Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Join the Phight
Attentive AIS readers--all four of you, give or take the odd relative--probably have noticed that I've been writing less about the Phillies lately. One reason for this, of course, is that I've been writing less about everything; I just haven't been around, or inspired, or sober, or something. The other, though, is that I'm contributing to (and, for now at least, managing) a new blog exclusively devoted to all things Phillies: The Good Phight.

The Good Phight is a proud new member of the SportsBlogs Nation family. SBN is a new business founded by Markos Moulitsas, the political activist and consultant best known as the proprietor of the site Daily Kos, that already includes sites for 25 of the 30 major league baseball clubs and is rapidly expanding into other sports. The sites share functionality with dKos, and offer both proprietor-driven content and a "diary" function for registered users to post their own thoughts as a sort of "blog within the blog."

I'm joined in this effort by a few fellow posters from philliesphans.com, which is, bar none, the best online Phils community I've yet seen and will always be a sort of "blogfather" to The Good Phight. My hope is that the two sites will complement each other rather than compete; I'm still planning to chime in on pp.com, in both "on-topic" and "off-topic" discussions. The differences will be in format, emphasis and content: the TGP team is probably more sabermetrically oriented than many pp.com members, and our site will focus exclusively on baseball--leaving AIS as more a place where I'll write about politics, culture, public policy and other sports.

This is very much a work in progress, and the excitement of a new project will, I'm sure, smack headlong into the frustration and confusion attendant upon any start-up. But like any community, its value ultimately will be determined by who chooses to join it. So I hope you'll do so.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Show Biz Truism Proven?
Just watched Sleater-Kinney performing on the David Letterman show, and I can state with certainty that the TV camera really did add some weight. Not 72 hours earlier, I saw the band at the Trocodero in Philadelphia, and they looked (and sounded) great--and at least ten pounds, per S-K member, lighter than they did on TV. I tend to blame the cameras rather than my own lyin' eyes.

I know Sleater-Kinney has played the Conan O'Brien show, where they acquitted themselves very well a couple years back; whether or not this was their first Letterman appearance, I'm not sure. But they seemed nervous. It maybe didn't help that the song they performed, "Jumpers," is both much more structured and dependent upon dynamic changes than most of their new batch of tunes... nor that it's about a suicide plunge off the Golden Gate Bridge. The first single, "Entertain," probably would have been a better choice, though maybe the band or the show was unwilling to chance lyrics that include an F-bomb (a rarity for this band). In any event, Corin Tucker's vocals betrayed a slight waver, and Carrie Brownstein looked like she was too consciously trying to rock out. Though she did display a leg kick that Roger Daltrey, let alone Robert Pollard, couldn't dream of pulling off. The mix also did them no favors.

This was all in contrast to the show last Friday night, in which they kicked the hell out of nine songs from their latest album, "The Woods," and seemed utterly relaxed in doing so. I wonder if the band members, who seem to enjoy a pretty good lifestyle as well as an intensely devoted and fairly sizeable following, are motivated to make appearances like tonight's out of their own drive to reach more fans, make more money, and extend their reach, or just because it's the done thing but they don't intrinsically care. They changed labels for the latest album, which seems to suggest some unmet ambition on the business end of things, but then made probably their least accessible album in a decade. Perhaps it's no more reasonable to expect consistency, much less clear lines of cause and effect, from hard-rocking strangers as from anyone else.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Something Worth Worrying About
I hadn't been following the Iranian election very closely, but the outcome--victory for a hard-line, anti-US candidate who has publicly committed to continuing Iran's nuclear program--should be cause for concern whatever one's political leanings. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sounds bad enough anyway; the real issue in my view, though, is how he's likely to strike our own hard-liners in power.

Donald Rumsfeld, that great tribune of freedom and decency, has labeled Ahmadinejad "no friend of democracy", echoing statements by the Idiot King that Iran's election was rigged and unfair. (Unconfirmed reports have it that upon this statement from Bush, Irony coughed twice weakly and finally passed from this world.) Given the plunge in popularity of our other current war, and the matching quagmire in which Bush's awful domestic agenda is stuck, with Independents as opposed to the president as Democrats, it wouldn't surprise me one bit to see this crew hope for a second "rally 'round the flag" effect by launching air strikes or other measures against Iran.

Yes, we don't have the resources, in military manpower or otherwise, to prosecute a second war effort in the Middle East. Yes, such an act would probably further cement the low regard in which much of the world holds us. And yes, any attack against Iran would also produce a patriotic response--including from the reformers and younger Iranians in whom Americans have invested hope for that country--on the other side. But all these considerations speak to rational analysis and concern for the future... and if such ideas were valued in the Bush administration, we wouldn't see so many current policies it has put in place.

So expect the war drums to start beating--maybe in a month, maybe in six, maybe when that Supreme Court vacancy opens, maybe right before the 2006 midterms. The emergence of a viable new villain, coupled with the desperate straits the Republicans find themselves in, makes it almost inevitable. The media will march along, and Democrats will once again try to figure out how to explain that opposition isn't treason, and that mindless jingoism isn't patriotism. Hopefully we'll do a better job of it this time.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Petulant President
The problem with being great at campaigning but awful at governing is that, after you win at the ballot box, you have to govern. And the problem when this odd mix of skills and weaknesses works across the board is that, when you're governing, there's no one else to blame.

So it is that we now see poor President Bush, secure in his second term and buttressed with the strongest legislative majorities his party has had for eighty years, stamping his little foot and getting increasingly snitty at the fact that his raft of irrational and unpopular proposals hasn't yet been enacted into law:

Addressing GOP donors on Tuesday night, the president said of Democratic lawmakers: "On issue after issue, they stand for nothing except obstruction, and this is not leadership. It is the philosophy of the stop sign, the agenda of the roadblock, and our country and our children deserve better."

The Bush second term is exposing the hollow core of Republican politics. Without a clear enemy to demonize--John Kerry, Saddam Hussein, Michael Moore--there's just nothing for people to grasp onto. Bush and Karl Rove accomplished something really unprecedented last year: they managed to make the campaign about the personality of the challenger rather than the record of the incumbent. Now Bush has the stage to himself, and it's awfully lonely. His apparent priorities--ruining Social Security, perpetuating the (increasingly unpopular) quagmire in Iraq, further shifting the tax burden from wealth to work--aren't even resonating with his far-right base, which will always have more enthuasiasm for stoning promiscuous women than further enriching Paris Hilton (speaking of).

Bush's other problem, of course, is that he lacks both aptitude and enthusiasm for the actual work of governance. He doesn't do nuance, he doesn't do compromise, and he doesn't even make an effort to "sell" his policy proposals on their own merits rather than through political carrots and sticks. Bush fails to grasp that policymaking in our non-dictatorial system requires negotiation, compromise and open debate; rather than do that hard work, he just wants to change the system toward a more dictatorial model, consequences be damned.

And it's starting to cost him. On issue after issue, from stem cells to renewable energy, even some Republicans in Congress are starting to push back. This Washington Post article on the search for a Social Security "exit strategy" offers a compelling look at how the dynamic is playing out:

Senate GOP leaders, in discussions with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and political officials, have made it clear they are stuck in a deep rut and suggested it is time for an exit strategy, according to a senior Senate Republican official and Finance Committee aides.

Democrats are united in their opposition, and the Finance Committee does not have the Republican votes to approve a Social Security plan that would divert some payroll taxes to private investment accounts. But the committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue, also does not have the votes to pass a plan that would preserve Social Security's solvency without the personal accounts because too many GOP conservatives want them.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) has been unwavering in her opposition, and at least three other Republicans have questioned the wisdom of moving forward. "We are stuck," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said.

House Republican leaders believe House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) could put together broad retirement legislation that could clear his committee with private accounts. But aides and GOP lawmakers say House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has told his members he remains averse to a floor vote on such a plan if the Senate cannot act.

"There is absolutely no way is he is going to put his members on a roll call where they fall on their sword on a bill with no chance of going anywhere," said one Republican House member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of crossing White House political officials.

White House officials at the highest levels recognize the problem, congressional aides say, but to pull back from private accounts now would undermine Bush's congressional allies -- such as Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) -- with no guarantee that a compromise could be reached without the accounts.
White House aides have been locked in a debate over whether it would be a victory if Bush settled for a Social Security deal without private accounts. Some White House domestic policy officials have suggested that the savings that would flow from reducing future Social Security costs would go a long way toward fixing the government's long-term financial problems.

But Rove, among others, has told Republicans that it would be unwise, both from a political and policy standpoint, to reduce benefits without offering people the potential of better returns through personal accounts, aides said. "It gets no easier without private accounts," a senior White House official said.

So there you have it. Karl Rove continues to push the political benefits of a proposal that does nothing for the solvency of the system and essentially trades income security for the risks of the market while kicking up administrative costs by an order of magnitude. The same sort of wishful thinking that has led to slow-motion tragedy in Iraq--most recently seen in Dick Cheney's nonsensical remarks that the resistance is in its "last throes"--is leading to bad politics at home.

Some credit is due to the Democrats, who have been unusually united and assertive on this question, as the Post illustrates.

Democrats are unapologetic. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said voters increasingly see Bush as the impediment to a compromise because the president has stubbornly stuck by a partial privatization proposal that has never gained broad public support. Besides, Emanuel added, after five years of pushing legislation through Congress with virtually no consultation with Democrats, White House officials can hardly complain that the Democrats are not there now.

"They never wanted our votes on a prescription-drug bill. They didn't want our votes on taxes, and now they want it on Social Security?" he said. "Go ahead. Have your party-line vote. We'll see how it turns out."

Sounds like a man who knows he's got some good cards in hand, and won't be unhinged by his opponent's hissy fit.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Reality Strikes Back
On issue after issue, the White House and the Republican majority in Congress acts like they've either come to believe their own spin, or that by repeating their interpretation of events often enough, they can permanently refute facts on the ground. Thus we hear, again and again and again, that the occupation in Iraq is going splendidly well; that the cause of Social Security "reform" is making progress and resonating among the public; and that the jury is still out on global warming. Reports that the resistence is more active and deadly than ever, that two-thirds of the public resists the Bush agenda on Social Security (and mistrusts the president's "values" on the question), and that climate change is real and increasingly pernicious in effect, are dismissed as nothing more than fetishes of the "reality-based community."

But reality has a way of catching up with us. An increasing number of Congressional Republicans are publicly questioning the administration's interpretation of events in Iraq, and a difference-making number of them have already run away from the privatization of Social Security. Now, the Washington Post reports, the administration and its energy-industry allies might face a similar bipartisan revolt on the issue of emissions and climate change:

...the White House may soon be the last institution in Washington that doesn't believe that the threat of climate change requires something more than new adjectives. Next week, when the Senate is scheduled to begin debate on its new energy bill, more than one piece of climate change legislation may well be proposed as an amendment. For the first time, one of them may well pass. In the past, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) have proposed, but never got enough votes for, legislation establishing a mandatory cap-and-trade system that would allow companies to buy and sell the right to emit greenhouse gases, so that those who can cut their emissions the most cheaply do so first. Now, however, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), the ranking Democrat on the Energy Committee, has prepared -- in consultation with Republican colleagues -- an alternative amendment, one that would set up a cap-and-trade system, somewhat less rigorously, but far more cheaply, than the McCain-Lieberman bill. It is beginning to attract a surprisingly broad level of Democratic and Republican support.

This new legislation is based on a proposal put together by the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan group that includes industry chief executives, environmentalists and scientists. According to a recent Energy Department analysis, that group's cap-and-trade system would cause only a minimal rise in electricity prices, and would not, unlike the McCain-Lieberman bill, lead to a sharp reduction in the use of coal. The legislation would also allow Congress to continually reassess the national cap on greenhouse gases, depending on what measures are being taken in other countries. Those two measures go a long way to answer those critics who claim addressing this issue in any way will render the U.S. economy uncompetitive.

In the final analysis, the White House and its enablers in the Republican congressional leadership will soon be reduced to one appeal in asking rank-and-file Republicans to defeat measures such as this McCain-Lieberman proposal or Bingaman's variant of it: this will weaken the president's prestige. Particularly during the last session of Congress, leading up to the presidential election in which their fortunes were largely tied to that of Bush, this line of thinking was persuasive. But with Bush never again to face the voters, Republican representatives and senators are looking at a different equation: should they vote with "reality" and on behalf of their constituents, or stick by their man and run the risk of facing the voters and a line of attack that argues their loyalties to the president supersede their duties to the public?

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Dean (though, Any Excuse Will Do...)
First, a confession: I'm largely entering this post because I finally got my high-speed connection working--thanks to a newly installed AirPort which was the Tekserve-suggested workaround for my busted Ethernet connection. At last, at last, at last... Annie gets the phone line and I don't have to spend half my time here waiting for the spinning rainbow circle to resolve into a web page. Glory be.

Reason #2, of course, is that I haven't posted much of anything over the last two weeks, and now I don't even have the excuse of matrimony. And while the Phillies are 10-1 since I tied the knot, I don't want to write about them here out of the usual superstitious fears. Not that I'm a causal factor or anything. But just in case Spinoza was right, why rock the boat.

So that leaves us with this Yahoo! story I just found, and the encouraging news it bears:

Democratic National Committee leaders embraced feisty party boss Howard Dean on Saturday and urged him to keep fighting despite a flap over his blunt comments on Republicans.

After a meeting of the DNC's 40-member executive committee at a downtown hotel, members said Dean was doing exactly what they elected him to do -- build the party in all states and aggressively challenge Republicans.

"I hope Governor Dean will remember that he didn't get elected to be a wimp," said DNC member Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a South Carolina state representative. "We have been waiting a long time for someone to stand up for Democrats."

...in a series of interviews DNC members backed the former Vermont governor, known for his fiery rhetoric during his failed 2004 White House run, and said they knew what they were getting when they elected him in February as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

"Howard Dean is going to be much more aggressive, much more outspoken and much more of a risk-taker outside the Beltway than any chairman has been. We knew that," said Alvaro Cifuentes, chairman of the DNC Hispanic caucus.
"We have to get our politics out of Washington. We cannot continue to be held captive by party leaders who I respect but who have to play their own local politics," Cifuentes said, calling congressional Democrats "timid" and the flap over his comments "mostly a Beltway play."
Karen Marchioro, a DNC member from Washington state, said she was stunned to see so many congressional Democrats back away from Dean.

"We always defend them, why won't they defend us? And they want us to support them for president?" she asked. "I have no desire to lose, I just think this is the way you win -- you let people know where you stand and you fight."

Cobb-Hunter said Dean "should consider the source -- congressional Democrats. What's their track record? He's doing what a lot of us wanted him to do and expected him to do."

After all the trimming and difference-splitting from national Democrats over Dean's remarks the last week or two, it's good to see that the chairman's fighting spirit is receiving a better hearing outside DC. As you'd expect, the activists on Daily Kos are solidly behind him. Like it or not--and I think Dean can retain his sharp partisan edge while being a bit more careful with his specific wording--Dean got this job in part to raise Democratic spirits after years of the same kind of jumping at shadows we're seeing from Washington-based Dems now. And make no mistake about it: his election to the post of DNC chair was also in no small part a loud "fuck you" to those same cringing Democrats. Whether or not he can effectively manage the transition to "Democratic Party 2.0," fusing an alliance of educated managerial and professional-class workers with the more working-class group once known as Reagan Democrats, will determine just how restive the Bidens, Pelosis and their ilk will get with him; in the end, nothing succeeds like success. But in a political context that never seems to reward prudence, nuance or compromise, Dean's blunt speech deserves support from his co-partisans.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Can Progressives Win the Culture Wars?
I’m back from getting married and various marriage-related activities. So far all is to the good, and not just because the Phillies are 7-1 since I tied the knot.

Meanwhile in the world... stop me if you’ve heard this before, but stars are arguably starting to align for progressives in the political arena. The list of Bush/Republican scandals continues to grow, with the Downing Street Memo and, just tonight, the story of the administration official who "edited" government reports on emissions and climate change to the advantage of his former (and future?) employers in the petroleum industry. Public distrust of Bush, and disgust with Congress and its prince of pay-to-play, Tom DeLay, looks like it will endure. Even last week’s revelation that former FBI #2 man Mark Felt was the Watergate source known as "Deep Throat" seems to have some in the public thinking anew about the official misdeeds and cover-ups of Nixon’s heirs currently in power.

Actually it was the Watergate stuff—long an obsession of mine—that got me thinking once again about how cultural issues have cut against the Democrats from the days of Nixon onward. Since 1968, the increasing importance of these issues—from drugs to abortion to gay rights—has served to crack the mid-century Democratic coalition and led to ever-greater Republican political dominance. It’s an enduring frustration to me that even many on the right—hell, DeLay himself—will pay at least occasional lip service to past Democratic leaders like Roosevelt, Truman and JFK, all of whom were far more "liberal" on economic issues than most modern Democrats; the explanation, I suppose, is that none of those past Democratic titans ever had to weigh in publicly about gay marriage or even whether or not they’d ever inhaled. For most in the kulturkampf krew, these issues far more than economic policy are prone to spike the blood pressure.

Marshall Wittman of the Democratic Leadership Council, better known as the Bull Moose, has a piece in the latest DLC magazine about the political importance of being "the party of order," and how Democratic failure on that question has largely led to the party’s presidential election losses these last 40 years:

Since the turbulent 1960s, Republicans have skillfully used cultural issues -- always surrogates for a sense of order -- as political bludgeons against Democrats. The tactic of playing what GOP candidates know as the culture card, the values card, or the social card has been a leitmotif of the Republican Party's post- Goldwater ascendancy from embattled minority status to the pinnacle of power in Washington. Republicans have repeatedly used order issues as a diversion from economic positions that do not enjoy broad support outside the plutocratic interests aligned with their party.

Thirty years after the Vietnam War, the GOP is still stoking the emotions that once divided the nation. In the 1960s and 1970s, the diversionary issues were law and order, patriotism and national security, busing, welfare, and the drug culture. Today, they still include patriotism and national security, but gay rights, abortion, religion, and the coarsening of popular culture have been added to the list. All these issues appeal to the voters' need for a sense of order and social stability. They reflect Americans' concerns about the breakdown of order and tradition, whether through Hollywood movies or terrorist threats.

While economics would remain a critical voting issue over the next several election cycles, the ability of the Democratic Party to inoculate itself against culture war attacks would be decisive in its success. It is no accident that the only two Democrats who have been elected president since 1960 have been Southern Baptists. It appears that Democrats -- and even most Republicans -- must play against cultural type in order to win the White House.

The order question runs through American politics of the past four decades like a bright red thread -- mostly to Democrats' disadvantage. The issue can turn quickly, as illustrated by this spring's upheaval in Congress, where Republicans supporting House Majority Leader Tom DeLay found themselves incurring public ire over the disorderly mess surrounding the investigation of DeLay's ethics, while controversy also raged over judicial appointments and a possible Senate filibuster rule change. Yet to take advantage of such reversals, Democrats face a special challenge: They must find a way to reassure voters that they can defend American values and uphold order, while still promoting progressive principles.

Now, I generally like The Moose—he’s even perma-linked here, up and (ironically?) to the left—but in this piece he offers a political vision that’s one-sided and even scary. If "order" were the be-all end-all of politics, we might be talking about President Pat Buchanan; you know that guy would "make the trains run on time." (Best not to think about who might be on them or where they’d be going.) I guess that last line about "promoting progressive principles" is the standard disclaimer, but the notion that Democrats can win by being super-prescriptive on social issues—the core of what Wittman’s saying here—strikes me as both foolish and repellent.

Especially when right-wingers might well be overreaching culturally, just as New Leftists arguably did in the late 1960s. While Americans might be ambivalent on abortion rights (though most polls still show broad support for some variant of the choice position), I don’t think even most anti-abortion voters are interested in the government dictating sexual morality to Americans. But this is just what the Dobson/Perkins crowd is doing in their opposition to common-sense measures like the Prevention First Act, introduced by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid earlier this year. For that matter, this is what the Bush administration is essentially doing in its insistence upon abstinence only and its various efforts to undermine support for birth control. The Prevention First Act is political genius, as it shines a needed spotlight on the fact that for many among the religious right, "abortion" is really about sex—and that they’re more interested in controlling individual sexual behavior than in really seeing fewer unwanted pregnancies.

There’s more to this story, obviously; as I’ve noted here many times, Democrats need to be more culturally sensitive to the other side of the abortion debate and must maintain a laser-like focus on the full Clinton-era formulation of "safe, legal and rare." And the other issues of the culture wars—gay rights, for one—present their own challenges… though I think that there’s a positive individual-responsibility argument, as well as a social justice argument, to be made there as well. But the larger point is this: Instead of running away from the cultural divides, hoping that voters will respond to their pocketbooks rather than their gut feelings, maybe it's time we started making our own pitches as to why we believe what we believe. If the ultimate choice presented to voters is between individual responsibility and the finger-wagging of would-be theocrats, I think we will find the country is with us.