Thursday, August 30, 2007

The days of atonement
Karl Marx famously observed that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. That aphorism bubbled up from somewhere in my head this week, as the country marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. It’s likely that history will remember the defining event of this decade as the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. The destruction of the World Trade Center certainly had a near-incalculable impact on American foreign policy, the economy, civil liberties, and politics. It helped open the door to every disaster the Bush administration subsequently inflicted upon the country, from the PATRIOT Act to the embrace of torture as national policy to, most obviously, the Iraq War.

And yet I would argue that what Katrina did to New Orleans, not quite four years later—the farce of the government’s response following the tragedy of the hurricane, itself a nature-born echo of the manmade disaster that was 9/11--was not only far more devastating, but far more consequential to our age.

As I’ve written here before, I was less than a mile from the Twin Towers when they fell. I walked home that morning, with thousands of others, over the Brooklyn Bridge—but I had a home to walk back to. We weren’t able to get back into our office in Lower Manhattan for six days—but the office was still there when we finally could do so. The attack sent the NYC economy into a sharp, painful recession—but the city’s infrastructure didn’t suffer lasting damage, and the numbers show that few people left New York City in the aftermath. Physically, a very small piece of Manhattan was destroyed and the surrounding area was temporarily off-limits.

You just can’t compare that to what Katrina did to New Orleans. The death count—1,464 as of August 2006—was about half of the September 11 toll. But about 80 percent of the city suffered water damage, and approximately one million people fled the city and suburbs—only about two-thirds of whom have yet returned. The recovery continues, with a mix of good news and bad, though the process of reconstruction has been as ineffective and riddled with accusations of corruption as you’d expect from the guys who brought you Iraq: The Occupation and the crooks who are Louisiana’s entrenched political/business class.

But aside from periods like now, when the calendar reminds us, we haven’t really thought or talked that much about New Orleans since the disaster. Certainly the hoped-for national conversations my colleagues and I anticipated about the nature of poverty and the physical and social needs never have come to pass. We look away, nervous, a little ashamed, a little relieved that, after all, the blow fell somewhere else.

In the Jewish faith, the days between Rosh Hashanah, the start of the new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are known as the Ten Days of Repentance, a period when Jews are supposed to reflect on their own behavior and recommit to goodness in their lives. Perhaps we as Americans should view the thirteen days between the anniversary of the New Orleans levee breaking, August 29, and September 11, in a similar light. The shame of 9/11 is primarily on the government, first for failing to recognize and prevent the attack but also for the remorseless manner in which the Bush administration connived, and Congress acquiesced, to drive the country into an even deeper abyss. While the government bears some blame for the devastation of Katrina as well—both the pro-development policies that led to the erosion of wetlands that might have cushioned the blow, and the fatal incompetence that compromised rescue efforts and has crippled rebuilding—I think this one falls upon all of us. Once the benefit concert was over and the news cycle had moved on, we more or less accepted the ongoing agony of a great American city.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Do-Something Dem Congress
In a summer of discontent, Republicans are buoyed by poll numbers showing that the 110th Congress, under Democratic control, has among the lowest approval ratings ever recorded. The most recent numbers indicate that as few as 18 percent of those polled approve of the job Congress is doing; disapproval is as high as 76 percent. On the one hand, this seems to threaten Democrats' prospects for retaining control next year; on the other, there's a rough consensus that the numbers are so bad not because voters want to reinstall the Republicans, but because Democratic voters themselves are fed up at the failure to end the war in Iraq and force major change in other areas of policy. Indeed, just 28 percent of Democrats in one recent poll expressed approval, compared to 59 percent disapproving.

But maybe that frustration--which I think extends all the way across our politics, and has its origins in the simple truth that everyone wants the atrociously bad Bush presidency just to be over--is misplaced. Congressional scholar Thomas Mann writes today that the 110th Congress, far from the do-nothing persona Republicans constantly allege, has accomplished a lot--particularly in comparison to 12 years ago, when a new Republican majority found itself in power but checked by a Democratic president:

[T]he Democratic Congress’s legislative harvest this year has been bountiful compared with that of its Republican counterpart in 1995. Back then, the Republicans’ Contract With America was stymied by opposition from the Senate and the president. The new Congress has enacted a far-reaching lobbying and ethics reform bill, an increase in the minimum wage, recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, foreign investment rules and a competitiveness package, and has embedded a number of major initiatives and new priorities in continuing and supplemental spending bills. Democrats also made headway on energy, children’s health insurance, college student loans, Head Start, drug safety and a farm bill — though much of this awaits action in the Senate or in conference and faces a possible veto.

During the first seven months of 1995, Congressional oversight of the executive branch increased modestly in the Senate but not at all in the House. But this year Congress, especially the House, has intensified its oversight, following years of inattention and deference by its Republican predecessor.

Mann backs up his case with this chart.

A couple things. First of all, I don't believe that public perception of Congress has more than a very tangential relationship to what, or how many, measures they pass or enact with the president's signature. I hardly remember the energy measure and the action on college student loans, and I don't remember anything on Head Start and drug safety--and I feel pretty confident that I follow this stuff more closely than most of the public. On the other hand, I certainly remember the failures of the immigration bill and the various measures to de-escalate or stop the war, and the Democrats' disgraceful capitulation on wiretapping that essentially invalidated the Fourth Amendment. To be honest, I don't approve of the Congress's performance either.

But the second point is maybe more important: the frustrations shared by Democrats both professional and amateur are part and parcel of the system. It's not supposed to be easy to change policy. You can have a rabidly partisan, arguably sociopathic president, a minority more interested in embarrassing the other side than passing laws, outside pressure groups subtle (the insurance lobby pushing Bush to veto S-CHIP expansion) and gross (millions of enraged talk-radio callers and Lou Dobbs viewers fingering their guns in anticipation of a Mexican invasion). The only time it's ever even sort of easy is when there's a disaster--the Depression, JFK's assassination, 9/11--that either discredits or mutes the opposition.

The Democrats are somewhat in a dilemma here, because they won't get more popular until they win some more political fights, but obviously it will be more difficult to win those fights with 18 percent approval than a clear expression of support from the country. It's now more clear than ever that 2006 was the year of Republican collapse; unless the Dems figure out how to win on a positive agenda, with their own candidates, their ascendency will be short-lived and the history of the 110th Congress will be written by those who overthrew it.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Michael Vick
So long, dickhead. I don't have much to add on this one, other than utter bafflement how someone could engage in dog fighting when he was already a millionaire. (Don't get me wrong: I think it's evil and wrong in any context. But for whatever reason it becomes a little more comprehensible if the people involved are poor and desperate. Vick freakin' bankrolled the ring. He must have gotten entertainment from this.)

Anyway, he's going to spend a year in jail, and the NFL has suspended him without pay--not for the dog fighting, as you'd think, but for the gambling aspect. I guess I get it--it's probably a legalistic approach like busting Al Capone on tax evasion, and accomplishes the same end. But it still feels weird, like the army punishing the killers of civilians ostensibly because they disobeyed the dress code.

Random thought: if you knew the right sports book to contact, could you get action on whether Vick embraces Christianity or Islam while he's on the inside?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Who's the Bobby?
John Edwards clearly has concluded that his presidential chances rest on drawing the sharpest possible contrast with Hillary Clinton and the Establishment policies and politics she represents. In a speech today, Edwards went on the attack:

[S]mall thinking and outdated answers aren't the only problems with a vision for the future that is rooted in nostalgia. The trouble with nostalgia is that you tend to remember what you liked and forget what you didn't. It's not just that the answers of the past aren't up to the job today, it's that the system that produced them was corrupt -- and still is. It's controlled by big corporations, the lobbyists they hire to protect their bottom line and the politicians who curry their favor and carry their water. And it's perpetuated by a media that too often fawns over the establishment, but fails to seriously cover the challenges we face or the solutions being proposed. This is the game of American politics and in this game, the interests of regular Americans don't stand a chance.
Politicians who care more about their careers than their constituents go along to get elected. They make easy promises to voters instead of challenging them to take responsibility for our country. And then they compromise even those promises to keep the lobbyists happy and the contributions coming.
The choice for our party could not be more clear. We cannot replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats, just swapping the Washington insiders of one party for the Washington insiders of the other.
But cleaning up Washington isn't enough. If we are going to meet the challenges we face and prevail over them, two principles must guide us -- yes, we must end the Washington game, but we must also think as big as the challenges we face. Our ideas must be bold enough to succeed and our government must be free to enact them without compromising principle or sacrificing results.

One without the other isn't good enough. All the big ideas in the world won't make a difference if they have to go through this broken system that remains controlled by big business and their lobbyists. And if we fix the system, but aren't honest with the American people about the scope of our challenges and what's required of each of us to meet them, then we'll be left with the baby steps and incremental measures that are Washington's poor excuse for progress.

As Bobby Kennedy said, "If we fail to dare, if we do not try, the next generation will harvest the fruit of our indifference; a world we did not want, a world we did not choose, but a world we could have made better by caring more for the results of our labors."

But if we do both -- if we have the courage to offer real change and the determination to change Washington -- then we will be build the One America we dream of, where every man, woman and child is blessed with the same, great opportunity and held to the same, just rules.

I substantially agree with the Edwards critique of "corporate Democrats," though I recoil somewhat at the possibility of overdoing it; after all, we want corporations tamed, not destroyed; their wealth-making powers more equitably shared, not curtailed; their influence (which protects that wealth-making capacity) checked by other considerations, not eliminated entirely.

While this attack has merit, though, it's also fairly predicable and represents not just a rhetorical shot across the Clinton bow, but a new determination on the part of Edwards to seize the mantle of Idealist/Reformer/Not-Hillary from Barack Obama, who's trying to win that title through a much less overtly confrontational campaign approach. The model for both men is Robert Kennedy; Edwards, who quotes Kennedy in the speech, is going after RFK's speaking-truth-to-power cred, while Obama is focusing on the hope that Bobby inspired in millions of Americans, black and white, rich and poor, young and old.

I've written about the tricky nature of the RFK legacy before, but it's worth considering another aspect of the legend for the purposes of the 2008 campaign. RFK rose to his mythical stature through martyrdom, but his prominence as a national figure--the reason he became such a factor in the 1968 race--initially came because he was the brother of another martyr, President John F. Kennedy. Were it not for the emotional resonance he created by looking and sounding so much like the late and much-loved JFK, Bobby's stinging critiques of structural racism and economic injustice (not to mention the Vietnam War, for which he was present at the creation and bore a special obligation of penitence) would not have gotten nearly as wide a hearing.

In other words, he had to be a celebrity before he could become a prophet. And the wellspring of his celebrity was his status as the late president's brother.

Of course, Bill Clinton isn't a martyr to anything but his own bad judgment and, perhaps, the irrational Puritanism of Ken Starr and the self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy of Newt Gingrich. But he still confers a reflected glow upon his wife--and just as support for RFK was based in no small part upon nostalgia for the too-short Kennedy Administration, Hillary Clinton's backing comes in significant part from the public's fond memories of her husband's two terms (which, compared to what followed, really do look like a golden age).

RFK's celebrity gave him a pedastal from which to launch his critiques of American society and his pledges to create a government that would act in greater alignment with our highest principles. The critiques of Edwards and Obama might be no less powerful, but they don't have the platform. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, does have the platform... but she isn't using it to say much of consequence. Sadly, I think the size of the megaphone will trump the quality of the message, and she will be the nominee.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Bon Chance, Trot
In a shocking move, the Philadelphia Eagles today released one of their signature players: middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter. Trotter is a four-time Pro Bowler who is, for the most part, 30 years old; the problem is that his knees have the mileage of a guy fifteen or twenty years older. That accelerated decrepitude is why the Eagles concluded he could no longer stop the run well enough to make up for being a major liability in passing situations.

Football is a brutal game in more ways than the action on the field, and nothing is rougher than cutting a veteran and team leader. But this parting was handled with probably as much class as possible by both sides. The Eagles made the move early enough to ensure that Trotter, who doesn't want to retire, can try and catch on elsewhere, and Trotter himself came out to practice today for a press conference and in-person farewell to his teammates.

Trotter addressed the team, telling his former teammates to savor each opportunity on the field, each moment with the team, then essentially passed the middle linebacker torch to the young Omar Gaither and hugged each of his former teammates. There was Brian Dawkins, who had seen every minute of Trotter's career here. There was Spikes, who had joined the Eagles in March and been outspoken about his desire to play with Trotter. And there were coaches.

When the linebackers huddled, as they usually do after practice, Trotter was in the middle. He broke the huddle for the last time, walked to the auditorium with Dawkins and Spikes at his side, then fought back tears as he talked about the green blood coursing through his veins.

When Reid summoned Trotter to his office after Monday's practice, Trotter had no idea what was about to happen. He said he was stunned by the news, but sounded neither bitter nor remorseful.

"It was pretty emotional," Trotter said of his meeting with Reid. "At the end, we were like two old ladies up there. Obviously, I know he didn't want to make the decision. But as a head coach, you have to make tough decisions for the organization, and I respected it. I just told him I really appreciated everything he did for me, the organization, and the city.

"It's a tough pill to swallow, but everyone gets to this point in their career at some point or another, and now is my time. I'm just thankful that I spent this many years here in Philadelphia. I truly believe that if you were to cut me, I'd bleed green. Even when I went away for two years [to Washington], I was always an Eagle at heart, and I'll always remain an Eagle."

The Eagles have had a lot of these over the past few years, cutting loose beloved vets like defensive end Hugh Douglas, running back Duce Staley and cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor. Every time, fans have howled; thus far, every time, the move has been borne out by the results. In the salary-cap era, the surest way for an NFL team to fade from contender to also-ran is to do what baseball teams routinely do: overpay for past performance. If the Eagles--who have been down this road before with Trotter, having essentially cut him after a contract dispute before the 2002 season before bringing him back as a reserve two years later--think he's done, he's probably done. Unlike the Phillies, they've earned the benefit of the doubt.

But it's still sad. Trotter and safety Brian Dawkins are the last two players left from the wreckage of the pre-Andy Reid era, and they blossomed into stars (in Dawkins's case, a probable Hall of Famer) as the team returned to prominence. In Trotter's case, a kid from rural Texas--growing up in fairly close proximity to the detested Cowboys--made himself a Philadelphia legend with his signature "Axe Man" celebration and endless intensity and energy. He'll be missed, to say the least.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Why I Sort of Hate the Clintons
Here's a fun game: go to Google (that's a beer you owe me, Greg), and type in Hillary Clinton "strength and experience". Or, what the hell, just click here.

You'll find that almost every time one of the Clintonistas speaks, especially if it's about Barack Obama (the latest example of which finally set me off on this rant--but more about the O-man anon), this same phrase is employed: "Senator Clinton has the strength and experience to..." The end of the sentence really doesn't matter: ensure a bumper corn crop? Fly through the air? Reverse the earth's orbit in its course?

This is what political pundits are talking about when they prattle on about "message discipline." It's another manifestation of the single worst phenomenon of 21st century American politics: those awful fucking backdrops that have the same three- or four- word phrase written over and over and over again. "Securing Our Borders." "Fixing Health Care." "Defending the Homeland." Gerund, object; now and forever; world without end.

It does help in winning news cycles, thanks in part to the ever-declining budgets of the big news operations and the short attention spans of journalists and the public alike. But it dumbs down our politics, and I suspect it contributes to the elevation of bad leaders. Bush was, for the most part, fantastic at message discipline; presumably it helped that he was too slow-witted to improvise and extrapolate, but he also probably applied the (very real) skill sets that helped him to stop drinking and stay in very good shape for a guy in his 60s.

Bill Clinton, famously undisciplined in his personal life and not known for running a very tight political ship through most of his career, got very good at message discipline in his 1996 re-election campaign. It's probably not a coincidence that Sen. Clinton's operation has the same look and feel (probably meaningless Freudian slip: I initially typed "look and fear") as that campaign. This is one of the many reasons I think she's going to win the nomination, and I admit it will serve her well against the eminently rattle-able Rudy Giuliani, if he makes it to the general election. But, as George W. Bush proved, the ability to stay on-message has little to no connection to the talents a successful president needs.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

...and Hastert Deflates Into Nothingness
There's something fitting about the announcement of former SINO (Speaker in Name Only) Dennis Hastert that he won't seek re-election next year coming just a day and a half after the news that Karl Rove will leave his White House job at the end of this month. Hastert, the wholly owned and operated creature of former Republican kingpin Tom DeLay, was the bland and relatively unthreatening face of the vicious pseudo-conservatism Rove and DeLay masterminded. But while they earned the glory for winning elections, Hastert became the bloated face of Republicans' failure to actually govern in an effective and ethical fashion.

Ultimately, it seems Hastert could not stand on his own without the support of DeLay's arm so far up his fat ass. Good riddance.
Karl Rove Slithers Away
I was waiting at baggage claim at JFK yesterday afternoon when read on the CNN crawl that Karl Rove was leaving his White House job at the end of the month. After dismissing my obvious initial reaction--elation that he was fleeing an indictment--as irrationally optimistic, I just tried to shut up my interior narrative and read the blurbs on the screen. The only one that pissed me off was the sentiment that Rove had rendered great service to "the American people." Loyal friend of the president? Fine. Renowned strategist? Okay. Genius? I'm doubtful, but it can be argued.

What's intolerable is the notion that this purely political creature "served" anyone or anything other than the Republican Party and George W. Bush. For me and tens of millions like me, Karl Rove was nothing but an enemy; his goal was to marginalize us as completely as possible from having a voice in the affairs of our own country.

Perhaps strangely, the best take I've read by far of Rove's achievements and legacy comes from another Loyal Bushie: former speechwriter and current right-wing columnist David Frum, writing in the New York Times this morning:

AS a political strategist, Karl Rove offered a brilliant answer to the wrong question.

The question he answered so successfully was a political one: How could Republicans win elections after Bill Clinton steered the Democrats to the center?

The question he unfortunately ignored was a policy question: What does the nation need — and how can conservatives achieve it?

Mr. Rove answered his chosen question by courting carefully selected constituencies with poll-tested promises: tax cuts for traditional conservatives; the No Child Left Behind law for suburban moderates; prescription drugs for anxious seniors; open immigration for Hispanics; faith-based programs for evangelicals and Catholics.

These programs often contradicted each other. How do you cut taxes and also create a big new prescription drug benefit? If the schools are failing to educate the nation’s poor, how does it make sense to expand that population by opening the door to even more low-wage immigration?

Instead of seeking solutions to national problems, “compassionate conservatism” started with slogans and went searching for problems to justify them. To what problem, exactly, was the faith-based initiative a solution?

This was a politics of party-building and coalition-assembly. It was a politics that aimed at winning elections. It was a politics that treated the problems of governance as secondary. But of course governance is what incumbents get judged on — and since 2004, the negative verdict on President Bush’s governance has created a lethal political environment for Republican candidates.
Building coalitions is essential to political success. But it is not the same thing as political success. The point of politics is to elect governments, and political organizations are ultimately judged by the quality of government they deliver. Paradoxically, the antigovernment conservatives of the 1980s took the problems of government far more seriously than the pro-government conservatives of the 2000s.

Also in the Times, Joshua Green--an observer considerably less sympathetic to Rove's goals than Frum--observes that the man known as "Turd Blossom" ironically repeated some of the mis-steps of those 1960s liberals he so hated. And Rick Perlstein on wonders if Rove's change of address just means that he'll be operating with a somewhat freer hand, doing the same odious things for his odious patron.

Let's hope not. Rove's epitaph for our politics could be, as the sisters Bouvier once had engraved for Homer Simpson, "We are richer for having lost him."

Monday, August 06, 2007

News of the Weird and Sad
I'm out of town for a week starting in a couple hours, but this story of Bob Allen, the family-values Florida state representative who offered to fellate an undercover cop, is too good not to notice. First, Rep. Allen's version:

Allen has already denied any wrongdoing, but the recordings and documents offered new details about what he and police say happened on July 11 inside the men's room at Veterans Memorial Park.

"I certainly wasn't there to have sex with anybody and certainly wasn't there to exchange money for it," said Allen, R-Merritt Island, who was arrested on charges of soliciting prostitution.

"This was a pretty stocky black guy, and there was nothing but other black guys around in the park," Allen, who is white, told police in a taped statement after his arrest. Allen said he feared he "was about to be a statistic" and would have said anything just to get away.

Allen, who couldn't be reached for comment Thursday, has repeatedly declared his innocence, his intention to fight the charges and his desire to stay in office.

Gotta love the appeal to ignorant white fear. And now the officer's version:

In a written statement released Thursday, Titusville Officer Danny Kavanaugh recalled entering the restroom twice and said he was drying his hands in a stall when Allen peered over the stall door.

After peering over the stall a second time, Allen pushed open the door and joined Kavanaugh inside, the officer wrote. Allen muttered " 'hi,' " and then said, " 'this is kind of a public place, isn't it,' " the report said.

The officer said he asked Allen about going somewhere else and that the legislator suggested going "across the bridge, it's quieter over there."

"Well look, man, I'm trying to make some money; you think you can hook me up with 20 bucks?" Kavanaugh asked Allen.

The officer said Allen responded, "Sure, I can do that, but this place is too public."

Then Kavanaugh said he told Allen, "I wanna know what I gotta do for 20 bucks before we leave.' " He said Allen replied: "I don't know what you're into."

According to Kavanaugh's statement, the officer said, "do you want just [oral sex]?" and Allen replied, "I was thinking you would want one."

The officer said he then asked Allen, "but you'll still give me the 20 bucks for that . . . and that the legislator said, "yeah, I wouldn't argue with that."

As Allen turned and motioned for the officer to follow him to his car, Kavanaugh identified himself as a police officer by raising his shirt and exposing his badge.

The South Park episode pretty much writes itself, doesn't it?

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Demented America
How about this one:

The Club For Growth is targeting Mike Huckabee in the run-up to the Ames straw poll next weekend, clearly hoping to blunt any appeal he might have with state's religious right GOP base. This TV ad, with a buy costing a total of $85,000, attacks Huckabee for raising various taxes when he was governor of Arkansas, tax hikes that Huckabee has said were necessary to improve the state's ragged infrastructure.

Their ad went up today. Is it obliviousness or shamelessness that these vicious, greedy fuckers renew their anti-tax jihad as rescuers are still trying to save the victims of a bridge collapse in Minneapolis--the perfect example of what happens when you neglect the public's infrastructure?

Huckabee's obviously wrong about a great many things. But if he has the gumption to tell off Pat Toohey and his collection of sociopaths--to invite them to drown themselves in Grover Norquist's bathtub--I'm sending him money.

On the "Democratic" side, more madness from our would-be Kinder, Gentler Empress:

The ongoing Hillary-Obama skirmish has flared up into a major firefight this afternoon, with Clinton chiding Obama at a press conference for ruling out the use of nukes against terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Earlier today Obama was asked by the Associated Press whether he'd consider using nukes against terrorists in Afghanistan or Pakistan. His answer was No:

"I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance," Obama said, with a pause, "involving civilians." Then he quickly added, "Let me scratch that. There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table."

Hillary has now responded by chiding Obama for ruling out the use of nukes. Here's what she said today at a press conference, according to a transcript provided by the Senator's office:

"I think that presidents should be very careful at all times in discussing the use or non-use of nuclear weapons. Presidents, since the Cold War, have used nuclear deterrence to keep the peace. And I don't believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons."

You're fucking kidding me. Right?

How sick have we become as a society when our most likely next president is publicly countenancing the use of nuclear weapons--the same instruments of death and havoc that we are endlessly willing to go to war to stop others from acquiring--against a bunch of thugs in caves?

I took a lot of classes in college about the Cold War, deterrence theory, all that stuff. I understand the thinking. But... this is beyond irrational. It's one thing to deter aggression from a hostile, nuclear-armed power; it's quite another even to hold open the possibility that you would irradiate an entire region--killing who knows how many people who have nothing to do with whatever it is you're trying to stop--just to score political points.

It's times like this I'm glad I'm agnostic. Because if I were a person of faith, I'd be worried in the extreme about the wrath of a just God.