Monday, November 28, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there's this:

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 20, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

(Or as it still is to the Phillies.)

Monday, November 14, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 03, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope dies last.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A Righty, for the Phils
Based on what I've heard so far, I strongly hope that the Democrats will oppose new Bush SCOTUS nominee Samuel Alito. His views on privacy and reproductive rights are troubling, but his other positions bother me even more. The New York Times listed some of the details in an editorial today:

Judge Alito has favored an inflated standard of evidence for racial- and sex-discrimination cases that would make it very hard even to bring them to court, much less win. In an employment case, he said that just for a plaintiff to have the right to a trial, she needed to prove that her employers did not really think they had chosen the best candidate for a job. When lawyers for a black death-row inmate sought to demonstrate bias in jury selection by using statistics, Judge Alito dismissed that as akin to arguing that Americans were biased toward left-handers because left-handed men had won five out of six of the preceding presidential elections.

At least as worrisome are Judge Alito's frequent rulings to undermine the federal government's authority to address momentous national problems. Dissenting in a 1996 gun control case, he declared that Washington could not regulate the sale of fully automatic machine guns. In 2000, Judge Alito said Washington could not compel state governments to abide by the Family and Medical Leave Act, a position repudiated by the Supreme Court in a decision written by Justice William Rehnquist.

When a judge is more radical on states' power than Justice Rehnquist, the spiritual leader of the modern states' rights movement, we should pay attention.

It also sounds like Alito is as deferential to powerful economic interests as right-wingers could possibly hope; Grover Norquist seems to be pretty much orgasmic, which bothers me as much or more than the glee of the theocrats.

So progressives and moderates will have plenty of grounds to oppose Alito. But what about Phillies phans?
At Princeton, Alito was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an academic honor society. He wrote his senior thesis on the Italian court system, based on research he conducted in Rome and Bologna in the summer of 1971, according to the class yearbook. The prediction that he would end up on the Supreme Court was disclosed Monday by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a fellow Princeton graduate, when Alito met with Senate GOP leaders.

"My real ambition at the time was to be the commissioner of baseball," said Alito, an ardent fan of the Philadelphia Phillies. "I never dreamed that this day would actually arrive."

At Yale Law School, Alito "was very much like the finished product," said Dan Rabinowitz, a former classmate, longtime friend and self-described liberal Democrat. "He was enormously intelligent, very disciplined and hard-working — a little shy and not inclined to make small talk, unless you are a Philadelphia Phillies fan, in which case you are his friend for life."
A few years ago, Alito's wife set up a vacation for him at a fantasy baseball camp, where he got to rub elbows with some of his beloved Phillies. He even had baseball cards made with his own image, holding a bat and "looking serious," said Carter G. Phillips, a Washington lawyer who has known Alito for years.

"After a promising start, Sam's baseball career stalled for about 25 years, but now it is picking up again," the card says, according to Phillips. "Look for him as a 50-year-old rookie in 2000."

Too bad he didn't become commissioner of MLB: both the game and the country probably would be better off. Of course, I feel much the same about George W. Bush himself, who was reportedly promised the commissionership in the early 1990s while he still ran the Texas Rangers. But then the labor situation got bad, and Selig decided to stay in the saddle, and Bush chose to enter politics.

Thanks, Bud. Really, thanks.