Monday, December 31, 2007

A Wish for 2008
Last week, during the traditionally molasses-slow news period between Christmas and New Year's, the Bloomberg administration for some reason decided to release a lengthy report from the Center for Economic Opportunity, the anti-poverty group created a year earlier to implement the recommendations of the Bloomberg-appointed Commission on Economic Opportunity. A link to the report is here, and the press release is here.

The report captures what we've seen as the typical Bloomberg approach to governmental problem-solving, as we've seen in every area from crime reduction to education reform to economic development: identify a broad problem, break it down into relatively easy to quantify smaller problems, figure out how you want to define and measure success, then start throwing stuff against the wall and see what sticks. He's trying to do an updated Great Society in miniature, without some of the more wooly-headed aspects of that commendable but flawed endeavor: expansion of childcare and social services from nursing for infants to work internships for disconnected older teens; and, if you squint, an updated notion of welfare itself in the form of the Conditional Cash Transfer model, which creates incentives for impoverished individuals to take actions for the good of themselves and their children.

The right-wingers hate CCT because, as they view it, the model pays people for doing things they should do anyway; the left dislikes it because it's paternalistic and incorporates choices (e.g. what deeds merit cash payments?) that are susceptible to second-guessing. I like it largely because it upsets the extremists on both sides.

But what's going to be really cool about CEO in 2008 is the release of a new methodology for measuring poverty. The guy who's leading this effort is a colleague of mine whom I've admired for many years--he's brilliant and politically fearless. (The new measure will be based in part on this approach from the National Academy of Sciences, if you're curious; the extreme Cliffs-Notes version is that it captures the value not just of income but of work supports like food stamps and the EITC, subtracts the value of work-related expenses like transportation and childcare, takes local cost-of-living differences into account--so "poor" will no longer mean the same thing in Brooklyn as in rural Mississippi--and updates the "line" annually based on real changes in actual expenditures, not the Consumer Price Index.)

If the numbers come out the way I think they will, this should be a major news story that might resonate in the presidential campaign, and will seriously impact the 2009 mayoral race to succeed Bloomberg. In an ideal world, the initial burst of heat will give way to a sustained infusion of light; I'm fairly optimistic about this.

On the programmatic side, however, most of what CEO is trying to do involves efforts to boost the employability and earning power of working or work-able people currently at the margins of the labor market. This is commendable and will be helpful, and it's entirely of a piece with the theory of economic opportunity that has directed the work of the Center for an Urban Future in general and my career, such as it's been, in particular.

The problem is that even if these efforts prove outrageously successful (and are brought to scale from the relatively modest initial investment of public and private funds), it almost certainly won't be enough to make a major dent in the poverty rate. And this in turn gets to the heart of my own problem with the work I do.

It's a very reassuring and comfortable notion that if only we could get everyone the education needed to fight for "good jobs at good wages," poverty would disappear and the other problems of our society--pretty much all of which ultimately hook back to economic disparities--would go away. But the warm fuzzies associated with this view obscure just how unlikely it really is. Prices for the goods and services we associate with "the good life," everything from healthcare to home ownership to sending one's kids to college, continue to rise much faster than earnings, and that will be true even if we dramatically improve the rate of earnings increase through measures such as those CEO is trying.

Perhaps it's a function of my ongoing ignorance about many facets of economics, but the only way I see to fix this is, one, to somehow accomplish serious redistribution of wealth--at the least something that leads to the re-unionization of the private-sector workforce--and two, to re-regulate many of the aspects of the economy that have become totally unfettered over the last 30 years. But I also believe in capitalism, and the problem with this approach is that given human temperament, it's likely to go too far and the cure could easily prove much worse than the disease. (In a global economy, countries that feature more exploitive labor markets will be more attractive to capital, other things being relatively equal, than those with more robust worker protections--and it will be to the relative advantage of those companies to court that capital even while allowing conditions of work that we might consider "exploitive." The same dynamic holds for the regulatory side of the argument.)

Of course, there's a lot of wiggle room between, say, liberalizing the National Labor Relations Board and nationalizing all the corporations. Which I guess is why, despite my own reservations, I do support the incremental approach of CEO, in conjunction with sustained efforts to improve public schools and maintain or improve other services. Maybe this is a conservative approach to a liberal imperative; I dunno. In any event, my top public policy wish for 2008 is that both aspects of CEO's work--to better understand poverty, and to devise effective programmatic responses that ease its effects on the lives of New Yorkers--meet with success and draw national attention.

Happy new year to the AIS readership, all six or so of you.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Stilled Wings
The Eagles season ended today with a more or less ugly and uninspiring 17-9 win over Buffalo at Lincoln Financial Field, where heavy rains in the second half actually might have improved the playing conditions. I actually kept a running commentary during the game and thought about posting it here, but given both the meaningless nature of the game and the weird feeling I had that the guiding spirits of Andrew Sullivan and Bill Simmons were battling for control of my pen, I won't be doing that.

Suffice it to say that it was a variant of the game they played, literally, about 13 times this year: stretches where they clearly outplayed the opposition, punctuated by more big plays going against them than for them, leading to tight margins in the second half. They won a bunch of these--on the road at the Jets, Minnesota, and Dallas among others--and lost a bunch of others in ball-stomping fashion, at Green Bay on muffed punts, at home versus Chicago on a length-of-field drive in the final two minutes, at home against Seattle and the Giants on late turnovers. They generally got the better of opponents in these games, but rarely dominated and had a lot of trouble "finishing."

Still, there's a lot of reason for optimism going forward. Seven of the eight losses were to 2007 playoff teams, six were by eight points or fewer, and the Eagles out-gained their opponents in 11 of the 16 games. They finished in the NFL's top 10 in both offense and defense. Where they fell short was on game-changing plays, specifically turnovers and red-zone touchdown efficiency. The first problem is to some degree a function of luck and ill-timed injuries (if Dawkins and Sheppard had stayed healthy, they likely would have boosted the interception total); the second was partly a function of Donovan McNabb's early-season impairments, though they also need some better play-calling in close.

Yeah, they're 8-8. But it's much, much easier to imagine how they could have gone 11-5 than 5-11. One can argue that 11-5 itself isn't good enough if titles are the goal--it wouldn't have been this year, though it might have been last season or next--but that's another discussion.

I see two serious off-season needs: one starting WR who has enough big-play capacity that teams always need to worry about him (even at the sub-star level of Donte Stallworth, who filled that role for McNabb early in the 2006 season), and another pass-rush specialist along the lines of what they thought Kearse could be. A better kicker and someone who can field kicks would be good too. But they're basically solid on the lines, they have one star offensive playmaker, an above-average quarterback, and a bunch of worthwhile complementary parts; and a good and improving run defense and solid secondary.

Maybe a less encouraging sign is that they suffered a few excruciating defeats on unforced errors last year too, notably at Tampa and New Orleans. That might be on the coaching; Andy Reid had a valid excuse this year, but they do have to be a much tighter ship in-game next season.

This was an intensely frustrating season, but in a way I feel better about the Eagles' 2008 chances coming off this season than I did last year after the playoff loss to the Saints.
Polls and Trends at the End in Iowa
I don't know if polls where they include tenths of percents are really superior in terms of prognosticating power, but they are more immediately impressive to the credulous observer (me):

On the Democratic side, there is a three-way statistical tie with Sen. Hillary Clinton leading with 30.7% support, followed by Sen. Barack Obama at 26.8% and John Edwards at 24.2%. The poll's margin of error is 3.3%.

Key finding: Edwards is the clear second choice favorite with 30.4%, followed by Obama at 24.9% and Clinton at 12.2%. According to Democratic caucus rules, candidates who receive less than 15% of the vote are considered "non-viable." Their backers have the choice of either going home or casting their ballots for their second choice.
One interesting finding: Democrats think Republicans will choose Huckabee as their nominee; Republicans think Democrats will choose Obama.

Both emphases mine. So, given that all the methodology is suspect and the weather is a total wild-card with the potential to wreck any model or hypothesis, here's what we see:

  • At best, Hillary Clinton is the first choice of about 31 percent of this sample. She's the first or second choice of 42.9. By contrast, Edwards is the first- or second choice for 54.6 percent. Obama is the first or second choice of 51.7 percent. Hillary is the third (at best) choice of 57.1 percent, the same numbers are 45.4 percent for Edwards and 48.3 percent for Obama.

  • The voters for the other party, an interestingly subjective audience, feel Obama and Huckabee would be the other party's nominees. This is obviously open to interpretation, but one thing it could mean is that the most voters from the other party would be open to supporting Obama or Huckabee in November if the other party nominates them.

  • The fact that so many Republicans nationally still seem to think Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee, yet their Iowa co-partisans disagree, suggests that the race really looks different when more people are paying close attention--probably another indication of how meaningless Clinton's national polling leads continue to be.

My nightmare scenario from a freakin' year ago--that Clinton is a plurality "victor" but by far the least broadly supported Democrat even within the Dem primary electorate--continues to look plausible if not likely. Remove either Obama or Edwards from this race and Not-Hillary would triumph; with them both dividing that title, she might squeak through.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Clinton Paradox--Solved
Matt Bai nailed it in last Sunday’s Times Magazine—the good, the bad, and the ugly of Bill Clinton's campaign, administration, and legacy. Short version: Bill Clinton really did accomplish a radical transformation of the Democratic Party in the 1990s, this change really was for the best… and it really doesn’t matter very much for the 2008 election.

Strip away the easy caricature and all the sordid stuff, and President Clinton did something profoundly important and, in my eyes at least, unquestionably beneficial. I didn’t support him as a teenager through the primary phase of the 1992 election, but there’s no question that the candidate he was then comes the closest to addressing the political beliefs I have as a thirty-something 15 years later. Hard as it might be to remember now, there really was a principled foundation to “Clintonism,” and it’s a good one:

Immediately after assuming the chairmanship of the D.L.C. in 1990, Clinton issued something called the New Orleans Declaration, which laid out the D.L.C.’s attack on old liberalism in a series of 15 core principles. By today’s standards, these principles don’t amount to much more than typical Clintonian rhetoric, but at the time, they seemed like a good way for a young Democratic governor to permanently marginalize himself in a party dominated by Big Labor, civil rights leaders and Northeastern liberals. Among the stated principles in the manifesto:

“We believe that economic growth is the prerequisite to expanding opportunity for everyone. The free market, regulated in the public interest, is the best engine of general prosperity.”

“We believe in preventing crime and punishing criminals, not in explaining away their behavior.”

“We believe the purpose of social welfare is to bring the poor into the nation’s economic mainstream, not to maintain them in dependence.”

In 1991, as Clinton prepared for what was then considered a quixotic run for president against a popular incumbent, he expanded on his governing philosophy in a series of speeches that, revisited now, are striking both for their confrontational approach toward expansive liberal government — especially coming from a candidate who needed party regulars to win — and for their ideological consistency with what would later come to pass during the Clinton era. He laid out a forceful case for improving and decentralizing decades-old institutions, from public schools to welfare, and modeling government after corporate America. He talked about revamping a Democratic Party that for 30 years was closely identified with the problems of the poor and retooling it to address the anxieties of a distressed middle class.

“There is an idea abroad in the land that if you abandon your children, the government will raise them,” Clinton said at a D.L.C. gathering in Cleveland in 1991, referring to fathers in the inner city. “I will let you in on a secret. Governments do not raise children — people do. And it’s time they were asked to assume their responsibilities and forced to do so if they refuse.”
“Is what I just said to you liberal or conservative?” he went on to ask. “The truth is, it is both, and it is different. It rejects the Republicans’ attacks and the Democrats’ previous unwillingness to consider new alternatives.”

This, in a few lines, was the essence of Clintonism. Was it an innovative governing vision or a cynical strategy? The truth is, it was both.

Bai goes on to detail that once in office, Clinton’s reformist zeal ebbed; while his new vision of Democratic governance notched some very worthwhile policy accomplishments, from the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit to the Family Medical Leave Act and, albeit not in the form that he or I would have chosen, welfare reform, the whole seemed somehow less than the sum of its parts. Pushed back into a defensive crouch by the failure of Hillary Clinton’s health care reform effort and a seemingly endless succession of scandals real and imagined, the administration’s focus shifted from transformation to survival.

There were five syllables that for these Democrats summed up all the failures of Clintonism: “triangulation.” The word was originally popularized by Dick Morris, who advised Clinton in the dark days of the mid-’90s (and who, not incidentally, was brought in to the White House by the first lady). Triangulation, as Morris intended it, is probably best described as the strategy of co-opting the issues that attract voters to your opponents by substituting centrist solutions for the ideological ones they propose, thus depriving them of victory. (In other words, if your opponents are getting traction with their demands to dismantle a broken welfare system, you acknowledge the problem but propose a middle-ground way of restructuring it instead.) To a lot of avid Democrats, however, triangulation became shorthand for gutless compromise, for saying and doing whatever you think you must in order to win.

No doubt Clinton’s style of leadership contributed to this impression as much as the substance did. There were moments, little remembered or appreciated by his critics, when Clinton demonstrated icy resolve and an indifference to polls: the budget showdown with Newt Gingrich and Congressional Republicans in 1995; the bombing of Serbia in 1999 to stop its aggression in Kosovo. More often, though, Clinton seemed determined to confirm his reputation as an agonized, late-night decision maker, a leader heavily influenced by the last guy to leave the room. Classic half-a-loaf policies like the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule for gays in the military, along with frequent paralysis over crises like the genocide in Rwanda, created what would become an enduring impression that Clintonism was code for fecklessness.

Obsessed with winning re-election in 1996, Clinton squandered whatever political capital he’d won through the Lewinsky affair and hung on by his fingernails through his second term. Thus weakened, some theorize, the Democrats weren’t able to resist the theft of the 2000 election or the relentless attack of the Republicans during the first six years of the second Bush administration.

I have to admit that, before reading Bai’s piece, this had been my take on the ultimate Clinton legacy as well. And even after reading the article, I still think that this is what “Clintonism” represents today, particularly for its current standard-bearer. The relative silence of both Bill and Hillary Clinton as Bush committed his worst mistakes and outrages—and Hillary’s outright enabling of a president she surely understood could not be trusted with the power she helped furnish him with, for a political expediency that looked sadly familiar to the Clintons’ liberal critics—seemed to confirm the worst aspects of the legacy.

For that matter, the piece reaffirms another idea I’ve held about this campaign: the surprising irrelevance of Bill Clinton’s long and successful political life to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. Yes, the vision Bill advanced 16 years ago when he was running was appropriate for the time and visionary in some respects: as Bai points out, even Hillary’s opponents—and virtually all of us out here in Blue America—now embrace the once-controversial notions Bill Clinton laid out in the early 1990s about the power of a sensibly regulated free market, the continuing relevance of the social contract, and the idea that results matter more than ideology. But that battle has been fought and won—and, without dismissing her importance as an intellectual partner and sounding board, ultimately it was his battle, not hers.

Were Bill Clinton running today, I’m certain he wouldn’t be making his case based on an outdated concept of where the country is and what it needs. But the outsiders of the early 1990s have become the Democratic establishment, and the results of the last ten or so years have convinced many of us that where they once offered solutions, they’re now essentially part of the problem.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What This Campaign Probably Should Be About
A little dose of reality now that Santa's come and gone:

A few genuinely conservative Republicans understand the fiscal depravity of spending and not taxing. But in the view of the party leaders, only suckers pay their bills.

And they were out tapping their toes last week. The president and congressional Republicans blocked Democratic efforts to offset the costs of fixing the alternative minimum tax with new revenues. When Democrats took the majority in Congress, they vowed to honor the PAYGO rules. That means any spending or tax cuts must be matched by spending curbs or boosts in revenues.

"It is critical," the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan group of deficit hawks, wrote last month, "that Congress resist the pressure to weaken PAYGO by exempting a politically popular item such as AMT relief."

Of course, the AMT had to be fixed. Without the one-year patch, an additional 19 million middle-class Americans would have been charged a tax meant for rich people.

But Republicans forced a detour around the PAYGO rules. As a result, another $50 billion will be strapped onto the national debt.

"The effort to 'pay for' the AMT is highly offensive to members of my side of the aisle," explained Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

And the White House spokeswoman praised Congress for passing the legislation "without raising taxes."

We beg to differ with that analysis. Someone's taxes will pay back that $50 billion -- plus interest -- and we know whose. Furthermore, the AMT fix was to be offset by closing a loophole that lets hedge fund managers pay taxes at lower rates than their chauffeurs. Sounds more like a strike for tax justice than an unfair burden on billionaires.

The Bush administration's religious prohibition against paying its bills has infected the Republican presidential race. Unlike Washington politicians, state officials don't have the luxury of spending more than they have. As governors, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee both raised revenues to cover shortfalls in their state budgets. For the sin of fiscal responsibility, the Republican free-lunchers taunt them.

This ends on the day when, for whatever reason, our various foreign creditors decide that the party is over. I don't know enough about economics to credibly describe what happens at that point, but my understanding is that some pretty smart people already have stated that we're edging up toward the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression... and that's with the money from China, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere continuing to float our deficit.

I don't know if the no-tax fanatics who call the shots within the Republican Party are blind to the total implausibility of their positions, or if they simply feel so detached from the fate of the country as a whole that they no longer care. What we do know is that the Tax Fairy, myth though she is, continues to wave her magic wand over the heads of way too many in our polity.

Meanwhile, if any of the Democrats now competing for the dubious honor of cleaning up this mess have mentioned it, I haven't heard them do so.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Krugman vs. Obama
I guess we wouldn't be progressives if our greatest public tribune and our most inspirational potential standard-bearer weren't all up in each others' grills. Talking Points Memo interviewed Paul Krugman today, and found the pundit even more belligerent towards Barack Obama's presidential candidacy than he'd previously indicated. Krugman's primary objection, again, is to both the specifics and the style of Obama's approach to health care reform. But it's not his only beef:

PK: Health care is make or break for whether we're going to have a real liberal turn in policy or not. Health care is the gaping hole in the welfare state. We all agree that the system is deeply flawed. And health care has political spillover. If Democrats get major health care reform, then it kind of re-legitimizes the idea of activist government policies. Even conservatives say that.

Yet on health care Obama is behaving as kind of, "Let's make a deal." The idea that he would be talking even in the primary campaign about the big table is suggesting that he is not all that committed to taking on special interests.

On the big problems there's a fundamental, deep-seated difference between the parties. I've always just felt that his tone was one suggesting that his inclination is to believe that we can somehow resolve these thing through a kind of outbreak of good feeling.
EC: What other things gave rise to your current critique of Obama?

PK: When Obama used the word "crisis" about Social Security it gave me a little bit of a sense of, "Hmmm -- I'm a little worried that my initial concerns were more right than I knew."
It's a tone thing. I find it a little bit worrisome if we have a candidate who basically starts compromising before the struggle has even begun.

EC: But surely there's something to the argument that the skills to build coalitions, to win over moderates on the other side, aren't without any importance. Should we really take tone and rhetorical skills out of the equation entirely?

PK: ... there aren't any moderates on the other side. And as far as sounding moderate goes, the reality is that if the Democrats nominated Joe Lieberman, a month into the general election Republicans would be portraying him as Josef Stalin. Obama's actually been positioning himself to the right of both Clinton and Edwards on domestic policy and has been attacking them from the right.
And after the election, if you come in after having opposed mandates and having said Social Security is in a crisis, then you're going to have some problems fending off Republican attacks on health care and The Washington Post's demands that you make Social Security a top priority. Mostly it's a question of what happens after the election.

I think the second chunk of the excerpt indicates what's really going on here. Krugman's analysis of the political situation in America is pretty simple: Republicans, not just George W. Bush--but the party as a whole; Bush isn't an aberration but rather a culmination-- represent, and continue to represent, an existential threat not just to progressivism but to America in its best conception of itself. Given this, it makes perfect sense that Obama's unwillingness to demonize "the other side" doesn't sit well with him. Krugman favors the Edwards approach of a frontal assault on the citadels of power. A very astute commenter (not me!) on the site put it this way:

Sen Obama believes that those on the other side of the debate are not so intrinsically evil that it is impossible to work together with them to arrive at something that is better than that which we have now. To be very fair, it is clear that Sen Clinton believes the same, although she phrases her belief differently. Dr Krugman believes (and not without reason) that those on the other side are so thoroughly committed to their own self interest (even at the expense of the common good) that they will never allow a change in the status quo unless and until they are compelled to do so. In other words, Obama has hope and Krugman has none. Only time will tell whether this means that Obama is a dupe or a visionary, or whether Krugman is a realist or a crank.

Who's right and who's wrong here depends on a couple questions. The first is how big, and how monolithic, "the other side" really is. Are there "reachable" Republicans, either in office or among the electorate more broadly? Can President Obama peel off enough of them to make broadly progressive gains? (A related question is whether the activist left would accept a policy solution that maybe gets us two-thirds of what we want, or if the David Sirota types would scream "SELLOUT!" so loudly that the coalition would collapse from within.)

The second question is whether, assuming he finds that there aren't enough reachable Republicans to pass legislation, President Obama (yeah, it's fun to type) could use the bully pulpit to make those recalcitrant Republicans pay an unbearable political price--whether, essentially, he can steer a national conversation to move the voting public to change the cast of political actors in a way more conducive to Obama's policy goals. This is the part that interests me--and it's why I'm strongly for Obama over Hillary Clinton (who lacks both the stomach to take on entrenched interests in the first place, and the broad appeal to change anyone's minds) and less certainly for Obama over Edwards (whose critique--which Krugman seems to share wholeheartedly--is probably correct, but whom I don't see as politically skilled enough either to peel off waverers or destroy avowed enemies).

Changing that conversation is what great presidents do. Lincoln and FDR, Jefferson and Wilson and TR, saw where the country was, knew where they wanted to lead it, and gradually made their case--ultimately (except for Wilson with the League of Nations) with history-changing success. Of the three leading Democrats, Obama is the only one who strikes me as having the potential to remake the world in that way.

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter also points out that Krugman's favored approach--the frontal assault Edwards presumably would wage--does not have a very good track record in terms of changing policy:

The columnist and his candidate both believe that Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded by being a polarizing figure. I studied FDR for four years while writing a book about him, and this is simply untrue. It's also untrue of other successful Democratic presidents and for a simple reason: "Bitter confrontation" simply doesn't work in policy-making.

Bear with me for a brief history lesson: The so-called "First New Deal" of 1933-34 came after Roosevelt won a landslide victory over Herbert Hoover in 1932 in a campaign devoid of any populist message despite an unemployment rate of at least 25 percent. First, FDR worked with Hoover treasury officials from the other party to rescue the banks under a conservative plan that included steep budget cuts. The rest of his famous "100 days" agenda-which included unprecedented jobs programs, agricultural reform, labor rights, and regulation of financial markets—was achieved with much more compromise than Krugman recognizes. Social Security came in 1935 after a big Democratic mandate in midterm elections and was enacted piecemeal and cooperatively (to the disappointment of many New Deal liberals) with everyone at the table.

During and after his 1936 reelection campaign, FDR—angry at the ingratitude of the rich Americans whose fortunes he had saved—adopted class-based politics. In 1937, with a big victory under his belt, he tried confrontation with his court-packing scheme. It failed badly. So did his effort to "purge" the opposition in 1938. The rest of his second-term was far less productive legislatively than his first. By the end of it, he turned to foreign policy. FDR's third-term success, dominated by World II, was dependent on his unifying the country.
Similarly, Woodrow Wilson's big legislative triumphs over entrenched interests in 1913 (for example, an income tax), Lyndon Johnson's in 1965 (Medicare and the Voting Rights Act) and Bill Clinton's in 1993 (painful tax increases) were achieved with legislative skill, not brute force and a populist message.

Krugman is a populist. He writes that if nominated, Obama would win, "but not as big as a candidate who ran on a more populist platform." This is facile and ahistorical. How many 20th Century American presidents have been elected on a populist platform? That would be zero, Paul. You could even include Al Gore, who won the popular vote in 2000. Instead of exploiting the peace and prosperity of the 1990s, Gore ran on a "people vs. the powerful" message. It never ignited.

Edwards is feeding red meat to the Democratic base. I admit that I respond to that--as Krugman clearly does. But ultimately it's hard to win the supermajorities needed to change the world through that approach. It's better than Clinton--who feeds red meat to the reactionary base, while drooling pabulum to ours--but I still think both history and pragmatism indicate we should try this Obama's way.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Reading the Tea Leaves
It's time to confess that I really have no idea what's going on in the presidential campaigns. And it's only a slight consolation that I'm pretty sure nobody else does, either.

All I know at this point is that there's an enormous appetite for a break from the past--not just the egregiously failed Bush presidency, but the last twenty years of Bush/Clinton zero-sum politics. What's the clearest sign of this? Look at Hillary Clinton herself, pushing the theme that she represents the best bet for change despite her status as the living symbol of the Democratic establishment. And look at Paul Krugman, the usually brilliant Times columnist who, for some reason, really dislikes Barack Obama--and is now trying to paint him as the "anti-change" candidate.

Another sign is that the only two Republican candidates who are generating excitement are Mike Huckabee, the Christianist who sounds like a Democrat in his stump-speech denunciations of corporate greed and foreign-policy arrogance, and Ron Paul, the semi-libertarian whose online supporters raised well over $5 million last night, a one-day fundraising record. Both can plausibly be described as fruitcakes, and what they have in common is that they scare the hell out of the Republican establishment--ostensibly because they see both guys as certain losers next November, but really I think because their ideological heterodoxy raises questions about core principles of New Mutant Republicanism (pre-emption in war fighting, endless tax cuts, the surveillance state, torture) that have never been fully and rationally debated even within their party, and probably can't withstand close scrutiny.

My increasing distaste (a stronger word is probably more descriptive) for Hillary Clinton aside, the unraveling of the Bush Republican coalition is the most interesting and compelling story of this political year. Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and to a lesser extent John McCain are still fighting for the rump share of Bush's coalition--but while 71 percent of Republicans still approve of Bush, none of his would-be mainstream successors are viewed favorably by even half of "the base," and none of them--emphatically including Huckabee, who's probably the symbol of how deep the split now goes--evince any sign of being able to reconcile the Greed Wing and the God Wing of the Republicans. Is this a case of Republicans still liking Bush (who knows why--maybe a Bush-like inability to admit they screwed up?) but repudiating Bushism? Would Bush himself, were he eligible, win the nomination? Are any of these people reachable by reality-based arguments? Does it matter as long as independents are as squarely anti-Republican as they seem to be right now?

The one thing I'm still sure about is that the only real hope for Republicans to paper over these deep cracks is that the Democrats ring their Pavlovian bell by nominating Senator Clinton. The change dynamic works against her, but the enduring strength of John Edwards, and the artfully sown doubts the Clintons themselves have sown about Obama, work for her.

Meanwhile, in Washington and on the far fringe of the presidential race, Chris Dodd is doing something very important and wholly admirable today. He deserves much respect for this.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bloomberg and the BRP
That's Buyers' Remorse Primary. The Wall Street Journal has an article this morning updating the speculation about an independent presidential campaign by Hizzoner, waged with a billion-dollar bankroll and a focus on executive experience and economic growth:

One scenario -- and the one aides are hoping for -- would be a race between fellow New Yorkers Hillary Clinton and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Sen. Clinton's negative rating is the highest in either party, while Mr. Giuliani's is the highest among Republicans. That match-up could make what supporters see as Mr. Bloomberg's "above the fray" image more appealing. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Giuliani are also seen as moderate on social issues, which could mute opposition to Mr. Bloomberg from the religious right. "If the parties nominate polarizing candidates...then there's plenty of room" for Mr. Bloomberg, independent pollster John Zogby said.
The front-loaded primary season could further open the door for Mr. Bloomberg because voters may grow weary of an unusually long nine-month general election battle. "We're going to see two presumptive nominees from the two major parties in early February," Mr. Zogby said. "What are they going to do except become tiresome?"

Another scenario that could prompt a Bloomberg bid would revolve around how polls frame the nation's mood and priorities early next year. Recent polls have shown voters as more concerned about the economy and health care than Iraq. That could benefit Mr. Bloomberg, who has little foreign policy experience but has won plaudits for his management of New York's economy. "The worse the economy gets, the more the election is up for grabs," Prof. Moss said.

Most observers now think the economy is going to get quite bad indeed--"worst slump since the Depression" is the phrase that sticks in my mind, though I can't remember exactly where I read it. Bloomberg's stewardship--and, perhaps more important, his freedom from the claims of both political contributors and partisan dogma--could look very good in that scenario. Liberals can find solace in his focus on low-income housing development and outspoken rejection of tax-cutting dogma; conservatives will appreciate his record of fiscal responsibility and willingness to take on entrenched interests like the school system.

It's still a longshot that he gets in, considering that he doesn't seem to be selling Bloomberg LP, and for myself I'm now confirmed that I'd support Obama even against Bloomberg. It also seems less certain that the nominations will be secured by Feb. 5, meaning that a Buyers' Remorse Primary might not be nearly as lengthy as I'd suspected. But an opening remains, as does a Bloomberg scenario. I honestly think that in a Three-New Yorker race, he either wins outright or throws it to the House of Representatives.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Escape From Jury Duty
I knew I could do it. Just wish it hadn't taken two days spent mostly idle and uncomfortable, and that I'd left with the "better impression of the system" that the short orientation film had promised.

Instead, what I concluded--and this gibes with what Annie and others had told me to expect before I went in--is that the attorneys mostly want barely responsive drones for jurors. Far as I can recall, only three of us actually spoke beyond "yes" or "no" when the assistant DA and defense counsel asked us about various points of belief or potential bias... and we were all excused. An inclination to question or perhaps even to think things through beyond the very constrained narrative formed by the "facts of the case" probably just gums up the works.

For me in particular, what must have gotten me out was a statement that I believe drug possession should be decriminalized. Given that the charge was crack cocaine possession, it seems logical that the ADA (who said, "Thank you for your candor, Mr. Fischer" with only a hint of sarcasm) threw me aside.

The experience also brought home to me how well I've managed to isolate myself, in terms of the people with whom I interact. This probably was a good thing; I'm almost done "The Power Broker" (again, all that idle time in jury assembly rooms), and in addition to Robert Moses' core dickishness, it seems clear that his total, willful isolation from the public he ostensibly served and the realities under which it lived--fairly consequential things like traffic jams--was a big part of where he went wrong. Albeit in an infinitesimally smaller, vastly less important role and more narrowly focused policy, I can at least try to avoid that mistake.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Our Monsters
This is why I can't be a truly partisan, always-give-the-benefit-of-the-doubt, blindly-support-because-of-course-the-other-guys-are-so-much-worse Democrat:

In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.

Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said.

"The briefer was specifically asked if the methods were tough enough," said a U.S. official who witnessed the exchange.
Waterboarding as an interrogation technique has its roots in some of history's worst totalitarian nations, from Nazi Germany and the Spanish Inquisition to North Korea and Iraq. In the United States, the technique was first used five decades ago as a training tool to give U.S. troops a realistic sense of what they could expect if captured by the Soviet Union or the armies of Southeast Asia. The U.S. military has officially regarded the tactic as torture since the Spanish-American War.
Pelosi declined to comment directly on her reaction to the classified briefings. But a congressional source familiar with Pelosi's position on the matter said the California lawmaker did recall discussions about enhanced interrogation. The source said Pelosi recalls that techniques described by the CIA were still in the planning stage -- they had been designed and cleared with agency lawyers but not yet put in practice -- and acknowledged that Pelosi did not raise objections at the time.

Doesn't mean there's no difference between the parties. Doesn't mean that the Republican isn't, in fact, usually much worse by my reasonable analysis. But it does mean that, on some deep level, the party that worse options compel me usually to support nonetheless is led by people with values profoundly alien to mine. This isn't a one-shot deal, as Glenn Greenwald grimly details: other Democrats, whose expertise and purview should have led them to know more and know better, have sat by as we commit policy stupidity and moral evil.

It's not even entirely that they accepted torture in specific instances--the story says that only three individuals, including the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and at least somewhat similarly likely to have possibly life-saving information, were waterboarded. At the time, I remember writing in online debates that I'd be fine with them torturing Khalid Sheikh Muhammed. I'm not proud of this and I don't feel that way now, in large part because I better understand that torture has minimal practical value so the theorized wrenching moral choice between evil means to good ends isn't even valid, and in part because I do think it stains the national honor in a way that's not entirely quantifiable. But I wrote it and I admit that I was wrong.

To my knowledge, the next time Nancy Pelosi admits that she might have shown similar ignorance--shouldn't she at least have thought to ask the experts if torture works?--and/or moral cowardice (the justification for silence being fear of losing other political fights), will be the first. The combined effect of inattention, bad judgment and lack of action consistent with the highest American values, the knowledge that those things are prone to inform the choices and actions of Democratic leaders, and by extension the party itself, is why my stomach turns a little at blind partisan-cheerleading. "Our guys" can be monsters, or at least passive enablers of monstrosity, as can theirs.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Hold the Coronation
A new poll finds that Barack Obama is now almost even in South Carolina, with 34 percent to 36 for InevitaBillary. That's an eight-point gain for Obama since last month, and it comes one day after polls showed Obama within six points in New Hampshire and up seven in Iowa.

The key in South Carolina seems to be that African-American voters are now breaking for Obama, with 51 percent supporting him to Clinton's 27 percent. It always seemed like Obama's challenge in SC was to convince black voters there that he was in fact a viable candidate; having crossed that threshold, presumably most of them won't drop back unless he gets crushed in the two earlier primaries.

Meanwhile, despite the whispers of "Howard Dean," Clilnton's decline doesn't seem irreversible based on slightly less recent history--both Gore and Bush went through something like this in 2000. As I well remember, Bradley led Gore for much of late '99 and into 2000, and McCain of course whomped Bush in New Hampshire and then seemed like he was closing in SC until Karl Rove, Ralph Reed and the rest of the accursed bastards who gave us the Worst.President.Ever. slimed him to political doom.

There are some differences, however. Eight years ago, the Bushies had five weeks between New Hampshire and South Carolina to reverse course and reassert the advantages that came from Bush's overwhelming institutional and financial strength. Her Royal Highness has more institutional support than Obama, but nowhere close to the extent of Bush (and Gore) in 2000, and their war chests are pretty even. And of course the calendar is much more front-loaded this year; if Obama wins Iowa and wins or finishes a close second in New Hampshire, he's likely to take South Carolina and head into the Feb. 5 super-primary with momentum. (I don't see him beating Clinton in Nevada, though.)

It's nowhere near over and InevitaBillary is still a clear front-runner--though I wonder if, given how little personal warmth there seems to be for her outside of the HillBots, she can win back many of those who were tentatively for her but have turned to other candidates. And based on reporting like this, it couldn't happen to a more deserving candidate:

When talking to Clintonites in recent days, I've noticed that they've come to despise Obama. I suppose that may be natural in the final weeks of a competitive campaign when much is at stake. But these people don't need any prompting in private conversations to decry Obama as a dishonest poser. They're not spinning for strategic purposes. They truly believe it. And other Democrats in Washington report encountering the same when speaking with Clinton campaign people. "They really, really hate Obama," one Democratic operative unaffiliated with any campaign, tells me. "They can't stand him. They talk about him as if he's worse than Bush." What do they hate about him? After all, there aren't a lot of deep policy differences between the two, and he hasn't gone for the jugular during the campaign. "It's his presumptuousness," this operative says. "That he thinks he can deny her the nomination. Who is he to try to do that?" You mean, he's, uh, uppity? "Yes." A senior House Democratic aide notes, "The Clinton people are going nuts in how much they hate him. But the problem is their narrative has gone beyond the plausible."

That is, the Clintonites--and the campaign--may be overreacting. Will Democratic voters really buy the Clinton argument that Obama is an inauthentic and a dissembling scoundrel? Until the caucus-goers of Iowa speak, there is no way to know if Clinton's DEFCON-1 assault on Obama will succeed or backfire. But the Clinton attacks do say something about Hillary Clinton. She's adopting a whatever-it-takes strategy, mixing legitimate criticisms with truth-stretching blasts. And her campaign aides have adopted a we-must-destroy-him mindset that they justify by viewing Obama as a political lowlife.

Emphasis mine. Charming, aren't they?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sometimes the Headline Says it All...

Men Claim Craig is Gay

I really am torn between sympathy and schadenfreude. The guy voted as a homophobic reactionary, yes, and his humilation is richly deserved. But it has to be terrible for his family, who presumably didn't do anything to earn this pain.
The Eagle Has Crashed
Maybe it's only fair; I remember them winning a lot of games like this. But they had good quarterbacking then, led mostly by the currently hobbled improvisational genius who was goofing around on the sidelines today or the currently concussed little drill sargeant now working for Tampa. On the field today, the Birds had A.J. Feeley, who looked more like the goofball whose lousy decision-making ended the team's upset bid at New England last week rather than the decisive and opportunistic passer who had led them in position to shock the Pats in the first place. His ineptitude was the biggest factor in a 28-24 loss that effectively closed the book on the team's playoff chances.

Given chance after chance in the second half, with good protection and field position, Feeley played like a lobotomized Jeff George. He threw into coverage, spurned sure-thing short gains for low-percentage glory passes, held onto it when he should have thrown it away, and failed to find anything that worked. It might have been the worst half of quarterbacking I've ever seen; I'm sure other QBs have put up worse numbers, but few in as tight a game or with some things actually working well.

It's a shame, because the Eagles' energy and aggressiveness were as present against Seattle as they had been in New England. The defense, particularly the front seven, came up huge again and again in the fourth quarter. And they got what felt like a possible season-turning, gift-from-the-gods big play when Brian Westbrook, sent back in for punt returning duties, tore off a 64-yard return to put the Eagles 13 yards from victory with 1:20 left. Plenty of time, whole field available, but Feeley misjudged himself to 3rd and 7, then fired the ball right into the chest of Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu--who picked off three today. (I think Tatupu had as big a game two years ago, when Seattle came to Lincoln Field and demolished the Eagles 41-0 on Monday Night Football. Trade for this man!)

With Donovan McNabb, all else being equal, the Eagles probably would have won this game by ten points and at 6-6 would have a solid shot at the playoffs. Instead, their bid is over, Feeley has bumbled himself out of contention for a starter job here again, and the only question is whether the last quarter of a lost season is better used by finding out if a healthy McNabb can still be effective, or throwing rookie Kevin Kolb into the line of fire in hopes of seasoning him for next year and beyond.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Tax Hike Mike vs. the Club for Greed
The latest poll from Iowa evidently shows Mike Huckabee with a five-point lead over Mitt Romney, elevating the likelihood of a fundamental schism within the Republican Party from "longshot" to "maybe 50-50." If Huckabee wins Iowa, which I now consider likely, he might get a bounce in South Carolina, and then from there it's a jump ball. The result will be not only the most fascinating Republican race in at least a half-century, but a major and long overdue debate about what their party is and the role of government itself in American life.

I'm just not sure this debate will unfold the way most seem to think it will. The prevailing narrative seems to be the anti-Clinton/pro-Bush coalition (for that's what it is, or was, from 1994 through 2004) will crack along the lines of "social conservatives" versus "fiscal conservatives." Huckabee, in this view (held by Sullivan among others), is candidate of religious fundamentalism, a politician inclined toward big government conservatism (more on that in a minute) but much more importantly, an actual man of faith rather than a well-coached stooge. Any of Romney, Giuliani and TV's Fred Thompson is the candidate of free-market fundamentalism, there primarily to cut taxes and otherwise comfort the comfortable. George W. Bush, of course, was the perfect leader for this coalition by virtue of effortlessly playing both roles.

But I think there's something even more fundamental about Huckabee that scares the Club for Growth, which is stepping up its attacks on an underfunded challenger who until a month ago barely registered in the polls. They call him "Tax Hike Mike"; he calls them "the Club for Greed." Their attack is that he has raised taxes; his counter-argument--which many of us have been waiting for years for Democrats to make--is that sometimes raising taxes is the appropriate and necessary thing to do. The Times does an admirable job sorting through the statistics and coming to some well-informed conclusions:

While taxes did rise in the 10 years that Mr. Huckabee was governor, the portrayal of him as a wild-eyed spendthrift is hardly apt. For the most part, Mr. Huckabee’s tax initiatives had wide bipartisan support, with the small number of Republicans in the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature voting for the tax increases and many maintaining that the state was better for them.
“He got bipartisan support on all the tax increases,” said State Senator Kim Hendren, a veteran Republican and member of the legislative budget committee. “Huckabee didn’t say ‘I just want to raise taxes to start programs.’ He has a liberal heart for young people, for the disabled and for improving Arkansas’ lot in education, and he is pretty good at working across party lines.”
In general, Mr. Huckabee supported tax increases when he had a defined goal in mind, whether it was schools, roads or parks.

“He tended to raise taxes for specific government programs,” said Jay Barth, an associate political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. “He does believe in a robust government as an active force in the lives of its citizens, especially in helping the little guy.”
The other big tax increase, which also received bipartisan support, was the one on gasoline to pay for road improvements.

“Our roads were in terrible condition,” said Dennis Milligan, chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party. “We knew that in order to attract jobs and companies we needed better roads. Huckabee made a wise choice and now we have companies locating here and wonderful roads. He did a lot to improve roads, and you can’t do it for free.”
“Antitax radicals will never be convinced that tax monies can be legitimately spent on highways, bridges, schools and Medicare,” the campaign said in a response to the Club for Growth.

So: Huckabee raised taxes to improve infrastructure, services and amenities, using arguments informed by (among other things) economic development priorities--and he got overwhelming bipartisan support for his measures. Add in that he won re-election four times in a state that remains strongly Democratic at all levels under federal... and you suddenly see why he scares the shit out of the Club for Growth and the other anti-tax fanatics:

This is a guy who believes in competent governance that offers value to all citizens, not just the rich. A more striking contrast with the Bush/DeLay way of doing the public's business, in which offering tax cuts outweighs paying for wars of choice and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina represents not a human tragedy but proof that government can't find its ass with a map and a flashlight, one could not produce. At least not among Republicans.

That might read as oversimplistic, but give me another explanation. The Club for Growth isn't arguing that Huckabee's tax increases were wrong on the merits, or that they didn't yield the desired policy outcomes. That's not what they do; to them, it's not relevant. Any tax increase, under any circumstance, ever, is wrong. They shriek, "Aha! He raised taxes! He wants your money! And that's not his money--it's your money!"

The proper response to this is, and always has been, "It's also our government." As I've written here many times, we have some scary problems coming down the pike. We'll need a really effective government to handle them, and that government will require more robust revenues. The only way to secure those revenues is by making the case that it is our government, and its job is to act in ways that advance the public good.

It's ironic that it takes a Republican--one regarded by the social issues-fixated MSM as a "conservative"--to make this argument, which we desperately need. If Huckabee wins his party's nomination, that same media so inclined to focus on "God, guns and gays" might not be able to keep the country's eyes off the prize of other, more salient issues any longer--and it could spell the end of a dominant intra-party faction that has an active interest in fomenting bad government that facilitates inequality and keeps its foot on the economic necks of millions in the name of "freedom."

I don't want to see Huckabee in the White House; we don't need another faith-based presidency, even a more competent and well-intentioned one. But I wish him all the best right now.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Six Degrees of Democracy
I just spent an hour or so watching a Joe Biden "Iowa Town Hall" event on C-SPAN. Laugh if you want--I ackowledge this isn't normal, or necessarily healthy--but it was terrific. And it got me thinking, again, about how unwieldy and ineffective our "democratic process" really is.

I've followed Biden's career for almost 20 years. His father and my paternal grandfather were very close friends, and I got to spend a few hours one afternoon with him when I was a senior in college trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. He couldn't have been more pleasant, gracious and thoughtful, and even brought me into a meeting with environmental advocates, introducing me as an intern or assistant or something. I've always seen him as a throwback Democrat in the best sense--a foreign policy centrist and pocketbook-issues liberal who would have been comfortable with the Kennedys and other icons of the postwar period. He's made some awful votes, most memorably for me on the 2005 bankruptcy bill (the credit card companies in Delaware probably rendered that a matter of political survival, but still), but on most of the big and small issues, he's gotten it right.

Even for me, though, the Biden of substance--hell, the Biden my family ties compelled me to esteem--had been obscured by the endlessly talkative caricature who was prone to take figurative aim at his own feet with errors like calling Barack Obama "clean." And certainly when it comes to celebrity starpower and fundraising prowess, Biden has been rendered an afterthought in this campaign by Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom I imagine gall him with their soundbite-friendly campaigning and transparent focus on winning the election rather than thinking through the issues. (I should add here that I was thinking about Biden a bit even before seeing the C-SPAN broadcast, thanks to this worthwhile interview on foreign policy that he gave to Salon last week.)

That was all wiped away after watching Biden for an hour and change, about half of which was him speaking with the remainder for audience questions. Before the 30 or 40 Iowans in the room, Biden showed himself by turns to be thoughtful, well-informed, biting, analytical, passionate and funny. He memorably characterized Iraq as "the boulder in the road" blocking progress toward both tackling other, deeper-rooted foreign problems and "the issues that made me a Democrat"--health care and trade. He didn't run from his long service in the Senate, but rather explained why it was an asset in a president; how he'd spent his adult life informing himself about the key issues of our time, and why he believed himself to be the best person for the job.

At the end of all this, Annie and I were both deeply impressed. But I felt no differently about Biden's chances as I had beforehand: they're negligible.

Aside from people who actually attend these events, and a few thousand weirdos watching C-SPAN, nobody will get to see that impressive Joe Biden. A couple million at most will watch him struggle to spit out thoughtful answers in thirty to sixty second chunks while onstage with six or seven other Democrats, there essentially on sufferance from the networks who would prefer just to engage with the celebrity candidates. Perhaps ten or twenty times that many will read a line or two in a press story or see a ten-second clip on TV about Biden's debate performance, within an article or segment that, again, focuses on the "leading contenders."

I know this isn't an original thought, nor is it unique to this election cycle or the Democratic Party. But it's troubling anew to think about how distorted this process really is, and how far the endeavor of winning election has drifted from the much more significant task of governing.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

No, I'm not referring to the Eagles' almost-heroic loss to the Patriots tonight, though it was one of the most surprising (I thought the 24-point spread was about right and that the Eagles would roll over, as they generally have on "Sunday Night Football"; I couldn't have been more wrong on either count) and ironic (think similarities to Super Bowl XXXIX, with turnovers, dumb blitzes and questionable clock management wiping out superb effort and occasionally brilliant execution) football games I've ever seen.

I'm referring to the upcoming film adaptation of The Golden Compass, the first novel in a superb trilogy by British author Phillip Pullman that takes the fantasy forms of Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia and attaches them to a thundering denunciation of faith-based authoritarianism through history. Annie's finishing the trilogy right now, and we are--were--greatly looking forward to the movie's release next month. The look is right, the casting was strong, and you presumably could trust New Line Studios, who made the Lord of the Rings films, to competently handle the production.

What they couldn't be trusted for, however, was to stay true to the moral and philosophical core of Pullman's story. Terrified of controversy and the depradations of professional assholes like the anti-Semite Bill Donohue, New Line gutted the story and, based on this Atlantic Monthly piece, has produced something that will have the body of Pullman's story but not its soul:

The final, shooting script includes no mention of sin or the end of death. As Emmerich told me, Dust is “akin to the Force” in Star Wars. Coulter tells Lyra that Dust is “evil and wicked” and makes people “sick.” Asriel sounds like Obi-Wan Kenobi: “They taught themselves to fear Dust, instead of master it,” he says. “They’ve ignored a tremendous source of power … That is what it all comes down to, Lyra. That is what Dust is. Power. Without it, we are like children before the might of the Magisterium.”

It may make sense if you’re in a dark room dazzled by special effects and not thinking too hard. Then again, maybe it won’t. What’s left of Pullman’s story is a string of disconnected proclamations that obscure not just his original point, but any point at all: “Master Dust!” “Freedom is at stake!” “We’re not alone. We’re never alone! We have each other.” They satisfy, but they don’t really explain. Or perhaps they offer explanations so familiar and straightforward that they don’t invite questions.

This is Hollywood at its most hazily indignant and self-congratulatory, recycling the generic theme of Victory, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dead Poets Society, and countless other films—a band of grubby, half-crazed heroes takes on the System and wins.

As the piece details, The Golden Compass had a long and difficult gestation period, with multiple writers and directors coming and going. Chris Weitz, who wound up writing the script and directing, comes across as a well-intentioned douchebag who let his best instincts get rolled by Hollywood types desperate to avoid "controversy." Weitz claims to love the books; it's hard to grasp how anyone who truly gets what Pullman was going on about would allow the story to be stripped of the themes that elevate it from "good yarn" to "becomes a permanent part of who you are."

Call it--like the Eagles tonight--a tremendous opportunity squandered.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Moment of Truth?
It's conventional wisdom, and probably correct, that the message of the November 2006 election was that voters wanted Democrats to end the war in Iraq. Most also believe that the abysmally low approval ratings of the 110th Congress--20 percent at last report--are in large part the result of the Democrats' failure even to start winding down the war. Again and again since last winter, they've come to the brink of a showdown with the Bush administration--and, every time, they've folded and given the architects and champions of this war what they want.

In recent weeks, we've seen the first steps of the tango: the Democrats in Congress pass a military appropriations bill that includes timelines for withdrawal, and the president vetoes the bill. The next step is for another funding measure that doesn't include timelines. But this time there are indications that the Democrats might just stand their ground:

QUESTION: Mr. Obey, the rhetoric from the president is just going to get worse as the holidays approach. Are you going to continue to maintain the stance that you have of providing these conditions on war funds if he's to get the money?

OBEY: Of course.

I mean, we have provided the money. I will repeat that 50 times. We have provided the money. The money is not the issue. The issue is that the president is simply refusing to accept the conditions under which the money is provided.

This document says that that's the proper role of Congress. If you look at Article I, Section 8 and Article I, Section 9, they define the authority of the Congress to determine what policy is supposed to be financed and in foreign affairs, and we're simply -- we're simply following that document to the letter.

So much of the last decade in American politics has hinged on the Democrats' essential inability to tell even minimally complicated stories, from how and why the voting in Florida in 2000 was a sham and a disgrace, to why the war in Iraq wasn't helping in the fight against terrorist groups, to why it mattered that the administration had turned the Department of Justice in a Stalin-era claque of staunch partisan loyalists. At some point, the Democrats lost their nerve: having failed to control the public narrative (which admittedly is much harder to do without the presidency), they concluded that they would lose big fights like the one over funding the war--and backed away from them.

Obey seems to be gambling that they can control this narrative, and win the fight. As he says, Congress did provide the funding--but with conditions. It's not that they won't "support the troops"; it's that they want to make sure the commitment isn't endless.

Already the administration is ginning up its noise machine with accusations of "surrender dates" and "micromanaging the war." The second charge is pretty easy to push back against--if any group needs adult supervision, it's the Bushies--but the first might resonate, particularly given coverage like this story in today's New York Times. (Side note: I worry constantly that the Democrats are so keyed on inflicting political damage to Bush and the Republicans that they miss what is undeniably good news. Yes, the political tale has yet to be told, but if the strictly military purpose of "the Surge" was to improve security and provide a measure of stability, intellectual honesty compels us to acknowledge that.)

Of course, "surrender" is shamelessly hyperbolic; our forces haven't been defeated, and for that matter there's no one to "surrender" to. But the perception is politically dangerous, and war opponents have yet to present the truly daunting opportunity costs of this war--the unmet domestic needs, the limited capacity to exert force anywhere else in the world. the cumulative damage to the overstrained armed services--in their full dimensions.

It's honorable for the Democrats to engage in this political fight at this time. But they'd damn well better win it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ah, Makes Me Feel Like An Old Bolshevik...
I know he's a hypocrite. I know he's obnoxious. I know he's as responsible as anyone alive to giving the country the unalloyed disaster of Bush's second term, when by any standard he should have known much better. I know he'd probably put more right-wing nutballs on the Supreme Court, exactly because he doesn't really give a shit about the "values issues" those Christianist assholes are so crazed about. I know he's for the current war, the other current war, and at least two of the next three proposed wars. I know he hardly ever talks about the things that made me a little gooey for him once upon a time, like campaign finance reform and defense appropriations reform.

Still, when I read something like this, I remember why I was once a fan of John McCain:

"Yes, I've made a lot of people angry. But I didn't go to Washington to win the Mr. Congeniality award. I went there to serve my country," McCain said. "I might not like the business-as-usual crowd in Washington, and they might not like me. But I love America. I love her enough to make some people angry."

Too bad he happens to be a warmongering reactionary. I do have more trust for his "character" than I ever could for any of the other Republicans--and for that matter, Hillary Clinton. I think McCain loves this country somehow in the way that I love this country, and while I can't rationalize that--hell, I can't even explain it--it seems like as good a reason as any other on which to base one's view of a public figure.

Actually, what I'd like to believe about McCain is that being on the campaign trail again somehow brings him back to the person he was (by which I mean the person I saw him as--which itself could have been bullshit) in 2000. That person seemed like he was growing and changing as a result of prolonged exposure to people outside Washington, DC and the channels of power that a Republican Senator of long standing might reasonably be expected to travel in: think rich, selfish white people. He seems to sharpen up out there; almost to remember some better purpose than just the zombifying Potomac Fever that's animated him these last seven years, impelling him to violate his better self in all kinds of disgusting ways by making nice with people he knows are slime.

It would also be nice to think that McCain's last and arguably greatest act of heroism might be to take out the worst threat to the country's best character now in the race: his fellow Republican Rudy Giuliani. Sullivan puts it this way:

If Rudy wins the nomination, we will, I fear, have a campaign in which he routinely pulls the fear-chain to justify enormous powers for himself as a post-Cheney president. Any crisis or attack would lead to his eager suspension of the civil liberties we have left. And he will be aided in this by Fox News and even, I suspect, by Joel Surnow, who will deploy the "24" series next year into a running campaign for more torture and more war. Rudy will run on rounding up illegal immigrants, building a massive wall on the Southern border, bombing Iran, fighting indefinitely in Iraq, and tearing up what's left of America's alliances. There would be no transparency in his campaign or administration - just an appeal to trust a strong leader to protect us and attack undesirables. Think of a Malkin-Hannity fantasy - and that is what he would eagerly provide. McCain, in contrast, still has a link to the honor of the American past, its tradition of tolerance, of welcoming immigrants, of embracing diversity. And Democrats would not immediately see a McCain presidency as a source of fear and loathing. Increasingly, I'm afraid, I see the main task in this campaign as stopping the Giuliani freight train to unchecked power. McCain may not be able to stop it; but he helps reminds us why it's necessary.

McCain continues to make the case against torture to proto-fascist Republican audiences who are at best open to "enhanced interrogation" and at worst as erotically charged for it as Giuliani himself. It seems the essence of leadership is telling people something they don't want to hear--not apologetically as Giuliani does when talking to social reactionaries about abortion and gays ("never mind what I believe, I'll act in a way consistent with what you believe"), but in an honest way that respectfully challenges the audience to see it differently.

Ultimately we elect these people based on assessments of their character and the intuition that they know better than we do. But somehow we've gotten these obfuscators and panderers who try to skate by on celebrity or name recognition. McCain at least occasionally will pick a battle and show at least the desire to fill that function of leadership: persuasion.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Three Ideas for Presidential Debates
For some unfathomable reason--maybe bad judgment exacerbated by extreme fatigue--I watched the entire Democratic debate from Las Vegas last night. You probably know all you need to know about it: nobody fucked up too egregiously, Hillary Clinton was deemed "the winner" by virtue of this fact, and CNN did an atrocious job from soup to nuts, punctuated by pushing an absurd and embarrassing question to end the debate and then parading Clinton adviser James Carville as a non-affiliated expert analyst in the painfully inane post-debate "coverage."

But the frustrations of the event itself got me thinking about how to do them better. My ideas are as follows:

1) Let each candidate either moderate a full debate or control the discussion for 20 minutes, asking questions of his/her competitors. This would both give the front-runners a chance to go at each other directly, and allow the candidates farther behind to actually direct the conversation rather than be shoehorned in by the starfucking moderators in a pro forma way, as happened to every one of the candidates aside from Obama, Clinton and to some extent Edwards last night.

2) Set a full-debate time limit on each candidate rather than constantly having the moderator cut them off or, as the execrable Wolf Blitzer did last night, passive-aggressively prompt them to finish by mumbling, "Thank you." Here's one way to set this up: Take the full time available to debate–-say, 110 minutes of the two hours of airtime last night, minus commercials-–subtract a set amount of time for the asking of questions and moderation-–12 minutes, say (this also has the advantage of forcing brevity upon those clueless gasbags)-–and then divide the remainder (98 minutes) among however many candidates are on the stage (seven, last night). In this scenario, they’ve each got 14 minutes available to speak. They can use that 14 minutes however they want–-a long opening harangue, a mix of longer answers and shorter answers, a closing statement, whatever. But once they use it, their mic is cut off.

3) Every candidate has to drink a shot of bourbon every 15 minutes in a two-hour debate, every ten minutes in an hourlong, and only the last half-hour of the debate is available for media clips afterward. Admittedly this probably gives Richardson and Dodd an edge among the current Dems; in Richardson's case, he's a big guy, and Dodd evidently used to party with Ted Kennedy. But there's something to this: to a lesser or greater extent, all these candidates are so tightly wound, so scripted, so cautious. Let's see how they act, what they say, when they're crocked. We've all been drunk; you know that it's not like you become an idiot. You're just sloppier--and in some cases at least, more honest: in vino veritas. Yes, you'd have to run the thing on a time delay because there's candor and then there's the hair-curlingly obscene vitriol I suspect Hillary would fire at Edwards. But that's a small price to pay for such a deeper look at those who would lead our short-attention span democracy.
The Tiny Speech of Lady Triangula
It's been pretty clear since the jump that the most interesting, not to mention consequential, rivalry among the Democrats running for president is between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I've never made any secret of my preference here; Obama is the candidate I'm most strongly for, while it's extremely unlikely that I could even vote for Clinton. (The scenario in which I'd do so--she's running against Giuliani and it's actually close in New York--probably means that she's be roadkill in the general election anyway.)

Friends and colleagues have argued, somewhat understandably, that the substantive difference between Clinton and Obama is so small that my strong support of one, and even stronger disdain for the other, makes no sense. I don't exclude myself from the millions of Americans who perhaps irrationally and almost surely disproportionately revile Senator Clinton. (Though, unlike most of them, in my case it's not because she's this super-liberal but because she's not nearly liberal enough. John Edwards has done the party a service in pointing out that Clinton is a "corporate Democrat" par excellence; I hope he keeps it up.) But the substance, in terms of policy proposals--which are very slightly better than meaningless as a guide to what these individuals would actually do in office, since legislation originates in Congress and, in Clinton's case, even a shriveled Republican minority would have tremendous political incentive not to let her do anything of significance--misses the point. It's the planted questions, the tight control over media availability, the endless moneygrubbing, and above all the spin and triangulation.

I finally found someone who expressed this the way I'd been trying to put it. After noting at the outset that he's supporting Obama and retains some fondness for Edwards, technology sector icon Lawrence Lessig writes:

The other front running Democrat, however, is not a close call for me. (Saying this is what terrified my newly allcaps friend.) She supported the war, but as my support of Edwards last time round indicates, I can forgive that. The parts I can't get over all relate to the issues around corruption. I signaled as much in my comments about her comments about lobbyists. We see two radically different worlds here. And were she President, I'd bet everything that we'd see radically little change.

But the part that gets me the most about Senator Clinton is the eager embrace of spinelessness. I don't get this in Democrats generally. I never have, but I especially don't get it after two defeats to the likes of George Bush (ok, one defeat, but let's put that aside for the moment). Our party seems constitutionally wedded to the idea that you wage a campaign with tiny speech. Say as little as possible. Be as uncontroversial as you can. Embrace the chameleon as the mascot. Fear only that someone would clearly understand what you believe. (Think of Kerry denying he supported gay marriage -- and recognize that the same sort of people who thought that would win him support are now inside the control room at ClintonHQ).

All politicians of course do this to some degree. And about some issues, I even get it. But what put me over the line with Senator Clinton was the refusal to join the bipartisan call that presidential debates be free. Not because this is a big issue. But because even on this (relatively) small issue, she couldn't muster the strength to do the right thing.

Her failure here was not because her campaign didn't know of the issue. I spoke directly to leading figures (or so they said) in the campaign. The issue was discussed, and a decision was made. And the decision was to say nothing about the issue. You can almost see the kind of tiny speak that was battered around inside HQ. "Calling for free debates might be seen as opposing copyright." "It might weaken our support among IP lawyers and Hollywood." "What would Disney think?" Better to say nothing about the issue. Better to let it simply go away.

We (Democrats) and we (Americans) have had enough of this kind of "leadership." That (plus the Lincoln Bedroom) made it impossible for me, honestly, to support Senator Clinton. No doubt I would prefer her to any Republican (save, of course, the amazing Ron Paul). But I can't support the idea that she represents the ideals of what the Democratic Party must become.

Aside from the Ron Paul love (about whom maybe I'll write another time; I'm glad he's in the race and I think he has one supremely important idea-- that we're on a path to empire abroad which will inevitably, in fact is already, destroying our democracy at home--but I just can't take seriously the fantasyland ideology of Libertarianism), he nails it.

The "tiny speech" line is both the key, and indicative of a fundamental problem. From the candidates I really like (Obama, who wants to move the country past the argument over the 1960s; Dodd, focused on restoring the Constitution after the Bush abuses) to those I'm basically okay with (Edwards, economic justice; Biden, a return to bipartisan foreign policy realism) to the ones I dislike (Romney, better management in government; Thompson, because his hot wife wants to be First Lady) to the one I detest (Giuliani, to speed up the push toward authoritarianism in the name of "fighting terror"), I think I get what the point would be; I think I understand why they're running.

But not for Hillary. Even Bill Clinton started out with a good idea: to reconcile the left and the center. Maybe what happened in his second term just demented them both, because he certainly wasn't doing anything progressive by the end of his administration; what good came out of those years (the tilt toward surpluses, which unfortunately just enabled the disaster who followed him) was the result of divided government. Power became the point in and of itself.

The only thing I remotely see from Senator Clinton is the health care plan--which happens to be a decent plan, far as I can tell. But her political persona gets in the way here: that thing will never pass, because the Republicans would never let her get the victory, succeeding where Truman, LBJ and Bill failed. They might not let any Democrat do it; William Kristol's warning that passing universal health care would "give the Democrats a lock on the crucial middle-class vote and revive the reputation of the party" is as or more true now as it was then. But certainly not the woman who's the embodiment of everything they hate about "the Left"... despite their failure to understand either the woman or the movement.

At best for the Democrats, Hillary will get her 50.00001 percent, take office, and then... nothing will change, and we'll keep drifting toward the edge.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Two Steps Forward
It hasn't gotten much press attention that I can discern, but the country took a long-overdue step forward yesterday when the House of Representatives passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act by a vote of 235 to 184. This measure, for which supporters have been fighting since 1974, would make it illegal for businesses to base hiring decisions upon perceptions of sexual orientation. Though some on the left are sufficiently upset with what the bill leaves out--protections for transgendered individuals--that they could not support it, anyone familiar with the history of civil rights movements understands that you never get everything you want in one shot. Once the principle of nondiscrimination is enshrined in the law, it becomes easier to make the broader case--and once hysterical opponents are faced with the fact that the measure they deplore hasn't led to the downfall of civilization, or in fact any discernable change at all, their objections become much easier to refute.

Heartening as this is for anyone who deplores the fact that homophobia remains our last societally accepted prejudice, it is unlikely that the legislation will become law anytime soon. Prospects in the Senate are favorable, with Ted Kennedy set to champion the bill and Maine Republican Susan Collins interested in co-sponsoring. But Bush is going to veto it, of course, and supporters do not have the votes in the House to override.

Nonetheless, the passage of ERDA is a welcome reminder that the Democrats' victory in last November's midterm elections did, in fact, mean something. Under the Republicans, the agenda of Congress was filled with non-issues like flag burning, and the leadership was more interested in measures restricting the rights of homosexuals--namely the Hate Amendment to the Constitution--than protecting them. The Senate will pass this bill early next year; Bush will veto it; and any Democratic president--yes, even Our Lady of Perpetual Triangulation--will make it the law of the land, provided Democrats retain congressional majorities, in 2009. This might be the single finest thing the 110th Congress has done to date, and upon hearing the news, for the first time in a long time, I felt proud of my country.

It was also thrilling for me to see one of the great heroes of the last civil rights movement, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, rise to support the cause of justice in the current movement. Check it out.

Another encouraging step came today in a House hearing on torture. An Arizona Republican named Trent Franks asked Col. Steve Kleinman, a military interrogator and intelligence officer who strongly opposes torture, whether perhaps "extreme measures" can be justified in a "ticking timebomb scenario"--you know, when you've got the suspect in custody, there's a nuke set to go off somewhere in the city, and he knows where it is and how to defuse it but won't tell you unless and until you hook up a car battery to his balls. Kleinman said, in essence, No--and offered an argument about the inefficacy of torture that I'd like to think might resonate even with the growing legion of right-wing creeps who are ever louder and prouder in their support of techniques embraced by the Inquisitors and the SS:

...[H]e offered a brief explanation of that process that sheds light on why torture is counterproductive for a professional interrogator, leaving aside questions of morality and law.

It's not just what a subject says in an interrogation that an interrogator needs to watch for clues, Kleinman said. The way in which he expresses himself is significant: does the subject fidget? Does he shift in his seat? Does he gesture, or suddenly stop gesturing? All of these non-verbal clues -- "clusters, groupings of behaviors," Kleinman called them -- provide interrogators with valuable information to observe what a detainee is like when he's lying, when he's being uncooperative, and when he's being truthful, or a combination of the three.

But if a detainee has his hands tied, or if a detainee shivers because a room is chilled, then "I don't know whether he's shivering because the room is cold or because my questions are penetrating," Kleinman said. That degree of abuse "takes away a lot of my tools." It's one of the clearest explanations in the public record about what torture costs professional interrogators in terms of actionable intelligence, as the debate is so often set up as what a lack of torture ends up costing national security.

If those who know best don't think it works, then what you're left with is an essentially pornographic wish by some deeply disturbed individuals to utilize these measures for their own sake. I'd like to think the public will recognize this for what it is.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Lethargic Cheer for TV's Fred
I think it's increasingly clear that if we had to have a Republican president in 2009, Fred Thompson would be the least worst option. Yeah, the guy has the energy level of late-second term Reagan, and it would be weird to have dirty thoughts about the First Lady. He's way too hawkish on foreign policy for my tastes, and he hasn't always shown total command of the issues. But Thompson seems to have a quality that eludes, certainly, all the other serious Republican contenders and arguably the top-tier Democrats as well: willingness to stick to principle over political expediency.

In past weeks, Thompson has suggested that the federal government shouldn't have intervened in the Terry Schiavo case, and that he wouldn't support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage--two views severely at odds with the rabid theocratic followers who serve as the backbone of the Republican electoral coalition. Sunday on "Meet the Press," he finished the hat trick, coming out against a nationwide ban on abortion. His reasoning was the same as in the previous two apostasies: principles of federalism always trump Washington's fiat. Yesterday he covered all three topics:

MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you about an issue very important in your party’s primary process, and that’s abortion.


MR. RUSSERT: This is the 2004 Republican Party platform, and here it is: “We say the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution,” “we endorse legislation to make it clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children. Our purpose is to have legislative and judicial protection of that right against those who perform abortions.” Could you run as a candidate on that platform, promising a human life amendment banning all abortions?


MR. RUSSERT: You would not?

MR. THOMPSON: No. I have always—and that’s been my position the entire time I’ve been in politics. I thought Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. I think this platform originally came out as a response to particularly Roe v. Wade because of that. Before Roe v. Wade, states made those decisions. I think people ought to be free at state and local levels to make decisions that even Fred Thompson disagrees with. That’s what freedom is all about. And I think the diversity we have among the states, the system of federalism we have where power is divided between the state and the federal government is, is, is—serves us very, very well. I think that’s true of abortion. I think Roe v. Wade hopefully one day will be overturned, and we can go back to the pre-Roe v. Wade days. But...

MR. RUSSERT: Each state would make their own abortion laws.

MR. THOMPSON: Yeah. But, but, but to, to, to have an amendment compelling—going back even further than pre-Roe v. Wade, to have a constitutional amendment to do that, I do not think would be the way to go.
MR. RUSSERT: And also with gay marriage, according to the Associated Press: “Thompson favors a constitutional amendment that bars judges from legalizing gay marriage, but also leaves open the door for state legislatures to approve the practice.” So if a state said, “We want to have gay marriages in our state,” you would be OK with that?

MR. THOMPSON: Yes. This, this, this—the—marriage is between a man and a woman. Nobody ever thought that that was contested until recently, and we’ve had a couple judges in a couple states decide to turn all that on its head. So we’ve, we’ve had, again, a judge-created problem. I would support a constitutional amendment that addresses this judge-created problem. But at the end of—and, and say judges can’t do that. But, at the end of the day, if a state legislature and a governor decide that that’s what they want to do, yes, they should have, they, they should have the freedom to do what Fred Thompson thinks is a very bad idea.

MR. RUSSERT: In March of ‘05, the Congress, the president signed legislation allowing a federal judge to intervene, to perhaps re-insert a feeding tube in the famous Terri Schiavo case.


MR. RUSSERT: You’ve spoken about that, about the death of your own daughter. Your view is it is a family’s decision to make whether to insert or remove a feeding tube.


MR. RUSSERT: And that should...

MR. THOMPSON: And then, and then, obviously, in consultation with their doctor.

MR. RUSSERT: But there should be no laws involved?

MR. THOMPSON: No. I’ve not said that. What—I mean, you, you got to put your lawyer hat back on, you know, with this most personal, should be nonlegal consideration. If there is a family dispute, then there’re courts in, in every state in the nation that you can take a dispute like that to. I said the federal government should not be involved.

MR. RUSSERT: But the government should not have gotten involved in Terri Schiavo?

MR. THOMPSON: No. Now, you know, keep in mind, now, the, the government didn’t come in and say “You got to do this; you got to do that.” It gave federal court jurisdiction. Federal court didn’t need jurisdiction, in my opinion. These are kinds of things where the, the, the—well, you mentioned it myself, my own personal situation. Let’s just say you never know when you make the right decision, what—it, it wasn’t totally comparable, but it was, it was the same, it was the same general end-of-life kind of consideration. And I, I—I’ve resisted and, and resent, frankly, the political football that’s been made out of all that, and, and it’s unfortunate. The less government, the better.

Those last five words represent a worldview. It's not a worldview I strictly agree with; I think when it comes to, say, making sure meat and produce sold isn't poisonous, or that a new anti-anxiety medication doesn't cause seizures, the opposite is closer to true. But it's a principle, and for a Republican Party that has almost gleefully thrown away any principles in pursuit of unlimited power to be wielded through a messianic leader, it's a start.

I doubt that Thompson wins the nomination and I think it's less than 50-50 he'll even win a single primary. He's not a good campaigner, and these deviations from right-wing dogma would seem to scuttle the media narrative of his candidacy as "the reliable conservative who isn't personally scummy (Giuliani) or the opposite of what he was five years ago (Romney)." Sadly, it's the fact that Thompson does seem to be a "reliable conservative," of the type that Barry Goldwater and Bob Dole might recognize, that's likely to ensure his defeat.