Monday, May 30, 2005

Some semi-random stuff on the last night of my bachelorhood:
  • Survive and Advance: The Phils got through a 12-game stretch against division-leading opponents St. Louis, Baltimore, Florida and Atlanta winning three of the four series and going 7-5 overall. The upshot is that while still three games under .500 and in last place, they're just 4.5 out of first in the Great Compression known as the NL East. They start a 13-game homestand and will play 35 of their next 48 overall in Philadelphia; winning 30 or more of those, not an unreasonable hope given the relative absence of Braves and Marlins on the docket, would go a long way toward making the late summer and fall interesting baseball-wise.

    The big differences are probably that the team has hit with men on base the last couple weeks, with even David Bell and Mike Lieberthal proving occasionally useful, and that with a couple truly gruesome exceptions, the bullpen has been better since the highly flammable veteran relievers Tim Worrell and Terry Adams were removed from the mix. Jim Thome also had a relatively good holiday weekend in Atlanta, again exciting hopes that he'll stoke a mighty lineup core with the all-star-worthy corner outfielders Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell. Having borne up well under adversity, of course, it would be perfectly characteristic of the team to crumble in the face of prosperity, so we'll see. (Editorial/foreshadowing note: within a month, maybe sooner, AIS will probably feature a lot less baseball/Phils content as I launch another outlet for all that...)

  • On-screen: I think I saw as many movies this weekend--two--as I previously had all year. "Crash" is a worthwhile if heavy-handed exploration of race and (less noted by reviewers) class tensions in current-day Los Angeles; watching it, I realized that there's a whole sub-genre in American cinema we could describe as "Complicated L.A. Films", with myriad plot lines, character arcs by the dozen and the intermittent interference of cultural and political forces way beyond the control of the characters. "Short Cuts" is probably the pre-eminent example, but there's also "Magnolia", "LA Confidential", arguably "Chinatown" and "Boogie Nights" and "Pulp Fiction" and probably a lot more too.

    And then I saw, alone, "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith." I won't attempt to defend it as a quality film; I'll just admit that I really enjoyed it. Wookie armies and a lightsaber-wielding Yoda just hit me that way. And the last half-hour was actually pretty successful in setting the stage for "Star Wars". Odd accomplishment, somewhat like carving the last piece to a puzzle that someone had left out on the table thirty years earlier, but satisfying regardless. (The political analogies, by the way, are surely present but not in my opinion overdone or, at least by Lucas standards, especially ham-handed. Art may work in part to hold a mirror up to life, but that would really confound the whole idea of escapist fantasy anyway, wouldn't it?)

  • On-page: I finally finished The System of the World, volume three of the "Baroque Cycle" by Neal Stephenson. A tremendous achievement that, like some of his earlier novels, left me wondering why I bother to write such an absurdly lower quality of fiction, but at the same time a work I admired more than enjoyed. To put it another way, the 3,000-page epic delivered maybe 1200 pages worth of fun; the rest, while certainly impressive, read like something to get through in search of more good stuff. Am now on to Alexander Hamilton, a biography by historian Ron Chernow, and I'm reading it much faster than I did the fiction... whether this is primarily tribute to Chernow's prose or just how interesting Hamilton's life was, I'm not yet sure.

    But I'm struck by some similarities between his talents and career progression and that of another revolutionary operating almost 150 years later: Leon Trotsky. Both were autodidacts, incredibly gifted speakers and writers who led with equal parts charisma and organizational genius, unnaturally brilliant men in whom idealism and expediency constantly wrestled, equally excellent in military affairs as in statecraft, arrogant and polarizing individuals who attracted devoted followers and implacable enemies who ultimately did them in. I have always believed that if Trotsky had been born and raised in a relatively liberal nation such as the U.S., he would have won renown as a great writer, thinker and political activist but certainly would not have turned to some of the brutal measures he embraced as a revolutionary war leader and later as a high official of the USSR. Similarly, if Hamilton had been fighting a despotic regime such as that of Tsarist Russia, in amongst amoral monsters like Lenin and Stalin rather than enlightened and reluctant revolutionaries like Jefferson, Adams and Madison, it's easy for me to imagine him indulging in all manner of actions we would characterize as evil.

  • The Mysteries of McCain: Continuing the exchange from the Comments that followed last week's post about the deal to avert the "nuclear option", right now A&E is airing a made-for-TV film titled "Faith of My Fathers" about John McCain's POW years, adopted from his book of the same name. Certainly on Memorial Day it's natural to think of a legitimate war hero like McCain and how he--or his fellow Vietnam vet John Kerry--so much more deserves the position now held by the incoherent chickenhawk Bush. But I wonder if McCain isn't setting himself up for a crippling disappointment at the close of his career. A mostly favorable profile in last week's New Yorker makes it perfectly clear that McCain plans on running for president in 2008, and further that he's already tailoring both relationships and positions with that in mind. Essentially, McCain's challenge will be to blunt the mistrust and even loathing that Bush's true base--the religious and free-market fundamentalists--feels for him, while retaining the straight-talker/common-sense persona that has so compelled many moderates and not a few progressives at times (certainly including me). Check out this excerpt from a Q&A with Connie Bruck, who authored the New Yorker piece:
    I will be very surprised if we see him doing anything that strikes a blow at the Bush White House. Polite differences are one thing, but attacks that can do real damage are another. I think he has done too much to build his political capital with the Party and the Republican primary voters who love Bush to throw it away. But he definitely has a fine line to walk. He can’t afford to seem like just another calculating, hypocritical politician—or he loses everything... it will be hard, because McCain loves being an iconoclast, or a rebel, or a contrarian—it’s just so much a part of who he is, and it brings him the attention that he loves.

    But this is not a base that will accept half-loaf measures, polite disagreements, or constructive criticism. Bruck notes that McCain is a true hawk on foreign policy and devotes much of the article to examples of his bluntness, almost to the point of rudeness, with allies and enemies alike. (Maybe this as much as politics explains McCain's support for John Bolton's nomination to the post of Ambassador to the U.N.) BFD, the fundies will say; McCain's reformist instincts and cultural tolerance (including, sotto voce, the lingering impression that his avowed anti-abortion position reflects political necessity more than personal conviction)--the very traits that would lead someone like me to consider supporting him--will doom him with the Republican primary electorate. What's really interesting to me about this article, though, is that if memory serves, it omits entirely the words "third party." If McCain truly wants the presidency, that's his best shot, and with potential opponents like Hillary Clinton and George Allen, he would probably be the favorite. But if he's not willing to leave a party that on most issues has already "left him," then all this positioning and hair-splitting almost definitely won't avail him.

  • Late addition: Wesley Clark's radio address. Hey, anybody else wondering why this position and frame--"a matter of priorities"--wasn't used more last year? (And, while we're on the subject, how this would sit with a John McCain, who gets to view at close hand how cowards and hypocrites like Bush and Cheney score political points by leveraging the nation's veneration for the miliary?) As he was last year, Clark--who's surely running again--probably will be my Democratic contender of preference in 2008, though I don't think he's got a great chance.

Marrying tomorrow. I throw you all a virtual bouquet, or whatever the dude-equivalent might be.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Senate Doomsday Clock Stops
Watching tape of the press conference held by clearly exultant centrist Senators after announcing their deal to avert the "nuclear option," I'm reminded of a Saturday in January 1991 when I was riveted by the all-day debate in the Senate over whether or not to grant President George H.W. Bush's request to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein's forces then occupying Kuwait. Although the view I supported lost (I was 17 and pretty much reflexively anti-military force), on a very close vote, I remember being deeply impressed by the eloquence and sincerity of the Senators on both sides, and feeling something like pride to live in a country where arguments were settled in such an elevated way.

There's a glimmer of the same feeling tonight, but while the "traditions of the Senate" perhaps held, and though I agree that those traditions are noble and worth fighting to preserve, I'm unhappy about the outcome even as I admire the process and respect the feelings that drove the search for an accommodation. Even though some measure of civility and cooperation and consensus-building might remain in the Senate, the body at best represents an outpost of moderation in a raging sea of extremism.

And as compromises go, this one feels a lot like the 1850 deal that postponed the outbreak of the Civil War by a decade and change, while failing to address the underlying causes of the conflict. The absolutists, mostly on the religious right, who pushed this fight in the first place won't be appeased; if anything, they might agitate even more fervently for an ideologue of their liking when a vacancy appears on the Supreme Court, later this year or next. Then the argument will shift to just what meets the standard of "extraordinary circumstances"; indeed, there's a chance that Republicans who might have voted against the abolition of the filibuster Tuesday morning will advance the argument that, say, Miguel Estrada is less "extraordinary" in his extremism than Janice Rogers Brown, and thus shouldn't be filibustered when Bush nominates him to the high court. (And it will be Estrada, I think; why else would he have asked not to be renominated along with the other Bush extremist picks, and you know Karl Rove will play the identity-politics card in his long-term plan to court Hispanic voters.)

(Hell, who isn't less extreme than Janice Rogers Brown?)

So what we're left with is the strong likelihood of three hard-right ideologues--Brown, Priscilla Owen and William Pryor, all richly deserving of the "activist jurist" pejorative--winning confirmation to lifetime posts in which they will consistently rule against the New Deal, against corporate responsibility, against personal liberties. In exchange, the Democrats have a symbolic victory: they can keep the filibuster in theory, but who knows whether or not they'll ever be permitted its use.

At best, what has been gained is a little time; the exacerbation of frictions within the Republican coalition--the raving righties seem to be as or more upset than those of us on this side--and, maybe, a signal to the administration that extremism has its consequences. But reading the comments from Rev. Frist and the rest of the theocratic enablers, I have the strong sense that the centrists have only delayed the conflict, not defused it.

Update: Here's a much more positive analysis of the actual text of the deal. I think this makes a very solid case in terms of what the arrangement means within the Senate, and it's consistent with my thought that the deal buys us some time to improve the larger political context, but I also believe the author doesn't fully appreciate just how bad that context is right now.
Silver Lining/Mushroom Cloud
When you're looking for a Monday morning pick-me-up, Paul Krugman probably isn't the first name that comes to mind. But the always-excellent, usually-depressing Times columnist has some good news--albeit qualified--on offer today:

After November's election, the victors claimed a mandate to unravel the welfare state. But the national election was about who would best defend us from gay married terrorists. At the state level, where elections were fought on bread-and-butter issues, voters sent a message that they wanted a stronger, not weaker, social safety net.

I'm not just talking about the shift in partisan alignment, in which Democrats made modest gains in state legislatures, and achieved a few startling successes. I'm also talking about specific issues, like the lopsided votes in both Florida and Nevada for constitutional amendments raising the minimum wage.

Since the election, high-profile right-wing initiatives, at both the federal and state level, have run into a stone wall of public disapproval. President Bush's privatization road show seems increasingly pathetic. In California, the conservative agenda of Arnold Schwarzenegger, including an attempt to partially privatize state pensions, has led to demonstrations by nurses, teachers, police officers and firefighters - and to a crash in his approval ratings.

There's a very good reason voters, when given a chance to make a clear choice, increasingly support a stronger, not a weaker, social safety net: they need that net more than ever. Over the past 25 years the lives of working Americans have become ever less secure. Jobs come without health insurance; 401(k)'s vanish; corporations default on their pension obligations; workers lose their jobs more often, and unemployment lasts much longer than it used to.

While participating in the Working Poor Families Project last year, I came to the conclusion that one point we had to make was that economic conditions were changing much faster than were the policies designed to help workers (and, to some extent, employers) hold their ground or advance within the economy. Though I was thinking mostly about education, training, and work-support policies, more recently it's occurred to me that the same argument substantially holds for middle and even upper-middle class families with respect to the safety net.

Krugman goes on to note how dear old Tom DeLay has boasted about "bankruptcy reform, class-action reform, energy, border security, repealing the death tax"--and that all of these pieces of legislation are "either irrelevant to or actively hostile to the economic security of working Americans." He could have added that the Republican agenda seems explicitly and quite consciously designed to further the disturbing trend of record corporate profits alongside lagging workers' wages.

I know for a fact that both policy groups and political organizations have noticed how minimum wage increases passed overwhelmingly in both Florida and Nevada last November, on the same day that Bush won both states. Similar pushes in other states are to be expected in 2006 and 2008, and we can only hope that Democrats running for Congress and, later, the White House will affiliate themselves more closely with this push for more equitably shared prosperity than did John Kerry last year. With voters given a clear choice on an issue where the politics favor our side, we can both gain ground politically and somewhat level a playing field that those currently in power are tilting as fast and furiously (in both senses) as they can.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Down We Go
I was in Washington, DC this week, for a series of policy meetings that included a brief lobbying trip to Capitol Hill on Thursday afternoon. I got to shake Hillary Clinton's hand and took part in one of three photo ops that the junior Senator from New York staged on the steps of the Capitol. I also got to remove and refasten my belt twice in congressional office buildings, chatted with Rep. Edolphus Towns along with some colleagues from the workforce community, and generally refreshed my sense that it's another world down there, surreal and utterly disconnected from both the everyday concerns of most Americans on either side of the great political divide, and, in times of political irresponsibility such as those we're currently enduring, from the most objectively distressing issues of the day.

Even as I and a couple hundred other workforce development researchers and advocates were convening Wednesday afternoon, getting ready for our largely symbolic and meaningless ventures up the Hill to preach to the converted and dispirited Democrats, a truly important, and almost totally ignored, policy event was being held less than a mile away:

While Washington plunged into a procedural fight over a pair of judicial nominees, Stuart Butler, head of domestic policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and Isabel Sawhill, director of the left-leaning Brookings Institution's economic studies program, sat down with Comptroller General David M. Walker to bemoan what they jointly called the budget "nightmare."

There were no cameras, not a single microphone, and no evidence of a lawmaker or Bush administration official in the room -- just some hungry congressional staffers and boxes of sandwiches from Corner Bakery. But what the three spoke about will have greater consequences than the current fuss over filibusters and Tom DeLay's travel.

With startling unanimity, they agreed that without some combination of big tax increases and major cuts in Medicare, Social Security and most other spending, the country will fall victim to the huge debt and soaring interest rates that collapsed Argentina's economy and caused riots in its streets a few years ago.

"The only thing the United States is able to do a little after 2040 is pay interest on massive and growing federal debt," Walker said. "The model blows up in the mid-2040s. What does that mean? Argentina."
Walker put U.S. debt and obligations at $45 trillion in current dollars -- almost as much as the total net worth of all Americans, or $150,000 per person. Balancing the budget in 2040, he said, could require cutting total federal spending as much as 60 percent or raising taxes to 2 1/2 times today's levels.

Butler pointed out that without changes to Social Security and Medicare, in 25 years either a quarter of discretionary spending would need to be cut or U.S. tax rates would have to approach European levels. Putting it slightly differently, Sawhill posed a choice of 10 percent cuts in spending and much larger cuts in Social Security and Medicare, or a 40 percent increase in government spending relative to the size of the economy, and equivalent tax increases.

The unity of the bespectacled presenters was impressive -- and it made their conclusion all the more depressing. As Ron Haskins, a former Bush White House official and current Brookings scholar, said when introducing the thinkers: "If Heritage and Brookings agree on something, there must be something to it."

I've heard, second-hand, a different version of Isabelle Sawhill's take on this question. The version I remember, and I might have the details wrong, held that we'd have to cut discretionary spending--everything but statutorily mandated entitlements--by 94 percent to get the budget deficit under control. With that clearly not happening, her more realistic--and deeply pessimistic--conclusion was that we would have to endure both tax hikes and spending cuts... and would still face deficits well into the future.

I suppose it's true that we get the government we deserve. In a time when the revelation that the administration, knowingly and with malice aforethought, lied the country into a hugely expensive and unnecessary war that has claimed over 1600 American lives is met with almost total indifference, the fact that the coming fiscal crush (which, of course, will make its arrival felt, in terms of world markets and the economic climate, long before 2040) is completely off a public agenda still consumed with social issues and "fixing" something that's clearly not broken--Social Security--isn't surprising. That won't make it any less painful, however, when the moment comes that we can no longer pretend no problem exists.

Back to you, Dana Milbank, with thanks for being one of the very few journalists who hasn't totally abandoned his public service responsibilities:

The unity of the bespectacled presenters was impressive -- and it made their conclusion all the more depressing. As Ron Haskins, a former Bush White House official and current Brookings scholar, said when introducing the thinkers: "If Heritage and Brookings agree on something, there must be something to it."
Not surprisingly, the Heritage and Brookings crowds don't agree on an exact solution to the budget problem, but they seem to accept that, as Sawhill put it, "you can't do it with either spending or taxes. Eventually, you're going to need a mix of the two." Butler wants taxes, now at 17 percent of GDP, not to exceed 20 percent. Sawhill prefers 24 or 25 percent.

But such haggling seems premature when both parties still deny the problem. "I don't think we're there yet," Walker said. "The American people have to understand where we are and where we're headed."

And where is that? "No republic in the history of the world lasted more than 300 years," Walker said. "Eventually, the crunch comes."

Sunday, May 15, 2005

I Got Your Munich Analogy Right Here (or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Nuclear Option)
My mom today was looking at a copy of New York magazine and asked me what I think of it. I told her that New York fascinates me because something like three quarters of it panders to the Hamptons set, tracking the comings, goings, eatings and divorcings of the city's glitterati, and the other quarter has really interesting articles often the equal of anything in its more self-consciously elevated cousin the New Yorker. As an example of this latter quarter--and by way of making another point--I commend to you Kurt Andersen's article about a trend that's been widely noticed: the media's reversion to a balkanized mishmash of viewpoints and partisanship, as the post-WWII consensus symbolized by Walter Cronkite's nightly news broadcasts fades into the past.

Yes, yes, you say; BFD. Well, it is, but it's not new or, at this point, all that interesting. What's cool about Andersen's piece is that he expands this concept of the "Neo-Nineteenth Century" well beyond the po-mo yellow journalism of Rupert Murdoch and pals:

Everywhere I look, the nineteenth century is creeping back. The swinging mix-and-match cultural hodgepodge of the past 25 years, marked by the blurring and erasure of easy distinctions between high culture and pop, is called postmodern, but in fact it’s a very premodern circumstance, more 1850 (when a single night at the theater might encompass Shakespeare and vaudeville) than 1950. Or consider Bush’s dream of an even less regulated, more privatized, lower-tax, looser-social-safety-net “Ownership Society,” which really does seem more late-nineteenth-century than late-twentieth. His foreign policy doesn’t use the phrases “Manifest Destiny” or “civilizing imperialism,” but might as well. And the atavistic Christianity of his political base is literally a throwback to the 1800s, if not earlier.

Once again, I remind my younger readers: Not so long ago, things were very different. When I was in school—public school in Nebraska, no less—evolution was not controversial or a “theory.” Darwin versus Genesis was no more a debate than round Earth versus flat Earth. In the sixties and seventies, the 1925 Scopes trial—what a historian had prematurely called “nineteenth-century America’s last stand”—seemed almost comically ancient, like the Salem witch trials. Biblical literalism was in the dustbin of history.

Back when an ostensibly conservative Republican president—Richard Nixon—imposed wage and price controls and created the federal environmental regulatory bureaucracy, a kind of Eurosocialist America appeared plausible if not inevitable. Amending the Social Security system was literally unimaginable. Everyone took the United Nations seriously. No one seriously promoted sexual abstinence. And so on.

This neat summary shows how far the "anti-Enlightenment" (as I now dub it and will henceforth refer to it) has come in a dismayingly short period of time. And it shows the folly of "compromise" on the question of the filibuster of judicial nominees, which is really a dry, process-oriented proxy for the vastly larger question of what direction our public policy will take.

You can't negotiate with these people. They won't let you. The only question is whether they'll take the Rovian (there's another world-historical figure whose name I could here use as an adjective; think Ruhr, think Munich, think 1930s) position of accepting half a loaf now, knowing full well they'll come back for the rest later, or will wrap themselves so tightly in righteousness that any seeming compromise will sit ill with the Almighty (or so would say His spokesmen).

Now, we know that one near-compromise was already averted, at the behest of Radical Cleric SpongeDob. This would have been a disaster, with the dual ill effects of guaranteeing some of Bush's holy nut jobs lifelong spots on the bench AND reinforcing the public perception of Democrats as spineless blowhards who back down from a fight. Why take the chance that this guy will save us again? Fight it out, and if we lose, hang the truly extremist views of Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen, Bill Pryor and the rest of the Holy Fools around the necks of every Republican on the ballot next year.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Putting the "Oh" in Oligarchy
It's fashionable among activists on the left to disparage The New Republic in terms almost as strong as those used to castigate the Democratic Leadership Council. AIS readers know that I have somewhat mixed feelings about the DLC; two of their blogs are linked at left, and I often read their e-mail updates and articles from Blueprint magazine, while at the same time I'd cross the street to spit in Al From's ugly mug. The crux of it is that the obnoxious personalities of the organization's principals doesn't, to me, overshadow the value of the work they do.

TNR suffers from a variant of the same problem, but its richer history, and the dilution of personalities by dint of its format, makes it perhaps more palatable. Yes, you sometimes have to put up with Martin Peretz and his Democrat-bashing and inane Israelophilia (though his son did a fine job playing bass for the Lemonheads), and they have that one neo-con guy who's really obnoxious and borderline unreadable. But they also have a bunch of really smart, ideologically heterodox writers who bring a level of analytical insight otherwise rarely seen outside the Washington Monthly, which not surprisingly seems to have an ongoing staff rotation with TNR. One of the best of the bunch is Jonathan Chait, and his most recent article should be gathering a lot more attention than it seems to have drawn. Chait takes the key step of extrapolating the travails of House Republican kingpin Tom DeLay, and his uber-lobbyist buddy Jack Abramoff, into the larger government culture in which both have thrived, and makes a crucial connection to the fiscal profligacy that has characterized the administration:

The failure of intellectuals on the right to adequately define big-government conservatism reflects their failure to grasp the ways that DeLay and Abramoff became central to the conservative movement in Washington. To define big-government conservatism as a form of pragmatism or as the promotion of virtue is to miss its fundamentally corrupt nature. In truth, the most accurate definition--that is, the definition that explains the broadest scope of Bush's big-government initiatives--is far less edifying: Biggovernment conservatism consists of initiatives that benefit economic elites without using free-market mechanisms. 
Begin with the Medicare bill, Bush's largest social spending initiative by far. It's true that Bush probably embraced the notion of adding prescription-drug coverage because opposition had grown untenable. But the distinctive characteristic of Bush's bill is its staggering array of handouts to private interests. The goodies included a $71 billion subsidy for corporate health care plans, $46 billion for Medicare HMOs, $25 billion for hospital chains, and more than $100 billion for pharmaceutical companies, not including a lucrative provision forbidding the federal government from negotiating lower drug prices. Just about all of Bush's big-government conservative agenda works the same way. Whereas Clinton signed a law phasing out federal crop payments, Bush lavished $180 billion in subsidies for agribusiness. His energy plan, roundly condemned by free-market economists, would have done the same for the energy industry, which, after all, wrote much of it. Bush's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, had he been more committed to their funding, could have turned thousands of charities into federal clients. 

Bush's expansion of government is not limited to higher spending. At various points, he has imposed protective trade barriers on imports of textiles, steel, lumber, shrimp, and other goods. And he has been particularly shameless in creating narrowly targeted tax breaks of the sort that increase, rather than diminish, Washington's role in the economy. Last fall, Bush signed a little-noticed corporate tax bill that, rather than cut rates across the board, showered benefits on bow-and-arrow manufacturers, foreign dog-race gamblers, ceiling-fan importers, and other dubious beneficiaries whose only claim to preferential treatment lay in their ability to lobby for it. 

It's all right there: the unfettered corporatism, the hand-in-glove coordination between business lobbies and governing majorities, the total lack of distinction between the public interest and the "special interest". (Chait's final graf, on this point, is a beaut.) The frustration for progressives, to whom little of this will come as news, is that the argument of "government by lobbyist" has largely fallen on deaf ears among the electorate; the porcine abundance in the corporate tax bill just isn't as newsworthy, it seems, as gay marriage or whatever bug is in Rev. SpongeDob's ear this week.

But isn't this a moral question as well? Government isn't here to enrich Jack Abramoff, or the pharmaceutical firms, or the members of the NAM, anymore than it is to enshrine Tom DeLay on a figurative (or literal) throne. Progressives need to keep pushing a broader conception of the common good, and to call their adversaries on the hypocrisy of their claims to morally prescribe for all, while corporally legislating for a chosen few.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

They Came From Washington...
No, not *that* Washington. The one that doesn't suck; the one that generally votes Democratic (well, the one that sucks votes Dem, too; they just don't count, though it would be cool if they could get their ballpark renamed Taxation Without Representation Stadium... but I digress), the one where the rain and the coastal/inland split just seems to engender a disproportionate number of good rock bands.

Sleater-Kinney remains the 800-pound lady gorilla of the Pacific Northwest music scene. After a longish absence, the trio returns with a new album, "The Woods", due out May 24. The download song on their newly relaunched websitemore or less aligns with the rumors about the record: less structured, more raucous, a bit more challenging, guitar-heavy in a new way. With a devoted audience--if you don't believe me, take the quiz, and then go read the answers--they very easily could have cranked out more of same, and probably made a nice living in doing so. Instead, they seem to try something different every time out. What's really impressive to me is that while pushing their musical comfort zone, they've maintained a down-to-earth ethic--my enduring memory of S-K probably will always be seeing the three members just sitting at a table, drinking and hanging out, toward the back of a club in the Village where they were headlining that night, about three years ago, looking for all the world like any other three women out to hear some tunes and mostly being left alone by the same fans who would be shrieking for them an hour later.

Speaking of different, I must highly commend The Decemberists, a very talented band that nonetheless seems a bit unsure how seriously to take themselves. After downloading a few really superb songs, I invested in their new album "Picaresque" a few weeks ago. With song matter ranging from a vagabond sailor's grisly revenge on the gadabout who drove his mother to an early grave, to a teenager's humiliation on the soccer field, to the companionship of gay prostitutes to what I think might be a retelling of the underrated Kevin Costner spy flick "No Way Out," the album really takes one places. The goofy cover art calls to mind a really low-rent community theatre troop, which I imagine is the point. Every band has its persona, but this one just seems like an excess of ironic reserve from a group that could easily let its talent speak for itself.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Campaigning vs. Governing
In a sense, maybe the second-term blues President Bush is experiencing shouldn't come as a surprise. To find a presidential second term that wasn't a disaster in some obvious sense or other, you have to go back at least to Dwight Eisenhower, and arguably to FDR; since then, we've seen Nixon's resignation, Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal, and the Clinton sex witch hunt. While the personal or political scandals that precipitated all three of those episodes haven't yet erupted from the White House--and aren't likely to do so, owing to the absence of both a hostile Congress (Democrats pushed Watergate and Iran-Contra, and Republicans blew Blow-Gate into the grotesque spectacle it became) and a mostly cowed and corporate-owned press corps, the underlying arrogance and disconnectedness that begat those scandals is present in spades.

Watching Bush's press conference last Thursday night, I got the sense of a man running a different country than the one I live in (and in this case, I'm not talking about Brooklyn). There's just no public drumbeat for blowing up Social Security, passing a bloated energy bill that does little more than reward campaign contributors, removing the few remaining procedural barriers to total Republican control, or confirming a UN ambassadorial nominee who comes off as the dickish, contemptible boss all of us have had at some point in our working lives. Absent any policy rationale for these things, the mere fact that Bush has the votes in Congress to do whatever he likes won't always be enough.

But what I find really interesting about this is that Bush himself has changed tactics hardly at all from what he did, successfully, in last year's presidential campaign. He's still sticking to a few scripted points and blunt themes, still speaking to politically pre-screened audiences (of which more below), still trying to move ahead by dragging his opponents down. The only difference is that now much less of it is working. Even some of Bush's congressional allies are questioning the practice of closing taxpayer-supported rallies--excuse me, "Town Hall-style" meetings on Social Security--to all but political loyalists, as The Carpetbagger Report has faithfully detailed. The Social Security "plan," lacking obvious applicability to either the problem of long-term solvency for the program or how to better ensure financial security in old age, and bearing obvious potential political costs, is all but dead; the only question is when Karl Rove will pull the plug. On the social issues currently front and center in the nation's political life, including the related efforts to remove the filibuster and stack the courts with religious absolutists, Bush--a canny politician--realizes that he can't get out in front of the culture war; in the press conference, he all but rebuked the Dobson/Perkins/Moehler line that opponents of his judicial nominees are "anti-Christian." (Of course, it was still him who re-nominated these judicial zanies, knowing full well what would result.)

The triumphalist refrain of "lame duck" is already being sounded, which I think is both premature and foolish. Until the day a president leaves office, he has tremendous power to set the country's political and legislative agenda, and the appointive power of the executive branch is largely unaffected by the political timetable. Besides, Bush's domestic priorities have never been especially popular with electoral majorities; his successes on that front have much more to do with his ability to leverage what has generally been high approval on foreign policy/defense, and the super-gerrymandered nature of the House of Representatives than the intrinsic appeal of tax cuts for millionaires, radical deregulation, weakened environmental protections or what have you. So what seems like a political reversal of fortune is probably better described as a shift in perspective; with foreign policy matters less front and center, and the undeniable fact that Bush's political fortunes are now less connected to those of his congressional allies, he's playing from a position of relative weakness for probably the first time since September 10, 2001.