn't get the results they sought. Under welfare reform as passed in 1996, states had tremendous flexibility to set policies in response to local needs and conditions. Some states, like New York, went out of their way to support low-income working families, figuring that their commitment didn't end when the individual left the welfare rolls. Others (not New York, especially) were more lenient in setting what activities counted as "work-related," which made things easier on disabled aid recipients and afforded greater access to the education and training activities that gave participants their best shot to permanently emerge from poverty. That's gone now. Given the nature of the mandates, states that don't focus on "maximum engagement" are assured of losing federal programs dollars.

There's so much wrong here, I'm having trouble writing about this coherently. And that's even before getting to the fact that these cuts are designed in part to defray the cost of yet more tax breaks for the super-rich investor class.

But, as usual for me, this really comes down to both values and investment strategy. These changes represent a kick in the teeth to families trying to lift themselves out of dependency. Since 1996, welfare reform has done two things above all else: it shifted millions of Americans from public assistance to the low-wage workforce, and it concentrated the truly unable to work on what was left of the rolls. The latter group are essentially society's dependents--the mentally ill, the disabled and infirm. While it's important to keep engaging with them, trying to migrate as many of them as possible into the workforce, they shouldn't be the focus of policy.

The first, much larger group--those now working but still very much on the economic margin--should be our focus. How can we stabilize their finances? How can we help them build assets--savings, education, home ownership? What tools can we give them to advance in their careers, earn more money, pay more taxes, more fully integrate into our economy and society? While I don't think any state, or any think tank or advocacy group, would claim to have the answers to these questions, we've made some progress, and improved a lot of lives. We've substantially been able to make policy that reinforces shared values: the Earned Income Tax Credit, a bipartisan favorite, rewards work. Individual Development Accounts provide public or private matches to the savings of low-wage workers. Programs like New York's Wheels for Work directly put public resources behind the efforts of low-wage workers to stay on the job.

All that is now imperiled, because Senate Republicans used procedural chicanery to end an argument they couldn't win on the merits. Merry Christmas, working poor America.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Ladies and Gentlemen...
Mr. Bill Moyers. This from a speech last May--the best articulation I've ever seen of the empty symbolism that now passes for patriotic sentiment:

Apparently there was apoplexy in the right wing area, particularly when I closed the [NOW] broadcast one Friday night by putting a flag in my lapel and said--well, here's exactly what I said. Here's a copy of what I said: "I wore my flag tonight, first time. Until now I haven't thought it necessary to display a little metallic icon of patriotism for everyone to see. It was enough to vote, pay my taxes, perform my civic duties, speak my mind and do my best to raise our kids to be good Americans. Sometimes I would offer a small prayer of gratitude that I had been born in a country whose institutions sustain me, whose armed forces protected me and whose ideals inspired me. I offered my heart's affection in return. It no more occurred to me to flaunt the flag on my chest than it did to pin my mother's picture on my lapel to prove her son's love. Mother knew where I stood. So does my country. I even tuck a valentine in my tax returns on April 15th. So what's this doing here? I put it on to take it back. The flag's been hijacked and turned into a logo, the trademark--the trademark of a monopoly on patriotism. On most Sunday morning talk shows, official chests appear adorned with the flag as if it's the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. During the State of the Union, did you notice Bush and Cheney wearing the flag? How come? No administration's patriotism is ever in doubt, only its policies. And the flag bestows no immunity from error. When I see flags sprouting on official labels, I think of the time in China when I saw Mao's Little Red Book of orthodoxy on every official's desk, omnipresent and unread.

"But more galling than anything are all those moralistic ideologues in Washington sporting the flag in their lapel while writing books and running web sites and publishing magazines attacking dissenters as un-American. They are people whose ardor for war grows disproportionately to their distance from the fighting. They're in the same league as those swarms of corporate lobbyists wearing flags and prowling Capitol Hill for tax breaks, even as they call for spending more on war.

"So I put this on as a modest riposte to men with flags in their lapels who shoot missiles from the safety of Washington think tanks. or argue that sacrifice is good as long as they don't have to make it, or approve of bribing governments to join the 'Coalition of the Willing.' I put it on to remind myself that not every patriot thinks we should do to the people of Baghdad what bin Laden did to us. The flag belongs to the country, not to the government, and it reminds me that it's not un-American to think that war, except in self defense, is a failure of moral imagination, political nerve and diplomacy. Come to think of it, standing up to your government can mean standing up for your country."

What I love about Moyers is that, more than anybody, he's been the chronicler of and tribune against the right-wing assault on the American system itself. With NOW, he marvelously documented both causes and effects; he also tried to raise the level of conversation, and was scrupulously fair about incorporating perspectives with which he clearly disagreed. I remember watching one night when he had on David Keane of the American Conservative Union. After the substance of whatever they were discussing, Keane closed by saying something like, "I don't think you're treasonous or un-American, Bill. Just wrong." Moyers left it at that.

But this commitment to full debate didn't do it for the current ruling powers of Occupied Washington. As is now well known, they tried to drown out Moyers and bury NOW in a sea of right-wing noise. In this incredible speech given recently at an anniversary celebration for the National Security Archive, Moyers finally told his side of the story.

Once upon a time--four years ago to be exact--PBS asked me to create a new weekly broadcast of news, analysis, and interviews. They wanted it based outside the beltway and to be like nothing else on the air: report stories no one else was covering, conduct a conversation you couldn't hear anywhere else. That we did. We offered our viewers a choice, not an echo. In our mandate, we reached back to the words of Lord Byron that once graced the masthead of many small town newspapers: "Without, or with, offence to friends or foes," he said, "I sketch your world exactly as it goes."
We reported real stories and talked with real people about real problems. We told how faraway decision-making affected their lives. We reported on political influence that led to mountaintop removal mining and how the government was colluding with industry to cover up the effect of mercury in fish on pregnant women.

We described what life was like for homeless veterans and child migrants working in the fields. We exposed Wall Street shenanigans and tracked the Washington revolving door. We reported how Congress had defeated efforts to enact safeguards that would mitigate a scandal like Enron, and how those efforts were shot down by some of the same politicians who were then charged with investigating the scandal. We investigated the Deputy Secretary of the Interior, Steven Griles, a full�18 months before he resigned over conflicts of interest involving the oil and mining industries for which he had been a lobbyist on the other side of that revolving door. We reported on those secret meetings held by Cheney with his industry pals and attempted to find out who was in the room and what was discussed. We reported how ExxonMobil had influenced the White House to replace a scientist who believes global warming is real.

We won an Emmy for the hour-long profile of Chuck Spinney, the Pentagon whistleblower who worked from within to expose graft and waste in defense spending. And the blog, Dailykos.com, speculated that it was our interview with Ambassador Joe Wilson, two weeks before the invasion of Iraq and months before Robert Novak outed Wilson's wife Valerie Plame as a CIA operative, that first outraged the administration. "An honor I dreamed not of."

None of this escaped the attention of the Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, a buddy of Karl Rove and the designated driver for the administration's partisan agenda for public broadcasting. Tomlinson set out, secretly, to discredit our broadcast. He accused us of being unfair and unbalanced, but that wouldn't wash. We did talk with liberal voices like Howard Zinn, Susan Sontag, Sister Joan Chittester, Isabel Allende, Thomas Frank and Arundhati Roy. But we also spoke with right-wingers like Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, Cal Thomas, Frank Luntz, Richard Viguerie, Robert Bartley of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and then his successor, Paul Gigot.

What got Tomlinson's goat was our reporting. After all, we kept after his political pals for keeping secrets, and over and again we reported on how the big media conglomerates were in cahoots with official Washington, scheming for permission to get bigger and bigger. The mainstream media wouldn't touch this topic. Murdoch, Time Warner, Viacom, GE/NBC, Disney/ABC, Clear Channel, Sinclair--all stood to gain if their lobbying succeeded. Barry Diller appeared on our broadcast and described the relationship between the big news media and Washington as an "oligarchy." Sure enough, except for NOW with Bill Moyers, the broadcast media were silent about how they were lobbying for more and more power over what Americans see, read, and hear. It was left to one little broadcast, relegated to the black hole of Friday night, to shine the light on one of the most important stories of the decade.

What finally sent Tomlinson over the edge and off to the ramparts, however, was a documentary we did about the people of Tamaqua, a small town in Pennsylvania. The Morgan Knitting Mill there had just laid off more than a third of its workforce-- the last of 25 textile mills that sustained the townspeople after the demise of the coal industry. The jobs were going to Honduras and China. Our report told how free trade agreements like NAFTA had encouraged companies to lay off American workers, produce goods more cheaply abroad and then import the goods back here. We showed how the global economy contributes to the growing inequality in America, with the gap between the rich and poor doubling in the last three decades until it is now wider than in the days of the Great Depression.

Those are the facts--"reality-based" reporting--that caused Tomlinson to tell The Washington Post that what he saw was "liberal advocacy journalism." Well, if reporting what happens to ordinary people because of events beyond their control, and the indifference of government to their fate, is liberalism, I plead guilty.

Tomlinson was now on the warpath. In secret (his preferred modus operandi ) he hired an acquaintance out in Indianapolis named Fred Mann to monitor the content of our show. What qualified Fred Mann for the job has been hard to learn. His most recent position was as director of the Job Bank and alumni services at the National Journalism Center in Herndon, Virginia, an organization that is administered by the Young America's Foundation, which is, in turn, affiliated with the rightwing Young Americans for Freedom. The foundation describes itself as "the principle outreach organization for the conservative movement" and has received funding from ExxonMobil and Phillip Morris, among others. But the trail to Mann went cold there. Several journalists have tried telephoning or emailing him. I tried four times just this week to reach him. One enterprising young reporter even left notes for him at an Indianapolis Hallmark Store where Mann frequently faxed data to Tomlinson. No luck. I guess we'll have to wait for Robert Novak to out him.

Fred Mann never got around to writing his full report, but when members of Congress pressed Tomlinson to show them the notes from Mann, it turns out that he had divided NOW's guests into categories, with headings like, "Anti-Bush," "Anti-business," and "Anti-Tom DeLay." He characterized Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who departed from Republican orthodoxy to question the Iraq war, as "liberal," which must have come as a quite a shock to the senator.

During all this I sought several times to meet with Tomlinson and the Board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I wanted to ask them first-hand what was going on and to discuss the importance of public broadcasting's independence. They refused. I invited Tomlinson more than once to go on the air with me, with a moderator and format of his choosing, to discuss our views on the role of public broadcasting. He refused.

But all the while he was crudely pressuring the President of PBS, Pat Mitchell, to counter NOW. And he himself was in direct contact with Paul Gigot, the rightwing editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, to bring to PBS a show that Gigot had hosted on the cable business network CNBC until it was cancelled for lack of an audience. So the Journal Editorial Report came to PBS, with the Wall Street Journal, that fierce defender of the free market, accepting over $4 million of taxpayer dollars courtesy of Ken Tomlinson.

The emails between Tomlinson and Gigot during this time reveal two ideological soul mates scheming to make sure "our side," as they described themselves, gets "an absolute duplication of what Moyers is doing." But as the record will show, Gigot's show was nowhere near what NOW with Bill Moyers was doing. We were digging, investigating, and reporting; they were opining. We were offering a wide range of opinions and views; they were talking to each other. The participants on Gigot's broadcast were his own staff members at the newspaper whose editorial pages are the Pravda of American journalism, where the Right speaks only to the Right. To be blunt about it, we had more diversity of opinion on a single broadcast than Gigot had all year or than he has ever tolerated on his own editorial pages. Reporting? You have to be kidding. In their private exchange of emails Tomlinson informs Gigot that he doesn't really need to do field reporting. Gigot agrees, and goes on to say that he finds such reporting not only a waste of time and money, but "boring" [I'm not making this up: the editor of the editorial page of a great American newspaper finds field reporting "boring."] So it is that ideologues like Gigot can hold stoutly to a worldview despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality.
Gigot has now taken his show to FOX News, where such tactics will find a compatible home among like-minded partisans. "Our side" turns out to be the great Republican noise machine. A couple of days after that announcement, the Wall Street Journal published a thoroughly disingenuous editorial, obviously written by Gigot, defending Kenneth Tomlinson and their own involvement with him, while taking potshots at the Inspector General of CPB who had investigated the whole mess at the request of members of Congress. The editorial compared him to Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau.

But in a final triumph of reporting and evidence over ideology and spin, the Inspector found that Tomlinson had committed multiple transgressions: he broke the law, violated the corporation's guidelines for contracting, meddled in program decisions, injected politics into hiring procedures, and admonished CPB executive staff "not to interfere with his deal" with Gigot. The emails show Tomlinson bragging to Karl Rove, who played an important role in his appointment as chairman, about his success in "shaking things up" at CPB. They also confirm that he had consulted the White House about recruiting loyalist Republicans to serve as his confederates in an organization that had been created in 1967 to prevent just such partisan meddling in public broadcasting. (Thanks to Tomlinson and his White House allies, the new President of CPB is the former co-chair of the Republican National Committee. She arrives under a cloud that only her actions can dispel. We shall see.)

Curiously, Gigot's Wall Street Journal editorial conveniently failed to mention that the emails between himself and Tomlinson indicate Tomlinson perjured himself under oath, before Congress, when he said he had nothing to do with the agreement that landed Gigot at PBS. Fact is, they worked hand-in-glove. As I just mentioned, Tomlinson told his own staff not to interfere with "his deal" with Gigot. There's even an email in which Tomlinson says to Gigot, after they have been plotting on how to bring the proposed Gigot show to fruition, "Let's stay in close touch."

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Neocon Fantasy Camp
I had to listen to Bush's speech tonight, as Fox pushed back Family Guy to show it and, well, I didn't really want to get up. Besides, every time he gets in front of the cameras I figure there's about a 1 percent chance he'll just resign--and not necessarily at the start of the speech, but maybe in the middle. Maybe mid-sentence: "Saddam Hussein's regime maintained interest in and capability to start reconstituting its arsenal of deadly... ahhh, you know what? Fuck this. I quit. I'm going home. It's too fucking hard and I don't really care all that much."

But actually watching this thing, I think he honestly fails to understand that the two goals he repeatedly points toward in Iraq--a soverign nation-state with popularly sanctioned government, and a strategic partner and ally for the U.S. in the region--are simply incompatible.

These people, for a lot of reasons, will not choose to be on friendly terms with the United States. (They probably won't even choose to be on friendly terms with each other; the Kurds want their own state, and the sectarian divisions will prove stronger than the West-imposed "national identity" of Iraq. They don't think of themselves as a country any more than three people in a horse costume might think of themselves as a horse.)

But when they look at America--the country that sent money and weapons to help keep Saddam in power over them for decades; then encouraged a revolt against Saddam; then did nothing as he crushed the revolt; then imposed sanctions that helped kill hundreds of thousands (and suggested that hideous cost was "worth it") and visited upon "the Iraqi people" infinitely pain and suffering than they did Saddam--they are not going to see a friend. They certainly are not going to see a model to emulate. The goals of our grand state policy toward Iraq have shifted over time, but the means have always been the same: to use and abuse "the Iraqi people". Whatever our policymakers' actual intentions are (oil? military bases? honestly to spread democracy and self-determination?), those on the receiving end of them aren't assuming the best.

Given that there is no tradition of "civil government" among Muslims, in the sense of governance without an explicit religious sanction, it's a pretty safe bet that Iraq ultimately will elect something like an operational theocracy. I guess there is some chance (but not much of one, given the great differences in historical experience) Iraq--again, assuming such a state continued to exist at all--could eventually turn into Turkey. It's much more likely--because of oil, ethnicity and a similarly fraught history with the United States--that they'll turn into something like Iran. Again, it's possible that the two Islamic states, given their own recent and very deadly war, will become rivals and in some sense balance each other out (in which case we could have two Islamist powers seeking the Bomb--also not a great scenario). It's also possible that their common interests and shared Shi'a majorities will bring them together in partnership.

But what's absolutely not possible is for a secular, pro-Western government to organically emerge, with true popular support. It's not coincidence that the U.S. chose first Chalabi, and than Allawi, for leadership of the post-Saddam Iraq: They were the closest to this ideal they could think of. In Chalabi's case that meant a proven liar and con man, who turned out to be even worse than we'd thought. In Allawi's case, it meant presenting a known CIA asset, who had turned after actually being allied with Saddam at one point, as the best match for this American ideal of an Iraqi leader.

For the two cornerstones of Bush's speech about Iraq to be true--that we are building both a self-governing and eventually pro-U.S. government--is, based on everything we know about these people and this part of the world, almost unimaginable. This shouldn't be news to anyone in a position of power. So here's my questions: does he, in his proud cocoon where news is brought by loyalists, debate is unwelcome and dissent is not tolerated,really believe it, and is basing policy thusly? Or is he so cynical that he (or whoever is making the decision) thinks both no one will come out and strongly argue that what he proposes is impossible, and/or that by the time events prove him wrong, nobody will call him on it?

But there was a happy postscript. After the speech ended, as the other networks trotted out their Russerts and (I'm guessing) Stephanopouli, Fox switched right back to "Family Guy," in its entirety. The urge to make money, in this case by broadcasting a show with values and a viewpoint it's safe to say that Fox News does not share, trumped the urge to show their bubbleheads in post-ejacaulatory languor over Bush's speech. God bless America!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

L'etat, c'est Bush
I'm not sure which notion is more disturbing: that President Bush doesn't understand why people are bent out of shape about revelations that he personally approved domestic spying, or that he gets it and simply doesn't care. In his radio address today, Bush acknowledged that he had authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists and sympathizers after the 9/11 attacks, and had reviewed and reauthorized the policy every 45 days since then. (I imagine Bush applied the same level of deep thought and serious consideration to these reviews as he did when considering clemency pleas for the Texecution of the Week during his tenure as Governor of Texas.) But he didn't answer the more important question:

Mr. Bush did not address the main question directed at him by some members of Congress on Friday: why he felt it necessary to circumvent the system established under current law, which allows the president to seek emergency warrants, in secret, from the court that oversees intelligence operations. His critics said that under that law, the administration could have obtained the same information.

Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Friday that "there is no doubt this is inappropriate" and that he would conduct hearings to determine why Mr. Bush took the action.

The president said on Saturday that he acted in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks because the United States had failed to detect communications that might have tipped them off to the plot. He said that two of the hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon, Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, "communicated while they were in the United States to other members of Al Qaeda who were overseas. But we didn't know they were here, until it was too late."

To anyone but the totally credulous, the reason why he didn't bother to obtain the warrants should be very clear: This administration does not recognize the legitimacy of any limit on its powers. Big Swinging Dick Cheney has made it very clear that he believes the executive branch has near-absolute freedom of action: its powers justify (to name but a few) changes to the U.S. policy on torture, deceiving Congress about the real cost of a prescription drug benefit, and illegally reallocating hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars from Afghanistan military operations to Iraq. Checks and balances are just as "quaint" as the Geneva Convention. In this particular instance, the one imaginable rationale for not getting the warrants--that the court doesn't act quickly enough--is proven false on first glance by Josh Marshall.

This principle of executive power--and, of course, the unending drive to put up political "wins" on the board--trumps all else for the Bush administration, including, evidently, national security considerations. (Again, this is no news coming from the folks who outed a covert intelligence operative working on WMD issues to "push back" against criticism of the Iraq War.) Yesterday, the Senate refused to end debate on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, with a few libertarian Republicans joining Democrats led by Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin citing civil liberties concerns that weren't sufficiently addressed in the bill's language. Feingold--the lone Senator to vote against the Act in 2001--has proposed a three-month extension to the current law so debate can continue; Senate Republicans, led by Bush ass monkey Bill Frist, have rejected this outright. Why? So Bush can make statements like this one:

The terrorists want to attack America again and kill the innocent and inflict even greater damage than they did on Sept. 11 - and the Congress has a responsibility not to take away this vital tool that law enforcement and intelligence officials have used to protect the American people... The senators who are filibustering the Patriot Act must stop their delaying tactics so that we are not without this critical law for even a single moment."

Extensions of legislation while Congress continues the discussion are utterly commonplace. To give one example on an issue I follow professionally, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families law that "ended welfare as we knew it" in 1996, originally expired more than four years ago. While the reauthorization debate has dragged on, Congress has extended the current law for three months at a time, something like 14 times now. On the Patriot Act, Bush could ensure that we are "not without this critical law" whenever he wants; presumably he believes that the current iteration of the Act is better than nothing. But he'd rather push for absolute victory, risking our security in the process, than compromise. The mind reels.

A final note: The Rude Pundit, who might soon be joining the restructured AIS blogroll, has a very succinct take on Bush's position regarding the surveillance (and from which I stole this post title:)

Here's Bush's vicious radio talk today, where he mentioned 9/11 about nine times, in haiku form:

L'etat c'est moi, 'kay?
Once you accept that, you fucks,
We'll all get along.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Undeserving Poor?
Here's an important piece in the Washington Post today about the silence of our most prominent religious groups on pending federal budget cuts aimed at the poor:

When hundreds of religious activists try to get arrested today to protest cutting programs for the poor, prominent conservatives such as James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell will not be among them.

That is a great relief to Republican leaders, who have dismissed the burgeoning protests as the work of liberals. But it raises the question: Why in recent years have conservative Christians asserted their influence on efforts to relieve Third World debt, AIDS in Africa, strife in Sudan and international sex trafficking -- but remained on the sidelines while liberal Christians protest domestic spending cuts?

Conservative Christian groups such as Focus on the Family say it is a matter of priorities, and their priorities are abortion, same-sex marriage and seating judges who will back their position against those practices.
Jim Wallis, editor of the liberal Christian journal Sojourners and an organizer of today's protest, was not buying it. Such conservative religious leaders "have agreed to support cutting food stamps for poor people if Republicans support them on judicial nominees," he said. "They are trading the lives of poor people for their agenda. They're being, and this is the worst insult, unbiblical."

At issue is a House-passed budget-cutting measure that would save $50 billion over five years by trimming food stamp rolls, imposing new fees on Medicaid recipients, squeezing student lenders, cutting child-support enforcement funds and paring agriculture programs. House negotiators are trying to reach accord with senators who passed a more modest $35 billion bill that largely spares programs for the poor.

At the same time, House and Senate negotiators are hashing out their differences on a tax-cutting measure that is likely to include an extension of cuts in the tax rate on dividends and capital gains.
Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said the government's role should be to encourage charitable giving, perhaps through tax cuts.

"There is a [biblical] mandate to take care of the poor. There is no dispute of that fact," he said. "But it does not say government should do it. That's a shifting of responsibility."

The Carpetbagger, where I read about this piece, points out that Focus on the Family devotes a lot more space and emphasis on their website to urging repeal of the Estate Tax, an assessment that only affects the very rich and would seem to be more central to the Club for Growth or ATR than an ostensibly values-focused group. And Focus actually seems to denigrate the Food Stamp program, which is among those currently under attack in Congress. (Carpetbagger somehow fails to mention what I presume is the other big priority: stopping that insidious War on Christmas. What's more important than indulging the persecution fantasies of a majority group that holds near-total power? But I digress.)

I'll readily grant that this looks like hypocrisy, and I think the point Jim Wallis makes--that this bunch has agreed to support policies that hurt the poor in return for promises to put social-issue reactionaries on the bench--is spot on. But I'm more interested in how it is that so many people of faith, many of whom do extensive charity work in their own communities (and through their churches in particular), can support measures that redistribute wealth upward. In my opinion, this is distinct from skepticism about government being "not really capable of love," or even being not really capable of running programs well (a point one AIS reader has made from time to time). It's tantamount to a values determination that capital gains tax cuts are more important than income supports for the working poor.

Aside from the hard-to-prove (or disprove) argument that they're simply unaware of the debate, the best explanation I can think of--irony notwithstanding--is that these voters share the social Darwinism of the Grover Norquist/Stephen Moore branch of the Republican Party. Just as they see homosexuality as a choice that arises out of one's inner moral lack, perhaps they blame the moral failings of the poor for their poverty. Why the obvious disconnect between this worldview and the actual language of the Bible–-where poverty seems to get a lot more ink than homosexuality, and those who suffer its effects come in for mercy, not scapegoating--doesn't trouble them, I'm not sure. And how they square this with whatever friends, neighbors, family members and fellow congregants who have lost it all to economic dislocation, medical catastrophe or other forces out of their control (but not necessarily out of the government's), I haven't the foggiest. But the Tony Perkins quote in the Post article above comes across as almost Clintonian, doesn't it?

As for what the cuts mean in the secular world, check out this recent Times guest op-ed, by a colleague of mine in the NYC wonkosphere, and this excellent recent American Prospect piece on what these actions communicate about Republican priorities. The latter article does a superb job making both a moral and an economic case against this set of cuts. In that these programs support the upward aspirations of low-income working families--and that pending demographic and economic changes will demand that we get the most value out of every working American--the cuts are wrongheaded disinvestments in the workforce. And on values, the authors rightly conclude that the cuts "betray the deepest commitment conservatives claim to honor: hard work." Democrats would be wise to pick up both threads, which run through pretty much the entirety of Bush/Cheney/DeLay/Norquist policymaking.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Puzzle of Gene McCarthy
As you've probably heard by now, former Senator Eugene McCarthy, Democrat of Minnesota, died this week at age 89. McCarthy to me was, not exactly a hero, but one of the more fascinating, compelling and ultimately frustrating American politicians of the modern era. He was a great believer in democracy and open engagement with the public, and an unapologetic snob and elitist. His political roots were in the populist Democratic Farmer-Labor party and he came to prominence as a champion of the midwestern aesthetic and heartland sensibility, but he spent the last several decades of his life, long after his political career effectively ended, in and around Washington, DC. Though he obviously wanted to be thought of as a statesman, a transcendent figure above the realm of grubby politics who trafficked in ideas, he undercut himself and compromised his own stature by working against his party's presidential nominee in 1976 and 1980, and often seemed more interested in his poetry and other pursuits than whatever was current in public life. And in his signature political moment of 1968, when he raised the standard for peace in Vietnam and tried to elevate a debate on the imperial presidency and America's role in the world, he activated the passion and dedication of millions of young idealists--while making it transparently clear that he himself would never fully commit to the political fray.

But as personally fascinating and contradictory as McCarthy was, in my opinion his political and historical significance was as the tribune of American liberalism who tested and ultimately defined its practical limits and the far boundaries of its strength. An Adlai Stevenson supporter through the 1950s who had made an impassioned plea with his fellow Democrats for Stevenson in 1960, McCarthy had cool relations with the Kennedys through the abbreviated JFK presidency; one theory I remember reading was that McCarthy, who had attended seminary as a young man and seriously considered a life in the priesthood, viewed them as insufficently Catholic. But through his Senate career, he had been a close ally of Lyndon Johnson, and in 1964 he pushed hard behind the scenes to be chosen as Johnson's vice-presidential running mate. When he lost out to fellow Minnesotan Hubert H. Humphrey, McCarthy began to turn against the president; by 1967, he was among the leading critics of the Vietnam War. As a cadre of Democratic activists led by a New Yorker named Allard Lowenstein began searching for a prominent national Democrat to oppose Johnson in the 1968 primary contest, McCarthy indicated his interest.

The man the activists wanted, of course, was Bobby Kennedy, who brought a much more compelling personal backstory as well as greater prominence and political heft. Kennedy hated Johnson and deplored the course of the war, but didn't believe he could win and feared the consequences, for his party and his subsequent career, of a break with the administration. McCarthy, who probably should have had the same concerns, evidently did not; by all accounts, he was bored in the Senate. One of the mysteries of the man is just how the factors of personal pique, ambition, and idealism added up in his decision to run against Johnson. With virtually no institutional support within the party and even less hope of victory, he declared toward the end of 1967.

If McCarthy had fared as poorly as was universally predicted then, the last 38 years of American history might have developed rather differently. But his campaign caught unexpected fire in New Hampshire, fueled by the tireless efforts of his college-age volunteers, the uncharacteristically maladroit political work of the Johnson administration, and--perhaps most important--the national trauma of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which while a military failure for the Vietcong and North Vietnamese put the lie to the administration's claims that victory in Vietnam was imminent. McCarthy won 42 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote and a majority of the state's delegates to the Democratic National Convention to be held that summer; within a few weeks, Robert Kennedy had joined the race, and Lyndon Johnson had dropped out of it.

The ensuing three-way race for the presidential nomination between McCarthy, Kennedy and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who ultimately won it, not only split the Democrats and cost them the 1968 election--nealy half of those who supported McCarthy or Kennedy, millions of otherwise-solid Democrats, stayed home in November as Humphrey lost an exceptionally close race to Richard Nixon--but opened up cleavages in the party that I don't think have ever been fully closed. Humphrey, a classical liberal who had great institutional support but limited popular appeal, was perceived (somewhat unfairly) as Lyndon Johnson's surrogate; I believe the meme that Democrats have no core principles substantially began with Humphrey. McCarthy, though, was arguably the originator of a different, but no less harmful, liberal conceit: the supremely arrogant and condescending figure who would have it his way, or not at all. After Kennedy's assassination in June 1968, he had a second chance to capture the public imagination; he passed it up, staying mostly silent. At the disastrous Chicago convention, he refused to work the delegates. After the convention, he essentially disappeared, writing about the World Series for Life magazine before offering an exceptionally tepid endorsement of Humphrey. He left the Senate two years later, and then commenced an increasingly pathetic series of half-assed quadrennial runs for the presidency--the last time, in 1992, when he was 76.

I sometimes think the one political trait Americans find truly unforgiveable is indifference, or the perception of it. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both won two terms in the White House, despite being detested by large segments of the electorate, because they projected as driven men. The individuals they defeated never demonstrated the same drive: think of George H.W. Bush looking at his watch in a 1992 debate, or John Kerry letting the Swift Boat attacks go unanswered for months in the summer of 2004. Gene McCarthy demonstrated a variant of that kind of passivity, at a time when the stakes were probably much higher. Personally, I find a lot to admire in McCarthy's stated view that he was merely the standard-bearer for a popular movement, who should not and would not campaign as a personality (much less against someone else's; McCarthy deplored the idea that his campaign was a manifestation of the "Dump Johnson" movement--though of course it was). But it showed an ignorance of how American politics worked then, and works now--or, more likely, an unwillingness to accept and operationalize that understanding. It's not difficult to argue that McCarthy's commitment to principle helped facilitate the serial tragedies of recent American history, from the additional seven years in Vietnam that followed the 1968 election to the subsequent, and still ongoing, war against the notion of activist, progressive government itself. His hated rival Robert Kennedy, though derided as opportunistic and unprincipled, came on as a fighter; if he'd lived, I believe the many compromises he might have made nevertheless would have added up to a much greater liberal legacy. Sometimes a willingness to engage and commit outweighs every other consideration.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

We saw Syriana last night. Good movie, though it was about as narratively far from its source material, Robert Baer's CIA memoir See No Evil, as one could possibly imagine. In terms of its muddy morality, the film reminded me of those movies they made thirty years ago in which there was no real protagonist, at least not in any sense of having a character to cheer for. George Clooney's CIA agent probably comes the closest, but anybody who dispenses death as casually as does his Bob Barnes (the fictional surrogate for Baer, who retired from the intelligence service in 1997) can't really be viewed as heroic in a movie like this, where the viewer has to invest a certain level of thought and discernment. Stripped of the geopolitics, Barnes is essentially a government hit man: we see him take out an Iranian arms trader in the opening minutes of the film, and later he's tasked to kill a reformist Arab prince whose views are deemed harmful to American interests. He fails to do so, but that's a far cry from a principled refusal to try.

The rest of the film is populated with Texas oil men, government functionaries, political fixers, ambitious young guys on the make, and the poor bastards who actually do the work of petroleum production that makes fortunes thousands of miles away. Among other luminaries, the cast includes Chris Cooper, as the owner of a mid-sized Texas-based energy company that's about to hit the big time through a merger, and William Hurt, as a former CIA colleague of Barnes who's retired into a lucrative consultancy. But watching Cooper in particular, I started to think of how art can, and maybe should, imitate life...

Is that freakin' creepy or what? Same dead eyes, same slimy hair. But at least Cooper presumably can get out of character, so to speak.

So I now think we should cast the entire gang of ideologues, crooks and well-dressed looters currently running the country. Sticking with Syriana, I think William Hurt could play a damn fine Karl Rove... if he gained 30 pounds of so, anyway. I'll not put up the side-by-side here because, well, I don't really want to look at Rove, unless it's seeing him in an orange jumpsuit or head-to-toe denim, in hand and leg restraints. Maybe Nick Nolte as Rumsfeld? Alfre Woodard as Condeliesalot Rice? James Cromwell as Radical Cleric James Dobson is a "slam dunk"... and speaking of which, how about Chazz Palminteri as George Tenet (possibly portrayed only in flashback)?

But I can't figure out who in Hollywood, if anybody, has the sheer malevolance to portray Citizen Dick Cheney. Richard Dreyfuss played a cartoonishly evil Republican in either "Dave" or "The American President"--after countless half-viewings on TNT and TBS, those two flicks kind of run together for me--but his heart didn't seem to be in it.

Any ideas, for any of the remaining uncasted miscreants?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Trouble in the Heartland
A great piece today from the Albany Times-Union mourns the death of the U.S. auto industry--and casts light on the dire plight of the Rust Belt:

The U.S. auto industry is dead. With General Motors announcing, days before Thanksgiving, 30,000 more layoffs and nine plant closings, the Rust Belt just got the final strike of the sledgehammer. When GM finally goes down for good, all the rusted remains of that region will crumble.
Most citizens of the Rust Belt -- that center of U.S. manufacturing and a longtime Democratic stronghold -- can thank relatives who toiled in exhausting factories for their current blessings.

But for my generation, born at the end of America's Golden Age (I was born in 1975, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-energy crisis, post-labor), life in the Rust Belt has been a steady process of downward mobility. I was lucky enough to write a novel about the Rust Belt that got me out of debt and low-wage work; most of the people I write about have not been so fortunate.

In times of crisis -- natural disasters, terrorist attacks, economic collapse -- the federal government develops a relief plan. Now the Rust Belt is in serious crisis and needs relief.
My native state of Michigan leads the nation in unemployment and has a pitifully low tax base; Wisconsin, my adopted home, does not fare much better. Cities ringing the Great Lakes -- Buffalo, Cleveland, Gary, Milwaukee -- weather not only the brutal winter but scores of plant closings and thousands of lost jobs each year. The holidays get bleaker and bleaker. This year, even our beloved Green Bay Packers -- facing their worst season in memory -- seem affected by the general malaise of the region.

Christmas miracles will not occur this year. The Big Three, and all the industries that grew up alongside them, will not have amazing recoveries and send out callbacks to hundreds of laid-off workers.

This story, unfortunately, is not a new one for many of us. Policy geeks like me, particularly those of us who focus on workforce issues and macroeconomic trends, sometimes refer to this--rather bloodlessly, I have to admit--as "the transition to a post-industrial economy." This cold phrase is shorthand for a hard notion: it's no longer really possible, at least not in any systematic sense, for Americans to earn a family-supporting income by performing semi-skilled labor. The answer, we generally posit, is better education: individually, those with four-year college degrees have greater options as far as finding work, and collectively when the skill level of a local workforce rises to a certain point, that locality should have better luck in drawing high-wage employers.

(The problem with at least the second part of this argument, which we generally glide over, is that if you're well educated and/or highly skilled in a community where you can't make money putting that education or those skills to use, you're very likely to leave. "Brain drain" from communities like those in upstate New York has left an older and less education population, and helped engender a downward economic spiral. But that's not our immediate focus right now.)

What I do find exciting about this article is that its author identifies where help for the embattled Rust Belt must come: the federal government.

There are three things that only the federal government can do -- must do -- to restore American dreams to the heartland. Or else we will truly face, as Ronald Reagan said in 1981, "an economic calamity of tremendous proportions." But, with deference to old optimistic Dutch, trickle-down tax cuts aren't the answer. Tax cuts have had more than two decades to trickle down; they remain frozen at the top.

First, we must implement a system that guarantees universal health care. American industry -- from National Steel to Starbucks -- would benefit from having the burden of health insurance lifted off its back. Why else would GM be aggressively investing in nationalized-health care Canada while U.S. plants shut down? Without having to worry about health insurance for their families or their workers, a whole new generation of entrepreneurs just might take risks -- opening small businesses and inspiring innovation across the region.

Second, we must provide concrete steps for workers seeking to retrain and acquire new job skills. When George W. Bush was campaigning in blighted Ohio in 2004, this was his mantra: Retrain, retrain, retrain. It makes no sense for debt-ridden, jobless Americans to take out more student loans on an economic wing and a prayer. The government needs to subsidize community colleges in high-poverty areas so that workers can go back to school for free.

Finally, we must reinvest in the infrastructure of crumbling cities and towns. A new public works program needs to be implemented. But the states of the Rust Belt don't have the resources to pull off such a plan. Only the federal government has the resources to put thousands of Midwesterners back to work repairing roads and bridges, demolishing vacant buildings and rehabilitating the nation's urban centers so that they have usable, developable and livable spaces.

One of the debates I hope we can have as a country, in 2006 and 2008--and in which I personally hope to find a platform--is on the role of government, both at its different levels and in a philosophical sense. As people like Josh Marshall and Mark Schmitt have often observed, the years of Republican misrule and twisted priorities somewhat seem like a self-fulfilling prophesy: if you see no positive role for government in the lives of everyday citizens, you're certainly not likely to direct it toward such a role. But American government, of course, has done great things in the realms of education, public health, market regulation, safety standards, scientific advancement... the list is almost endless.

Rabid anti-government ideologues have framed this topic for far too long; before they actually succeed in diminishing the government's power to do good, by "starving the beast" and creating so many problems we literally don't know where to start, we have to start making the positive case.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Last week I was invited to sit on a career panel held by New York University's Wagner School of Public Policy. It was an enjoyable evening, as I got to catch up with some friends and colleagues and tell bright-eyed young go-getters considering policy careers that ignorance, the absence of a plan and serial mistakes don't necessarily preclude worthwhile occupational choices in our field.

My panel was held in a corner conference on the third floor of the Puck Building, where I gather Wagner is based. The door of the office next to the conference room bore the name "Robert Shrum".

A more descriptive legend for its occupant might have read: "Robert '0-for-8, Chardonnay Populist, shit-for-brains, utterly incompetent, real "architect" of Bush's 2004 victory, good-for-nothing liberal douchebag wuss asshole Shrum." My first instinct was that a parade of people--maybe a displaced victim of Hurricane Katrina one day, maybe someone who went broke paying medical costs and is now screwed forever because of the new bankruptcy law the next, perhaps the wife or child of an Iraq casualty the following--should get to leave bodily waste on this guy's desk, every single day, for the entirety of Bush's present term. My second was to at least write "Thanks loser--Love, The RNC" on his whiteboard door.

But I didn't want my friend who'd invited me to get in trouble, so I breathed deeply and let it go. The next day I read on Political Wire that Shrum, "the political consultant whose words and ideas have helped define the Democratic Party for 40 years"--and what a damning statement that is, considering we've lost seven of the ten presidential elections over that span, with Shrum sitting out the three wins--has signed a six-figure book deal.

Now this... this really pissed me off. It's one thing to fuck up with tragic consequences--and I think it would be very tough to argue that the re-election of the Idiot King hasn't borne, and won't continue to bear, tragic consequences. But people make mistakes; presumably Shrum tried his best, and the fault is with John Kerry and the other dimwits and fellow "professional election losers" who hired him.

It's another to MAKE MONEY OFF IT. Annie and I intermittently argued last week about what the appropriate course of action is for someone who failed as badly and disastrously as Shrum. I'm not quite saying that the ancient Japanese custom of ritual suicide is in order. But I do think that person is honor bound to disappear from public life and, at the least, never bother us again. Shrum's a rich prick. He should go drink his wine, listen to Debussy or Kenny G or whatever lame music he enjoys on his hi-fi, and at least let the rest of us get to the work of trying to undue the damage he helped facilitate.

Then there's this:

A "seasoned Democratic operative" tells The Plank "that he fully expects Bob Shrum will emerge from his semi-retirement/exile to work for a 2008 Democrat. Last time around there was a big hullabaloo about the 'Shrum Primary' -- the intense competition to snap up Shrum as an advisor. This time, given Shrum's battered reputation, the interesting question is, Which candidate will be willing to have him?"

Can we all just promise, right here and now, to oppose any Democrat who hires this incompetent jackass? Talk about fatally bad judgement. At some point, "beginner's luck" just doesn't hold up anymore.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Candor of a Conservative
A few months ago, the New Yorker published a profile of 88 year-old Peter Viereck, who is considered one of the intellectual forefathers of the modern conservative movement. In April 1940, a time when liberalism was still in the ascendant and Franklin Roosevelt was gearing up for his third term in office, Viereck--a 23 year-old graduate student--published this spirited defense of his politcs in the Atlantic Monthly.

Packaged as an argument for conservatism, Viereck's statement reads today more like a blast against the extremism of both Right (both in its Nazi and America-First incarnations) and Left (Stalin's USSR, and its American apologists). But even more striking is how so many of Viereck's "conservative" points sound like modern mainstream Democratic views.

What do I mean by 'conservative'? Conservatism must include what Thomas Mann calls humanism: the conservation of our cultural, spiritual, and individualist heritage. Common sense is notoriously the oracle of conservatism. But, at its best, common sense means no mere unimaginative shrewdness. It means the common and universal sense of mankind, the common values basic to every civilized society and creed. These human values are the traffic lights which all (even 'mass movements') must obey in order that all may be free.
Freedom of thought we must never restrict in America. Conduct and action we can and must restrict. Instead of 'progressive education' our democratic school system must instill, from kindergarten on, the necessity of limiting all human conduct and instinct by objective Law. Only so can we learn, the decent rules of the game as an unbreakable habit. By 'Law' I do not mean all existing laws. All are not necessarily good. By 'Law' I mean the legal way as a way to whatever goals we may seek; I mean it as a way of living. This way is necessarily freedom's prerequisite. In this sense, Law must tread pitilessly upon individuals, nations, classes. It must trample with callous and sublime indifference upon their economic interests yes, even their economic interests- and their 'healthy instincts of the race.'
As menacing as open anarchists are those who discredit traditional institutions, not by attack, but by excess exploitation. The man who uses our institutions and Law as a barrier to, instead of a vehicle for, democratic reform is the real anarchist.

Viereck's perspective perhaps looks strange to us because, aside from barbs thrown at the Soviet Union and its sympathizers, it seems almost denuded of contemporary politics. FDR himself isn't mentioned, nor is any prominent Republican politician, despite the fact that the article was published in an election year. (Two things to remember, though, are that the Republican Party in 1940 was so disorganized, demorallized and internally split that an utter dark horse, Wendell Wilkie, was ultimately able to steal the presidential nomination at the last moment; and that the affiliations of liberalism to the Democrats and conservatism to the Republicans were nowhere near as fixed in the public mind as they are today.)

This unmooring from electoral politics frees Viereck to make some pretty amazing observations, including the insight that capitalism and Marxism share a core conviction about the centrality of economics. At least in a metaphorical sense, his rejection of political Manicheanism is also strikingly relevant to today's American political scene, in which the bases of both parties seem so dominant. He similarly denounces the free-market fundamentalism today championed by the nihilistic Grover Norquist and the myopic, mean-spirited Club for Growth:
With the most passionate intensity, I resent the no-third-way sophistry of forcing American students to choose only from the alternatives of fascists and Marxists. Dynamic fascism, as it is sweeping Europe, is idealism diabolized. Economism, its opposite, whether of capitalist or Marxist brand, is materialism deified. Dynamism is immoral, economic materialism is unmoral; take your choice! Both are present to some degree in all societies. Either in excess explodes the civilization we conservatives would conserve. Our fight as young Americans is twofold: against our established cult of economism and mammon worship, and against all attempts to import fascism in its place.
What are the immediate political duties today of a common-sense conservative? I think a conservative should patriotically join in our country's cautious groping toward a planned economy. Despite party slogans, this groping will in practice steadily continue, whether under Republicans or New Dealers. Leftists try to discredit the conservative attitude by linking it in the public mind with laissez-faire economics. But how on earth can we conserve what's dead and what probably never existed? Purchasing power must be so distributed that every citizen is himself a free and stable property owner and an economically articulate consumer. Necessities (such as wheat) must no longer be burned or ploughed under, but sold, even without profit and below cost, to all citizens who lack them.

Emphasis mine. Strengthening American consumers--whether by energetic regulation on the Eliot Spitzer model, or the sorts of economic literacy programs now commonplace in anti-poverty strategies--is increasingly a hallmark of Democratic candidates and office-holders. And the notion of "free and stable property owner[s]" arguably goes back as far as Thomas Jefferson's "sturdy yeoman farmers."

Viereck's closing brief against extremism offers a warning for us today--and likely wouldn't sit well with today's self-labeled "conservatives" of the DeLay/Cheney stripe.

Accepting vigilance as the price of liberty, the conservative will be alert equally against all illegalities from all sides, whether from flag-waving Americans or 'aliens' or capitalists or labor unions. He will everywhere answer illegal force with force-in-law, returning words for words and bullets for bullets, until Law is respected again. He will answer fascist attacks, from within the United States or without, with the policeman's club and not the Chamberlain umbrella.

Suppose the Communist Party calls itself the 'Paul Reveres of 1936,' and the Nazi Bund pays lip service to George Washington. No matter how democratic their methods and actions. Anti-fascist lip service is not enough of a criterion. If fascism ever comes to America, it will assuredly be some homespun, native brand, riding into power on militaristic anti-fascist (i.e. anti-'alien') phrases.
Our conservative will never admit that the state as a whole is greater than the sum of its separate individuals. All power he will distrust and hence limit. He will fight every extension of government authority, no matter in whose hands, whenever it seems more dangerous than the genuine wrong it would remedy. But he will insist equally on forestalling mass discontent with thoroughgoing social legislation, with the proviso that such new governmental power be as decentralized as possible.

He believes in majority rule for America, but never majority dictatorship. Instead, he believes in the absolute constitutional and human rights of minorities, whether share-croppers or millionaires, whether economic, religious, or racial. He will stubbornly insist that corrupt means betray even the worthiest ends.

I'd be very curious how this would sit with today's rank-and-file Republicans. Two possible reactions suggest themselves: they might argue, ahistorically in my opinion, that Viereck is really a Democrat in disguise with his acceptance of activist government and the theoretical validity of economic intervention for the common good. (Indeed, Viereck soon became an outspoken critic of Joe McCarthy, and committed other sins of political deviation.) Or they might realize how far through the looking glass their movement has gone, and how profoundly un-conservative it has really become.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Bye Bye Birdies
For the first time in six years, I'm facing the prospect of a full winter without the Philadelphia Eagles to keep me company into January. Today's 27-17 loss to the Giants pretty much formalized what's been evident for a few weeks now: this team isn't going to the playoffs, much less challenging for another Super Bowl berth. Despite all the plaudits they've gained as a "model franchise," the Eagles will follow the ignominious path blazed by the last half-dozen or so Supe losers--most recently the Rams, Raiders, and Panthers--and clean out their lockers following a meaningless season finale. I'd have to say the odds are that they won't even finish .500... a state of affairs that was virtually unimaginable three months ago, when they broke camp as the consensus pick to win the division and the strong favorite to claim a second straight conference title. (And yes, I myself picked them to win the NFC East; I didn't think it would even be particularly close. Given how wrong I was about the Phillies this past year, perhaps I should take a vow never to pick a Philadelphia team to win anything.)

I could give a whole discourse on what I think has gone wrong for the team; injuries and the Terrell Owens circus are the generally accepted reasons, but I actually think the total disappearance of the team's pass rush, combined with a half-dozen or so really awful coaching decisions and, finally, just plain bad luck really tells the story. (I also hope to get paid to write this, perhaps here, so I'd prefer not to possibly scoop myself.)

What I'm trying to do, though, is realize how much better my life is now than in the last period when the Eagles, um, sucked: 1997-1999. In the first of those years, I was winding down my time as a writer/web producer for NBC Sports; living by myself in a neighborhood I hated on the Upper East Side; going through a bad drought in my love life; and generally of the feeling I was just marking time, waiting for something to happen. The next year, when the Eagles bottomed out at 3-13, was much worse: I was in grad school, in a group house in Washington, DC with a bunch of people I actively disliked, and more or less completely miserable.

During the final year, as the Eagles started to get better under Andy Reid with a rookie quarterback named Donovan McNabb, my own life seemed to be on the upswing too: I was living in Takoma Park, Maryland ("a nuclear-free zone"), a bit happier at grad school, and generally of the feeling that I was starting to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. It was still a generally grim time, though, punctuated by the shocking death of a childhood friend of mine on December 3, 1999--four days after we'd gotten enjoyably wasted watching one of the team's many close losses that year. It's hard to believe that Jeremy has been gone six years now; next week, when I'm home for Thanksgiving, I'll probably visit the marker, unadorned except for my friend's name, the years of his birth and death, and the simple legend: UNACCEPTABLE.

Now, at least, I can get up from the couch after watching a frustrating Eagles loss, get some sympathy, or at least distraction, from my wife, go work on a freelance project or some fiction, and generally enjoy the sense that my happiness isn't as closely tethered to the success or failure of the football team as it once was.

(Or as it still is to the Phillies.)

Monday, November 14, 2005

From (Dubya's) Dusk to (Democrats'?) Dawn
While most pundit types are reading the tea leaves of last week's state and local elections and jumping to some frankly dubious conclusions, Mark Schmitt at The Decembrist has perhaps the most perceptive take on just why Bush's lame-duck-ness is now all but assured:

Under Bush in the U.S... we have moved toward something that looks a lot more like parliamentary government, in which the ruling party moves with a single voice and when it fails to do so, the whole order is at risk. If [Tony] Blair is more national leader than party leader, Bush has styled himself as much more the leader of an ideologically unified majority party than any American president in decades, including those such as LBJ who had solid congressional majorities. He is the first president, for example, to handpick the Senate majority leader.
The budget reconciliation process that broke down yesterday in both Houses is very much a product of that reform impulse. Designed in 1974 to force congressional committees to make big choices about taxes and entitlement spending, it has been used by presidents Reagan in 1981 and Clinton in 1993 to force dramatic reorderings of priorities that would have been impossible earlier. Today the process has been egregiously abused, simply to avoid the rule of unlimited debate and 60 votes for cloture in the Senate. The more that key choices such as oil drilling in ANWR, which go well beyond the budget, are moved through this one-party process, the more "parliamentary" our system becomes.
A great deal of Bush/Rove/DeLay's success over the past five years has come from pushing through party-line votes as if they were confidence votes in a parliamentary system. Many of the votes pushed through with massive arm-twisting and unprecedented procedures, such as the Medicare prescription drug bill and the 2003 tax bill, were sold on the basis that the president needs the victory. You may not think this is good policy, wavering Republicans were told, but if the president wins, he gets reelected and we all win; we lose, and our whole edifice of power collapses.

And just as in a parliamentary system, that works until it stops working. And when it stops working, the government is finished. After reelection, the confidence vote argument lost some steam. Seeing Bush as a burden in 2006 rather than an asset for reelection, it loses still more. Having chosen to govern as a party, rather than national, leader, Bush has few of the resources that other presidents have had to salvage themselves, and the same goes for the Republican leadership in Congress.

For those of us who have marveled at how the Republican congressional majorities have all but ceded the legislature's once-cherished institutional prerogatives to their executive branch co-partisans, the schism to which Schmitt refers was a welcome sight. The prospect of further cleavages, over issues from torture of enemy combatants to entitlements and the KulturKampf Krew wish list, is even more pleasant. It also casts a different light on this recent, much-discussed piece by Newsweek's Howard Fineman about how Democrats have suddenly begun to practice a Beltway variant on the right-wing art of "wedge politics."

It seems to me that we're back to something like the political stalemate of the late 1990s, with public disdain for the ruling party and a slew of scandals essentially blocking the right-wing agenda. The Democrats have a year to make their case for governing; of course, they also have a year to screw it up again. Both parties have the opportunity to seize the mantle of new ideas; one of the more interesting pieces I've read recently in this vein actually comes from the right-wing Weekly Standard, which argues that Republicans will need to embrace a markedly different economic agenda if they are to retain power despite their leaders' scandal entanglements and the evident exhaustion of the Bush administration.

[E]ven the more idealistic aspects of the GOP program--Bush's vision of an "ownership society," the pursuit of a politically risky Social Security privatization plan--have been ill-suited to the present political climate, and to the mood of the American people. It's not just that the American people have shown little appetite of late for dramatically shrinking the scope of the federal government, or taking more economic responsibility into their own hands--it's that there's shrinking support for such goals among reliable Republican voters.
Given this political landscape, Republicans face three obvious options. The first is to continue to muddle along with the domestic policy that produced the multi-trillion-dollar Medicaid drug benefit, three years of bloated appropriations bills, and the failed push for private retirement accounts, and hope that social issues and national security concerns are enough to keep the party's majority afloat. A second option is to attempt a return to a purer, more fiscally austere faith, even if it means ceding political power, and wait for the looming entitlement crisis to convince Americans of the wisdom of repealing the New Deal.

The third possibility--and the best, both for the party and the country as a whole--would be to take the "big-government conservatism" vision that George W. Bush and Karl Rove have hinted at but failed to develop, and give it coherence and sustainability. This wouldn't mean an abandonment of small-government objectives, but it would mean recognizing that these objectives--individual initiative, social mobility, economic freedom--seem to be slipping away from many less-well-off Americans, and that serving the interests of these voters means talking about economic insecurity as well as about self-reliance. It would mean recognizing that you can't have an "ownership society" in a nation where too many Americans owe far more than they own. It would mean matching the culture war rhetoric of family values with an economic policy that places the two-parent family--the institution best capable of providing cultural stability and economic security--at the heart of the GOP agenda.

Take out the unapologetic partisanship (which is unfortunately characteristic of the whole piece) and the list of ideas that follow--financial support, through tax breaks and incentives, for married couples with children; market-friendly reform of how health care is provided; wage subsidies for the working poor (!)--is very simiilar to the issues progressives should be thinking through as well. The article also concedes perhaps the key point of the whole progressive enterprise at this time: "over the past few decades, returns to capital have escalated while returns to labor have declined, and... the result has been increasing economic insecurity for members of the working and middle classes."

It even goes on to implicitly make the connection between this widespread and increasing economic insecurity and all those social woes Republicans are forever going on about--illegitimacy, divorce, and the rest. This is of pivotal importance; while the right retains its idyllic conception of the 1950s as a time of strong families with strong values, its tribunes never quite mention that strong unions and activist government pursuing an explicit equity agenda had more than a little to do with that, too. (Honesty requires us, in turn, to concede that the global economic situation--specifically, that all our previous and subsequent rivals, both as producers and as markets, were still rebuilding from the war--also played a big part; but that's another story for another day.)

I personally don't think you can get the Hair Club for Growth or the other free-market fundamentalists to support this kind of Republican agenda; the question is whether Democrats can get to that high ground first and prove its fertility.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Guh-ver-nance! Guh-ver-nance!
The CIA leak scandal, the increasingly intense debate over pre-war intel and the looming Supreme Court battle have sucked up the lion's share of oxygen in the world of politics and policy lately. But perhaps the two most important stories out there right now are the ongoing Jack Abramoff/pay-to-play scandals now being investigated by the feds and John McCain's Indian Affairs Senate committee, and the decision Colorado voters made yesterday to cast off the self-imposed legislative and budgetary straitjacket known as TABOR (Taxpayers' Bill of Rights). The two are somewhat linked, but I'm going to exercise my policy-wonk prerogative and focus on TABOR today.

TABOR was the unfortunate product of two ascendant trends from the 1990s: the general prosperity of the country, and the increasingly effective organizing on the right led by the anti-tax fanatic Grover Norquist. His "taxpayer protection pledge" that Republican legislators promise never to raise taxes is better known, but the TABOR idea--essentially, that any surplus be immediately refunded to taxpayers rather than re-invested into public programs--was far more dangerous. During the 12 years TABOR was in effect, Colorado experienced sharp declines in the quality of its education, health care, transportation and social service systems compared to other states; see here for a Center for American Progress assessment of TABOR's damage.

Eventually, the problems became so pronounced that Republican Governor Bill Owens--who had championed the measure in 1992 and came to power in large part on its popularity--campaigned for its partial repeal this year. The move probably costs him any chance at a presidential nomination in 2008 or afterward, and brings into focus the similar dilemma that Republican governors are facing all over the country: as Mark Schmitt observes, they're trapped between the demands of their constituents and those of the conservative "movement":

Bill Owens' national political career is destroyed. A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal and George Will were setting him up to run for president in 2008. He's taken some hits since then (his wife "kicked him out of the house" for a year, for reasons unknown, and his party lost the legislature, a U.S. Senate seat and two house seats last year) but this is the final blow.

But he's not the only one. Virtually every Republican governor is caught in the same trap, whether it involves TABOR or tax increases more generally.

And this is incredibly important. One of the great strengths of the Republican Party heading into the Bush era was the number of big-state Republican governors and the perception that they knew how to govern. People like Gingrich could spout their ideological bombast, but in Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere the face of the Republican party was governors who seemed to know what they were doing. Sure, some of them swept problems under the carpet and then stomped up and down on it, and some mastered the art of consequence-free tax cut politics, but they put on a good face.
Republican governors are stuck in Norquist's paradox. They can choose to govern, which means raising taxes, like Mitch Daniels in Indiana, and be completely ostracized by the national power brokers. Or they can be Schwarzenegger, spout the ideological talking points, and lose ground in their own states. It's a no-win situation. (There is one possible exception: Haley Barbour in Mississippi, who doesn't have to raise taxes because his state provides minimal services anyway and because the feds will be dumping many billions of dollars on him in the name of Katrina.)

During the 1990s, when times were generally good or at least were perceived that way, it was probably a lot easier for Republican governors to appease the movement people by tax cuts. Sure, support for higher education and safety-net services dipped, but middle-class voters didn't feel directly threatened and there was probably even some political value in taking on liberal advocates. Now, however, the winds have shifted and those in the middle seem to find it easier to identify with low-income workers and even the poor than those at the top. (Maybe the historic gap between spiking corporate profits and stagnant real wages has something to do with this...?) Bill Owens has made his choice. Other Republican governors are, as Stephen Colbert might say, "on notice." When circumstances force a decision between governance and ideology, it's generally gonna be over for Grover.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Better Late Than Never (I Guess)
On the one-year anniversary of a singularly disappointing day, George W. Bush has hit his all-time low approval rating: 35 percent, compared to 57 percent disapproval. The CIA leak and the indictment of Irving Lewis Libby seems to be driving this in part, though I think there's something bigger going on...

Most Americans believe someone in the Bush Administration did leak Valerie Plame's name to reporters – even though Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald indicted no one for doing that. Half of the public describes the matter as something of great importance to the country, and this poll finds low assessments of both the President and the Vice President – with the President's overall approval rating dropping again to its lowest point ever.

Now, Presidents Reagan and Clinton never saw their ratings drop as precipitously as has Bush, despite the prominence of the Iran-Contra and Blowgate scandals. My own opinion is that Clinton's problem wasn't as serious as those of the two Republicans (and considering that his ratings actually rose during the Gingrich/DeLay/Starr inquisition, a lot of people evidently agreed), but even Reagan--whose scandal, selling weapons to a terrorist-sponsoring state and lying to Congress to do it, was quite substantive--didn't suffer anything like the hit Bush is taking. So the question is, what's different?

Two things, I think. One reflects that oft-quoted, somewhat banal but also somewhat telling "right track/wrong track" question the pollsters ask. According to the most recent sampling, 68 percent--more than two thirds!--are "dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time." As the link shows, that's just less than twice as many people who felt that way during Clinton's political travails, and my guess is that the state of opinion in late 1986 and through 1987 was closer to what it was in Clinton's second term than now.

Almost nobody is happy. In pocketbook terms, real wages are stagnant for most (though corporate profits remain super-high) while prices are beginning to rise; increasingly, the jobs we're creating aren't family-supporting and don't come with benefits we generally consider to be pretty important. Culturally, there isn't much to hold on to. Politically, about half of us--my half, probably your half--are angry at, contemptuous of, and utterly alienated from "our leaders." But even the other side, I think, is less than thrilled: some of them have probably figured out what we knew a year ago, which is that these guys have one hand up their collective ass and the other in the public pocket, but even the ones who haven't yet concluded that Bush is a boob must be frustrated that they haven't yet remade the country along their chosen lines.

The second reason is that when you're never all that popular to start with--when you really don't even make an effort to lead rather than simply rule--you're going to fall farther. Bush is at his most effective politically when defining himself against an enemy; last year, John Kerry fit the bill. But unlike Reagan and Clinton in their far more decisive re-election wins, Bush never seriously tried to run on his record (except the blowin'-stuff-up part) or lay out his vision for the country. (And don't give me that Social Security crap; he almost never talked about it on the trail, certainly not in specifics; of course, it's tough to tout what you don't understand.) He sliced, diced, pandered, bullied and "misrepresented"; that got him 51 percent, and he's rarely been that high since.

Though the country rejects Bush by a significantly larger margin than than with which they embraced him a year ago today, Josh Marshall points out that "[b]y one measure you have to concede that the joke is really on the 65% of us who think he blows. Because no matter how unpopular he is, he's still president." True. But a part of me that's probably less idealistic than I'd really prefer still whispers that this isn't all bad: given a chance to experience unchallenged Republican rule, the country sees an indicted Tom DeLay, an under-investigation Bill Frist, and a White House that can't respond to a hurricane or keep security secrets. Iraq is a mess, the public books are soaking in red ink, gas prices are high, and we're comprehensively polarized. If the Democrats have any smarts and guts whatever--a debatable premise, though the latter is less a worry after yesterday's Senate action--they should be able to point out that there's a clear political solution to this state of affairs.

Hope dies last.