Sunday, April 29, 2007

I don't know why I'm thinking about this tonight, but I am, so...
Two serious questions I wish the "liberal media" (or anyone else) would ask about Iraq:

1) How will we know we've "won"? Is it when the incidence of violence drops below a certain level? When the power is on for more than a given number of hours in a day? Some political resolution to what looks and evidently feels like a civil war? Economic measures (jobs, oil revenues, Iraqi GDP)?

2) Assuming victory can be defined, is there any price, in lives or money or time or "opportunity cost" (i.e., forces committed there can't be used elsewhere), that's too great to justify it?

The questions are somewhat irrelevant, in that the narcissist-in-chief will keep playing with his toy soldiers until they're no longer his to play with, and then the next president--pretty much regardless of who that turns out to be, unless it's somehow McCain--will wind down the war as fast as he or she can. (If you're going to preside over the unsuccessful end to a war, best to do as early in your term as feasible.) But I'd just really like to know the answers, or even if anyone has taken a serious shot at coming up with answers.
The Bush Party
The first Democratic presidential debate was held this past week in South Carolina, with moderator Brian Williams taking note during the opening that the event, more than 18 months before the 2008 election, reflected an unprecedented early start to the campaign. What Williams didn’t point out was that it’s also unprecedented, at least in modern times, for any sitting president in his second term to be as fully a lame duck as George W. Bush obviously has become.

More than 600 painful days remain in Bush’s term, but his ability to set and pursue a policy agenda is totally gone, and his political power exists almost entirely in negative terms: he can block the Democrats, on everything from de-funding his tragic disaster of a war to giving the District of Columbia a vote in Congress, and he presumably can influence his party’s next presidential choice in a variety of subtle or overt ways. But that’s really it. Increasingly, news accounts include blind quotes from senior Republicans to the effect that this administration is incompetent, dishonest and counter-productive; the fear that Bush’s ineptitude and mendacity will have long-term consequences for their electoral prospects is now almost palpable.

And yet, it’s still all about the Bushes. The First Lady astounded the political world last week with her remark that no one “suffers more than their president and I do when we watch [news from Iraq]." And Old Bush, George the 41st, recently agreed with the notion that his son Jeb! (he hasn’t formally changed his name to add the exclamation mark yet, but it’s only a matter of time) won’t be on the 2008 presidential ballot because of “Bush Fatigue.”

But more than anyone, of course, it’s about the incumbent. Everybody, Democrats and Republicans, loyalists and Bush-haters, wants Alberto Gonzales out of the attorney general’s office. But George W. seems to dig in more with every call for Abu G’s dismissal. Then, of course, there’s Iraq, where the goalposts on “the surge” started moving almost as soon as they were set. And Bush continues to abuse the appointment power, sending up obviously unqualified individuals for high offices and trying to jam as many through as possible during congressional recesses.

Bush’s narcissism would be comical if it weren't so harmful for the country (often it's comical anyway), but at least it’s hurting exactly the people who should suffer most by it. I’m no fan of David Brooks, but he really nailed the Republicans’ predicament in his NY Times column today:

The Republicans suffered one unpleasant event in November 2006, and they are headed toward an even nastier one in 2008. The Democrats have opened up a wide advantage in party identification and are crushing the G.O.P. among voters under 30.

Moreover, there has been a clear shift, in poll after poll, away from Republican positions on social issues and on attitudes toward government. Democratic approaches are favored on almost all domestic, tax and fiscal issues, and even on foreign affairs.
The public, in short, wants change.

And yet the Republicans refuse to offer that. On Capitol Hill, there is a strange passivity in Republican ranks. Republicans are privately disgusted with how President Bush has led their party and the nation, but they don’t publicly offer any alternatives. They just follow sullenly along. They privately believe the country needs new approaches to the war against Islamic extremism, but they don’t offer them. They try to block Democratic initiatives, but they don’t offer the country any new ways to think about the G.O.P.

They are like people quietly marching to their doom.

And at the presidential level, things are even worse. The party is blessed with a series of charismatic candidates who are not orthodox Republicans. But the pressures of the campaign are such that these candidates have had to repress anything that might make them interesting. Instead of offering something new, each of them has been going around pretending to be the second coming of George Allen — a bland, orthodox candidate who will not challenge any of the party’s customs or prejudices.

Though his analysis is on point, Brooks is too much of a hack to acknowledge the specifics: that it’s not George Allen the Republican candidates are trying to emulate, but George Bush they’re terrified to stray too far from.

The root of the problem is that his party has fully embraced a top-down authoritarian structure in which The Leader is infallible, and his belief system must not ever be transgressed against (Brooks rightly identifies Grover Norquist—though not by name, alas—as the Ideological Enforcer for Tax and Spending Policy, and Radical Cleric James Dobson as the Christatollah for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice) and there is no middle ground between absolute loyalty and outright treason.

So while Republicans might be “privately disgusted” with Bush–as I’m sure many are–they know that to directly challenge him means that the party apparatus will turn on them, with primary opponents, a cutoff of financial support, and endless hounding.

They’ve put themselves in this jam, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Meeting with some colleagues the other day, I repeated a remark I've made many times over the past five years or so: the Bloomberg mayoralty is likely to be remembered as a kind of golden age for policy wonks. Mike Bloomberg himself has done a lot to make this so: his administration has been about as bereft of partisanship or ideologically driven policymaking as possible, and his personal wealth and lack of evident concern over a future in politics--the still-quixotic dream of a Bloomberg '08 presidential campaign notwithstanding--have freed him, and his administration, from any incentive to pander either to powerbrokers or even the voters. What he's done with this freedom of action hasn't always been what I'd want to see--the (defeated) West Side stadium, and the worrisome Atlantic Yards project, were and are unnecessary and potentially damaging, maybe devastating, to communities--but I've never doubted his motivations. Considering the political norms of our time, that's pretty amazing... and, given the absolute contrast it presents to the current presidential administration, inspiring too.

Today, Bloomberg made a speech that I think will stand as a challenge to his successors, whoever they turn out to be, to follow a similar course. It kicked off the "PlaNYC" initiative, a set of ten goals to dramatically improve the natural and built environment of New York City by 2030. While the first wave of media coverage has focused on the mayor's proposal to charge "congestion pricing" for drivers in Manhattan during weekday work hours, the big stuff--enormous infrastructure changes and environmental cleanup, among other things--might pass below the radar.

Maybe for reasons of personal outlook, maybe because of political realities, I am not especially optimistic that this audacious vision will be realized. All the institutional forces that have a stake in the status quo, largely relegated to the sidelines (or bought off in various ways) during the Bloomberg years, presumably will reassert themselves through the power of the purse in the next campaign, and the ones to follow. The price of their support will be what it always is: "compromise" on matters of principle, and an official willingness to at least somewhat privilege special interests over common interests.

Additionally, this plan, admirable as it is, speaks to the physical well being of the future city rather than the socioeconomic well being of those who will live in it. I anticipate doing some work around this question for one or more of my freelance clients, so I won't go into detail here--but a "PlaNYC" that doesn't make some provision for preserving and growing a middle class, risks saving the body of New York City while doing nothing to save its soul.

Still, I feel a deep pride in this place, and a great admiration for the mayor and his leadership here. A golden age, indeed.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

A Letter to MoDo
Dear Ms. Dowd:

Today's oh-so-insightful and relevant column about John Edwards' haircut has convinced me that you should re-brand your own biweekly contributions to our political discourse.

I offer two suggestions. If you prefer a simple descriptive name, go with "Skin Deep Politics." It certainly captures what your column, with its endless references to "Sex and the City" and Botox and those other cultural touchstones so meaningful to wealthy, bitter, half-smart women of a certain age, has come to. The name also has a deserved hint of self-congratulation, given how your work has helped create a culture in which the made-for-TV "authenticity" of a George W. Bush trumps the actual qualifications for high office of an Al Gore or John Kerry. I've often wondered if you, Frank Bruni, Kit Seeyle and others, (I won't even mention Judy Miller, whom you so memorably shivved once it was safe to do so) who did so much to inaugurate and perpetuate the glorious Bush years, gather to exult in your accomplishment.

The other name, a bit more literary, is "Much Ado About Nothing." If nothing else, it's more directly descriptive of what you contribute.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Real Deal with Imus
I don't have a whole lot to add here, though I think the Rude Pundit has his (presumably smelly) finger on one big issue here with this post. I've always found Imus something of a jackass, a supreme narcissist jaded by nonstop verbal fluffing from his crew of mutant flunkies. And it always bugged me that so many political leaders--mostly but not all white men, in both major parties--treated him like a down-market Larry King (it's exceedingly faint praise, though true, to say that Imus was a better interviewer) and solicited his approval in between the mean-spirited little jibes and sketches with which he otherwise filled his time slot. At times, the show was inadvertantly useful--as when former Senator Al D'Amato would come on to throw around ethnic slurs--but generally, the people who were dicks on Imus's show were dicks in any context; at best, as in D'Amato's case, their conduct got a bit more widely noticed.

Annie and I watched Tim Russert's "Meet the Press" roundtable chew over the Imus affair this morning, and it was one of the more interesting half-hours of Sunday morning TV I've ever seen. You had Russert and David Brooks, mainstream white guys who had been on the show multiple times, offering occasional defenses of Imus's character or, more feebly, trying to change the subject to the bad language and bad behavior of hip-hop artists and others. Then you had Gwen Ifill, repeatedly calling bullshit on them both. I'd never had strong feelings about Ifill one way or the other (though I did enjoy her recent Colbert appearance) until her Times guest op-ed last week, regarding Imus:

The serial apologies of Mr. Imus, who was suspended yesterday by both NBC News and CBS Radio for his remarks, have failed another test. The sincerity seems forced and suspect because he’s done some version of this several times before.

I know, because he apparently did it to me.

I was covering the White House for this newspaper in 1993, when Mr. Imus’s producer began calling to invite me on his radio program. I didn’t return his calls. I had my hands plenty full covering Bill Clinton.

Soon enough, the phone calls stopped. Then quizzical colleagues began asking me why Don Imus seemed to have a problem with me. I had no idea what they were talking about because I never listened to the program.

It was not until five years later, when Mr. Imus and I were both working under the NBC News umbrella — his show was being simulcast on MSNBC; I was a Capitol Hill correspondent for the network — that I discovered why people were asking those questions. It took Lars-Erik Nelson, a columnist for The New York Daily News, to finally explain what no one else had wanted to repeat.

“Isn’t The Times wonderful,” Mr. Nelson quoted Mr. Imus as saying on the radio. “It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.”

Maybe I'm more aware of Ifill than I am the Rutgers women's hoop team, this hit me even harder than the recent comment. Being an African-American woman at the pinnacle of her profession, and having to hear that, must have felt like getting kicked in the stomach. It was groundless, cruel, and easy. And I hope she relished sticking the knife in last week; revenge might not be pretty, but it's sometimes justified.

Still, Ifill's passion and eloquence, both in the op-ed and in the discussion this morning, isn't really the point here. As everyone has noted, what Imus said a couple weeks ago isn't new for him, nor does it particularly stand out in his legacy of cheap shots and bigotry. He hasn't changed; the world has. Both Russert this morning and network drones like Leslie Moonves of CBS over the last week or so talked about the personal objections of staff within those companies; that's bullshit. The reason Imus didn't survive this one is very simple: the sponsors got scared and pulled out, and the networks got scared about both having to replace that ad revenue and becoming the business target of whatever wrath remained among the public.

The untold story here is why the sponsors pulled out, and why the networks then dumped Imus. I suspect it has a lot to do with the rising economic and political power of African-Americans--and I'm not talking about the mostly irrelevant Jesse Jackson and the mostly embarrassing Al Sharpton.

The big companies that own the networks can't afford to potentially alienate millions of American consumers--much less the public figures who are now or might soon be in positions to do a great deal of damage to corporate interests. Charlie Rangel chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, which makes tax and spending policy; John Conyers chairs Judiciary; Jim Clyburn is Majority Whip. And there's some chance that Barack Obama will be the next president or vice-president. Simply put, and totally independent of doing the moral thing, you don't want to piss these guys off.

I'm actually a bit surprised that nobody has picked up on this. It's a pretty encouraging story for capitalism (the growing wealth and spending power of the African-American market) and democratic pluralism (the rise of thoroughly mainstream political champions who happen to be black). That these big forces helped bring down a jerk like Imus is nice and all, but that they exist suggest that in some fundamental ways, our system is still working.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

So He Goes
We lost a great one this week: Kurt Vonnegut Jr. died at age 84.

I think the first Vonnegut I read was "The Sirens of Titan," in 9th grade study hall. This was 20 years ago, and I've never re-read the book, but the audacity and absurdity of the ideas--from the opening section in which a depressed, nearly suicidal man makes his fortune by choosing stock investments based on three-letter sequences from the Book of Genesis, to the close when it's revealed that the greatest architectural marvels of the Earth were built so they could be read from space--still blow me away today. "Cat's Cradle," "Breakfast of Champions," "Welcome to the Monkeyhouse," and "Slaughterhouse Five" all made similarly deep impressions; at a time when I felt so at odds with the world around me, here was a man whose mind seemed to work in similar ways, and who could somehow transform his outrage and sadness into incredibly inventive, comic, touching stories. His work was inspiring, and a big part of why I wanted to become a writer.

I wouldn't put Vonnegut's prose up there with Delillo or Pamuk or any number of other great novelists of this period, but what he arguably lacked in style or literary pyrotechnics, he more than made up for in social conscience and human warmth. One had a sense of who he was as a person, and what he cared about--a claim that can't as readily be made about most of the great postmodern writers. This clip of Vonnegut on The Daily Show, from a year or two back, shows the man in all his lovable cantankerousness. His passing leaves a void for both his humor and his heart.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Good to See
Well, this is encouraging: as George W. Bush again tries to demagogue the Democrats over funding his Splendid Little War, both the Democrats and the media are refusing to read his script.

WASHINGTON, April 10 — President Bush delivered a stern lecture to Democratic Congressional leaders today, asserting that they are being irresponsible in not passing an Iraq-Afghanistan supplemental-financing bill to his liking.

“The bottom line is this,” Mr. Bush said. “Congress’s failure to fund our troops will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines. Others could see their loved ones headed back to war sooner than anticipated. This is unacceptable.”
Mr. Bush chose a friendly venue for his remarks (an American Legion post in nearby Fairfax, Va.), and the timing was surely no coincidence. The Senate reconvened today, and the House of Representatives will be back in session next week.

The president got a friendly reception from the Legionnaires, some of them veterans of World War II or the Korean War, and a sharp reaction from Senate Democrats, who vowed not to back down.

“Democrats are united in our commitment to fully fund our troops on the ground in Iraq and here at home,” said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader. “But we are also determined to provide our troops a strategy for success in Iraq, which President Bush has failed to do from the very start of this war over four years ago.”
“We are speaking for the American people,” Mr. Reid said at a Capitol news conference. “He isn’t.”

Reid is hitting all the right notes here: they've agreed to pass a bill to provide for the troops "on the ground in Iraq and here at home" (an allusion to the disgraceful Walter Reed care scandal, directly caused by the administration's fetish for outsourcing government functions) but also insist on changing course in Iraq. It's probably somewhat disingenuous at best to assert that the Democrats' legislation provides "a strategy for success"--a better description would be "a strategy for cutting our losses"--but the message is there: Bush has dug us a huge hole in Iraq, and Democrats are determined to take away his shovel.

Some kudos for the story here too. Note the descriptor "to his liking" in the first graf; there are similar notes throughout the piece. Maybe the Times feels a particular obligation to be neutral on Iraq now; in any event, it's nice to see that they aren't just serving as message-stenographers for the Bush Imagineers.

I'm not generally all that into the George Lakoff stuff, but I think Reid and Pelosi are doing something shrewd here: every statement they make reinforces the notion of a petulant, uninformed president who, if he can't set the rules of the game and isn't allowed to win every time, will take his policymaking ball and go home. I think that this piece of satire captures Bush's mindset on the war better than any more sober analyses I've read.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Faith, Not Theocracy
At the risk of offending Bill "Butt Sex" Donohue, who's presumably looking for an easy target after the spanking "South Park" gave him this week, I commend this Easter Weekend Blogswarm.

So many topics, so little time. But rather than rant against the religio-ideological perversion of our public sphere under the Idiot King, or the disturbing similarities between the most repressive strains of Islam and Christianity (and the unmasked yearning of some at the far fringes of the right to fuse the two movements in an attack on the common enemy of secularism), I'll go with something happy here.

Tomorrow my in-laws are coming down for the holiday, and my mom and brother are coming up from Philadelphia. This should be an interesting day: my wife's parents, and her brother (who also will be here) are practicing Catholics, Annie is basically a lapsed Catholic, my mother is a not-very-good Jew, and my brother and I are agnostics though I consider myself culturally Jewish. (I'm sitting here eating matzah as I type.) Convenings of Catholics and Jews can be awkward--especially given the long-accepted narrative around this particular holiday--and I made a few "Running of the Jew" jokes at my family's seder last week in Philly. But this isn't going to be like that. Annie's cooking a leg of lamb, my in-laws always get a charge out of coming down to the city from Connecticut, my brother-in-law just got back from a vacation in California. I expect it'll just be a good time with the family.

This isn't the direct purpose of religion, of course, but if you go by that NYT magazine article from a month or so back, it's not too far off. Some evolutionary theorists believe that religious belief played a community-strengthening role:

The trick in thinking about adaptation is that even if a trait offers no survival advantage today, it might have had one long ago. This is how Darwinians explain how certain physical characteristics persist even if they do not currently seem adaptive — by asking whether they might have helped our distant ancestors form social groups, feed themselves, find suitable mates or keep from getting killed. A facility for storing calories as fat, for instance, which is a detriment in today’s food-rich society, probably helped our ancestors survive cyclical famines.

So trying to explain the adaptiveness of religion means looking for how it might have helped early humans survive and reproduce. As some adaptationists see it, this could have worked on two levels, individual and group. Religion made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves. As William James put it, religion filled people with “a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life . . . an assurance of safety and a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.”

Such sentiments, some adaptationists say, made the faithful better at finding and storing food, for instance, and helped them attract better mates because of their reputations for morality, obedience and sober living. The advantage might have worked at the group level too, with religious groups outlasting others because they were more cohesive, more likely to contain individuals willing to make sacrifices for the group and more adept at sharing resources and preparing for warfare.

I've long believed, and probably written here, that religion has had value as, among other things, "the training wheels of moral social norms." The Golden Rule, most of the Ten Commandments, and other tenets of the various monotheistic traditions don't require belief in an anthropomorphic God to have appeal; they're also good guidelines for how to act within a society or community. The problem of course is when religious groupings, like any other community of affinity from gun owners to Yankees fans, get too aggressive in their proselytizing (in the non-theological sense, I mean). They wind up very far afield from their belief systems; at best they get into self-aggrandizing doctrines with obvious temporal ramifications like papal infallability; at worst it turns into jihad and people get blown to bits.

Keeping it at the personal level, though, isn't something I think secularists should worry about. If anything, they should just enjoy the togetherness, and the lamb.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Thoughts on the "Money Primary"
I don't generally put much stock in fundraising numbers this far in advance of presidential primary voting, and haven't ever since 1995. I remember, as a senior in college in the first half of that year, reading that Phil Gramm, Republican Senator of Texas, was shattering every money record on the books, and being terrified over the prospect that this rabidly evil little shit would be running the country. (Yes, I was five years early--except that Gramm's delusions might at some point have been countered by the fact that he has a working brain, unlike the little Texan shit we did eventually install.) The point is that Gramm was such a miserable human being that he'd blown through his money, and ended his candidacy in defeat, before the primaries even began. At best, you can say that money is necessary but nothing close to sufficient.

That said, there have been some interesting developments stemming from the release of the contenders' first-quarter fundraising numbers.

  • Barack Obama delayed the release of his numbers because, apparently, they needed extra days to count the haul from house parties on the last day of the quarter. With that in, he evidently raised $25 million--about the same as Hillary Clinton. This reinforces my suspicion that if, as I've long held, the Democratic contest is going to come down to Hillary vs. Not-Hillary, Obama is the most viable Not-Hillary of the people currently in the race, and maybe of anyone in the party.

  • John McCain's evidently disappointing total has prompted him to revise his whole fundraising apparatus. He's now wholeheartedly embracing the big-donor strategy Bush used to beat him in 2000. Campaign finance reform? Nah, never heard of it. It's not nice to say, but nothing McCain has done since about 2003 is going to serve his historical reputation very well.

  • Not a money thing, but it's interesting to me that the Bush White House is praising New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson's trip to North Korea as head of a bipartisan delegation trying to bring home the remains of American soldiers killed during the Korean War. If Richardson somehow won the Democratic nomination--and I still think he'd be, by far, the strongest general-election candidate for the Dems--his Republican opponent inevitably will try to paint his negotiations with the world's bad guys as limp-wristed appeasement. Having the support of the Bushistas for this one could blunt that attack.

  • Richardson also signed a bill legalizing medical marijuana. I'm telling you, this guy's the man...

  • My longtime dark horse Republican contender, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, has serious money problems. He raised only about $500,000 in the first quarter. Huckabee's path to the nomination--win over social conservatives with his religious background and blameless personal life while appealing to moderates by virtue of his non-hate-addled personality--is probably blocked by the actual or potential entrance of the Two Thompsons, Fred and Tommy, who can make the same case but are better able to raise money.

  • Huckabee's great sin? He raised taxes at a few points in his ten years as governor. Burn him! He's a witch!!