Monday, January 30, 2006
Having recently posted on progressive conferences, and on my trip to Vegas for a union conference, I've been asked to give some detail about the specific conference that I attended. Most of it was plenaries and workshops on organizing, union finances, filing grievances, and other stuff I won't bother recounting, but two issues came up that might interest a wider audience.
One, the assembled delegates from the local units of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers voted to express the sense of the union that George Bush and Dick Cheney should be impeached. I can't say precisely on what grounds, because the full resolution was only read from the floor while I was out of the room. I can, though, tell you that although I support the impeachment of both men, I voted against the resolution.
The resolution, in the parts that I heard, sets forth several grounds for impeaching the BTK Vice President and his hand puppet Chimpy, one of which was that - and I'm paraphrasing - the Bush Administration has "waged war on the poor" with its economic policies. It also mentions torture and illegal wiretapping, I believe.
The Bushies and their allies in Congress have, indeed, attempted to hurt the poor with their economic policies. As they've given what adds up to a trillion dollars in tax breaks mostly for the wealthy, virtually the only government programs they've cut have been those directed at the least advantaged Americans: housing subsidies, food stamps, cash assistance - without any attempt at a serious argument that they're eliminating waste and fraud, or facilitating economic independence. This year they're planning to cut Medicaid even more than they did last year, and when they needed to spare either beet farmers or Medicaid recipients to get one last vote and pass a budget, they chose the beet farmers. Bush happily supported and signed all of this work. It's sickening.
What it's not, though, is an impeachable offense. There are some people who want to use impeachment as a radical tool, to think outside the box and shake up the current political dynamic, by stating forthrightly what lefties and progressives stand for. Unfortunately, that misses the point of impeachment. Radical impeachment is an oxymoron. Impeachment is, by definition and by design, a tool of the mainstream, intended to help protect the current democratic structure when there's a bipartisan consensus that it's endangered by the high crimes and misdemeanors of a federal official.
It simply doesn't make any sense to call for impeachment on grounds that you know you could never get 50% of the U.S. populace to agree upon. It particularly doesn't make sense to call for impeachment on the grounds that the President signed into law economic policies that were drafted and passed by the House and Senate, the very bodies that would then have to vote for impeachment and removal from office. The Constitution doesn't prescribe any economic theories or policies; the truly radical stance, if one wished to strike it, would be to demand amendment of the Constitution to include the Economic Bill of Rights which FDR recommended 62 years ago but which never became law. That would be, in true radical fashion, an effort to change existing systems rather than working through them. Impeachment, by contrast, exists for the defense of existing systems.
Obviously, impeachment's not going to happen anyway, but I think it does make sense to talk about it. Bush does deserve impeachment - certainly for the illegal wiretapping, arguably for torturing and hiding prisoners and violating the Geneva Conventions in other respects, for launching a war on dishonest grounds and lying about the cost and damaging the military and the nation's security with the incompetent aftermath, perhaps for aiding and abetting the Valerie Plame leakers, for deliberately sabotaging honest representative government (I'm thinking of the war on science, the deliberate misclassification of government records, the lying to Congress, etc.). These are all issues on which the executive branch has unilaterally abused the law and the public trust in a manner that even moderate members of the President's own party might, perhaps, under the right circumstances, possibly consider as grounds for his removal. These issues ought to be a matter of ongoing public discussion, and a focus of debate during the midterm elections, and if a miracle transpires they might become the focus of attention of a new Democratic House majority next year.
But I don't think it makes much sense to be calling for impeachment on grounds totally removed from reality. Such talk weakens any impetus towards impeachment, rather than strengthening it, by making its advocates look marginalized and out-of-touch. There's no possible argument that would get a single Republican vote, ever - much less two-thirds of the Senate - that a president should be removed for signing economic legislation that the President had openly advocated and that the Congress passed and sent to him. If impeachment talk is going to be even a shadow of a realistic threat, it must be focused like a laser on plausible impeachment grounds, regarding the threat of an out-of-control executive, not a grab-bag of progressive policy complaints.
Two, I was reminded at the conference of that small breed of principled libertarian Republicans who genuinely oppose the encroachment of big government, no matter who's at the wheel, and who might conceivably join an impeachment drive, were one to be articulated in a forceful, compelling way. In this case, it was Bob Barr. Yes, Bob Barr. You may remember him from such educational filmstrips as "Let's Impeach Bill Clinton!" and "The Defense of Marriage Act." Barr was in the vanguard of both of those loutish campaigns. He's been out of Congress for a while, though, long enough to demonstrate that his primary devotion is not to GOPihad but to limited government and social conservatism. Often, his views still depart wildly from basic norms of a decent society, but in other cases they intersect with progressives' concerns.
In Vegas, I discovered an example of his intellectual honesty: Barr had written a piece [not available online] for the December Legal Times, calling for lifting restrictions on federal grants to legal aid organizations. While in Congress, Barr himself supported prohibitions on legal aid offices that got federal funds from using any money at all, federal or otherwise, to do things that looked like political advocacy. He now feels that legal aid offices have become depoliticized, and that they deserve support for their work, which sometimes includes (and this clearly warmed his heart) fighting eminent domain seizures. Granted, a big part of his new stance is motivated by fear that religious organizations will face the same types of restrictions on federal faith-based dollars, but Barr still deserves some credit for directly reversing himself, acknowledging doing so, and praising the very program that Reagan, Gingrich, and others spent decades trying to shutter. Many ideologues who were worried aboutthese sorts of future limits on religious charities would have groped for a spurious distinction in order to maintain the limits on legal aid, thereby sticking with the party line, but Barr chose otherwise.
At the same time, Barr has been teaming up with the ACLU to oppose Bush's attacks on civil liberties - in fact, he's gone so far as to tell Time magazine readers that "Presidential Snooping Damages the Nation." [premium content only at Time site] Now, that's the sort of Republican who would take impeachment articles seriously - if they were presented in a serious manner.
Two articles this morning nicely illustrate the state of things in American politics. First is Michael Kinsley on slate.com, pointing up again the Democratic Party's unfailing aim at its own feet, and how the broad contours of the political culture serve to enlarge the target.
It seems to be time once again to play Kick the Democrats. Everyone can play, including Democrats. The rules are simple. When Republicans lose elections, it is because they didn't get enough votes. When Democrats lose elections, it is because they have lost their principles and lost their way. Or they have kept their principles, which is an even worse mistake.
Democrats represent no one who is not actually waiting in line for a latte at a Starbucks within 150 yards of the east or west coastline. They are mired in trivial lifestyle issues like, oh, abortion and gay rights and Americans killing and dying in Iraq, while the Republicans serve up meat and potatoes for real Americans, like privatizing Social Security and making damned sure the government knows who is Googling whom in this great country. Just repeat these formulas until a Democrat has been sent into frenzies of self-flagellation, or reduced to tears.
...Obviously the party that has lost the White House, both houses of Congress, and now the courts needs some new ideas and new energy. But it seems undeniably true to me—though many deny it—that the Republicans simply play the game better. You're not supposed to say that. At Pundit School they teach you: Always go for the deeper explanation, not the shallower one. Never suggest that people (let alone "the" people) can be duped.
I think Kinsley (perhaps intentionally) fails to acknowledge that everybody knows the Republicans "play the game better." But this might be so in part because Democrats--the activists, at any rate--have a pronounced aversion to "the game." The Alito confirmation is a classic case study of this. Liberals are enraged and despondent at the thought of this toadying careerist, with his decades-long record of right-wing activism and absolute deference to corporate power and the notion of a dictatorial executive, sitting on the Supreme Court until 2030. So they push for a filibuster that's almost certainly doomed to fail--and then the punditariat seizes upon that failure as further confirmation of liberal weakness. (And in the case of Bull Moose, whom I'm expecting to rejoin the Republicans by the end of this year at the outside, it's a sign of character failings as well.)
So the dilemma for Democrats is whether to acquiesce to Alito's confirmation--thus alienating the activists whose time, money and enthusiasm are absolute necessities for any hope of Democratic wins in 2006--or to stage the doomed filibuster attempt and invite the sure mockery of the media boobs.
While the Democrats dither, the Republicans in power continue to transform the country, in its character and the application of its Constitution, into something nearly unrecognizable. This outstanding Newsweek piece details internal Bush administration clashes over the notion of presidential power in wartime. What bothers me most about it is that, yet again, we see dedicated public servants all but run over by the ideologues in power and their functionaries--yet again, mostly operating out of the office of Super Dick Cheney.
Feb. 6, 2006 issue - James Comey, a lanky, 6-foot-8 former prosecutor who looks a little like Jimmy Stewart, resigned as deputy attorney general in the summer of 2005. The press and public hardly noticed. Comey's farewell speech, delivered in the Great Hall of the Justice Department, contained all the predictable, if heartfelt, appreciations. But mixed in among the platitudes was an unusual passage. Comey thanked "people who came to my office, or my home, or called my cell phone late at night, to quietly tell me when I was about to make a mistake; they were the people committed to getting it right—and to doing the right thing—whatever the price. These people," said Comey, "know who they are. Some of them did pay a price for their commitment to right, but they wouldn't have it any other way."
These Justice Department lawyers, backed by their intrepid boss Comey, had stood up to the hard-liners, centered in the office of the vice president, who wanted to give the president virtually unlimited powers in the war on terror. Demanding that the White House stop using what they saw as farfetched rationales for riding rough-shod over the law and the Constitution, Goldsmith and the others fought to bring government spying and interrogation methods within the law. They did so at their peril; ostracized, some were denied promotions, while others left for more comfortable climes in private law firms and academia. Some went so far as to line up private lawyers in 2004, anticipating that the president's eavesdropping program would draw scrutiny from Congress, if not prosecutors. These government attorneys did not always succeed, but their efforts went a long way toward vindicating the principle of a nation of laws and not men.
Newsweek's take on the story is a lot more optimistic than my own. The last line of the story reminds me of the conclusion of every PowerPuff Girls episode: "...thanks to a few quietly determined lawyers, a healthy debate has at last begun." But let's go back to Kinsley's assertion, that Republicans play the game better. While polling remains ambiguous on public support for wiretapping, the media story is already solidifying: "Americans will trade some civil liberties for greater security against terrorism." The panel on yesterday's Tim Russert show--all right-wing operatives, by the way, aside from the senile David Broder--said so themselves.
Last Tuesday night I saw the author Taylor Branch speak in Philadelphia, supporting the newly released final volume of his three-part Martin Luther King, Jr. biography, At Canaan's Edge. Branch recalled how the civil rights activist Diane Nash took the blame for the excesses of J. Edgar Hoover and others within the government who opposed racial progress and tried to destroy its champions. "Hoover was our fault," Branch remembered Nash saying--and he went on to suggest the same could be said of us with the Bush administration today. I am forced to agree.
Sunday, January 29, 2006
My first, hesitant encounter with the Neon Siren of the Desert took place last week. My union paid to fly me out to stay at the cheapest hotel on the Strip (no fitness room, but free parking) for several days of Dionysian discussions of financial by-laws and Bacchanalian plenaries about organizing and public policy. I did not gamble once, nor did I attend any strip shows, get a quickie marriage, or spot any celebrities not named Martha Stewart. Las Vegas is not a very attractive town, but a very interesting one nevertheless. A few observations:
1. LV is in a surprisingly beautiful area, a desert plain ringed by lovely, dramatic mountain peaks quite close to downtown. For some reason, visitors returning from LV never focus on this aspect of their trip. Maybe they should - my girlfriend spent her days going on hikes outside of town, and she absolutely loved it.
2. LV has a monorail. Yes, naturally, I wanted to ask someone, "is there a chance the track will bend?" but it appears to be mostly automated, and, at least in late January, little used, so there was no one to reassure me. I did, however, get to imagine Oscar Goodman declaring with his usual modesty that his folks were twice as smart as the people in Shelbyville.
3. Las Vegas itself - both the famed Strip and the older tourist center in downtown - is every bit as garish and tacky as you imagine it is. The Strip seemed surprisingly devoid of twenty-something women in limos shouting "wooo!!!!" through the sunroofs - you'll see more of them any weekend in Philly's Old City - but maybe we just went to bed too early, or the 45 degree weather discouraged such exuberance. Otherwise, the city is making no evident effort to make itself cool, a la Seattle or Philly's Center City or Park Slope or the nearest hipster-to-yuppie gentrifying neighborhood to your own town. The prominently featured acts are still reminiscent of schlockmeisters like Wayne Newton, including Wayne Newton himself. Ads for red meat and female strippers are everywhere you look; if anything, the former are more prominent than the latter. The downtown area, clearly long since surpassed by the more expensive and extensive properties on the roomier Strip, have to compete for business by outdoing each other's ridiculous steak deals: if you go for the $7.95 half-pound steak on Main Street, you'll be kicking yourself when you realize you could've had 12 oz. for $4.95 a few blocks away.
4. My girlfriend's take on the sex-and-titillation industry in LV was interesting: although the come-ons and lascivious ads and billboards with the "girls'" body parts displayed like cuts of meat were omnipresent, she thought it was a difference of degree, not of kind, from the rest of American pop culture. In fact, the town felt clean and safe to her. There was a certain amount of 'deviant' behavior on display on the Strip - open drinking and come-ons for topless revues - yet it all felt contained and somewhat sterile, and dwarfed by the utterly massive casinos themselves. It had a lot in common, in other words, with your typical shopping mall, and that probably helps generate the sense of security one gets from the semi-conscious realization, or assumption, that there are surveillance cameras and security guards nearby at all times. I'll note, though, that the G.F.** said she felt comfortable even away from the Strip - nowhere in town, she said, did she feel that she'd be harassed.
**N.B. The union didn't pay for any part of her trip, but if there's a town for additional paying guests, it's Las Vegas - I've never seen such cheap hotel and rental car rates.
Annie and I saw Broken Social Scene this past Thursday night at Webster Hall. It was a fantastic show; perhaps the best compliment I can offer is that they played a handful of songs from their latest record that we didn't like based on the studio versions, but loved in the performance. The whole presentation was much more theatrical than your average club-rock gig, with complicated lighting programs for every song and what sometimes looked like dramatic interpretation on the part of the performers.
Of course, it's easier to add such flourishes when you've got literally 15 performers. While the specific number--and the alignment of who was playing what--shifted from song to song, BSS generally used two seated drummers, three or four guitarists, two bass players, and a keyboard. About half the songs also featured a 3-5 person horn section, and then other folks shaking maracas or other percussion instruments.
And this--even more than the great songs and strong performance--is what I find most impressive about Broken Social Scene. I played seriously, or semi-seriously, in three bands between when I was 15 and 21. The first one began as a cover band playing Jewish youth group events and had five or six guys. The latter two were both power trios, featured about 90 percent original songs, and performed out and about in Philadelphia and Providence. My main songwriting partner in both of them was a very good friend whom I saw just about every day. And it was still damn hard to align schedules for sufficient practice and really refine the sound.
Live performances brought a new set of difficulties. You worried about the mix and going out of tune. God forbid someone broke a string; the other two would try and transform into Martin and Lewis, and in any event it would be five minutes before the rock resumed. Now imagine all these problems with more than a dozen players. While there were some complaints late in the show about not hearing themselves in the monitor, and the mix sounded muddy to me on a few (not all) of the songs, by and large the show kept a brisk pace and you could hear it all.
Finally--and I have to admit this was never a major issue for any band I played in as a kid--there's the simple question of how you make any money with 14 or 15 players. The tickets were $25 each; of course I paid another $12 or so above that for the dubious privilege of buying them online, but that's what hapens when Monty Burns owns the means of distribution. Webster Hall's cut was doubtless significant too, and the band seemed less than thrilled with the venue--possibly because of the high cost (the audible techno dance floor below the stage didn't thrill them either; at one point the cranky vocalist stopped in mid-song to bitch about it). Then think about the cost of accommodations, a sound guy--and he has to be good, with all those inputs, and the feeding and boozing of all those performers. I can't imagine how they even meet expenses, much less clear any money.
And yet the songs are tight, the enthusiasm is evident, and these people have been doing this, albeit off and on, for at least five years. They're clearly either freaks or fanatics.
Thursday, January 19, 2006
Kevin Drum and Garance Franke-Ruta note the backlash from female pundits to the nearly all-male speaker lineup for the Saving Our Democracy conference sponsored by The Nation Institute and the New Democracy Project. Katha Pollitt sets out the problem in an open letter:
Lisa Jervis adds that she
I notice that only two speakers (in 25!) at the upcoming conference are women. How does that fit the project of rescuing democracy? Even congress--even the supreme court! -- has a better male-female ratio than that. Please don't reply that you asked a lot of women and they said no. The world is full of women who are the equals and more of the men in your lineup. There are women who would do credit to every topic you list.... I am just disgusted that in 2006 women are still invisible to so-called progressives. Maybe that's one reason they keep losing elections.
applaud[s] your recognition that "the political left's routine responses to the traditional conservative arguments are no longer sufficient." You might find more energetic responses if you took a look at the work of people outside your small circle of the usual suspects....Franke-Ruta herself believes it's clear why gender-balanced lineups matter:
Until supposedly general interest progressive organizations consciously and purposefully become truly inclusive and diverse, the movement will be stymied. It's about more than bean counting. While it's true that getting a range of communities represented at events like Saving Our Democracy is important, what your lineup reveals more than anything is a myopic view of democracy that sees no place for feminist issues or gender analysis, and very little for civil rights and anti-racist work. That doesn't look like democracy to most of us.
The Democratic Party and left exist because of female voters and volunteers. No ifs, ands, or buts. As I noted in detail last summer, virtually every left organization that relies on volunteer labor succeeds because of the labor of female volunteers, who comprise the vast bulk of such low-level workers, and when Democrats have won at the national level in the past 40 years, it has been because of their appeal to female voters.
It's true that the progressive movement, such as it is, has not made great use of its human resources. But to the extent that the progressive base is about 60 percent female, ... progressive conferences in 2006 that are 92 percent male would seem to suggest that something even more problematic than a lack of resources is undermining the left's ability to strategically invest in human capital....The grown-up solution, of course, would be for people on the left or center left who run institutions to figure out ways to organize forums as diverse as the left itself.
I'd just like to point out that what the complainants seek are actually three separate, albeit related, things:
1. Bean-counting. It's helpful of Jervis to note that what she seeks is "more than bean counting" because it is, in part, bean counting. (Not affirmative action, properly understood, but, rather, an insistence that every panel at every conference be balanced by color and gender. And yes, that is the demand at issue here, because it's plainly not the case that these organizations regularly exclude women: "The New Democracy Project has four staff members and four senior fellows, and half of them are women. The Nation Institute is headed by a woman, the editor of The Nation is a woman, and although TNI's staff isn't online, its Board of Trustees is about one-third women.") This demand that every affected group be represented, every time, in fair proportions, has a long history on the left, and it's not just grubby hands grabbing for a pie slice - Jervis articulates a widespread feeling with her allegation that "what your lineup reveals more than anything is a myopic view of democracy that sees no place for feminist issues or gender analysis, and very little for civil rights and anti-racist work." Progressives by definition care about gender issues and civil rights issues, but, this assumption goes, only women and minorities, respectively, can properly understand and address those issues. Jervis, therefore, appears not to have bothered to peruse the conference agenda - she's just looked at the speaker list, seen that they're mostly white men, and concluded that such a 'lineup' inherently displays a lack of concern for feminist or civil rights or anti-racist issues. Obviously, the odds may be lower that a straight white man will be both knowledgeable and concerned about issues of race/class/gender/etc. that are less likely to affect him directly, but I hope I don't need to spell out the serious limitations of such simplistic group balancing: William Brennan was better for black Americans than Clarence Thomas; Jonathan Kozol has more insight into urban problems than Thomas Sowell; Phyllis Schlafely and Bay Buchanan have less to contribute on gender issues than fill-in-the-blank.
2. Assuring proper attention to issues on which progessives need to fight. Although white men can be genuinely concerned and well-informed about women's and minorities' issues, it may be the case that, in this particular instance, the Saving Our Democracy conference speakers are not such white men. If so, that's bad - assuming that such issues are within the scope of the conference. Pollitt has apparently looked at the list of topics to be addressed, and complains that "you have no one to specifically address reproductive rights, abortion rights, the rollback of feminist gains, 'family values' as an attack on women, or the specific role of gender politics in the rise of the Christian and Republican right." Those issues are all extremely important ones, but there isn't time to address them at every conference, any more than a gathering of progressives would automatically be worthless if it didn't address the war. 'Saving Our Democracy' sounds to me like a gathering for the purpose of discussing vote suppression, Ken Blackwell's antics, lawless presidents, rubber stamp Congresses, and the like. A glance at the agenda suggests that they're going somewhat beyond that narrow scope, but, jeez, it's a single day, just eight hours with a lunch break. They don't have any environmental speakers, either, and no session on unions or free trade or gay marriage, but no one thinks progressives don't care about the environment or labor or globalization or gay rights. I fervently hope that every progressive conference need not turn into yet another rally where so many causes must be heard that the point of the rally is diluted or lost.
3. Winning elections. 'Maybe this is why we don't win elections', Katha? Come on. Be serious. We lose elections for a variety of reasons, starting with our inferior numbers, but failure to include more women, or to address gender politics on the Christian right, at a New York City conference organized by the Nation Institute isn't one of them. Is there any plausible arugment that conservatives steal votes from conservatives because progressives fail to identify themselves as the side of feminism and civil rights? I can't think of one. Franke-Ruta implies that it's more a matter of rallying the base, since women volunteers and voters are critical to Democratic electoral chances - and, to be fair, she and Pollitt and Jervis seem to be saying that the real issue is that women's issues are routinely overlooked, and that this conference is emblematic of a larger trend. And it's true that if progressives always fail to address women's issues, women may eventually fail to mobilize, or bother to get out to vote, for progressives - but we're a long way from a country in which women voters don't see a difference on women's issues, and therefore go with conservatives thanks to their strong stances on economic/security/etc. issues. I realize some people are annoyed that the Democrats aren't as uniformly pro-choice as they once were, but no sentient person fails to understand that the Democratic party is far more sympathetic to abortion rights than the GOP. The difference between Kerry and Bush was as stark as we've had in twenty years, and progressive women hardly needed to be reminded who to work and vote for - and Bush still won. More generally, I just don't think it's true that progressives don't give attention to birth control and abortion rights - maybe not as much as we should, but not so little that doing more would mean victory at the polls. And several of the other issues Jervis and Pollitt seek attention to - feminism? 'Social Justice'? Gender analysis of the Christian right? Mainstream voters are not sympathetic to progressive stands on those issues and we shouldn't tell ourselves otherwise. We should talk about those issues on their merits, because we're progressives and we care about them, but not because talking about them = winning elections.
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
I don't think it's attracting all that much attention yet, but the battle lines are being drawn for what I think is a sorely needed debate about the Bush administration's executive power grab in the context of the war on terror. Since Arlen Specter's (probably innocuous) thinking-out-loud about impeachment on one of the Sunday morning blabfests last weekend, we've heard from Al Gore--who gave a blistering speech about the implications of Bush's wiretapping argument--standing alongside libertarian/right-wing nut Bob Barr... and now, some of the leading figures of the Republican movement, including Grover Norquist, David Keane of the American Conservative Union, and Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation.
The banner they've united under--and please take a moment to appreciate the severe cognitive dissonance this is causing me--is "Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances."
WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 /U.S. Newswire/ -- Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances (PRCB) today called upon Congress to hold open, substantive oversight hearings examining the President's authorization of the National Security Agency (NSA) to violate domestic surveillance requirements outlined in the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, chairman of PRCB, was joined by fellow conservatives Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR); David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union; Paul Weyrich, chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation and Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, in urging lawmakers to use NSA hearings to establish a solid foundation for restoring much needed constitutional checks and balances to intelligence law.
"When the Patriot Act was passed shortly after 9-11, the federal government was granted expanded access to Americans' private information," said Barr. "However, federal law still clearly states that intelligence agents must have a court order to conduct electronic surveillance of Americans on these shores. Yet the federal government overstepped the protections of the Constitution and the plain language of FISA to eavesdrop on Americans' private communication without any judicial checks and without proof that they are involved in terrorism."
These guys, especially Norquist, have spent virtually their whole adult lives (and in some cases going back into childhood) as the unmatched champions of Party over Country. And if you read down further into the press release, it's clear that they are far from spoiling for a fight with the administration that's done so much to advance their dreams of total partisan ascendance. Finally, the group (or at least this release) is silent on the larger questions of executive overreach that I'd like to come back to in a later post. Nonetheless, it's striking and encouraging that there are evidently some principles that the Republican Ultras will stand up for.
On the other side, of course, is the administration; its usual echo chamber on the right (Fox news, the warbloggers, etc), scary think tanks like the Claremont Institute, and a few people who evidently just believe in virtually unlimited executive power. People like the Bull Moose, who excoriates the "Bob Barr Democrats" while comparing George W. Bush to Franklin D. Roosevelt as presidents who "admirably" expanded the power of the office to fight mortal threats to the country.
I often read the Bull Moose as a political/policy thinker of great talents who makes compelling points in the service of ultimately indefensible, sometimes borderline-incoherent arguments. Worse, like all too many bloggers, he overreacts to personal attacks and probably goes further on the page (or screen) than he really intends. In this entry, he's at pains to make distinctions between the "great liberal" FDR, and Bush, who "has unfortunately too often practiced the politics of division and plutocracy." And almost buried within the bombast and attacks on "the impeachment left," he writes, "There should be a reasoned and rational discussion about the balance of security and liberty during wartime." Who can argue with that? Of course, he fails to make the obvious point that "reasoned and rational discussion" is not a very prominent feature of Rovian politics.
All that said, Bull Moose offers one point I find very hard to argue with in light of the larger conversation about checks, balances, and how the Constitution is supposed to work:
If the Moose had his druthers, we would have divided government with different parties controlling the Presidency and the Congress. Neither party should be trusted with complete control over government - genuine checks and balances are a virtue. In fact, America was operating quite well from '96 - '98 before the Delayicans along with the Veep's new buddy, Mr. Barr, advanced impeachment.
As a matter of reality, he's probably right that we must rely on competing party interests, not institutional ones, to ensure the balanced, slow-moving but prudent and consensus-driven government the Founders envisioned. Which is where I'll hopefully pick this up next time. (No promises, of course...)
Friday, January 13, 2006
Paul Levy, urban planning, and the hard-knock life in Philly
[This is the Navigator. I've been invited by our kind proprietor to participate in the goings-on hereabouts and I'm grateful. So grateful that I've written an inappropriately long inaugural post. (Pithy remains my golden fleece.) This is the first time I've composed on Blogger, so this will probably look bad on the page. Bear with me: as Big Steven was saying about Alito's jokes, "this gets better."]
Do city planners really care about homelessness? Yesterday’s Philadelphia Weekly featured a sample of the urban planning debate, Philly style, in which Paul Levy managed to leave the impression that they don’t. I know some folks in the city planning world and I can confirm that many of them are genuinely concerned about the needs of the less fortunate - and not just as a nuisance to their well-heeled target audience - but Levy’s letter to the editor was phrased in just the wrong way.
Levy’s the head of the Center City District in Philadelphia - it’s his job to look out for the interests of his constituents, businesses and well-off residents. (The CCD is privately funded by businesses in downtown Philly.) In this case, he was responding to last week’s cover story, "Tale of Two Cities," by Gwen Shaffer, which highlighted the ongoing revitalization of central Philly while giving equal time to problems that bedevil the poor and homeless in that same area. Reading Levy’s entire letter, it’s evident that he doesn’t disagree with a single thing Shaffer says; he’s just annoyed that she had the gall to say it.
"Old cliches never die - they just obscure the facts" he opens, noting that the piece "invokes 19th-century Dickens" to highlight current realities. But not only does Levy not have any substantive disagreements with what he calls cliches - he goes on to assure us that he wholeheartedly agrees with them. "New luxury condos and homeless on the streets: The extremes are terribly real and deeply disturbing. But one is not the cause of the other." In his closing, he even hints that we ought to be doing something to fight homelessness: after five paragraphs singing the joys of a growing coterie of office workers and wealthy young professionals, he allows that "The persistence of poverty doesn’t negate success in Center City. [Shaffer’s piece hadn’t suggested that it did.] It defines instead the obligations before us, while providing new resources locally to address the problem."
Levy is absolutely right, of course - you can’t fund social services without a middle class tax base. Philadelphia was in a death spiral of hemorrhaging population for years, and the influx of young workers and taxpayers into downtown, in which CCD has played a significant part, has been critical to stopping (albeit not yet reversing) that decline. But Levy’s outburst seemed almost calculated to piss off homeless advocates, and alienate potential allies, for several reasons:
1. It’s not clear why Levy needed to write in the first place. Shaffer’s piece did, in fact, spend half its space celebrating the revitalization of Center City, and where she focused on the plight of the homeless, Levy is generous enough to concede that she was right, and that the facts are ‘deeply depressing.’ She never said that condos or yuppies ‘caused’ poverty. So why chastise her for peddling "old cliches"? Because, apparently, we’re not supposed to talk about this stuff: "This focus on condos is really misplaced," Levy writes, assuring us that "we should be celebrating the recovering addicts now gainfully employed along with the growth of downtown jobs and affluent residents." In other words, happy talk only - any mention of the "terribly real" extremes of poverty isn’t factually wrong, it just "obscures the facts" that Levy wants us to focus on. As though the media were just overflowing with stories about the homeless, and single moms struggling to find shelter had been hogging the political agenda for long enough.
2. Levy heads the Center City District. Homeless people live in Center City. You’d think he’d have some words for them. Like, say, those ‘obligations’ he concedes we have - what might they be, specifically? Perhaps his letter got edited down; it’s happened to me, and it’s frustrating, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here - but when you can fill paragraph after paragraph with stats about the benefits of luxury condos, it doesn’t look too good when your letter doesn’t have a single stat about the neediest people in the area you’re working on. He closes with a call to invest in education and public transit - and I join that call heartily, but it’s either insincere or naive to think that the morass of unemployment, addiction, mental heath problems, family dysfunction, and other catalysts for homelessness will be ameliorated entirely by more subway lines and better elementary schools. (If he’d ever talked to a homeless advocate, he certainly would have called for more affordable housing, for one thing.)
3. Levy shouldn’t presume so blithely that there’s no connection between new luxury condos and homeless on the streets. Public resources are scarce and city budgeting is a zero-sum game. Recently, advocates for the homeless and the housing-insecure finally succeeded in getting the city to establish a reserve fund for housing needs, but it was a while in coming, and it may never reach the $20 million advocates originally wanted. Meanwhile, public housing waits can stretch up to two years; city shelters are crowded, unpleasant, and often unsafe and poorly managed. The city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, announced with much fanfare in October, noted that "the demand for affordable housing exceeds the supply by at least 60,000 units" - yet the 34-page report didn’t mention any new funding for its initiative, limiting itself to an aspiration to "explore new resources." Meanwhile, although luxury condos are built by private developers, city agencies and city resources go to assist their efforts. The mayor’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative is spending taxpayer dollars to clean up areas that will be turned into condominiums. That’s not to say that NTI is a bad idea, or that the city shouldn’t spend any money that helps lure luxury condo builders and buyers inside city limits - it’s just to recognize that there are tradeoffs taking place, and amidst competing priorities, some needs are being unmet.
Luxury condos, by themselves, surely don’t cause homelessness, but Levy’s letter conveys the equally fatuous implication that luxury condos are the solution to homelessness. There are, indeed, some recovering addicts now employed, but they weren’t magically ushered into their new positions by the same Invisible Hand that brought us "the growth of downtown jobs and affluent residents"; they were, most likely, assisted by government-funded social workers and government-funded employment programs. We need more of those social workers, and more affordable housing, and more employment programs - and it’s pretty damn heartless to attack Gwen Shaffer for bringing a little bit of attention to these needs.
Thursday, January 12, 2006
Not much on the blogging front recently, I know. I think part of it is that I don't much feel like writing about politics these days, as it all seems to circle back to one philosophical dilemma I can't seem to figure out.
Though I'm clearly far, far closer to the Democratic mainstream than I am to the Republicans, to the core of my being I resist the idea of being a down-the-line, 100 percent partisan. Sites like Daily Kos increasingly strike me as not much less shrill and reflexive than their counterparts on the right; and like the reactionaries, the loudest and proudest on the left seem to have little notion of the public good that goes beyond "when our side wins." Obviously with some exceptions, there's an intellectual laziness and a willingness to accept received wisdom that I don't think advances the public interest. And the specific issues that most seem to energize "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" aren't the issues I believe to be most important, or even the ones that I think government should concentrate its powers on.
To take a somewhat abstract example, I wonder how the bulk of active Democrats, the sort of people who regularly visit sites like dKos, would respond to this question: if you could snap your fingers and make it so, would you rather pass a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing for all time the legal position decided in Roe v. Wade, or change the country's economic laws and norms such that private sector workers' wages (which have remained largely stagnant since 2000) were guaranteed to rise in some proportion to the profits of their employers (which have skyrocketed)? To me, it's a no-brainer: economic justice is a principle, while Roe is a single Supreme Court ruling (and one of questionable legal reasoning at that). And the goal of distributing prosperity in a more equitable fashion carries demonstrable positive externalities--makes a greater contribution to those overriding national priorities of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--that far outweigh whatever is gained through imposing one view by fiat. And, not less importantly, I don't think you could find a large segment of the population opposed to the notion that when a business venture thrives, its employees should partake in its success.
I'm not saying that reproductive rights aren't worth defending, or that I don't support the outcome of Roe: they are, and I do. But casting a decision in marble is emphatically not the same thing as winning an argument. You can only do that through debate and persuasion. As a progressive--hell, just as a pragmatist thinking about how representative government works in a society committed to pluralism and respectful of diverse opinions--I believe there has to be some process of convincing, not just compelling. It logically follows, then, that nobody has all the answers and no party or faction has a monopoly on vice or virtue; there's no one-size-fits all prescription for governance.
But here's my problem. While I'd like to take issues and elections on a case-by-case basis, and to see policy made from an empirical basis and toward utilitarian ends, the current politically dominant faction in our country is comprehensively partisan and almost totally ideological. The Karl Roves, Grover Norquists, Dick Cheneys, Tom DeLays and Pat Robertsons aren't interested in sober, deliberative, substantive policy debate. They don't believe in responsible governance, and seem to disdain the notion that it's even possible: how else can you appoint so many "Brownies" or staff the Iraq Provisional Authority with former College Republicans and campaign drivers? They aren't at all concerned about the dangers of partisanship: they know exactly what they want and spit on the notion of compromise. (Norquist: "Bipartisanship is date rape.") They are absolutely sure of their own virtue and correctness--a worldview that leads to personal hubris (the Abramoff scandal) and policy disaster (Iraq).
And a large portion of what they do is designed to perpetuate their faction's control on political power. Rove tells the president that "we can run on the Iraq war", flip-flops on the Department of Homeland Security, and draws up vicious attacks on the patriotism, war service and personal integrity of veterans like Max Cleland and John Kerry (and, let's not forget, John McCain). Cheney again and again posits a connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. DeLay re-redraws the Texas congressional map, not to foster competitive elections but to maximize the number of solid Republican seats. He and Norquist conceive and implement the K Street Project to more solidly tie the lobbyist community to the Republican Party, ensuring a two-way flow of campaign money and favorable legislation. Robertson and his ilk whip up Christians into a permanent righteous rage by demonizing gays, feminists and secular humanists, and mobilize them to vote a straight Republican ticket.
Now obviously, this Partei Uber Alles worldview doesn't hold with every Republican--though the guys currently in charge certainly seem to want it that way. McCain often has put principle (from fiscal responsibility to the torture issue), and process (campaign finance reform), ahead of party interests. Snowe, Collins and Chafee all seem to vote on issues rather than just follow their leadership (and get viciously attacked for it by rank and file right-wing activists). There are others. I devoutly hope that one day they'll regain the upper hand in their party, restoring the GOP to its one-time vision of fiscal conservatism and healthy distrust of big, intrusive government in all aspects of public life.
But unless and until that happens, how does one resist the current mutant strain of Republicanism? Is the answer to ape its methods and look for our own Roves and Norquists? Do we really want to build a Democratic Noise Machine? If we distrust ideological "solutions" and consider blind partisanship a bad end unto itself, I don't think we can do those things. I'm certain that we can't do them with the total commitment they demand.
So I'm stuck.
Postscript: the site to which I link in the Roe parenthetical above actually has a quotation that sums this up with much greater elegance and brevity than I've managed here:
"The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment."
Guess that's why he got the big bucks...
Saturday, January 07, 2006
A beautiful day here in Brooklyn just got even brighter:
WASHINGTON - Embattled Rep. Tom DeLay on Saturday abandoned his bid to remain as House majority leader, clearing the way for leadership elections among Republicans eager to shed the taint of scandal.
In a letter to rank-and-file Republicans, DeLay said, "I have always acted in an ethical manner."
At the same time, "I cannot allow our adversaries to divide and distract our attention," the Texas Republican wrote.
DeLay is battling campaign finance charges in Texas and was forced to step aside temporarily as majority leader last fall after he was charged in his home state. He has been trying to clear his name and, until Saturday, resume his leadership role.
In a separate letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert, DeLay said he intends to seek re-election to his House seat in November "while I work to clear my name of the baseless charges leveled against me."
DeLay's about-face came amid growing pressure from fellow Republicans who were concerned about their own political futures in the wake of this past week's guilty pleas by lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
DeLay acted hours after a small vanguard of Republicans circulated a petition calling for leadership elections and citing DeLay's legal problems as well as his long ties to Abramoff.
"The developments with Abramoff have "brought home the fact that we need not just new leaders but a course correction," Flake said.
Rep. Heather Wilson (news, bio, voting record) of New Mexico, a perennial election-year target of Democrats, said she did not want DeLay to return as majority leader.
And GOP Rep. Jim Ramstad (news, bio, voting record) of Minnesota said, "It's clear that we need to elect a new majority leader to restore the trust and confidence of the American people."
It puts me in mind of the great scene toward the end of "GoodFellas," where Henry Hill is in the police station and the cops are checking out the evidence confiscated from his mistress's apartment. One cop sticks his finger in the caked white goop on a kitchen scale, brings it to his mouth, tastes it, and smiles wolfishly. Off-camera, his partner says to Henry, "Buh-bye, dickhead."
But let's not overdo it just yet. I'm guessing the recent polling that found Democrats with a record 49-36 advantage in generic congressional balloting has something to do with this. Also, it certainly doesn't mean that DeLay won't still be twisting arms and calling shots on key votes, as he continued to do after formally stepping down from his leadership post. (Though one would hope that the money he previously commanded--see below--in doing so has dried up enough to shrivel his powers.) And I'd still feel better about the party's chances to capitalize politically on DeLay's woes if leading Democrats connected the shit policy emanating from Congress to the systematic pay-for-play system that Hot Tub Tom has created (with lots of help from people like Abramoff, Norquist and Ralph Reed) over the last ten-plus years--though this could be my white-boy wonkitude and politically irrelevant reform fetish getting in the way of a dispassionate political judgment. (But then, ya gotta go with what ya know.)
Finally, Josh Marshall--who's been The Man on this story for years now--is absolutely right that a Congress producing "DeLayism without DeLay" really offers little more, aside from aesthetic value, than what we've seen since the mid-'90s. His hope is that the collatoral damage done by these scandals, and their impact in waking up the press that there's a very compelling story here about how our government functions, has rendered this impossible:
One of the great questions of the last decade is how congressional Republicans managed to maintain such unprecedented party discipline. The standard answer is that that's how Tom DeLay earned his nickname 'The Hammer', by squashing anyone who threatened to get out of line. Only that's not really quite how the House GOP Caucus functioned. Notwithstanding the reputation DeLay liked to cultivate, he worked a lot more with Carrots than Sticks. And that means money. Lots and lots and lots of money. A lot of it unaccountable money; a lot of it 'don't ask where it came from' money; but lots and lots of money, and as long as you were there with the caucus on the important votes, a lot of it would be yours.
You can't understand the K Street Project or the sort of slush fund Jack Abramoff was running without understanding that Tom DeLay had built a very effective patronage machine -- one that organized a great deal of the money in the city in the hands of the political leadership.
Most people now think that the Abramoff indictments effectively end any realistic hope for DeLay to reclaim the leadership. So the question is whether you end up with DeLayism without DeLay -- the same money and machine, just under a new boss.
On the one hand, you have acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt, who ants to push DeLay aside and claim the post for himself. But Blunt is a DeLay Man through and through, part of the machine in every way. On the other hand, you've got rebels who just don't think the GOP can get out from under these scandals without a real change in leadership and direction.
That's the fight the Post article talks about. But a big part of what's happening now isn't just which leadership slate takes over the House GOP Caucus. At a deeper level, the Abramoff scandal may do so much damage to the machine DeLay built -- by knocking out key leaders, exposing illegality and 'legal' corruption -- that whomever comes out on top may not be able to run the place with anything like the party discipline DeLay managed during his years in power.
At the risk of getting all metaphyiscal, though, let me suggest another trememndous benefit of DeLay's resignation from the leadership (and hopefully his retirement or defeat as he runs for another term this year). As regular readers know, my great fear throughout the last three years especially, since Republicans retook the Senate and imposed one-party rule with unmatched partisan fury, was that the political immune system the Founders bequeathed was under potentially fatal attack from the virus of Republican hyper-partisanism.
I don't think it's too much to say that the explicit objective of people like Karl Rove, Tom DeLay and Grover Norquist was to subjugate the system of checks and balances designed to produce utilitarian governance--to overthrow the sentiment James Madison expressed in The Federalist No. 51 when he wrote "Ambition must be made to counter ambition." In the one-party context, so long as goods--money, power, prestige--were spread around in an effective way, there was much less risk of a president vetoing legislation that served little purpose other than rewarding interest groups. Or the Senate rejecting judicial appointments made to advance a specific and articulated ideological agenda that might transgress the Constitution. Or, for that matter, the Supreme Court invalidating legislation or placing restrictions on the power of the executive. The whole Republican project was to align partisan ambitions, lubricating differences with a big campaign check here, a sinecure there, a symbolic gesture somewhere else, and a steady stream of policy that rewarded friends and punished enemies.
The ultimate check, though, rests with the voters. Someone evidently made a determination that holding onto DeLay raised an unacceptable risk of eroding the power base that makes "DeLayism," which is as good a name for this whole arrangement as any, possible in the first place. But while the most odious champion of that system has been knocked down (not even out), we have to keep in mind that the assault on Constitutional governance continues.
Wednesday, January 04, 2006
Some years ago, I think during the last campaign finance debate, I remember reading how these three names, all leading opponents of reform, seemed so perfectly to sum up the Republican position on pretty much and all positive government action. (Disclaimer: this might have been Josh Marshall's joke, more pithily expressed.) Turns out, though, that in a development Dickens might have scripted, they're all potential targets of the Jack Abramoff investigation. Ney, who's clearly a dead duck, and multiple-trial man DeLay you knew about, but salon.com also notes the involvement of Rep. Doolittle (among many others):
Recent reports suggest a long lineup of members of Congress and family who still face scrutiny, including DeLay and his wife, Christine, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., and his wife, Julie. Dozens more lawmakers, including leaders from both parties, supported the initiatives of Abramoff's clients and were later rewarded by political contributions. All but six of the top 20 recipients of campaign contributions from Abramoff's clients are Republican.
Of course, this last factoid will be spun differently in publications and by pundits less sympathetic to progressive politics. But I actually believe the bipartisan nature of the scandal, however limited or broad it might be, can work to Democrats' advantage. How better to differentiate themselves from the ruling Republicans than by showing a willingness to root out corruption and punish the guilty whatever the letter after their title and name? Democratic partisans commonly bewail the seeming mystery of why the public generally agrees with them on policy issues, but puts their opponents in office: one reason, I think, is that they don't sufficiently differentiate themselves. Already, polling seems to show that the public doesn't see corruption as a Republican problem; they see it as a government problem. Prominently hanging a couple dirty Democrats out to dry--regardless of how good they might be at fundraising--could really help here in terms of which party deserves to be trusted with power.
Happy new year to all. You'll notice some new links and sidebar organization here, the first of several changes to the site. It's now possible to link to single posts, in case you want to forward anything of value I stumble onto here, and in terms of content/subject matter I expect my new work role as a contractor/freelancer will influence what we're talking about. Hopefully these changes will be for the best.
One change I'm looking forward to is a new occupant in the New York governor's office as of next January. Today, the lame-duck--and just generally lame--George Pataki gave his final "State of the State" address. For those of you who aren't New Yorkers, Pataki has so totally checked out of his current job that he spent the eve of the NYC transit strike trying to make friends and raise money in New Hampshire; the buffoon actually thinks he can mount a serious campaign for president. In advance of today's address, I was joking with colleagues that Pataki's presidential fever might derange him sufficiently to mention ethanol--the corn-based fuel that Iowa caucus hopefuls always find so compelling--in his speech. Per the Times, so help me, he really did!