Friday, March 30, 2007

Much Music
I've been going through one of those phases recently in which I've acquired a lot of new music. ("Assload" may or may not be the appropriate technical term here.) In early March I bought about 5 used CDs for $23 or so on St. Marks Place in Manhattan, around the same time I bought the new Arcade Fire LP online, last Saturday an old friend I saw at a wedding gave me a copy of her band's disc, and last Sunday I passed a guy on Court Street in Brooklyn who was evidently moving, and selling all his old CDs. I bought eight for the grand total of $30.

The first bunch included the following:

Radio 4--Enemies Like This
Bruce Springsteen--18 Tracks
Son Volt--Straightaways
The Who--30 Years of Maximum R&B, Disc 1
The Who--30 Years of Maximum R&B, Disc 3

Of these, I've only listened closely to the Springsteen and Son Volt albums. "18 Tracks" is an enjoyable oddity, released in 1999, with outtakes and alternate takes from different stages of the Boss's long career. There are acoustic versions of "Growin' Up" and "Born in the USA," studio cuts of live favorites like "The Fever" and "My Love Will Not Let You Down," some fairly conventional rockers. Son Volt, Jay Farrar's post-Uncle Tupelo project, sounds basically like an older and more mellow UT; he hasn't kept up with the weird brilliance of his former bandmate Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), but it's pleasant listening that seemed perfectly suited for the Sunday night when I first put it on.

Radio 4, which I have on here as I type this, is yet another band from my home borough of Brooklyn. They remind me of the Hoodoo Gurus, an Aussie pop/post-punk band from my youth, but with less humor and more danceability. The two Who CDs were steals for what I paid for them, including a lot of the band's classic tracks (I've long wanted "The Seeker" in particular) as well as some weird stuff like Pete Townsend screaming at (I think) Abbie Hoffman to get the fuck off the fucking stage.

My friend's band is Beware the Blunted Needle. I got to see them in NYC about a year ago, and the live show put their first recording to shame. The disc that Abby gave me last weekend is much, much better--it sounds great, the songs are better represented, and the whimsy and fury of their live performance is represented. BtBN sound a little like Helium and Sleater-Kinney fronting Camper van Beethoven, with half the musicians on 'ludes and the other half on crank. Check them out at the link above. Unfortunately, I think they've stopped, but they deserve a wide hearing--and, happily, in this internet age it's not impossible they could get one.

I don't really have much to say about Arcade Fire that hasn't been said elsewhere. They seem like pretty annoying people, frankly, but their sound is unique and powerful and it's compelling to see them still putting things together. I worry that they might suffer the U2 curse of taking themselves too seriously to the point where it screws with their music, but this album, Neon Bible, is really pretty good.

Which brings me to the killer haul from last Sunday. For $30, I bought these eight discs:

Sonic Youth--NYC Ghosts and Flowers
Jane's Addiction--(first album, live)
Phantom Tollboth--Beard of Lightning
Public Enemy--It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Joy Division--Unknown Pleasures
Pixies--(double live CD, 12/18/04)
New Order--Substance

A couple of these--the Jane's and New Order--were upgrades about 20 years in the making, of things I copied on blank tapes from friends when I was a teenager. The live Pixies CD is great sound quality; the PE and Joy Division are classics that I'd just never bought. (It's both funny and a little upsetting to remember my suburban white-boy reaction when that Public Enemy record first dropped, also about 20 years ago [!]. It seemed they were scary black dudes who, it was rumored, hated Jews. To me now--years after first coming to like PE, but never previously having any of their albums--it just sounds heroic.)

The other ones are more interesting and surprising. I have most of the Sonic Youth catalogue, but this album had never really interested me. I was under the impression that everything SY had done since about the mid-'90s sounded the same... but this one is by far the most interesting of the recent bunch, still quiet and tuneful but much more experimental in terms of the song structures and lyrical content. It reminds me of how exciting it was to hear "Daydream Nation" back in the day.

Sebadoh is a band I've known about for as long as they've been around, but I'd never liked any of the songs I heard. Those must have been aberrations, though, because this CD is great. It's a little more subdued than the classic Dinosaur Jr stuff from which I'd known Lou Barlow, but raucous enough. This album is from 1994, so I have no idea if Sebadoh still sounds anything like this.

Phantom Tollboth is the freak of the bunch. This evidently was a prog/punk band from the late '80s, almost like the Rush half of Living Colour's sonic mindspace. They released this album, "Power Toy," in 1988, and it disappeared without a trace. Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices loved these guys, though, and he convinced them to let him write new lyrics and sing new melodies over these songs. The result sounds freakin' fantastic--if you liked mid-period GbV (Pollard plus Cobra Verde, the "Mag Earwig!" era lineup) but felt like it wasn't quite what it could have been, you'll love this.

All in all, one of the better $30 I've ever spent.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Say this for the Battlestar Galactica producers: they swing for the fences. Tonight's season finale--the more-or-less last show until 2008--had courtroom melodrama that would have made Matlock blush; back-from-the-dead shockeroos; and Bob Dylan (well, really Jimi Hendrix, depending on how much one takes authorship to heart). I'm not totally sure I liked it, but I certainly respect it.

Probably the most admirable aspect about this one was that it directly took on the many, many implausible aspects of the storyline--all the betrayals, the cut corners, the contradictions, the tangled motivations, and the fact that the same ten or so characters have now, through three seasons, been thrown into almost every mathematically possible alignment and confrontation--and threw it back in the viewer's face. I'm sure discussion on the interwebs will focus on the Big Cylon Reveal and the resurrection/reappearance/hallucination that ended the show, but the real climax for my money came with Lee's rambling-but-brilliant answer to the question of why Baltar deserved a trial. Summed up, it was this: we're no longer a society, but just a bunch of people thrown into tubes flying through space, hoping to survive; we've all done horrible, unforgivable things to each other; they've all been forgiven. So why make this one exception?

My only objections are stylistic. The "All Along the Watchtower" motif was more camp than I can comfortably handle in my docu-scifi, and this episode retained the tension, unnecessary IMO, between the compelling philosophical questions that the show addresses when it's at its best, and the soap-operatic plot arcs that the writers sometimes fall back upon. (Maybe the problem in part is that some of the characters--Anders and Tory, for two--just look like soap opera performers.)

But this also is probably a reflection of the evidently endless battle between the network and the producers, the business side and the creative side. published an interview with show honcho Ron Moore yesterday that gets at this nicely: asked about how to keep and grow an audience in a serialized narratve, he has no answer.

It's a genuine problem I have no solution for. We have long conversations with the network about the extent of the serialized nature of the show. It's certainly not something they're in love with. We the writers are always pushing to make it more serialized because it makes for better storytelling. We've done a few stand-alone episodes here and there, and they're almost never very successful for our particular series. They're not what the audience tunes in for. But the network's legitimate concern is just what you were saying: The audience tends to attenuate over time. It's hard to bring new people on board. There's the hurdle of them having to catch up on all the old episodes, and any hurdle you put in front of the audience is just a bad thing. I don't know what to say.

In a perfect world, I guess what he'd say is "Why the fuck should I pander to the audience? Let my work stand or fall on its merits." But this isn't a perfect world, and until we get billionaires willing both to fund their own favorite entertainments and to let the creators of those entertainments tell their stories without any interference, that answer won't ever be heard.

As it is, I feel like they try to split the difference in two ways: one, those standalone episodes, which with a very few exceptions have been the weakest entries in the series, and two, with some of the cheesy peripherals such as poll questions you can answer by texting on a cellphone or awful alterna-rock played over the coming attractions. These things detract from the quality of the show for me, probably in part because they feel forced and extraneous to the main thrust of the story.

All that crap fades, though, and what you're left with is the story itself. The show asks its viewers to swallow more now--that old favorite characters, including some of the most stalwart personalities in the story, are Cylons and have been all along--and I'm not sure I can do it; I'm not sure I trust them to validate my making that leap. But I like that they're thinking big and trying something that, if it works, will be spectacular. I'll be looking forward to the DVD/TV movie/whatever they're calling it, evidently dealing with a backstory of the Pegasus and the late, lamented Admiral Cain, toward the end of this year; and around when we have a winner in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, the resumption of the show that, after the last two weeks, again can call itself "the best on television" with something like a straight face.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

System Crash: the Prosecutor Purge
Insomuch as anyone is trying to defend the Bush administration's decision to fire eight U.S. Attorneys late last year for what even sympathetic observers concede were political reasons, the justification offered is that these appointees serve at the president's pleasure: he can bring 'em in and ship 'em out as he wishes, without any particular cause or explanation. "No crime was committed" because there was no rule, much less law, to break.

Though liberals don't want to hear this, it happens to be true. To the best of my knowledge, no law was violated here. While the "Clinton did it" justification is as groundless as it usually is--Clinton changed them up at the beginning of his term, as many of his predecessors had done, and as Bush himself did in 2001--it's also irrelevant. If the question is, "Was Bush within his legal powers to fire the lawyers?" the answer seems to be an unambiguous "yes."

But, obviously, that shouldn't be the question. The reason this didn't come up before was that no president since Nixon has had anything close to the ambitions of the "Bushies" for trying to politicize, not only the Justice Department, but the entire executive branch. Despite the assertion of evil halfwits like Tom DeLay and John Bolton that the sole criterion for appointment and retention in a position should be personal loyalty to the president, the operating assumption traditionally has been that the president chooses these professionals, the Senate confirms them, and at that point they do their jobs to the best of their ability--without any consideration of partisan goals or consequences.

Of course, this premise was thrown off in the case of the fired U.S. Attorneys because of the provision slipped into the Patriot Act--the gift that keeps on taking, in terms of our democratic institutions--that during an "emergency," there was no need for Senate confirmation. (Happily, that provision was rescinded by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in a Senate vote earlier this week.) As with so much else in these sad last six-plus years, the hiring power for attorneys seems to have served the administration as nothing more or less than another way to reward friends--"loyal Bushies"--and punish enemies.

The concept of checks and balances is at the very core of our system of governance, and it's something that every American who attends public school learns about before puberty. But all the ways in which the Bushies have subjugated the public interest for explicitly partisan objectives makes me wonder if we need to address this question--to head off the potential for abuses that was always present, but never previously exploited--in a more explicit way. Whether it's new law, constitutional amendments, forceful Supreme Court decisions, or something else, we can't keep going with the door open to abuses no less corrosive for the fact that they might be within the boundaries of the law.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Wasting Effects of Potomac Fever
I'll admit it; I'm one of those progressives who used to get a little gooey for John McCain. The POW experience, yes; his leadership on campaign finance reform and willingness to speak out about the absurdity of defense spending (something I need to start thinking/writing more about; consider the appalling fact that what we pay for any number of obsolete Cold War weapons systems still getting built would, if canceled, provide body armor and excellent health care for all troops who have served recently) during the '90s, absolutely; his positve eagerness to take on the more repulsive aspects of the Zombie Army in 2000 and promise of an inclusive national politics, more than anything.

Needless to say, that inspiring individual has long since disappeared. The only time I've ever heard McCain in person was during the summer of 2000, when he spoke at the Philadelphia "Shadow Convention" organized by Arianna Huffington, who had left the ranks of conservatives a few years earlier but wasn't yet a loud-and-proud Democratic partisan. Huffington, like a lot of us who were fairly disgusted with both major-party options that year, venerated McCain as a voice for reform who could transcend the endless partisan battling that's come to characterize our politics, and made him the keynote speaker at the Annenberg Center event. McCain came out onstage, started with a joke or two, and then quickly stated that he supported his party's nominee, George W. Bush, as the true candidate of reform in the race. As he said these words, his face said something very different; McCain looked like a kid sitting down to a meal of liver and creamed spinach. He was booed relentlessly, and stormed off the stage, leaving an embarrassed Huffington to apologize.

Though he continued to work closely with the Democrats through the first two or three years of Bush's term, and reportedly considered changing parties, his path was set. In 2004, there were two men who had sufficient stature and universal appeal that they could have ended the Bush presidency: McCain and Colin Powell. One, McCain, still entertained national ambitions, and fellow Vietnam vet John Kerry tried to appeal to them by making overtures regarding the vice-presidential slot. McCain declined--and having done so, he quickly turned into George W. Bush's most enthusiastic and effective advocate. Then and now, it seemed almost like a case of Stockholm Syndrome: Bush operatives had dragged McCain's name and family through the mud of South Carolina in 2000, and the blood feud between Bush consligiere Karl Rove and top McCain strategist John Weaver had gotten so bad that Weaver had begun to consult for Democrats. But obviously some bargain had been struck.

Now here it is three years later, and McCain is unrecognizable from his insurgent-Republican 2000 incarnation. Jonathan Chait sets it up pretty well here:

"This is not Luke Skywalker here," said Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), discussing his friend and Senate colleague John McCain's second run for the presidency. "This is a totally different campaign."

Graham was looking for a way to reassure his fellow conservatives that they no longer had anything to fear from McCain. His choice of metaphor is one of those windows into the fundamental cultural gap that separates hard-core conservatives from the rest of humanity. To most people, who think of Luke Skywalker as a hero battling an evil and immensely powerful empire, Graham's implication would be seen as an unmitigated insult. In the world of the GOP elite, though, it's a form of praise: No, no, don't worry, McCain's with the empire now.

Now watch him madly pander. In the same interview, [National Review reporter Ramesh] Ponnuru asked McCain about cloning:

"Sen. McCain: I'm obviously against any human cloning. Obviously.

"Ponnuru: Would you be willing to ban it?

"Sen. McCain: Sure.

"Ponnuru: So you'd support something like the Brownback bill?

"Sen. McCain: Yes. I think I'm a cosponsor."

At this point in the interview, his advisor interjected to say, "I'll double-check that." It turned out McCain was not a cosponsor. His casual language about a matter of the deepest philosophical weight--Ban it? Sure!--suggests he knows little about the bill except that supporting it would help him win the nomination.

Chait goes on to note that "What makes McCain's conversion all the more tragic is that it's plainly not working." I'd replace "tragic" with "pathetic." McCain was so appealing in 2000 because he seemed to represent a politics that was both authentic and principled. He was a victim of the multi-stage process by which we now elect presidents: had he somehow been able to face the general electorate first rather than chunks of Republican or Republican/independent primary voters in a handful of states, he likely would have won by acclimation. Instead, Bush's campaign used their deeper pockets, stronger campaign apparatus, willingness to swim in muck, and--crucially--the five primary-less weeks between New Hampshire and South Carolina that blunted McCain's momentum, and he wasn't able to continue much beyond that. (At the risk of getting run out of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, I'll recommend a second New Republic piece here--this article about the weirdness of our presidential selection process. Suffice to say that McCain 2000 would have been an unstoppable candidate a few decades earlier.)

Evidently, the political lesson McCain learned from 2000 was that principled guys finish last, and that Straight Talk takes you straight to the loser's lounge. Hence his now-relentless pandering and constant visits to "crazy base land." The Carpetbagger reports an even more stomach-turning instance of this:

I was skeptical about John McCain’s chances in the GOP primaries before, but now I’m convinced — he’s going to lose. What convinced me was a chat McCain had with reporters yesterday aboard his campaign bus, which eventually turned to the distribution of taxpayer-subsidized condoms in Africa to fight the transmission of HIV. What followed, the NYT’s Adam Nagourney explained, “was a long series of awkward pauses, glances up to the ceiling and the image of one of Mr. McCain’s aides, standing off to the back, urgently motioning his press secretary to come to Mr. McCain’s side.”

Q: “What about grants for sex education in the United States? Should they include instructions about using contraceptives? Or should it be Bush’s policy, which is just abstinence?”

Mr. McCain: (Long pause) “Ahhh. I think I support the president’s policy.”

Q: “So no contraception, no counseling on contraception. Just abstinence. Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?”

Mr. McCain: (Long pause) “You’ve stumped me.”

Q: “I mean, I think you’d probably agree it probably does help stop it?”

Mr. McCain: (Laughs) “Are we on the Straight Talk express? I’m not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I’m sure I’ve taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. [Speaking to Press Secretary Brian Jones], would you find out what my position is on contraception — I’m sure I’m opposed to government spending on it, I’m sure I support the president’s policies on it.”

Q: “But you would agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Would you say: ‘No, we’re not going to distribute them,’ knowing that?”

Mr. McCain: (Twelve-second pause) “Get me [Sen. Tom Coburn’s] thing, ask [senior adviser John Weaver] to get me Coburn’s paper that he just gave me in the last couple of days. I’ve never gotten into these issues before.”

First, on the substance, McCain comes across as a bumbling fool. He doesn’t know if he believes condoms are effective in preventing the spread of HIV? He’s been a member of Congress for 24 years, has participated in thousands of policy hearings, and has voted on hundreds of bills relating to public health. Now that he’s running for president, McCain literally has no idea what he thinks about something as simple as condoms and HIV? Please.

I was particularly fond of the “I have to find out what my position was” remark. Someone can ask him an extremely simple question, but before he answers it, McCain wants to check to make sure he believes what he thinks he believes. “Would you find out what my position is on contraception?” Here’s a wacky idea, senator, why don’t you just tell us what you actually think?

Which leads us to the second problem — he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to think anymore. McCain is so embarrassingly desperate, he’s utterly lost when it comes to basic questions like these. It’s almost certainly what he was doing with those 12 seconds of silence, thinking over what James Dobson might do if he acknowledged that condoms can play a role in stopping the spread of HIV, and what the media might do if they find a dozen examples of him supporting broader public access to publicly-financed contraception.

So the poor, sad man says nothing. McCain can’t tell the truth, he can’t share his opinions, and he can’t remember what he thought before he sold out. It’s so genuinely pathetic, I almost feel sorry for the guy.

Don't feel sorry for McCain; feel sorry for America. It wasn't intended to be this way, but we've created a process that deforms and deranges once-proud public servants. That reality-resistant psychos like Preacher Pat Robertson and Radical Cleric Dobson have, or are perceived to have, an effective veto over the Republican presidential nomination is terrible for our country--even when they lose. In a two-party system, each party has to be a check on the other; as the Republican primary electorate drifts ever-farther from the mainstream of national political life, a void opens for the Democrats to indulge their own worst tendencies and complement the Republicans' terrible screw-ups with awful mistakes of their own.

McCain has become a sad old man trying and failing to keep up with the parade, undone as a leader by his own ambitions. As they say, the only cure for Potomac Fever is embalming fluid.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Schizoid Men
Big-picture assessments of where we've been, where we are and where we're going are harder to frame, spin and sell than whatever's going on in the current news cycle--whether it's something really significant (Iraq, the slowly unfolding US Attorney scandal, of which more below), or something basically goofy (e.g. whether it's an insult to use the adjective "Democrat" instead of "Democratic"). But when historians sit down later to figure out what happened, or even when astute people within the moment try to do the same, it's those big-picture assessments that they weigh and evaluate.

Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post and TAP has such an assessment, and it's a more powerful articulation of something I've been trying to say for months, maybe years: to take modern American conservatism seriously means to accept that it's fundamentally at war with itself, and must remain so.

In [the March 3] Washington Post, reporter Blaine Harden took a hard look at the erosion of what we have long taken to be the model American family -- married couples with children -- and discovered that while this decline hasn't really afflicted college-educated professionals, it is the curse of the working class. The percentage of households that are married couples with children has hit an all-time low (at least, the lowest since the Census Bureau started measuring such things): 23.7 percent. That's about half the level that marrieds-with-children constituted at the end of the Ozzie-and-Harriet '50s.

Now, I'm not a scholar of the sitcom, but I did watch "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" as a child, marveling that anything labeled "Adventures" could be so dull. And I don't recall a single episode in which the family had to do without because Ozzie had lost his job or missed taking David or Ricky to the doctor for fear he couldn't pay for it.
Over the past 35 years, the massive changes in the U.S. economy have largely condemned American workers to lives of economic insecurity. No longer can the worker count on a steady job for a single employer who provides a paycheck and health and retirement benefits, too. Over the past three decades, workers' individual annual income fluctuations have consistently increased, while their aggregate income has stagnated. In the brave new economy of outsourced jobs and short-term gigs and on-again, off-again health coverage, American workers cannot rationally plan their economic futures. And with each passing year, as their level of economic security declines, so does their entry into marriage.

Yet the very conservatives who marvel at the efficiency of our new, more mobile economy and extol the "flexibility" of our workforce decry the flexibility of the personal lives of American workers. The right-wing ideologues who have championed outsourcing, offshoring, and union-busting, who have celebrated the same changes that have condemned American workers to lives of financial instability, piously lament the decline of family stability that has followed these economic changes as the night the day.

American conservatism is a house divided against itself. It applauds the radicalism of the economic changes of the past four decades -- the dismantling, say, of the American steel industry (and the job and income security that it once provided) in the cause of greater efficiency. It decries the decline of social and familial stability over that time -- the traditional, married working-class families, say, that once filled all those churches in the hills and hollows in what is now the smaller, post-working-class Pittsburgh.

Problem is, disperse a vibrant working-class community in America and you disperse the vibrant working-class family.

It might not be too much to call this the great untold political story of our time. As the respective saliency of the two conservative appeals has waxed and waned, and external circumstances made one or the other compelling, the results have changed. In 1980, a decisive chunk of the white working class vote--the people who were leery of the "new, more mobile economy" but concerned about "the decline of family stability"--shifted right. They really stayed there for a quarter-century... and then last year a significant portion shifted back.

This isn't a condemnation of that new economy, by the way--just a realization that, as Meyerson suggests, it really only works for you if you have education and skills in demand. (In my job, our shorthand for this notion was "More Ed, More Bread.") In some sense, this is a much more meritocratic economy; my personal preference would just be to make the playing field as level as possible by ensuring that everyone had access to good education and other tools to build their own figurative ladders. But in the meantime, if you don't have those tools at hand now, and if you believe that financial stresses tend to destabilize families rather than support them, a world without unions, worker protections or even a decent system for people to add skills will have negative social consequences.

I'm not representing that 2006 was the year when millions of suburban, exurban and rural families suddenly realized what was the matter with Kansas. But I do think that in conjunction with the tragic mismanagement of the war, the nonstop congressional scandals and the general ugliness of politics, it figured in there somewhere to give Democrats an opening. How they'll fill it remains to be seen, but it also seems unlikely that this problem--the final consequence of the Republican merger between greed and cultural conservatism--can be made to go away anytime soon.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Right's Worst Fear
No, it isn't that Barack Obama will prove to be a madrassa-attending Manchurian Candidate, or that Hillary Clinton (or John McCain) will discard their putative disguises of moderation and theoligarchical conservatism, respectively, once in office. It's that government, now partly under Democratic control after last November's elections, might actually do something constructive that improves the lives of everyday Americans.

It's pretty much a given by now that the right is largely defined by what, and who, they hate. And with the Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend, the movement types are getting their hate on in a big way. But while anti-tax fanatic Grover Norquist isn't quite as viscerally offensive as the Dartmouth crypto-Nazi crowd, he's far more dangerous. He was at CPAC too, and his message was a simple one: don't let anything happen over the next two years.

This is vitally important. Norquist's movement has been premised on a two-word concept: Goverment Sucks. It's worthless; it does nothing well, and accordingly shouldn’t be allowed to do anything. The New Deal, in his eyes, was a blow from which it took the country more than 50 years to recover--because it was, at bottom, an affirmation of the idea that government could add value to people’s lives, and it did. Whenever government succeeds, when it functions the way the Founders and their best successors imagined it should--as the democratic expression of popular will, designed to increase overall utility in the country through consensus-based action--this dismal view loses credibility.

With the Republicans in total control for the last four years, Norquist's vision of Hobbesian corporatism--a world of unfettered companies and unlimited profits, with all negative externalities borne by the poor saps who can't afford to buy a voice--seemed almost at hand. Obviously, neither the administration nor the bought-and-paid-for DeLay/Frist majorities were about to do anything to expand economic opportunity, redress the inequities of various tilted markets (like health care or housing), or really strengthen families or communities by seriously investing in schools, infrastructure, wealth-building tools, or social insurance. Indeed, Norquist's top priority during this time was the dismantling of Social Security--the biggest New Deal legacy, and the most successful social insurance program ever. Advancement of the You're On Your Own Society--accelerating the erosion of collective institutions--was the goal. They fell short, of course, in part because the idea was so obviously a bad one and in part because, for once, the Democrats beat them on the political blocking and tackling.

Then something unexpected happened: Norquist's goal of helpless, inept government manifested in more explicit form than ever before, in the horribly botched response to Hurricane Katrina. Then there was the Iraq war, prosecuted with equal ineptitude, and the unprecedented convergence of record corporate profits and stagnating real wages. The Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Mexico and the gulf between the wealthy and connected and everyone else all pushed people to wonder if competence maybe didn't have some value after all.

Everybody agrees that the Democrats didn't so much win last year as the Republicans lost. The "Six for '06" agenda didn't hurt, but it didn't change many minds either. Where it has potential to do so is going forward. If the Democrats can expand access to affordable health care (or even get Medicare Part D--a weird Republican initiative that did expand government, but in the most bloated, inefficient and private profits-maximizing manner possible--to work better), if they can make it easier to pay for college, or make progress toward energy independence, Grover's got a big problem. The Right must make "Government Sucks" a self-fulfilling prophesy. The rest of us must not let them.