Thursday, March 31, 2005

Civil War Squared
I've maintained since the November election that the current political situation in the United States is analogous to a "Cold Civil War"--deep, possibly irreconcileable differences between opposing factions, but no actual violence, thank goodness. What's at stake is the future direction of the country and whether we'll essentially continue the incrementalist, process-driven system envisioned by the Founders and refined through the liberal consensus of the mid-20th century, or whether we'll move to a very different model of free-market fundamentalism coupled with social coercion backed by tacit or explicit state power. The battlefields are the halls of Congress, the TV and radio airwaves, newspaper op-ed pages, and whatever real or virtual forums remain that are frequented by people of different political persuasions.

But the significance of the Terri Schiavo episode, now mercifully semi-concluded with Ms. Schiavo's passing earlier today, might prove to be that it has exposed a long-simmering internecine conflict within the Republicans' center-right coalition, which has held firm since the Supreme Court ended the Bush v. Gore dispute in late 2000. The New York Times yesterday ran an extraordinary op-ed by former Senator John Danforth (R-Missouri), which amplified and expanded upon Rep. Chris Shays' (R-CT) statement last week that his party has become "the party of theocracy." Here's Danforth:

The problem is not with people or churches that are politically active. It is with a party that has gone so far in adopting a sectarian agenda that it has become the political extension of a religious movement.

When government becomes the means of carrying out a religious program, it raises obvious questions under the First Amendment. But even in the absence of constitutional issues, a political party should resist identification with a religious movement. While religions are free to advocate for their own sectarian causes, the work of government and those who engage in it is to hold together as one people a very diverse country. At its best, religion can be a uniting influence, but in practice, nothing is more divisive. For politicians to advance the cause of one religious group is often to oppose the cause of another.
During the 18 years I served in the Senate, Republicans often disagreed with each other. But there was much that held us together. We believed in limited government, in keeping light the burden of taxation and regulation. We encouraged the private sector, so that a free economy might thrive. We believed that judges should interpret the law, not legislate. We were internationalists who supported an engaged foreign policy, a strong national defense and free trade. These were principles shared by virtually all Republicans.

But in recent times, we Republicans have allowed this shared agenda to become secondary to the agenda of Christian conservatives. As a senator, I worried every day about the size of the federal deficit. I did not spend a single minute worrying about the effect of gays on the institution of marriage. Today it seems to be the other way around.

Boiled down, Danforth--an Episcopalian minister with unquestioned credentials, who was rumored to be a leading contender for the vice-presidential nomination in 2000--is echoing the accusation that, rather than confronting real problems universal to all Americans like the federal deficit, his co-partisans are focusing on symbolic politics and carrying water for one faction within the heretofore triumphant coalition.

(As an aside, Bush's choice of Cheney over Danforth can be seen as a real tragedy for the country. It would have been a great benefit to have a moderate pragmatist, respected even among his political adversaries, somewhere in the halls of power. In fact, it's not hard to imagine how the whole course of the Bush administration might have unfolded differently; rather than the Cheney/Rumsfeld axis holding sway in foreign policy, pushing ever harder for a war with a shifting rationale but without an exit strategy, and the "deficits don't matter/tax cuts are our due" absolutism that's driving us toward the economic cliff--and putting us ever deeper in the pocket of China--we might have seen a Danforth/Powell/O'Neill camp pursuing responsible public policies at home and abroad. Then again, maybe that's why Bush made the decision he made.)

If Danforth's article was the warning thunder, Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds provided the spark of lightning in this article on today:

[The Schiavo case] is the sort of question that state law, and state courts, are supposed to deal with. If Congress thinks that states in general are dealing badly with these kinds of questions in a way that endangers federal constitutional rights, it is empowered to pass general legislation under the 14th Amendment. But deciding individual cases isn't something that Congress is supposed to do, and it's rather shocking to find so many "small government" Republicans supporting it.
The dissent on the right -- and most of the critics quoted above have been vocal supporters of President Bush, and the war -- has led some people (including me) to wonder if the Republican coalition is going to split in the face of this abandonment of principle, especially as the national-security glue that has held the coalition together weakens in the face of success in Iraq. Some are even agitating for that result. I think it just might happen.

Republicans like to point out that you have to stand for something, or you'll fall for anything. The leadership, at least, of the Republican Party has abandoned the principles of small government and federalism that it used to stand for. Trampling traditional limits on governmental power in an earnest desire to do good in high-profile cases has been a hallmark of a certain sort of liberalism, and it's the sort of thing that I thought conservatives eschewed. If I were in charge of making the decision, I might well put the tube back and turn Terri Schiavo over to her family. But I'm not, and the Florida courts are, and they seem to have done a conscientious job. Maybe they came to the right decision, and maybe they didn't; this is a hard case. But respecting the courts' role in the system, and not rushing to overturn all the rules because we don't like the outcome, seems to me to be part of being a member of civilized society rather than a mob. I thought conservatives knew this. Before things are over, they may wish they hadn't forgotten.

History tells us that politically dominant coalitions fracture over issues that might initially seem insignificant. But the Reynolds and Danforth pieces suggest that this isn't about Terri Schiavo per se; rather, her sad story has become a screen onto which two very different visions of governance have been projected. In the end, as Reynolds suggests (albeit from a very different perspective), it's probably too much to hope that the "Danforth wing" will really defect to the Democrats, or even move toward internal agitation a la But this schism is real, and it will color Republican actions for at least the rest of this Congress and quite possibly beyond.

As an American first and a progressive second, one of my great hopes from last year's election was that a defeat of Bush and his politics of division, fear, and heedlessness would push the Republican Party back toward real "conservatism"--fiscal responsibility, prudent foreign policy, respect for process, checks and balances, problem-solving rather than ideological posturing. It would be ironic, but no less welcome, if this happened within the context of Republican political dominance rather than defeat.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

30 Clues for 30 Clubs
With Opening Day only about 127.5 hours off--not that I'm counting or anything--here are my picks and predictions for the 2005 baseball season.

AL West

1. Anaheim: the AL Rookie of the Year comes from this team, Vlad wins 2nd MVP, and for once this division doesn't go down to the wire
2. Oakland: terrible first half, great second half, Harden finishes in Cy Young top 5
3. Texas: Texiera, Blalock, Young, Hidalgo and Soriano combine for about 150 home runs. Kenny Rogers retires in-season. Orel Hershiser quits pitching coach job to "walk the earth" doing good deeds.
4. Seattle: Mariners improve by 10-12 games but still can't escape the basement.

AL Central

1. Minnesota: Opponents dread visits to "the Island of Dr. Morneau"
2. Cleveland: Taking-stock year for .500-ish Tribe
3. ChiSox: Frank Thomas released after beating Ozzie Guillen within an inch of his life
4. Kansas City: Greinke and the Royals do a "'72 Phils with Lefty" thing
5. Detroit: Bonderman gets injured, team gives back half of what it gained in '04

AL East

1. Boston: Under Schilling's tutelage, Matt Clement wins 18
2. New York (WC): A-Rod puts up season for the ages, but team struggles to win 90
3. Baltimore: Like their northern neighbors in Philly, will play many 9-7 games.
4. Toronto: Vernon Wells a top 5 MVP candidate for non-contender
5. Tampa Bay: Main goal of season to keep Kazmir healthy; Upton gives some glimmer of hope

NL West

1. San Diego: Pitching is a little worse, but hitting is a lot better, and Pad people win the weak West
2. LA: Barely .500 Dodgers give ammo to "Moneyball" haters
3. Arizona: A weak third-place; team still hemorrhages $$. Shawn Green gets fewer Bar/Bat Mitzvah invites
4. Colorado: another lost season finally convinces mgmt to embrace its destiny and just load up on uber-mashers
5. San Fran: Team starts slow, Bonds sits all year, and the fire sale leads to 100 losses

NL Central

1. Chicago: Carlos Zambrano sacrificed to Baker's dark god of pitching injuries, but Nomah goes .300-40-115 to lead Cubs and win league MVP.
2. St. Louis (WC): Late fade costs Cards division crown, but they're the WC team that scares everyone.
3. Houston: Pettitte bounces back, but not nearly enough to compensate for personnel losses
4. Pittsburgh: Top-five pitching team, first 80-season in many years.
5. Cincy: Dunn approaches 50 HR, 200 strikeouts; Kearns plays 130 games and makes an all-star team
6. Milwaukee: There's hope as stud prospects start showing up at Miller Field; trendy "sleeper" pick for 2006

NL East

1. Philadelphia: league-best offense gets just enough pitching to win division; Thome breaks 1.000 OPS again
2. Florida: bullpen proves solid team's undoing, even after re-acquisition of 2003 hero Urbina
3. New York: Pedro wins 20-plus, outfield provides offense, but rest of rotation stinks and team shows a baffling inability to win consistently at home
4. Atlanta: no offense, little bullpen, and patented July surge never comes
5. Washington: DC fans discover the joys of harshing on Jim Bowden

Friday, March 25, 2005

Political Theater (for Good)
While the Republicans continue to dredge the Schiavo case for schmaltz points--and money--the great Matt Miller comes up with a different idea of how national pols could play to the cameras, for the actual betterment of the country. Miller says that it's time for the filibuster--not to block anti-choice judicial appointments, a move with questionable political value, but to raise the question of just why the Bush administration continues to push both tax cuts for the wealthy and the war in Iraq, while passing deficits on to generations of future Americans.

The filibuster we need has nothing to do with judges (important as they are). No, it's about President Bush's request for $82 billion more for Iraq—or to put it more precisely, it's about the cumulative $300 billion tab we're slipping to our kids for a war we've chosen to fight but not pay for, even as we've cut taxes for the best-off.

The reluctance of Democrats to force a showdown over these choices is apparently the lesson the party learned from John Kerry's campaign, when Kerry was branded a flip-flopper who famously voted for the (last) $87 billion before voting against it. But the proper lesson of that episode was not that Democrats shouldn't stand up to an indefensible fiscal policy—it was that Democrats shouldn't be witless and inarticulate when they stand up to an indefensible fiscal policy.

Flash back (if you can bear it) to the hapless Kerry campaign, and you'll see why. In his epic remark, Kerry was referring to his vote for an alternative plan to fund last year's $87 billion by repealing a small portion of Bush's tax cuts for the top. That wasn't a sellout of the troops; it was common sense. What kind of nation makes its children pay for its wars in order to lower taxes on the best-off? It's just wrong. Kerry should have been able to knock this one out of the park.

But odds are you don't even know that Kerry had his own plan. That's because Kerry and his savants decided that this sentence—"I voted for my plan to pay for our own wars today, not the President's plan to slip the bill to our kids in order to cut taxes on the top"—was too complex a thought to risk sharing with the American people.
...if you're a little creative (a big "if" with today's Democrats), a filibuster is one of the few things that can give you power—or at least a real megaphone.

So what do Democrats want to use it for? To prove their devotion to Roe v. Wade—a "strategy" that guarantees a perception that Democrats care more about the right to an abortion than anything else in public life. It's heresy, I know, for a liberal to suggest that blocking GOP judicial nominations may not be the main reason God put Democrats on earth. But the opportunity cost is huge: When Democrats throw all they have at issues like abortion, they're not fighting for economic justice and fiscal responsibility, issues that could win them broad support if only ordinary people knew there was a party that cared for such things. And just think of the crossover appeal of a fund-the-war-today filibuster. After all, attacking fiscal immorality is just another way of protecting the unborn!

A pull-out-the-stops, read-from-the-Bible, Frank Capra-style teach-in on who's paying for Iraq while fortunate Americans (like me, and perhaps you) have their taxes cut could bring an end to our fiscal bender. Delivering this wake-up call when the Senate takes up the war bill in April is a priceless chance for 2008 prospects like Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, but they're probably too busy burnishing their "strong on defense" credentials to risk it.

Emphasis mine. Now, if I posted this on DailyKos (and I might, later), I'd probably get ripped--yet again--by the Roe v. Wade diehards. And again, I'd try to point out that there's a difference between shifting the debate to more fertile political ground, in this case the utter unreality and stunning irresponsibility of Republican fiscal policy, and blanket-condemning every accidentally pregnant woman in the country to back-alley abortionists. But there's a big difference between the reaction of the left-wing echo chamber and the electorate as a whole (and the truth is that even in Kosland, my strong hunch is that the "silent majority" would see the wisdom of such an approach).

Miller's probably right that none of the generally-named Democratic contenders--certainly not Shrill Hillary or Joe Blow--would have the imagination, much less the political courage, to step forward on this issue. (He thinks Barack Obama is the guy for the job; I'd say that either Sen. Feingold, the conscience of the body and a presidential aspirant in his own right, or Barbara Boxer, the new champion of the reform Democrats, are better picks.) I doubt anyone will step forward, and that's a damn shame. The polls tell us that the public is mostly seeing through the cynical right-wing take on the Schiavo case; Bush's job approval ratings are back at the level that, during the campaign, would have had Democrats taking drapery measurements in the White House; and the moment clearly presents opportunities for a political turnaround. The minority party can make an eloquent case that while Tom DeLay switches between on-camera sanctimony and off-camera corruption, there are some officials out there who actually would like to govern.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Vapid Response
As CNN continues to see decline in both reputation and ratings, one starts to wonder just how far they can sink. On last night's "Daily Show," Jon Stewart gleefully played the tape of a CNN correspondent having himself zapped with 50,000 volts from a "shock belt." His response, after crumpling to the ground: "It hurts."

Stewart aired the clip to illustrate just how inane and stunt-driven the once-respected news network has become. At CNN world headquarters, however, the piece was considered a huge success, as the network looks to compete more successfully with rival Fox by moving toward "emotionally gripping, character-driven narratives pegged to recent events." as the New York Times reports.

This wouldn't bother me all that much, except that my gym always has CNN on one of the monitors and it's already painful enough to catch the occasional glimpse of the stunningly banal Paula Zahn or utterly idiotic Larry King. Aaron Brown, who follows King in the 10pm hour, isn't quite as bad; the Times article telegraphs pretty clearly that he's the most likely to be dismissed under Jonathan Klein, CNN's fifth news director in the last four years.

The story also notes that Klein won't look to counter Fox in what might seem the obvious way: running commentary to counter the right-wing screechers on Rupert Murdoch's network.

In an effort to narrow the gap with Fox at night, Mr. Klein has ruled out one obvious option: he will not, he says, turn CNN's prime-time lineup into a liberal counterpunch to Fox's opinion-driven programming, which draws a heavily conservative audience. "It's much better to be right down the middle," Mr. Klein said in an interview. "Moderates are our sweet spot."

How's that working out for you, fellas? Fox will rip you, and all non-right wing yakkers, as liberals anyway; you might as well offer something spicy and compelling. MSNBC's short-lived Phil Donahue show was the network's highest-rated program, though the suits pulled it after just six months. And Air America (for all my problems with it) seems to be more than holding its own on the radio side.

For a more thorough exploration of what "emotionally gripping" means in terms of programming, check out this funny but depressing New Republic piece about Ashley Smith, the young Georgia woman who helped lead to the capture of courthouse shooter Brian Nichols:

Prostitution is legalized in two places in America: in Nevada and on the airwaves. One of the biggest whorehouses is CNN (you don't expect integrity from Fox), which swung into action. The print media kept its cool and reported what seemed like Smith's remarkable grace under pressure with equal composure and reported her hints that she was an angel sent by God--Nichols himself told her, she assured reporters, who repeated it again and again, like a character reference--with skeptical detachment. In the newspapers, her narrative of sin and redemption was the story told by a hostage about how she saved herself. On television, it was the reason why she was saved. CNN proceeded to thrust before the cameras evangelical pastors, ministers, and even a rabbi claiming that Smith's use of Christian sentiments to save her life was proof of God's grace and divine intervention.

Never mind that Nichols himself had gone to a Catholic school and had been a religious man, very active in his local church, where he played the organ. Paula Zahn, the Xaviera Hollander of this particular story, blathered on about The Purpose Driven Life as if it had caused her own conversion: "Those who have used the book in their churches aren't surprised that it resonated with Brian Nichols." Since Nichols had seemed to come to Christ, as they say, long before he encountered Smith, how, exactly, did this book resonate with him in a way that his education and his involvement in his church didn't? And how did Zahn know that the Christian self-help book worked a transformation on Nichols in the first place? He never said that it did; he is under lock and key and hasn't said anything to anyone about what happened between him and Smith.

But that didn't stop Aaron Brown and Zahn from going straight to the source: Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose Driven Life. Warren was in Africa--where, coincidentally, Brian Nichols's mother was at the same time, working for the Tanzanian government--but he issued a statement: "I understand Ms. Smith shared a portion [of the book] with Mr. Nichols, which seemed to have a positive impact on his life"--"positive" in this instance meaning, not raping, torturing, or killing Ashley Smith. Reverend Frank Page, who presented himself as Ashley Smith's pastor and spiritual adviser and was going forth and multiplying himself on every news show in creation, told a linguistically bold Soledad O'Brien (" you think it's sort of a greater power at work in this sort of thing?") that Smith's encounter with Nichols was "part of God's plan." O'Brien nodded and smiled and looked serious and concerned all at once and seemed just on the verge of asking Reverend Page if it was also part of God's plan to someday allow her to make just one honest facial expression when the segment came to an end.

On her show, Zahn endorsed the idea of a benevolent orchestration of four murders leading to many blessed hours and days of crowd-pleasing coverage like this: "For those who believe God works in mysterious ways, Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols will long remain a case in point, but the legions of those who have been touched by Rick Warren's teachings will not be surprised." This wasn't really a cynical attempt to appeal to the Christian right, who we are told now have the country's destiny in their hands and must be courted. It was an attempt to win the viewership of some of those "legions" who read Warren's book--a delicious demographic of 20 million. But Zahn was taking no chances. Just in case the religious angle was insufficient to win new legions to the network, she threw in someone named Eric Christiansen, who had been saved by reading Warren's book from an addiction to ... porn. That's what Smith's grandfather, who declared on television that Ashley had "hit a home run for Jesus," might have called covering all the bases.

One effect of the media's endorsement of this evangelical fantasy was to make the murder of four people inconsequential, or at least incidental to the happy unfolding of this story, which now included four possible book deals, a movie project, and a job offer from a hostage-negotiation firm for Ashley Smith, who was, some reporters speculated, being told to stay off the news shows lest she become overexposed and jeopardize the publishing possibilities.

Maybe the truly significant outcome of the 2004 election wasn't political, but cultural. In case anyone's forgotten, religion seems to be big business; in the last two weeks, Time and Newsweek have both done cover stories on Mary and Jesus, respectively. Yeah, I know it's Easter, but they did the same thing last Christmas. Are we now moving into an age where all the media conglomerates--remember, CNN is to Time as MSNBC is to Newsweek--go to full-time pandering to those "20 million"?

Isn't there any actual, um, news to report?

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Defining Decency Down
Even as we read that Tom DeLay sees the Schiavo case as God's gift for his political salvation, and David Brooks levels the boom on the corruption-related activities of his co-partisans, Mark Schmitt delivers on his Decembrist blog (thanks, Nav) a needed corrective on the recent tendency among Democrats to applaud some Republicans' occasional deviation from their party line. Schmitt points out that, in a sense, this is really less an example of political heroism than, y'know, doing their job:

I'm sorry, but I am tired of the attribution of "courage" to Republican Senators for voting for politically popular and sound provisions. If the Secretary of the Treasury or HHS comes out against Bush's Medicaid cuts, that might take some courage -- they might lose their jobs, and have to take some $300,000/year lobbying gig. (In other words, even they aren't exactly Sir Thomas More.) Gordon Smith works for the people of Oregon. His job is to represent them, and to represent his view of the national interest. Voting against the preferences of an unpopular president, in a blue state, and in defense of a good and popular program, simply doesn't deserve to be called "courage." I never thought it showed courage for Democrats like Lautenberg to vote against tax increases in Clinton's 1993 budget. Likewise, it shows no particular courage for Smith to oppose his party's president in a symbolic vote for Medicaid. It's called doing your job. In this case, taken in combination with his other votes, I think it's even less than that.
Second, I'm tired of giving quasi-conservatives credit for what I call Miss America compassion (I'll explain in a minute). Smith's son's suicide led him to support more funding for suicide prevention and for mental health care generally. Great -- my life has been affected by suicide also, so I'm all for that. Similarly, Senator Pete Domenici's daughter's mental illness made him an advocate for mandating equitable treatment of mental and physical well-being in health insurance, a cause in which he was joined by Paul Wellstone. Again, I'm all for it, and I have no doubt that Domenici was at least as personally sincere and driven about it as Wellstone, and watching the two of them pair up on this cause and learn to work together was a good example for the potential of democratic institutions to create understanding.

But what has always bothered me about such examples is that their compassion seems so narrowly and literally focused on the specific misfortune that their family encountered. Having a child who suffers from mental illness would indeed make one particularly passionate about funding for mental health, sure. But shouldn't it also lead to a deeper understanding that there are a lot of families, in all kinds of situations beyond their control, who need help from government? Shouldn't having a son whose illness leads to suicide open your eyes to something more than a belief that we need more money for suicide help-lines? Shouldn't it call into question the entire winners-win/losers-lose ideology of the current Republican Party? Shouldn't it also lead to an understanding that if we want to live in a society that provides a robust system of public support for those who need help -- whether for mental illness or any of the other misfortunes that life hands out at random -- we will need a government with adequate institutions and revenues to provide those things?

And that's what I mean by "Miss America Compassion." These Senators are like Miss America contestants, each with a "platform": Mr. Ohio: "Adoption Assistance." Mr. Oregon: "Suicide Prevention." Mr. Minnesota: "Community Development." Mr. New Mexico: "Mental Health Parity." Mr. Pennsylvania: "Missing children" The platform is meant to show them as thoughtful, deep and independent-minded, but after the "platform segment" they return to play their obedient part in a degrading exercise that makes this country crueler and government less supportive.

And, of course, as with Miss America contestants' "platforms," there are a few approved topics and many more that simply couldn't be considered. It's not too likely that you'll see Miss Alabama adopt "Income inequality" as her platform or Miss Colorado, "Corporate tax evasion." Nor is a Senator likely to have a family experience with lack of health insurance, or personal bankruptcy, or Food Stamps.

This could be seen as a (much more eloquent and detailed) refinement of my "symbolic vs. systemic" argument below. This buffet-style approach to policymaking starts from the premise that these problems, worthy though they all are as issues, are not interrelated. That's absurd on its face, as any five-minute conversation with a social service provider will demonstrate: mental health issues, low educational attainment, job insecurity, health care, affordable housing--if you're dealing with one of these, you're probably dealing with a few of them.

Schmitt's piece includes another graf that I took out from the quote above, which merits separate comment:

It might take a little bit of courage, though, to stand up and point out that maintaining the services and protections that we expect from government is going to require TAXES, now and in the future. But we elect Senators for a six-year term exactly in the expectation that they can show just that kind of courage, which Smith showed none of.

Again, this goes to a systemic question. It's tough to govern without revenue, it's tough to raise revenue without raising taxes. To vote, as Gordon Smith and a few of his Senate Republican colleagues did, to restore proposed Medicaid cuts while voting against the fiscal discipline of pay-as-you-go budget rules, isn't particularly courageous; a nicer abjective for it would be "incoherent", and a meaner one "hypocritical."

Monday, March 21, 2005

Symbolic vs. Systemic
Now that every other blog in the world is getting into the act, I guess I should write something about this Terri Schiavo case. She's the Florida woman who has spent the last 15 years in a "persistent vegetative state" and is now at the center of the media's news cycle, as exemplars of virtue like Tom DeLay jump in front of every microphone they can find to proclaim how they're going to save her "life".

It's not the specifics of the case that I'm particularly interested in. As a "cogito ergo sum" kinda guy, I think that the person in question died in 1990, or whenever she lost brain function. Whatever is lying in that hospital bed is not the individual who thought and felt and loved and hated and did the other things that, IMO, define living humanity. But I'm not sure that I'm right, and so I'm not necessarily against putting the tube back in; I'd defer to expert opinion, figuring that the doctors and judges have a better insight into this than I do.

What bothers me here is that the Republicans are interested in "living their values" in a symbolic way, but not in a systemic way. (As this Washington Post story notes, their own political memo evidently says so.)

There's no larger concept at work here. Suppose that Terri Schiavo were suffering from bone marrow cancer, in horrible pain, unable to eat, wasting away. And suppose that her parents went public with a plea that Congress allow her daughter to utilize medicinal marijuana, on doctors' orders and under their supervision, to ease her pain and help her eat. Tom DeLay's response would be his usual: the upraised middle finger, and probably some remark about how if those hippie liberal losers don't like it, they should move to the Netherlands.

The Republicans will rush back to DC to pass a special (albeit unconstitutional) piece of legislation to "save" one life, with the cameras on. (Here's a great link to a short piece noting what has and hasn't inspired George W. Bush to cut short his Crawford vacations.) But they won't think twice before pushing for cuts to government programs that help millions of people toward economic self-sufficiency, bettering their lives and their communities, to (somewhat) pay for further tax cuts for millionaires. Humanistic values--the worth of life--are political instruments, not real moral guidelines to making policy.

I'm a utilitarian; I believe in policies that do the most good for the most people. That shouldn't be the only concern, but it should generally guide decision-making. As a non-religious person, I look at the whole system of Judeo-Christian ethics as having utilitarian value: the principles of the Bible are generally beneficial for societies whatever you think God is.

The Republicans are, at best, half-assed, symbolic utilitarians. They'll make a gesture--as in the Schiavo case, or any of the anti-abortion measures subsequently ruled unconstitutional--meant to signify that they "support life" (and score political points). Then they'll cut money for school lunches, community policing, housing subsidies, job training and a hundred other things that have real utility. They claim to venerate the concept of "life," but show no regard for quality of life.

This is moral hypocrisy, and it constantly goes unpunished in our political system.

Friday, March 18, 2005

RIP, George F. Kennan
One of the great geostrategic thinkers of the 20th century, architect of the containment strategy that won the Cold War and ensured U.S. pre-eminence to this day, died last night. He was 101 years old.

Mr. Kennan was the man to whom the White House and the Pentagon turned when they sought to understand the Soviet Union after World War II. He conceived the cold-war policy of containment, the idea that the United States should stop the global spread of Communism by diplomacy, politics, and covert action - by any means short of war.

As the State Department's first policy planning chief in the late 1940's, serving Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Mr. Kennan was an intellectual architect of the Marshall Plan, which sent billions of dollars of American aid to nations devastated by World War II. At the same time, he conceived a secret "political warfare" unit that aimed to roll back Communism, not merely contain it. His brainchild became the covert-operations directorate of the Central Intelligence Agency.
His writing, from classified cables to memoirs, was the force that made him "the nearest thing to a legend that this country's diplomatic service has ever produced," in the words of the historian Ronald Steel.

"He'll be remembered as a diplomatist and a grand strategist," said John Lewis Gaddis, a leading historian of the cold war, who is preparing a biography of Mr. Kennan. "But he saw himself as a literary figure. He would have loved to have been a poet, a novelist."

Morton H. Halperin, who was chief of policy planning during the Clinton administration, said Mr. Kennan "set a standard that all his successors have sought to follow."

Mr. Halperin said Mr. Kennan understood the need to talk truth to power no matter how unpopular, and made clear his belief that containment was primarily a political and diplomatic policy rather than a military one. "His career since is clear proof that no matter how important the role of the policy planning director, a private citizen can have an even greater impact with the strength of his ideas."

RIP Mr. Ambassador. I hope Kennan's passing inspires today's policymakers to a greater appreciation of nuance, creativity and dispassionate analysis--not to mention the always-paramount importance of "speaking truth to power." Evidently articulate and insightful till near the very end of his life, it's not hard to guess how he thought his latest successors are doing in that regard.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

All Questions Will Be Answered; All Fears Will Be Allayed

The Philadelphia Phillies went into spring training last month under a cloud of fan cynicism after a low-visibility off-season and with deep concerns about the quality of the team's pitching, a lineup some viewed as overly dependent on the home run, and a roster that has underachieved for at least two years. After four weeks in camp, and two weeks of games, the club still faces a few question marks, but I'd argue that what we've seen so far offers more ground for optimism than almost anyone would have believed at the beginning of February.

In fact, after watching the team club 19 runs in two games this weekend, led by five home runs off the bats of Jim Thome, Pat Burrell, and Bobby Abreu, I have gone on record with my belief that this year's Phillies team will win the National League East and advance into the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

The biggest reason why is that, as manager Charlie Manuel keeps saying, "Damn, son, we gonna hit." They is indeed. I expect all-star seasons from Bobby Abreu and Jimmy Rollins, and an MVP-type campaign from Thome. Pat Burrell, if his wrist holds up (and so far, so good), looks better than he has since his 37-homer year in 2002. Chase Utley and Mike Lieberthal should be fine, and whether it's David Bell or Placido Polanco at third base, the team should get above-average production from that position. Centerfield, the black hole of 2004, should be better whether or not Kenny Lofton, currently working through a hammy strain, is healthy; the biggest reason is the apparent rebirth of Marlon Byrd, who's torn up Grapefruit League pitching and, at least according to the always-dubious Marcus Hayes, has secured his spot on the roster. Jason Michaels, who had started the spring as Lofton's likely platoon partner in center field, might now be relegated to pinch-hitting duties with Byrd taking his at-bats. I also wouldn't be shocked if Michaels is dealt at some point, for minor-league depth or more pitching.

My strong hunch is that this Phils team will set all kinds of offensive records (the good kind, mostly, though they'll probably strike out a lot too). In addition to the talent on hand, my big reason for optimism here is that they now have a manager whose expertise is in hitting, and who understands that power and patience is the strength of his lineup. Manuel was a big, slow slugger, like Thome and Burrell, who specialized in the home run during a few years of stardom in the Japanese major leagues; Larry Bowa was a singles hitter whose offensive strengths, modest though they were, consisted of speed and situational hitting.

The pitching--particularly the rotation, which underachieved so dramatically last year--is a bit more of a concern, but the team has some depth here and likely will have the means to get midyear reinforcements if need be. Jon Lieber might not be an ace in the Schilling/Clemens mode, but he's a good bet to win 14-18 games and put up a lot of innings. He walks almost nobody, which is key for Citizens Bank Park. I'd rather the Phils had signed Brad Radke of the Twins, who both never issues walks and throws copious grounders, but he stayed in Minnesota, which is kind of nice too, and Lieber might have been the next most attractive guy for the Phillies considering cost and style. Randy Wolf seems healthy, and could finally put together a full season of the dominance he showed in late 2002 and early 2003 as well as other stretches. Vicente Padilla, probably the most talented arm on the staff, is coming back slowly from an injury; the team can afford to be cautious, because Gavin Floyd seems to be for real. The 22 year-old has regained low-90s velocity with his fastball, and shows the sort of composure that his wunderkind predecessor Brett "Nuke" Myers has yet to display in the majors. But Myers is back too, still just 24, still with great stuff and apparent health, and has been decent this spring. I'd rather see him moved to the bullpen, where his problems going twice and thrice through a lineup wouldn't matter and he could just rear back and fire, but there's plenty of time for that. Cory Lidle is probably in the upper half of #5 starters, and Ryan Madson--whom I'd like to see switched with Myers--could resurface as a rotation candidate too.

Someone on figured out that the Phils might pay more for their bullpen this season than for the rotation. Half of that is Billy Wagner's $9 million price tag, but if he stays healthy after missing 70 games last year, he'll probably be as worth that crazy amount as any reliever could be. Veteran role guys Tim Worrell and Rheal Cormier are fine as long as they're not asked to do too much--check out their numbers with Wagner healthy and hurt last year--and Madson is a big asset in his current setup role.

As always, Ed Wade is my big concern. His in-season trades have been almost uniformly awful, aside from the Robert Person pickup six years ago now and, arguably, the Lidle deal last year. This time at least he should have some good chits, and hopefully can deal from strength rather than need. Ryan Howard, the slugging first baseman who mashed 48 homers at three levels last year and impressed me last weekend in Florida with some canny situational hitting, is most likely to go. Placido Polanco, the do-it-all infielder who's chafing at his projected reserve role, could have value as well.

Hopefully in 2005, the Phils' definition of "a long season" will be literally rather than figuratively true--extending all the way into mid- or late October.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Heroes and Villains
I have returned from Florida, where I had a vision of the future: a 2005 division championship flag flying over Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia...

But that's for later. A win that might be even sweeter than a Phillies NL East title would be to politically exterminate Tom DeLay, the former pest control man from Texas who leads the Republican majority in Congress and is the embodiment of the unfettered corporatism and cultural jihadism that characterizes today's so-called conservatives. For DeLay, corruption is SOP and compromise, let alone utilitarian policymaking, has no place in politics. His three rebukes by the House Ethics Committee last year probably represents a record; his caucus has responded by effectively neutering that committee, at least for now, and tried to pass the now-infamous "DeLay Rule" that would have changed Republican practice to allow an indicted party leader to keep his leadership position.

As DeLay's troubles mount and his profile rises, he becomes more and more the caricature Democrats might need to attack if they're to make big gains in next year's elections, a worthy symbolic successor to former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich (whom DeLay himself tried to overthrow in an abortive coup back in 1997). Chris Bowers at suggests that Democrats next year attempt to "nationalize" the congressional midterms by running against DeLay:

DeLay and his litany of ethics problems is the key here. Despite the growing list of charges against DeLay, the stink of corruption has not hurt the Republican caucus or party in general because only around half of the country has even heard of him, much less heard of the charges against him. However, if we can succeed in introducing DeLay to the majority of the country through the frame of corruption, we will instantly be able to nationalize the campaign and turn it into a referendum on reform. If we can raise Tom DeLay's national name recognition to over 90%, then the majority of the country will know his name better than they know the name of their own congressman. If we do so by running ads describing how corrupt he is, then the entire Republican delegation will start to seem corrupt.

So here is what I recommend. Starting around May 1st, 2006 and lasting until the end of September 2006, we should spend somewhere between $100M and $150M nationwide on an ad campaign attacking DeLay's ethics charges. This would be combined with a $10M run against DeLay in his won district, to ensure that there is the highest chance possible DeLay will lose in 2006. This is an obscene amount of money, but it would be required to raise his name ID to around 90%. Also, I believe that if the DCCC, blogs, MoveOn, DFA, DNC and 527's were to all chip in, we could both come up with the money and receive a tremendous amount of free media for our efforts. Then, starting in early September and running until the election, we run a series of ads promoting a number of good government reforms that would ensure that such corruption never takes place again and that would be enacted on the first day of a Democratic Congress. Viola, nearly every district in the country will become a referendum on DeLay.

I like this a lot. Among a handful of shockingly insightful thoughts on politics my mom has offered over the years is that "Americans respond to enemies": whether it's the threat of the USSR or the partisan demonization of a Gingrich or either Clinton, nothing seems to motivate people like fear and loathing. (Just ask Karl Rove.) DeLay is both scary and despicable; the question is whether Democratic activists, who get this already, can effectively communicate their view to a larger public, to an extent that other candidates can run attack ads against Republican incumbents charging that "Representative X voted with DeLay on every measure for the last three years, and voted against censoring him for his ethics violations." A story in today's New York Times notes some early signs that Republicans in Congress aren't relishing the prospect of "explaining DeLay" on the stump next year.

Sweetening the deal is that DeLay came closer to losing in 2004 than in any of his previous campaigns. Richard Morrison, a Texas doctor, won something like 45 percent of the vote and forced DeLay to spend more time campaigning at home than he had since first running for Congress. The infamous Texas redistricting--which DeLay commandeered--had something to do with this, as it shifted more Democrats into DeLay's suburban Houston district. But Morrison's aggressive campaigning and internet fundraising had a big impact as well. (On my credit card statement, as well as on the race.) He's basically just kept going since November, looking for a rematch next year. Morrison's campaign website is worth a look.

Unlike his fellow Texan in the White House, DeLay has no reserve of personal charm to draw upon, and his power is transparently drawn more from fear than affection. His legislative record is almost as out of touch with the mainstream as his evident sense of ethics. And he's a hothead; it's a pretty good bet he won't respond well to coming under sustained attack. I'm not yet convinced that Democrats should quite go to the lengths Bowers suggests--investing a quarter of the election budget on one race is a pretty big bet, and to lose it would be both embarrassing and demoralizing--but I have no doubt he's on the right track.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Long Live the Fighters!
One of my colleagues at work forwarded me this article from The Nation about the Democratic Leadership Council and its changing position within the Democratic Party. It's an excellent piece, and gets at some things that have been much on my mind lately--most notably, that the political state of play right now has rendered ideology subservient to intestinal fortitude:

Conservative Democrats also subsist on "warmed-up leftovers from the Clinton brain trust," as The Washington Monthly wrote recently, or what DLC fellow (and former Christian Coalition staffer) Marshall Whitman boasts of as the "tried and tested formula for the Democratic Party's resurgence." But today, emerging wisdom holds that Clintonism without Clinton is not a winning strategy. When Clinton entered office, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Democrats now have their smallest minority presence in decades. All eight candidates for whom Clinton campaigned in 2004 lost. Nevertheless, the DLC has adopted Clinton's triangulation tactics on national security, economic policies and family values for the "Heartland Strategy" it's developing to help Democrats win in the red states. What Daily Show comedian Lewis Black said recently of Democrats in general is true in spades for the DLC: "Sometimes the devil you know is better than winning."

The "Third Way" of Clinton has now largely given way to opposing George W. Bush. Upon entering the new Congress in January, the House Democratic leadership berated lawmakers for voting with the GOP and warned Democrats that loyalty would become a prerequisite for assuming a committee chair. Senate minority leader Harry Reid has virtually united Democrats against Social Security privatization, opened a "war room" to counteract the Republican message and promised future fights against conservative judges. Such attitudes illustrate how times appear to be changing in one-party Washington, especially for New Democrats. "The New and Old labels aren't relevant at this point," says former Congressman Joe Hoeffel, past chairman of Pennsylvania's state DLC chapter. "Now that we're in the minority, we need unity to win elections." In the race for DNC chair, the only candidate to embrace a New Democratic platform actively, former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer, ran far behind, mainly because of his antichoice record. Simon Rosenberg downplayed his past ties to the DLC, emphasizing his work modernizing the NDN. Dean rode to victory on an anti-establishment, reform message. DNC members this year responded favorably to the "outsider" candidate. Now the DLC's archnemesis is in charge of rebuilding the Democratic Party.

Dean won't be alone. The progressive infrastructure that helped keep Kerry alive and began crafting a sharper Democratic message--America Votes, Progressive Majority, Camp Wellstone, Democracy for America, Center for American Progress, Air America Radio, Media Matters, the blogosphere--now exerts a greater degree of influence, bankrolled by new, wealthy outsiders and small donors who share similar goals. George Soros and Peter Lewis have pledged $100 million over the next fifteen years to support a permanent idea factory rivaling right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the mushy centrism of the DLC's Progressive Policy Institute.

Correcting for the implicit editorializing ("mushy centrism"), this basically has it right. The more vitriolic part of the argument, expressed in Thomas Frank's book "What's the Matter With Kansas?" and elsewhere, is that the DLC and "New Democrats" have removed the differences between the parties on economic issues in order to compete for high-dollar donations from the corporate lobby; whether this move was based in opportunism or conviction is pretty much beside the point. But considering that the Republicans, for both practical (they control the government) and ideological (they'll always outdo the Dems on corporate giveaways) reasons, will command the bulk of campaign giving from that corner for a long time to come, and that the most important long-term effect of the 2004 cycle was that Democrats are now largely funded by grass-roots, small-dollar donors, the DLC has lost this as a raison d'etre.

So much for triangulation. I'd agree with the article's finding that "Clintonism without Clinton" doesn't tend to work; the most important thing now is just for Democrats to fight, because the other side sees compromise only as weakness. Half the DLC seems to get this; Al From, on the other hand, clearly doesn't. He'll happily fight with Democrats while rushing to meet Republicans, making him little more than a "useful idiot."

The DLC's value, as the New Donkey blog shows with regularity, is that they're closer to the mainstream of public opinion on a lot of issues--security and religion, for two--than the net-roots crowd. To the extent that we all can realize the worth there--and that they show a willingness to fight against right-wing nutballery--the group remains an asset and should be given respect, rather than the knee-jerk condemnation many offer from the left.

And on that note, I'm out of here. Travels to Maryland (work) and Florida (play/ball) should keep me safely removed from blogland for about a week's time.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Antediluvian Policymaking
While it's been a rotten week for low-income workers and the indebted, it's been a pretty interesting time lately for connectors of dots and readers of tea leaves. Let me try and tell the story as I see it:

1. Going After Broke. Even as the administration's push for Social Security "reform"--or, stripped of Orwellian padding, the right-wing drive to destroy the program and repeal the New Deal--seems stalled at best, and quite possibly headed straight for the rocks, other Republican acts of servitude to their corporate constituents plow forward. First and foremost among these is the bankruptcy "reform" bill. I'm no doctor, but close examination of the particulars here seem to cause great distress and occasional eloquence; everyone who doesn't work for a credit card company, from impassioned bloggers to New Republic editors, seems to agree that this egregious legislation can be boiled down to "socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor."

If you're not inclined to follow the above links, Terence Samuel sums it up nicely on the TAP site:

Americans were carrying about $250 billion in revolving credit-card debt in December 1990. In December 2004, that total had risen to $791 billion, and a strange thing happened: As consumer debt rose, so did the number of bankruptcy filings.

The burning question surrounding the debate now taking place on the Senate floor is how much of the escalation is abuse, and how much of it is the result of the vagaries of an economy trying to find its way back to reality?

There were just over 600,000 personal bankruptcy filings in 1990; last year there were almost 1.6 million. Supporters say the bankruptcy-reform bill is aimed at forcing “wealthier” bankrupts to meet more of their financial obligations before walking away or starting over.
But if it passes -- and only long-shot players are betting against it now -- the real winners will be the credit-card companies, which will not have to charge off as many losses as they do now. And their profits, which are at already at record levels, will climb even higher. According to industry experts, credit-card issuers made more money in 2004 than at any time since 1988, when lower charge-offs and higher fees -- late, over the limit, and finance charges -- allowed the banks and other issuers to make upward of $30 billion.

The TNR editorial rightly notes that this is a fight Democrats should embrace with relish, to the point that they should filibuster the measure. I agree; in my first-ever Daily Kos diary to make the front page of that site, I suggested that the debate over the bankruptcy measure offered one of the clearest test cases imaginable for Thomas Frank's thesis that Democrats must embrace economic populism to counter the ostentacious social conservatism of the reactionary right. That this bill fails to discern between an individual who went broke buying Civil War Collectors' Edition Chess Sets by mail order, and one who lost it all because of unforeseen medical costs; that it protects those who file that are rich enough to put some assets in trusts; that it makes no provision for senior citizens who might lose their homes to predatory creditors, or for those in the armed services or veterans who have fallen victim to predatory lending practices, all would seem to bode well for vigorous principled resistence.

(Not to mention the fact that the difference between even a truly fiscally irresponsible individual, and the President and congressional leadership of this great country is really only about a trillion dollars. But more about that below...)

Sadly, it's not even clear that Democrats have the votes to sustain a filibuster; the three Democratic Senators from Delaware and South Dakota, two states where credit card companies hold great influence, have provided great aid and support for the bill, as has nominal Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska; yesterday they consistently voted against Democratic amendments offered to undo some of the offensive provisions noted above. If all four defected, and they would, Democrats almost certainly wouldn't be able to hold their remaining 41 caucus members against the pressure that would be brought to bear.

So this abomination is going to pass. To me, this raises the question of why this is such a priority right now, which leads me to...

2. What's the Matter With Greenspan? It's rare that one sees a public figure's internal conflict played out as transparently as has been the case with Fed chair Alan Greenspan this week. In the course of two days, "the Maestro" (as Bob Woodward, in a superhuman fit of ass-kissing, dubbed him some years back) came forward with the following pronouncements:

  • The federal budget deficits are unsustainable at current levels;

  • Repealing tax cuts, however, will hurt the economy; restoring budget discipline should be accomplished exclusively by cutting government spending;

  • We should go ahead with the Bush plan to privatize Social Security (despite the additional trillions in deficits this would require);

  • Bush's tax cuts should be extended;

  • "Tax reformers" should consider a levy on consumption, gradually transitioning from the current model of income taxation

So we've got the basic premise that the current fiscal profligacy can't continue; this is clearly in keeping with Stein's law ("Things that can't go on forever, don't"), named after the Nixon-era chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. There's Greenspan the pragmatist, who provided the country generally good service during the Bush 41 and Clinton presidencies.

But Greenspan the right-wing shill then took and held the floor, calling for a series of measures that would worsen the country's budget troubles. The Bush tax cuts, which had very little stimulatory effect, are the primary cause of the "unsustainable" deficits; privatizing Social Security--a step that Greenspan's previous involvement with this program, back in 1983 when he called for accumulating surpluses in the Trust Fund, was expressly designed to avoid--would make them far worse. And shifting the tax burden to consumption rather than income and investments (Greenspan calls for exempting capital investment expenditures) seems in lock step with the Republican push to move the burden of financing the public sector "from wealth to work", as John Edwards put it during his campaign. Truly, Grover Norquist or Stephen Moore couldn't have said it better.

Through all these positions, Greenspan has shown his true colors, as Paul Krugman states in today's NYT:

In 2001, President Bush and Mr. Greenspan justified tax cuts with sunny predictions that the budget would remain comfortably in surplus. But Mr. Bush's advisers knew that the tax cuts would probably cause budget problems, and welcomed the prospect.

In fact, Mr. Bush celebrated the budget's initial slide into deficit. In the summer of 2001 he called plunging federal revenue "incredibly positive news" because it would "put a straitjacket" on federal spending.

To keep that straitjacket on, however, those who sold tax cuts with the assurance that they were easily affordable must convince the public that the cuts can't be reversed now that those assurances have proved false. And Mr. Greenspan has once again tried to come to the president's aid, insisting this week that we should deal with deficits "primarily, if not wholly," by slashing Social Security and Medicare because tax increases would "pose significant risks to economic growth."

Really? America prospered for half a century under a level of federal taxes higher than the one we face today. According to the administration's own estimates, Mr. Bush's second term will see the lowest tax take as a percentage of G.D.P. since the Truman administration. And don't forget that President Clinton's 1993 tax increase ushered in an economic boom. Why, exactly, are tax increases out of the question?

The answer, as Krugman certainly knows, is that this is what ideologues do: contort the world to fit their views, rather than the other way around.

3. Here Comes the Flood. Watching these two narratives unfold this week--the bankruptcy bill, and Greenspan's incoherence--I am increasingly convinced that those in the know get that the U.S. economy is heading full-speed toward a brick wall, and just want to lock in the most favorable policy and legal environment for the aftermath of a major trauma. As Samuel reminds us, two-thirds of the economy is driven by consumer spending. Personal indebtedness and bankruptcy filings are at or near record highs. As you've probably heard, so is the national deficit. Individually and collectively, we're leveraged to the hilt.

And time is running out. It's only a matter of time before foreign investors stop buying U.S. debt; this will drive up interest rates, and trigger a lot of defaults. More and more people--working people--will have to look at filing for bankruptcy. The credit card companies, who have driven this bill, are just trying to rework the landscape on terms most favorable to them when it happens. And as usual, the Republican congressional caucus show that their first loyalty is to their institutional donors, not their flesh-and-blood constituents.