Monday, December 29, 2008

A Hail of Bullets
Not feeling quite up to fully thinking any of these things through with a long post, so I'm staging more Short Attention Span Theater:

  • The Eagles recorded arguably the greatest regular-season win in franchise history yesterday, absolutely burying the hated Dallas Cowboys in a win-or-die game for both teams. Thanks to an improbable turn of events elsewhere, they'll play on next week at Minnesota, a game in which they're favored... and while I'm reasonably confident that they'll win that one and get a mid-January trip to north New Jersey for their troubles, I can't imagine that anything short of maybe, maybe winning the Super Bowl Itself could come close to the euphoric high of yesterday's triumph. In a way--and I'm cursing my own blasphemy here--it might have been better even than the Phillies' world championship. That was pure happiness: relief, vindication, redemption. This was happiness, sure, and in that alone not close to the level of October 29--but in addition to the positive joy, there was wallowing, almost decadent pleasure in seeing the reviled fucking Cowboys embarrassed to an unprecedented extent. In my loud drunken state, I was giving Jerry Jones, Terrell Owens and other selected Dallasites both middle digits every time the camera caught them; if there had been a fixed picture-in-picture of either for the duration of the second half, I might have been at risk of having both hands stuck in finger-giving mode.

  • The question of just how good this Eagles team is now might get a more definitive answer. If, as I expect, they win next week and then lose to the Giants, we'll know that "good, not great" is the right description: basically on a par with most of the recent iterations, if more schizophrenic than the relatively stolid 12-win teams that petered out in successive NFC championship games earlier this decade. If they go further, though, we'll know that the hints buried in the numbers that this is no ordinary nine-win team--they set franchise records in a bunch of categories, including scoring, and ranked near the top of the league in almost every metric other than turnovers--got at the truth more than their relatively pedestrian record.

  • Matt Miller had an excellent op-ed in Sunday's Times urging a larger federal role in public education. This is a tough subject to engage people on, because the first counter-argument--it isn't only about money--is unanswerable. To his credit, Miller concedes that Washington DC and Newark, two of the better-funded public systems in the country in terms of per-student spending, suck the big one. But his characterization of local financing as "an injustice, masked as a virtue, so deeply ingrained in the American mind that no politician in either party dare challenge it" is spot on. He actually does exhume a politician who in some sense challenged the convention: Richard Nixon, who convened a committee on school finance in the early '70s that urged states to smooth out funding disparities from one community to another, and whose secretary of education suggested a much larger federal role in financing public schools: 25 to 30 percent, or more than three times the current contribution. Miller goes on to note that the feds could use additional money as a lever to effect policy changes: enticing top teachers to high-need schools, or convincing districts to do away with or modify teacher tenure. (I can only assume Miller has been hanging out with Ms. Rhee.) Sadly, this probably represents an act of political courage beyond what we can expect from Obama, or indeed any Democrat in the Oval Office; even more sadly, no Republican in the just-ended campaign had anything of note to say about education. It's an intramural fight right now; maybe this will be one of the questions that spark new blood flow to the atrophied Republican brain.

  • Another Times education op-ed from the previous day suggests that the bachelors degree should no longer be regarded as an employment credential. I completely agree, much as I detest the guy making the argument: Charles Murray, right-wing think tank fluffer and author of The Bell Curve, a masterwork of junk science that gave encouragement to well-mannered racists everywhere. Murray's core point here, as elsewhere in his recent writings, is that a four-year college education is sub-optimal for most young people, who in his estimation aren't smart enough to handle the work. In this piece, he uses some truly irrelevant points to support the premise: no, I probably couldn't have finished a physics degree, but then I'm also not at all sure I could pass a rigorous computer repair course, which Murray seems to regard as a better match for the less academically able. (And I'm pretty sure I'd wash out of a carpentry apprenticeship in, oh, a month, if I didn't saw my own fool hand off first.) He also obliquely acknowledges, but then ignores, the fact that family wealth is as or more important to a student's odds of finishing college as academic talent; why not then propose a fix around financial aid? Those problems aside, though, dropout rates alone show the irrationality of the "college for all" mindset. The trick will be changing the minds of students, parents, teachers and high school guidance counselors--pretty much all of whom are indoctrinated to believe that anything but a bachelors is inferior and shameful. I'll admit, though, that I haven't yet figured out how to go about that changing of minds and hearts.

  • Finally, Jim Webb is about to take on one of the toughest and most important policy questions in the country: corrections reform. I'm not sure his ideas are fully cooked yet, but judging from this piece, at least he's choosing the right ingredients: looking at who is locked up and why on the front end, and focusing less on retribution than rehabilitation for those already behind bars. The political atmospherics of this--on full display even in the article here--will be fascinating to watch unfold. Webb is one of the tougher guys in the Senate, so it won't be easy to pin him with the "soft on crime" label... but the Republicans will try, and even assuming they don't get him, it's an open question whether his shall we say less testicularly fortified Democratic colleagues would go on record to take action here. Given our world-largest prison population and the truly stunning amount of money we spend on incarceration for just abominable outcomes in terms of recidivism (see here for starters), I wish him all the success in the world.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Hope Cycle
I just finished reading "Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001," a book I'd purchased earlier this year and left sitting on the shelf for some six months before, for some reason, pulling it down a few weeks back.

It's a tough read, not owing to any shortcomings of prose style on the part of author Benny Morris, a prominent Israeli historian, but rather the subject matter. Without delving into the specifics of the subject--I'll just briefly state for the record that both the reflexive pro-Israeli view I absorbed as a kid, and the reflexive pro-Palestinian mindset one can find on some of the farther corners of the American left, are not only simplistic but actively harmful to the generally shared objective of facilitating peace--the main conclusion I took away from the book is that progress generates its own momentum, but more often than not events hit a snag and the resultant disillusionment can leave all concerned arguably worse off than before hope took hold. In the case of Israel and Palestine, the seeming breakthrough of the mid-1990s was the event that launched this cycle: Bill Clinton's intervention, the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn, and the beginnings of a transfer of power in Gaza and the West Bank convinced many on both sides that peace was at hand.

As we now know, it wasn't: Rabin's assassination, dishonesty and malice on both sides, and more political and diplomatic failures undermined that time of hope and left us with a situation in the Middle East as intractable as ever--down to, literally, the present day.

I'm thinking about this--the cycle of hope and disillusionment that can leave a country worse off than when hope first took hold--in the context of the United States and the election of Barack Obama. Having campaigned explicitly on "hope," but never exactly defining what that might mean in operational terms, Obama runs the risk of courting quick popular disillusionment. Critics on the right are already asserting that the electorate voted for a change in management but not necessarily policy direction; some of their counterparts on the left seem to be actively anticipating, if not embracing, near-immediate disillusionment.

If your basic predisposition is to believe it's all pointless and hopeless, it's never hard to find justification for this view. But most of us seem partially or totally impervious to the wisdom of despair: almost involuntarily, we keep hoping.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Unintended Remembrances
Earlier this week I was reading Bruce Reed's take on the last-ditch effort of Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) to get his record, if not his reputation, expunged. Craig, of course, became infamous in the summer of 2007, when he was arrested on indecency charges--specifically, trying to pick up a dude for sex--in a bathroom at the Minneapolis airport. He copped to the crime, a misdemeanor, that August, and has tried again and again to change his plea in the year-plus since.

Craig, whose political career previously was characterized by homophobia and general reactionary positions on social issues, is both despicable and sad. But it still struck me as a bit poignant that this man, who after all can boast of having served three terms in the United States Senate and nearly three decades total in Congress, will be remembered above all else for the words "wide stance"... even though he never actually used those words.

So I was thinking about this again today when I read the news that Dock Ellis has passed away. Ellis was a baseball pitcher of considerable accomplishment in the 1970s, winning 138 games over his 12-year career and earning a world championship with the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates. But my first thought upon hearing the news, and I'm sure that of many people, was "oh--the guy who threw a no-hitter on LSD." deems that this legendary tale is, in fact, true, though the site is at pains to point out that its verdict relies on Ellis's own account, and that there is considerable room for interpretation in it: even if he did take the hallucinogen, the effects might have largely worn off by game time. But--as with Larry Craig and the words "wide stance," sometimes the legend is so much better than the truth that qualifying details aren't really welcome.

In the case of Ellis, though, I'm left with the sense that the guy probably deserves better than to be remembered for an accomplishment some will regard as deviant. By most accounts, he had a strong sense of social responsibility, and he spent his post-baseball years working with formerly incarcerated individuals attempting to rejoin their communities--a challenging and important undertaking for which I have new appreciation, informed by some work projects I have going--and counseling young ballplayers to avoid drug and alcohol addiction. And he was just 63 years old. His former agent said today, "'I've been in this business for 40 years and there was never a more standup guy.''

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Blagojevich scandal was an inadvertent boon to New York Governor David Paterson, who previously was square in the spotlight while deliberating over his selection to replace Secretary of State designee Hillary Clinton in the Senate. But a news item today will put Paterson--who evidently was the butt of a lousy and borderline-offensive Saturday Night Live bit this past weekend, making fun of his vision impairment--back in the public eye. Caroline Kennedy wants the seat.

I don't have a strong opinion on Caroline Kennedy, other than I guess gratitude that she endorsed Obama early and, up till now, some admiration for her determination to stay out of the public spotlight. As readers of this blog know, I find political nepotism pretty disgusting, and Ms. Kennedy's general distance from public life suggested to me, in what was maybe wishful thinking on my part, that she was determined not to leverage her famous name and place in the public imagination. She's supposed to be smart and conscientious, and certainly she hasn't embarrassed herself like so many of the other Kennedys. But what exactly has she done, other than being a Kennedy and endorsing Obama (which presumably is a bug, not a feature, to the Clintonites and many former Clinton supporters in New York public life), to merit appointment to the Senate?

Unfortunately, the celebrity takeover of our politics seems to be gaining strength if anything, and despite the legacy of Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger it seems to be most strongly rooted in my party. I'm rooting hard for Al Franken to win the endless Minnesota Senate election, but the truth is he never should have gotten that nomination in the first place: the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party has a pretty damn deep bench. Probably the most egregious manifestation of this, way more offensive than Caroline Kennedy, is the possibility of Chris Matthews running for Senate in Pennsylvania against Arlen Specter in 2010. Why this legendarily irritating television personality, best known for his vaguely homoerotic pronouncements about George W. Bush, Fred Thompson and Barack Obama, feels entitled to compete for a spot in the world's greatest deliberative body is entirely beyond me. Pennsylvania, like Minnesota, has no shortage of up-and-coming Democratic public officials. If they turn to Tweety, I'll hope they lose--even to the weasel Specter, who started offending history when he came up with the Magic Bullet Theory more than forty years ago and hasn't much slowed down since.

One idea I'm toying with about the rising incidence of celebrity office-seekers and -holders is that for most of us, politics is so expensive and distasteful that the negatives of getting involved as a participant easily outweigh the positives. I have a few friends, through professional circles, who contemplate seeking local office; that I can see, as these people have areas of expertise and strong ideas about the needs of their communities. But a city-, state-, or nationwide race offers the prospect of having your personality totally distorted, at potentially devastating personal cost in terms of strain on family, and the very real prospect of defeat and embarrassment. Maybe in the case of Caroline Kennedy or Chris Matthews, they already are firmly enough fixed in the public mind that even if their service is a total disaster, it won't represent the sum of how they're remembered--and they're already rich enough that the money, both in terms of what a campaign might cost and the lower compensation (at least in Matthews' case) of the job, doesn't really matter.

But I have a hard time believing that these famous-for-other-reasons people are really the best we can call upon to represent us at the highest levels of power.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

They All Stink
My earliest memory regarding politics is of my grandfather talking about his approach to voting, probably around 1981 or so. Pop said (I'm paraphrasing): "I vote for whoever's out of office in every election, and after they steal enough, I vote them out the next time."

One could attribute the cynicism to the times: this was about a decade after the worst excesses of Nixonian corruption (reviewed, in much greater detail than Watergate, in Rick Perlstein's "Nixonland," probably my favorite book of 2008), and just a few years after Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo failed a lie-detector test and a score of pols were busted in Abscam. But little in public life over the nearly three decades since has suggested that he had it wrong. What I imagine many on the left are now realizing, hopefully to their chagrin and maybe even to the point of gaining some wisdom, is that Democrats aren't really any more immune to the temptations of power than are Republicans, whose seemingly systemic excesses helped cost the party their Congressional majorities two years ago.

Actually, at least there was something innovative and creative about Republican corruption in the days of DeLay and Abramoff. The current Democratic scandals, the most spectacular of which concerns Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich but the more concerning of which is probably the swirl of issues around House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, are age-old stories about arrogance, narcissism, cupidity and stupidity.

Also interesting, and saddening, is the difference in response to these two Democratic officials. President-elect Obama, every Democratic Senator, and any editorial board type who's been awake in the last 72 hours or so have called on Blagojevich--who was already detested in Illinois, with a single-digit approval rating--to resign. The Rangel suite of scandals has drawn nary a whisper, to my knowledge, at least among Democrats. (To their credit, the NYT editorial board called today for Democratic leaders to strip Rangel of his chairmanship, at least during the investigation.)

I don't expect anything resembling political courage from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her large Democratic majority, however; much more likely is that Pelosi, who is well on the way to becoming the most powerful Speaker in a half-century or more, will lean on the House Ethics Committee to exonerate Rangel and get on to business as usual. And why not? There's no chance the 78 year-old could lose his seat in Harlem, and any strong discipline would only rile up the Congressional Black Caucus--which supported even the bribe-taking Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana, who was caught with $90,000 in cash hidden in his freezer. (Happily, Jefferson lost a low-turnout special election last weekend, putting a Republican in one of the country's most Democratic districts.)

Rangel's alleged offenses all show the arrogance of entrenched power. He's been in office for 20 terms; he's getting toward the end of his career, obviously, and he's looking to "cement his legacy" by raising the current and future profile of the Rangel Center for Public Service at City College. And he probably figures that, after nearly four decades of making less money than he could have outside of public life, he shouldn't have to pay taxes on his rental income from the beach house in the Dominican Republic or be obligated to follow the tiniest letter of the law concerning the use of those rent-stabilized apartments he controls in Harlem (which I'm sure are worth vastly more now than they were whenever he acquired their use). Pretty much the exact same set of motivations were present fifteen years ago, when his predecessor in the Ways and Means chairmanship, Dan Rostenkowski, was busted for similar small-bore scandals. (Irony alert: Rostenkowski, like Jefferson last weekend, was defeated in his generally safe Democratic district by a Republican in 1994. Two years later, the Democrats took the seat back. The winning candidate: Rod Blagojevich!)

What's sad here is that Pelosi and other senior Democrats, certainly including Rangel himself, have been around long enough to remember what the perception of corruption did to them in 1994, as well as how it swept them back into power twelve years later. But the imperative to avoid a political fight in the short term evidently is stronger than the concern that two years from now--when it's likely the economy will remain stuck in the mud and historical trends suggest a likely beating for the party of the incumbent president--they'll suffer for this toleration of avarice and arrogance.

Perhaps worse is that looking the other way while Rangel and others transgress against ethical standers undermines the larger progressive mission in this period of history: to rehabilitate the good name of government. Republican corruption was in some sense much more understandable: they saw (and see) the public sector as a whore, so violating her for personal gain was no big deal. Corruption even could be said to serve a larger right-wing end of maintaining the low reputation of government. The Democrats, though, are supposed to view government as a tool to serve the public interest. To sell that vision, government must be both competent and ethical. It's hard enough to reform health care, fix education, and put the country on a course toward environmental sustainability without constant accusations that actions to do these things will have the side effect of personal enrichment for those in office; if that sense takes root, the progressive project in the years to come will falter as badly as it has in the recent past.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Not Dead Yet
Timing is everything, I've heard.

Eleven days ago I posted here describing the Eagles as "blind to their own shortcomings and spectacularly adrift." Since then, they've crushed an Arizona Cardinals team that looked to be their match on paper, and just a few minutes ago completed a thorough ass-kicking of the best team in the league, the New York Giants.

The score, 20-14, doesn't convey how thoroughly the Eagles dominated. New York scored one touchdown on a blocked field goal try returned the length of the field at the end of the first half--amazingly, this is the second time this exact soul-crusher of a momentum swing befell the Eagles this season; unfathomably, they've won both games--and another in what amounted to garbage time, when the Eagles gave them the middle of the field and gained more from the Giants' consumption of most of what clock was left than New York did by the seven points. The rest of the time, the Eagles just pushed the defending champions around: they outgained the Giants on the ground, 144 to 88, and held the ball nearly ten minutes longer than New York. The defense didn't make any huge plays--no turnovers, no sacks--but were stout at the line against the NFL's best rushing team, and relentless in pass coverage against Manning and his receivers. Only the Giants' special teams, which accounted for the touchdown on one block and kept three Eagles points off the board when they blocked a second short field goal try, kept it close.

If either team was "adrift" today, it was the host club. Perhaps distracted by the media circus around suspended wideout and handgun enthusiast Plaxico Burress, the Giants simply weren't sharp. Burress's replacement, Dominik Hixon, dropped a likely touchdown pass in the second quarter that would have put New York up 7-3; his was the biggest, but not the only drop. Eli Manning didn't play badly--the drops killed him--but didn't make many plays either. And the Giants' offensive line, so dominant when they ran up and down the field on the Birds last month, was beaten by a smaller but fresher defensive line rotation today. New York was just 3 for 11 on third downs; the Eagles were 11 for 17.

It also now seems clear that where the Eagles previously might have been blind, they can now see: for the second straight contest, they ran the ball successfully and let Donovan McNabb manage the game rather than try to make plays by forcing the ball into tight spots downfield. The Eagles' last scoring drive, an NFL purist's dream, would have been unimaginable two weeks ago. They took over with 9:26 to play, and moved the ball 46 yards on 13 plays in 7:17... 12 of which were runs. The drive consumed all three Giants timeouts before concluding with a field goal that stretched the lead from 10 points to 13.

And it all worked because they stayed with the run: Brian Westbrook wound up setting a career high with 33 carries even after recording these results on his first eight rushes: -5, +4, +5, -1, +3, -2, +3, +2.

His next two? +9, +30 for a touchdown, +11, +5. So after 8 carries, he had 9 yards; after 12, he had 64 and a touchdown.

The Eagles did not play a perfect game. The blocked kick at the end of the half came on a 32 yard try; my guess is that it was one of the shorter blocked field-goal/returned for a score plays in NFL history. Andy Reid burned through all three of his first-half timeouts with more than 14 minutes left in the second corner. And they committed 9 penalties for 73 yards. But they never lost focus, they didn't commit the game-changing mistake late, and they played to their strengths.

I don't want to belabor this too much, but it's sort of hard not to: after pissing away probably four, arguably five possible wins by failures of playcalling and execution, they won a cold-weather road game against a legitimately excellent team that had owned them for two years, and they did it by consistently winning battles at the point of attack. One reaction is, "where the fuck was this when they lost or tied against teams nowhere near the Giants?" the other is, "man, when they're on, they're as good as any team in the NFL."

Anyway, my closing thought in the now ridiculously dumb-looking post from late November was "Perhaps the only solid conclusion is that we all should be less sure of what we 'know.'" With the Eagles resurgent from "totally out of it this year" at 5-5-1 to "still a longshot but clearly good enough if they play to their abilities" at 7-5-1, that much at least still seems true.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Goodnight, Professor
Unlike a lot of baseball fans, I didn't really get my love of the game from my parents: my dad took me to my first game in 1980, but if I've seen more than one or two with him since then, that would be a lot. My mom is a bit more of a fan, but perhaps more in the last few years than when I was a kid. If anything, my grandparents, particularly my late grandmother, had more to do with my early appreciation of baseball, as well as my uncle. But it was really just being a kid in the late '70s and early '80s, when the Phillies ruled the town and were perennial contenders, that made a me a fan. And as I don't have any kids of my own for the time being, and well might not ever, it isn't easy for me to envision that iconic moment of intergenerational baseball talk from either side--when the grownup tells the child about having seen this or that long-retired or deceased star in action, mythologizing what he did between the chalk lines.

If I ever have that experience from the perspective of the older participant, though, the three all-time greats I imagine I'd talk about are Tony Gwynn, Barry Bonds, and Greg Maddux--who will officially announce his retirement on Monday, calling an end to arguably the greatest career in baseball's current era.

Gwynn's singular talent was exemplified in his almost limitless ability to dunk the outside pitch over the shortstop's head for a single to left. Bonds had the finest batting eye I've ever seen--I imagine watching Ted Williams once upon a time was similar--and of course the mammoth power. But Maddux might have been my favorite of the three: physically unremarkable in appearance, not blessed with an overpowering fastball or known for an outsized personality off the field, he won--and won, and won--with sublime smarts and bottomless competitive appetite. Simply put, he could place the ball wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted.

Maddux was at his best during the 1990s, a decade of outsized offense in baseball that we now know was stained by the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs (a fact that specifically tarnishes the legacies of both Bonds and Roger Clemens, the one pitcher in the modern era whose accomplishments rival those of Maddux). He won at least 15 games every year between 1988 and 2004, a stretch of 17 seasons. Between 1992 and 2000, he put up a cumulative record of 165-71, and only once posted an ERA above 3 in that stretch. And he never got hurt: between 1988 and 2001, he threw over 200 innings every single year, missing the mark by two-thirds of an inning in 2002 before reeling off another four seasons of 200-plus. He was a complete player, winning a record 18 Gold Gloves, including one this past season at age 42, for his defense. Some argue that Maddux's four-year stretch between 1992 and 1995--in which he went an unfathomable 75-29 with a combined ERA of 1.98--is the greatest "peak" of any pitcher in baseball history, at least compared to league averages during that time.

My clearest single memory of Maddux actually wasn't his work on the field, but his appearance before the media after shutting out the Yankees, 4-0, pitching for the Braves in Game Two of the 1996 World Series. I was working for NBC Sports at the time, but we didn't have the broadcast rights to the Series that year--I just happened to get a ticket, and used my press credential to get into the postgame press conference. Sitting there in his glasses, speaking so quietly one had to strain to hear him, Maddux talked about his performance that night--six hits, no walks, two strikeouts in eight shutout innings--as a memory he would take to the grave. He didn't come across as maudlin or hyperbolic, but it was clear that he appreciated the moment and that he had written, was continuing to write, a chapter in the history of the game. As it happened, Maddux was back on the Yankee Stadium mound five days later, and was the losing pitcher to Jimmy Key (7 2/3 innings, 3 runs, all scored in the bottom of the 3rd) as the Yankees took their first championship in 18 years. I had the good fortune to be at that game too, though not the postgame media events afterward; I imagine Maddux faced the press with the exact same demeanor. And of course he went out the next year and continued his quiet, inexorable dominance.

As it happens, the last appearance of Maddux's career came against the Phillies in the decisive Game Five of this year's National League Championship Series. He came in with his team behind 3-0 to pitch the top of the fourth: flyout, strikeout looking, strikeout looking. An inning later, he allowed two runs, both unearned, as his shortstop and former Atlanta teammate Rafael Furcal made two critical errors in the span of four batters, each to allow a run. Down 5-0 after the second error, with the bases loaded and the Dodgers' hopes for a comeback down to a prayer, he retired Cole Hamels on a groundout to avoid further damage.

EIghth on the all-time wins list with 355, Maddux will proceed directly into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. The only question is how much of a share of the vote he'll receive from the always-flaky Baseball Writers of America Association. (Note: I will take any opportunity to link to their hilariously ugly website, last redesigned I think around when Maddux faced the Yanks in the '96 Series.) He should become the first player to go in unanimously; I'm sure he won't, because some goon or other among the miserable community of sportswriters who comprise the BBWAA membership will absurdly assert the principle that "if Babe Ruth wasn't a unanimous pick, nobody ever should be." I can, however, pledge that if I'm still around and still blogging, I will mock that person or persons relentlessly.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Waiting for IRV
It's not quite as dramatic as the last time a recount stretched into December, but the Minnesota Senate race between Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken remains unresolved, with new twists and turns seemingly every hour. Depending on who's making the claim, the margin at this moment is anywhere from Coleman by a few hundred votes to Franken by a couple dozen.

Franken, the former Saturday Night Live writer/performer and Air America radio host, moved back to his home state a couple years ago to run against Coleman, a former Democrat who won his race six years ago after the incumbent Democrat, Paul Wellstone, died in a plane crash. Coleman defeated former Senator and Vice-President Walter Mondale, the replacement candidate; between November 2002 and January 2003, then-Governor Jesse Ventura appointed a local politician named Dean Barkley, who had chaired Ventura's campaign, to serve the last few months of Wellstone's term under the banner of the Independence Party of Minnesota.

This race was the only Senate contest to which I donated money this year, more than anything else out of a desire to see a Democrat retake the seat held by Wellstone, whom I revered as the greatest progressive citizen-legislator of my lifetime. That Coleman is a weasel who's probably corrupt figured into it too. But the usual dynamic of such a race--Coleman's record in office versus Franken's challenge, with their parties overlaid--was thrown off by the presence of Barkley as a third-party candidate with unusual name recognition by virtue of his former service in the Senate. (Those titles last forever; in debates, he's actually addressed as "Senator Barkley." That's the sort of thing that probably impacts the decisions of lower-information voters.)

The initial count was as follows:

Coleman (R) 42% (1,211,590)
Franken (D) 42% (1,211,375)
Barkley (I) 15% (437,404)
Aldrich (L) <1% (13,916)

Minnesota law mandates that a recount is automatically triggered when the margin is less than one-half of one percent; this margin was 0.007 percent. Barkley and the Libertarian, Charles Aldrich, combined for more than 451,000 votes, or about 2100 times as many as the number separating Coleman and Franken. Meanwhile, the drama of the recount reminds us that the democratic process is nowhere near as cut-and-dried as it seems when you watch the hosts and pundits giving results on Election Night. Usually the overvotes and undervotes don't matter; when it's this close, they do. It's more than likely the Coleman-Franken race will be decided by how the Minnesota Board of Elections rules on various ballot challenges and other disputes.

Among other issues with this process, it renders the nearly half-million votes cast for neither of the major party candidates totally meaningless. It stands to reason that most of them had a preference between Coleman and Franken; that preference goes unrecognized, and even if it's a weaker sentiment than their support for Barkley et al or their disgust with the two other guys, I think most would rather have that decide a hairs-breadth close race than the judgment of the election board regarding disputed votes.

The way to record those preferences in races with more than two viable candidates is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). This system, so called because it essentially simulates runoff elections, has voters rank candidates in order of preference--so in this case, whoever of Coleman and Franken was the second choice of a majority of the Barkley voters, would have won. The system was invented by an American in the 19th century, but it's barely known here, unlike in Australia or Ireland. Somewhat ironically, a substantial majority of Minneapolis voters passed IRV as a ballot measure in 2006, and it will go into effect for local elections there next year; more ironically, the great champion of IRV in the state is the Independence Party of Minnesota, which used IRV in its 2004 presidential caucus voting to raise the visibility of the system.

I didn't see anyone having made the link between the Minnesota Senate race and IRV until tonight, when I had the idea myself and started poking around, but apparently there was an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune a couple weeks back. Here's hoping the grinding process and uncertain result of the race there converts more voters and officials to IRV; improving our democracy would seem to be worth the few seconds of additional thought to rank choices beyond one's top preference.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The (Philly Sports) World Turned Upside-Down
At the end of 2006, if you’d polled the sports-watching public of Philadelphia (plus displaced fans like me) on whether they had more faith in the procedural and operational wisdom of the Phillies or the Eagles, I think you would have gotten a very, very large majority giving the nod to the football team. Certainly all the evidence pointed in this direction: the Eagles were completing their sixth season of double-digit wins and playoff entry in the previous seven, while the Phillies had just finished a thirteenth straight season on the outside of the playoff hunt, looking in.

Good process leads to good outcomes, we might have said. The Eagles had made a plan and stuck with it, putting their faith in a core of front office, sideline and field leadership that had been in place since the turn of the decade: Joe Banner and Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb and Brian Dawkins and Jon Runyan. They’d turned draft picks like Brian Westbrook and Shawn Andrews into stars, shown a deft touch at knowing when to cut bait on fan favorites like Hugh Douglas and when to bring guys back, most prominently linebacker Jeremiah Trotter. Even decisions that seemed odd at first, like drafting defensive backs Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown while starters Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor were still seemingly healthy and in their primes, often turned out well. And when they did make mistakes, or things went bad—a Terrell Owens going rogue or Mark Simoneau failing to meet expectations—action was taken to protect the core of the team and preserve the winning formula.

The Phillies? They’d started with a plan around the same time that the Eagles brought in Reid and McNabb: build from within, get good and stay good. But their own biggest stars loudly doubted the team’s true commitment to winning: first Curt Schilling in 2000, then Scott Rolen in 2002 essentially talked their way out of town, and in both cases GM Ed Wade misread the situation and failed to extract a valuable return from his trade partners. Maybe worse, they lurched from one management style to another, as low-key outsider Terry Francona gave way to high-strung Phils lifer Larry Bowa, who was canned when—actually well after—he lost the clubhouse, in favor of laconic Charlie Manuel.

The drift was everywhere. Manuel’s big qualification seemed to be that he was personally close to the team’s highest-profile player, Jim Thome; but in Manuel’s first season, 2005, Thome got hurt and then was traded to create space for young slugger Ryan Howard. Everyone knew that the Phillies made the same mistakes again and again, operating in an environment of isolated, self-deluding management that failed to demand accountability from anyone in the executive suites or the dugout. The team's putative leaders, homegrown veterans like Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins, were blasted for their evident lack of a champion’s desire and other intangibles.

The Phillies never seemed more discombobulated than in 2006. Yet another lousy first half led to fan and media calls for Manuel’s firing, probably in favor of another Bowa-like hardass. GM Pat Gillick, who had replaced Wade, traded away many of his veterans in late July for virtually no return. Gillick himself publicly gave up on the season, suggesting that maybe by 2008 his Phillies could contend… and then the team went on a tear. Ryan Howard hit out of his mind from mid-summer on, rewriting the team record book and ultimately winning the MVP award. With a week to go, the Phils led for the wild-card spot—only to fall just short once again. Two months later, the Eagles wrote the same book with a much happier ending, overcoming a series of devastating injuries to rebound from a 5-6 start, win their final five regular season games, claim a division title and defeat the Giants in the playoffs before narrowly losing in the conference semifinals.

Since then, however, almost everything has gone right for the Phillies while the Eagles have fallen into a pit dug about equally from bad luck and bad judgment. Like the 2006 Eagles, the 2007 Phils roared back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to win their division; like the 2006 Phillies, the 2007 Eagles started slowly, missed the playoffs and wasted a spectacularly great season from their biggest star, Brian Westbrook.

This year, of course, the Phillies are World f$^% Champions… and it’s the Eagles, who once declared themselves the NFL’s “gold standard,” who seem blind to their own shortcomings and spectacularly adrift. Where Jimmy Rollins is praised as the heart of his team, it’s Donovan McNabb whose blasé attitude gets blasted in print and on air; Charlie Manuel is now revered for supporting his players and increasingly respected as a tactician, while Andy Reid is on the hot seat for his stunning flaws on the sideline and his clichéd incoherence at the press conference podium. The Same Old Phillies have given way to the Same Old Eagles as the team fans hate to love and love to hate.

I’m not sure what we can take away from any of this, though. Did the Phillies suddenly smarten up or pass some test of character in September 2007? Did the Eagles as an organization lose their grip at around the same time? Or was it all just luck—that the Phillies could have made the playoffs in 2001, or 2003, or 2006, and succeeded once there, while the Eagles caught a ton of breaks earlier in this decade?

Perhaps the only solid conclusion is that we all should be less sure of what we “know.” In sports as in much else.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Other Big Three
One way to consider the news that Barack Obama will name Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State is as something like the bow tying up the last two decades of the Democratic Party’s evolution. Though it might not yet be widely recognized, I think the eventual verdict of political historians will be that Obama substantially completed the work that Bill and Hillary Clinton started, transforming the aimless and often clueless agglomeration of mismatched interest groups that comprised the Democrats of 1988 into the vastly more unified, focused and politically formidable winning coalition of 2008.

Bill Clinton started the work, of course, with his election victory in 1992. His self-branding as a “New Democrat” never sold with the culture warriors on the right, who always viewed him (with some justification) as a self-indulgent and somewhat silly child of the ‘60s. What communicated to the voters who twice gave him pluralities, though, was his grasp of their economic challenges and his sympathy, if not agreement, with their less liberal inclinations. (To liberals, this was often disgusting: the execution of Ricky Ray Rector during the ’92 campaign remains a barbaric low point. But it’s likely that some Clintonian moves to outrage the Upper West Side and Berkeley helped inoculate him elsewhere.) Clinton showed Democrats how to cultivate a political coalition that was more than the sum of their interest-group parts. Certainly his political talent was key here—but the message was as important as the messenger.

He also inadvertently helped the party’s eventual growth through mistakes that caused a great deal of short-term pain: first the early-term missteps that led to the destruction of the Democratic Party in the South and Southwest, by defeat or party-switching, in 1994, and later the personal misadventures that opened the door for George W. Bush to campaign on “restoring honor and dignity” in 2000. Somehow—and the Republicans’ superior political chops as well as Al Gore’s shortcomings and Ralph Nader’s obstinacy had a lot to do with this—Clinton left office with the Republicans in unified control of the federal government… despite retaining tremendous personal popularity.

So when Clinton gave way to Bush, the work was half-done. The Democrats weren’t reflexively dismissed anymore as soft on crime, weak on defense, and out of step with mainstream cultural and economic values. But nor were they identifiable as representing a coherent ideology or set of priorities. Over the next eight years, they suffered in the political wilderness—with their former leaders, Clinton and Gore and Joe Lieberman and Richard Gephardt and Tom Daschle, all disqualifying themselves by retirement, betrayal, or defeat. They mounted what was in some ways an impressive effort in 2004, coming within a couple hundred thousand well-placed votes of defeating an incumbent president in wartime despite a nominee of limited political skill and appeal in John Kerry. And they began to build an intellectual and organizing infrastructure that operated on a national level—assets their opponents had enjoyed for decades.

The one constant Democratic leader during this period was Senator Hillary Clinton. Criticized as an ambitious carpetbagger after winning office in New York, a state she’d never previously called home, she was not the great champion of any issue—and, as I’ve written here many times, she was not exactly a profile in political courage. But her efforts to position for a 2008 presidential run brought her to mastery of foreign affairs, defense policy and other issues she had not much engaged with as First Lady. Hillary Clinton might have served another function in the Democrats’ evolution as well: she was, at least until 2006, the highest-profile and arguably most powerful elected female politician in American history, and her obvious intelligence and dedication helped make the country more comfortable with leaders who weren’t the old white dudes the public was used to. I’m not sure Nancy Pelosi wouldn’t have been able to assume the Speaker’s gavel after the 2006 elections were it not for Sen. Clinton, but a case probably could be made.

Obama’s relationships with both Clintons were famously cold, if not outright hostile. He masterfully pushed Bill’s buttons during the primaries, as the volatile ex-president undermined his wife and angered former supporters. But he also ran Bill’s playbook—pounding on the economy and promising action that matched voters’ priorities--with ever-greater success as 2008 unfolded. As for Hillary, she made Obama a vastly better candidate in ways obvious (the debates) and subtle (the sheer grind of the contest).

The party Obama took leadership of last summer was ready for him. His colleagues in Congress now understood, as their predecessors had not when Bill Clinton took office, that their success or failure in both campaigning and governing would be inextricable from his, and that they would have to be his junior partners rather than the other way around. The apparatus of activism, masterfully built by the former community organizer and his team, will remain available to some extent in helping to govern--as will the larger coalition he built up through the course of the campaign, if he can sustain it. Other assets that his predecessor lacked include a network of think tanks and advocacy groups that are subordinate to his mission and partaking of a national Democratic or liberal identity.

It can’t be overlooked that the Democrats are filling a vacuum left by the intellectual exhaustion and comprehensive failure of the Republicans, led by George W. Bush, over the last eight years. (Worth noting here is this one excellent article—which saw the collapse coming in mid-2004, just before what seemed to be the right’s moment of maximum triumph. I could devote a whole post to how prescient this article, which I remember reading at the time and thinking, “Yeah, I wish,” turned out to be.) It got to the point where one could only defend a vote for the Republicans, even a relatively sensible one like John McCain, by effectively admitting that ideology or enmity trumped rational, objective evaluation of the party’s performance with the power they’d been given. They weren’t serious about governing, which is harmful when you’re actually governing.

My initial trigger for writing this was an article published about a week ago that characterized John Kerry’s 2004 loss as “the luckiest thing to happen to Democrats in 40 years.” This is certainly arguable, though I personally don’t think it was worth what we paid for the last four years of Democrats more or less getting their act together. (Obviously, I hope events prove me wrong.) But the Democrats face the daunting challenges of the current day in a position of strength unimaginable five, ten, fifteen or twenty years ago—thanks largely to the efforts of their last president, their next president, and the woman who married the former and nearly defeated the latter.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Teen Joblessness: the Director's Cut
Earlier this week, through a connection initially made on Back She Goes, I had an entry posted on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce blog, the (somewhat unfortunately titled) Chamberpost.

It's a strange venue for me, with my short brief for greater private sector engagement on the deeply troubling issue of historically low teen employment rates nestled in amongst a seemingly endless barrage of arguments against the union-supported "card check" legislation known as the Employee Free Choice Act. Here's the most recent broadside against it as of 3.29 Saturday afternoon. To listen to the Chamber's in-house bloggers, this measure, which is very likely to pass Congress early next year, not only will directly lead to downfall of American capitalism but will invoke a veritable army of great dead Americans, from Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Gompers, to rise from their graves and drown the world in corpse vomit.

While I don't feel sufficiently informed to make a strong argument for the EFCA, suffice it to say that I would be more inclined to feel sympathy toward the Chamber's views on this question if they made any acknowledgment whatsoever of how horribly out of whack labor relations have become over the last eight years--when we've seen record corporate profits but, for the first time in American economic history, flat median wages during a period of significant overall growth. Efforts to organize workers often lead to intimidation and outright dismissal. Maybe "card check" is too harsh a corrective for this and will do more harm than good, especially during a recession--but it's hard to argue that employers didn't bring this on themselves by so gleefully stomping on workers' throats when times were better.

Anyway, my blog entry was significantly shortened on the site, so I figured I would post the original version, which is about half again as long, here.

For Teen Workers, It’s Already a Depression

It’s no secret that we are only now starting to feel the effects of an economic slowdown, prompted by the pop of the housing bubble and exacerbated by the credit crisis, that could prove to be the worst in many decades. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics just reported that the U.S. economy shed 240,000 jobs in October as the unemployment rate rose to 6.5 percent, its highest level in 15 years. Worse, economists are characterizing this recession as a structural, not cyclical, contraction—meaning that whenever we do emerge from it, our economy will look different than it did when we went in.

But as a recent New York Times article detailed, the groups already feeling the squeeze, and most likely to be disproportionately hit as conditions worsen, are working poor and younger job seekers—those who were already at the margins of the labor market. The piece neatly sums up the dilemma these would-be workers now face:

A kind of domino effect is beginning to squeeze out the least skilled or experienced workers — those already on the bottom of the ladder — who are settling for part-time employment and fewer hours if they can find work at all. Hardest hit of all are younger job-seekers, especially black males in their late teens or early 20s without more than a high school education.

The article cites the work of Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. In early October, I attended a forum in New York City at which Professor Sum presented on the silent crisis around teen employment in America. Sum illustrates a stunning trend in the nation’s summer employment rate for 16 to 19 year-olds over the last 20 years: it’s dropped by a third, from 48.4 percent in 1989 to 32.7 percent this year, the lowest percentage in the 60 years for which we have data. “If the employment rate had dropped that much for any other age group,” he said, “we’d be calling it a depression.” Sum also pointed out that both major party platforms in this election year were completely silent on the question. (Sum’s most recent research on teen employment trends is available online here.)

Why should teen employment matter to American businesses? Two reasons.

The first, which should concern everyone who aspires toward functional communities, is what social scientists call path dependency: once you start doing something, the odds are that you’ll continue to do it. If Ryan or Pedro works at age 16, he’s more likely to work when he’s 17, hopefully earning a bit more money and taking a job with more responsibility. As he gets older, he becomes acculturated into the world of work—and what might be items of concern for the teenager, from too-informal dress to difficulty communicating with colleagues or customers, are surfaced and solved by the time he’s grown up.

Primarily for this reason, early work experience is even more important for young people of modest academic attainment than for those who find success in post-secondary education. The problem is that the young people who statistically are most likely to work tend to be those whose long-term labor market prospects are better anyway: teens from families with larger incomes who are more likely to go to college. Sum reports that 26.5 percent of teens from families with annual incomes of less than $20,000 worked this past summer; by contrast, teens whose families earned between $75,000 and $150,000 worked at a rate over 47 percent. There’s a racial component to this as well: only 20.9 percent of Black teens and 26.8 percent of Hispanic teens worked this summer, compared to 35.9 percent of white teenagers.

The second reason has to do with the macro trends in the labor market and economy toward jobs that require more skill and more education, which both drive economic growth and offer sufficient compensation to support a family. Early work experience for young people lets them see what employers value. (Also, given the nature of the work that teenagers tend to do, they acquire the strong incentive of experience not to spend the bulk of their next five decades clearing tables, working a register, or sweeping up.) Ideally, this inspires them to buckle down in high school, and to think about college as something other than a place to party.

While teen employment is a concern everywhere, some communities have found success in creating work opportunities for their young people. Civic leaders in Philadelphia and Boston have forged effective partnerships with local business leaders to create thousands of meaningful private-sector summer placements for city youth. New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program, the largest summer jobs program in the U.S., has expanded into more private-sector placements and begun to implement an effective education and life-skills curriculum for participants. Unfortunately, the provision in the ten year-old Workforce Investment Act (WIA) to eliminate dedicated funding for summer employment has made it harder for all localities to create summer work opportunities for teens. Given the squeeze now facing the youngest jobseekers, the 111th Congress and President-elect Obama would be well advised to revisit this question, either through WIA reauthorization or targeted legislation, in the near future. Strong encouragement from the business community in this effort would represent both civic-mindedness and long-term self-interest.

David Jason Fischer is Project Director for Workforce Development and Social Policy at the Center for an Urban Future in New York City (

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Who Knows Which is Which, or Who is Who
Coming off a few days of silence, I could write, I guess, about the Senate Democrats spreading their legs for Joe "Joe the Douchebag" Lieberman, or this or that more pertinent current piece of really bad state/local news, or Obama cabinetry, or the painful demise of the Philadelphia Eagles 2008 season. (Actually I'll probably write about that one tomorrow.)

But instead, consider these two pictures:

Seriously, if it weren't for the context clues--the guitar and the flag pin--could you tell these guys apart? They've got to be about the same age (edit: yup, they're about five months apart), and they're both diminutive, Jewish gazillionaires with deep connections to New York City. Separated at birth is my guess, or some sort of cloning experiment with time travel maybe involved.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Michelle Rhee is My Homie
The District of Columbia superintendent is trying something that, if it works, could fundamentally reshape public education in the United States: professionalize the teaching field, rewarding excellence and punishing incompetence. For some reason, this is seen as radical and dangerous; I guess it is, if you're inept or scared of accountability. From today's NYT:

Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging chancellor of the Washington public schools, thinks teacher tenure may be great for adults, those who go into teaching to get summer vacations and great health insurance, for instance. But it hurts children, she says, by making incompetent instructors harder to fire.

So Ms. Rhee has proposed spectacular raises of as much as $40,000, financed by private foundations, for teachers willing to give up tenure.

Policy makers and educators nationwide are watching to see what happens to Ms. Rhee’s bold proposal. The 4,000-member Washington Teachers’ Union has divided over whether to embrace it, with many union members calling tenure a crucial protection against arbitrary firing.
Ms. Rhee has not proposed abolishing tenure outright. Under her proposal, each teacher would choose between two compensation plans, one called green and the other red. Pay for teachers in the green plan would rise spectacularly, nearly doubling by 2010. But they would need to give up tenure for a year, after which they would need a principal’s recommendation or face dismissal.
In an interview, Ms. Rhee said she considered tenure outmoded.

Tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions,” she said, “but has no educational value for kids; it only benefits adults. If we can put veteran teachers who have tenure in a position where they don’t have it, that would help us to radically increase our teacher quality. And maybe other districts would try it, too.”

Ms. Rhee has significant public backing for her efforts to improve this district of 46,000 students, one of the nation’s worst-performing. Both presidential candidates lined up behind her in their final debate last month, with Senator Barack Obama calling her Washington’s “wonderful new superintendent.”

Emphasis mine. With apologies (not really) to Chris Matthews, I read this and a thrill goes up my leg...

If tenure were somehow a signifier of excellence, then Rhee's statement would not be true. But it's not: I can't find a link, but my recollection is that something like 95 percent of teachers who stay in the profession for more than three years earn tenure, essentially mirroring the widely disdained practice of social promotion of students among those who theoretically teach them. At that point, they're almost impossible to fire. I had more than a couple of these teachers in my (decidedly above-average) public school system; I suspect you did too.

NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein--someone I've long disdained, but am starting to come around on a little--favors some kind of assessment of teacher quality before a district makes decisions on tenure. That seems the minimum: taxpayer dollars pay teacher salaries, and some diligence on the part of administrators as to the return on that expenditure is appropriate. Maybe the eventual compromise is a periodic review--though it would have to be more than a pro forma wave-through, which is what I'm sure the teachers unions would seek.

The objections to Rhee's plan, in the linked article above and elsewhere, focus on the risk of arbitrary dismissal by vindictive principals and other punitive actions that have no educational justification. I'm sensitive to this; my mom is a teacher, and she's had some jerk-ass principals (by her telling, at least). But unless I missed this, I don't think Rhee is proposing to do away with grievance procedures; if a firing is unwarranted, let arbitrators determine that. And principals aren't protected from accountability either; as this excellent Atlantic profile of Rhee details, she actually went after the administrators principals first upon taking her job, firing 98 central-office employees and 24 principals.

Another criticism of her efforts is that they represent too much change, too quickly. We hear that about the NYC school reforms of this decade too. And there might be some validity to the charge. But the schools are so fucked up, and their importance to the future viability of local economies and national competitiveness so vast, that heroic doses of medicine are called for. Nick Kristof takes on some of this in his column today, pointing out that the U.S. is the only industrialized country where children are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents were. He cites a study by the Hamilton Project, a group within the Brookings Institution, that calls for easing teacher certification but making tenure harder to obtain, and awarding large bonuses to quality teachers who take assignments in more challenging classrooms. All of these steps, too, are met with resistance from the teachers unions.

Kristof's frame is that President-elect Obama needs to focus more on education than he has signaled thus far. I agree, and I think whether and how he supports Michelle Rhee--and risks the enmity of teachers unions that endorsed him--will send a very strong signal one way or the other. Here's hoping he's brave on what's arguably the single biggest challenge the country will face over the long haul.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Transition We Can Believe In
I'm liking about 90 percent of what I'm hearing about the Obama transition. He's evidently as determined as I'd hoped not to repeat the mistakes of the Clinton transition 16 years ago; to that point, it might seem ironic that the effort is being spearheaded by old Clinton hands Rahm Emanuel and John Podesta, but it isn't. They're veterans of the effective (if politically neutered...) late-Clinton machine, not the rolling pizza party of 1993. Here's a useful article about how Podesta's fingerprints will be all over the coming administration.

As for Emanuel, I initially shared the widely held concern that putting such a bare-knuckled partisan fighter in as sensitive a role as Chief of Staff sent an unpleasant signal. But this concern is outweighed by Emanuel's universally acknowledged abilities to get things done, supported by his deep knowledge and strong relations within both the legislative and executive branches. And if he's Obama's "bad cop," so be it; you might as well have someone who can play that role to the hilt. Rahmbo qualifies.

Marc Ambinder's take on lessons learned:
Clinton had James Carville -- the most brilliant Democratic strategist at the time, and he had a lot of young guns. But he did not have a John Podesta to walk him through what it took to ran the White House, and certainly not a Rahm Emanuel.

The Clinton team thought that the cabinet mattered more than the White House staff, and spent a lot of time arguing, deciding, negotiating over cabinet picks. But the real power and control in Washington is centered in the White House. [...] The White House staff was not named until just before Christmas -- a mistake. They didn't get their bearings until well into the administration.

He also notes that Clinton failed to grasp the centrality of the Senate both to moving legislation and to setting a bipartisan tone; most of the young guns, including Emanuel himself, hailed from the more partisan House, and Clinton didn't do much to forge ties with senior eminences like Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Obama, of course, knows all these guys from having spent four years as a colleague:

Obama, being of the Senate, has a lot of pals, and he has the ultimate dealmaker as a close confidant, ex-Sen. Tom Daschle.

Which leads us back to Rahm Emanuel.

Why did Obama want Emanuel to be chief of staff? Surely his standing in and knowledge of the Congress.

But more importantly: Rahm knows the White House. He knows how to make the White House work.

Other transition nuggets include the high ethics standards imposed--most prominently, strict bans on the involvement of active lobbyists--which have drawn praise from the likes of Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein; the pledge to include Republicans and independents in the administration "not just on a token level" (given the message discipline of the Obama team, it's very likely that the rumors about the president-elect asking Secretary of Defense Gates to stay at his post are true), the intention to close the Guantanamo prison, and the announcement that the administration will follow through on its campaign promise to create an Office of Urban Policy. As we're coming to expect with Obama, this last move blends political self-interest--cities went for him by unprecedented margins--with prudent governance: the issues he has signaled to take on, from energy to healthcare and education, all present particular challenges and have increased importance to urban communities.

Again, there will be missteps and dumb decisions and days when we're feeling bitter and disappointed. Change won't come quickly or easily or (in any sense) cheaply. But just as Obama was thoughtful, practical and ultimately successful about his campaign, he seems to be taking the correct initial first steps toward his presidency in the same manner.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Helluva Story
Probably the common element in my two big hobby-type interests, baseball and politics, is that they both lend themselves to great drama. It's not a coincidence that so much of literature and film embrace them as subject matter (or that I've tried, and/or am trying, to write fiction on one or both subjects myself): baseball and politics both offer real-life character arcs, heroism and villainy, success and failure and redemption and disappointment, and the intersection of individual agency and blind fate.

The 2008 election (and the 2008 baseball season!) offered drama to spare. You had the upstart against the dynast in the Democratic primaries, the old soldier and the smarmy corporate a-hole and the canny country pol among the Republicans. Rudy Giuliani and John Edwards were comic foils; the fringe players like Dennis Kucinich and Tom Tancredo added a bit of color. As the field narrowed to Obama and McCain, the public was presented with two archetypes, perfectly opposed in some ways but with arguably similar core appeals. They brought in their own supporting casts, led by Joe Biden and Sarah Palin but including campaign aides, media cheering sections, and the odd "(First Name) the (Occupation)" walk-on. And while I found the ending a happy one, the story was pretty engrossing almost all the way through.

In addition to fiction, there's a rich literary legacy of campaign accounts, from Theodore White's classic The Making of the President 1960 to Richard Ben Cramer's What it Takes, a 900-page opus about the 1988 campaign that flies by like a beach novel. Hours after the election ended, Newsweek offered a very impressive first cut at that kind of storytelling for the 2008 campaign, and they put it all online here. Very strongly recommended.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

It's All Falling Indelibly Into the Past
(Anyone? Anyone?)

On my way home from a meeting Wednesday afternoon, I was all abuzz in my head with thoughts about the election and plans to set them down here. Since then, of course, I've forgotten almost everything: I got home and just read the sites for a couple hours, did some work, then went to the gym. Now it's more than 48 hours after Obama was declared the victor, we're already starting to get a sense of who will people his government, and the meta-discussion is beginning anew about how he should attempt to govern: just see David Brooks and Paul Krugman, all but arguing with each other directly, in Friday's NYT.

But as always, where we've just come from is an important consideration in where we're about to go, or where we should want to go. Obama will have to guard against the bait-and-switch acts of the last two presidencies, in which Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both won as centrists but then seemed to govern as partisans. The perception that Clinton had run as a centrist but was trying to govern as an unreconstructed liberal cost him first his honeymoon, then those same Democratic majorities; in Bush's, the same would have happened (and in fact, he did lose the Senate in mid-2001) but for 9/11, which sadly bought him a lot more time and leeway. But the vexing question for Obama is whether, per Brooks, pegging left would constitute a deviation from how he ran ("as a post-partisan centrist"), or, per Krugman, a course of moderation would represent the betrayal of his supposed mandate for "guaranteed health care and tax breaks for the middle class, paid for with higher taxes on the affluent."

I'm not sure about the answer; beyond a certain superficial level (exit polling that asks, "What was your top concern when you cast your vote?") it's always impossible to determine why people voted the way they did. I do believe that, among other reasons, Obama and the Democrats won because they were obviously closer to the dead center of American politics, to the true perceived needs and interests of the voting public at this moment and going forward, than were McCain and the Republicans. They seemed to take governing more seriously, and what I am pretty sure about is that the large majority of the country couldn't care less for ideology. We aren't, and probably never really were, a "50-50 nation"; more like 10-70-20, give or take, and at the moment most of the 70 in the middle is actively behind or open to the possibility of supporting the Democrats, largely because the Republicans screwed up so badly.

So while I want Obama to pursue a boldly progressive agenda--what Krugman wrote about--I want him to go about it in a way that's empirical and, to the extent circumstances allow, incremental. One of the things that drew me to this politician was that he seems to have clear liberal goals--but is almost entirely agnostic as to how to pursue them. A number of his key advisors can be characterized as "behavioralists," a group that, as a recent New York Review of Books column speculating on Obama's economics views put it, "seeks to marry the insights of psychology to the rigor of economics" while operating on a middle ground between the classic schools of thought championed by Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes:

The central tenet of the Chicago School is that markets, once established and left alone, will resolve most of society's economic problems, including, presumably, the mortgage crisis. Keynesians—old-school Keynesians, anyway—take the view that markets, financial markets especially, often fail to work as advertised, and that this failure can be self-reinforcing rather than self-correcting. In some ways, the behavioralists stand with the Keynesians. Markets sometimes go badly awry, they agree, especially when people have to make complicated choices, such as what type of mortgage to take out. But whereas the Keynesians argue that vigorous regulation and the prohibition of certain activities such as excessive borrowing are often necessary, behavioralists tend to be more hopeful about redeeming free enterprise. With a gentle nudge, they argue, even some very poorly performing markets—and the people who inhabit them—can be made to work pretty well.

What this basically means is that they prefer to use as light a touch as possible: strong incentives, not mandates, and collaboration rather than imposition. This bodes well, and seems like a good fit for an uncertain time when Americans might be more amenable to a larger government role, but remain deeply skeptical of both its intentions and its competence.

In this respect, the current situation is somewhat comparable to 1933, when Democrats similarly inherited a government disastrously mismanaged by Republicans with an opportunity to lead, but not a mandate for specific policies. (In fact, a big complaint about FDR through the 1932 mirrored one about Obama this year: that he was too vague in his positions and had managed to win without giving the country a sense of what exactly he would do.) Then, a president and an administration committed to "bold, persistent experimentation" was sufficiently effective to win its mandate; Roosevelt earned the hatred of both those on the socialist left, who believed he had saved a corrupt system, and the far right, who felt that he had imposed a soft Bolshevism that eroded freedom. He contented himself with the gratitude and enduring support of the 70 percent or so in the middle, and essentially cemented them to his worldview for a generation.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Where We Came From, Where We're Going
Got an e-mail from a friend today, simply titled: we did it.

Yes, we did. I share the pride so many are feeling at what Barack Obama accomplished last night, and I look to the future with new hope as well as a sober sense of just how daunting are the challenges in front of us. Obama's exceptional talents, the larger Democratic majorities in Congress that will (mostly, hopefully) support him, the goodwill of millions of Americans and billions all over the world, the exceptionally gracious concession speech McCain gave and the avowals of support from virtually every corner of the political map all might not suffice to reverse the country's severe economic tailspin, conclude our two foreign wars as successfully as possible, provide health care and educational opportunity or restore the best traditions of American governance that were strained perhaps past the breaking point over the last eight years.

And it doesn't mean the end of racism--much less bigotry in any form--in America. Obama's victory marks a wonderful symbolic step... but it won't eliminate racial profiling or the disproportionate number of African-Americans in the nation's jails and prisons, it won't close the income and educational gaps between races, and it probably signifies little in terms of how, say, the average suburban white woman reacts when she sees a black teenager walking towards her on an otherwise deserted street in the evening. I've been meaning to try and find a biography of Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century British prime minister of Jewish extraction whose elevation to the office did no more to end anti-Semitism in his country than I suspect Obama's win will to fully close the book on America's fraught racial history. But what this does mean is that merit, and self-interest, can now trump prejudice. This is not a small thing.

At the same time, the evident victory of Proposition 8 in California, banning gay marriage in the Golden State, reminds us that the struggle against ignorance, fear and hate continues. That African-Americans, whose votes helped give Obama a landslide in the state, reportedly broke for this measure against the civil rights of California gays by a margin of 70-30, is a heartbreaking irony.

I'll add some more thoughts about the election, and the road ahead, later tonight or tomorrow. For now, I'm just trying to focus on the joyous recognition that America's story is not over, that the country has reaffirmed its gift for self-correction, and that, as the man himself has put it, more unites us than divides us.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

They did it. The 2008 Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series.

The last time any Philadelphia team won a major-sport title, I was 10. The day of the 1983 76ers parade was also the day my fourth-grade class took a trip to the Italian Market in South Philadelphia, famous from "Rocky." I remember getting rock candy at a hole-in-the-wall store down there, and that's about it.

There was no sense that anything particularly momentous had happened: after all, just in my then-short lifetime, the Phillies had won the Series three years before, and the Flyers took back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975. Beyond those wins, the Eagles had made a Super Bowl in January 1981 and lost, the Sixers fell just short in the Finals in 1980 and '82, the Flyers had been defeated in the Finals in 1976 and '80.

Just less than five months after the Sixers' win, the Phillies lost the 1983 World Series in five games to Baltimore. Which sucked, but no big deal. The Flyers fell short in Stanley Cup Final bids in 1985 and, painfully, in 1987. Okay, it happens... but that was it until the Phils shook off years of sub-.500 finishes to win the 1993 pennant, and fall just short in the 1993 Series to a Toronto Blue Jays team built by GM Pat Gillick. That was an epic ride with a heartbreaking finish.

No Philadelphia team made it back for another four years, when the Flyers again lost in the 1997 FInals. By then, people were taking notice of "the drought," and theories like the Curse of Billy Penn were beginning to get some attention. The 2001 Sixers came close to upsetting the heavily favored Lakers, but didn't. The Eagles, after three straight agonizing NFC Championship Game losses, made Super Bowl XXXIX in January 2005... and came up just short against a dynastic New England Patriots team.

That loss might have cemented The Drought as Philadelphia's defining trait. Maybe it takes having grown up there and moving to New York to fully appreciate how strange the psychology of that place is. I know what's great about it: beautiful neighborhoods, fantastic restaurants, smart and funny people whose passions run deep. But its rep isn't good--and a lot of that, over the past quarter-century, became about sports. The years and years and years without a championship was one part; the legendary bitterness of the fans was the other. Never mind that sports fans in any northeastern city, and quite a few in other time zones, can be animals; Philadelphia somehow got a copyright on the boo. The bitterness was driven in no small part by how certain the fans were that The Drought would never end, that the universe had it in for them.

This year's Phillies team, constructed by the same Pat Gillick who had beaten the Phils 15 years earlier, put all that away, I hope for good. 3 1/2 games out of a playoff spot on September 11, they won 13 of their last 16 regular season games, many in spine-tingling fashion, to overtake the Mets and win the NL East. And in the playoffs, they never trailed in a series and were only tied once, after the first two World Series games. They were front-runners in the best sense.

And in front of the home fans this October, they were a perfect 7-0. I was lucky enough to go to one of those games, Sunday's 10-2 win in Game Four that put them in the driver's seat for good. I got to see it with my brother; this is us after the win.

Driving back up Broad Street after that game--Dan leaning on the horn, me waving the rally towel out the window, both of us and Annie (who was at the game and took the pic above) high-fiving strangers--was a different experience of Philadelphia than anything I can remember from there. It felt like an enormous weight was being lifted. After the suspended game Monday night, I worried that the good feelings might erode in the rain and the cold and the two-day wait to finish Game Five. But this team has a strength of character that I've never seen in a Phillies club before; I knew they were mentally tougher than I was, and I felt confident--and I typically never feel confident about these things--that they'd finish the job.

October 29, 2008. The Drought is over. I hope they're savoring this at home, as I am here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Curb Your Enthusiasm
A snapshot of a snapshot, from

Barack Obama's probably going to win this thing. You don't want to get overconfident--and I know the campaign is still busting its ass, precisely to guard against overconfidence--and there's still enough time for things to flip again. But if there's any glimmer of hope out there for the Republicans, I don't see it right now. And not only is Obama looking poised to rack up the biggest win for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide (which is actually pretty faint praise), but the Democratic congressional majorities are likely to swell to something like 260-265 seats in the House and 58-60 seats in the Senate. The butterscotch and whipped cream atop this sundae of partisan delight is that not only will this be the biggest Democratic majority in four decades, but as I wrote the other day, this is going to be the most ideologically coherent Democratic majority the country has ever seen. And Obama himself is pretty clearly thinking about not just how to win, but how to govern.

Yet I'm worried. Not about the election, for all the reasons noted above and more, but about the governing. And it's not Obama, whom I think does have the right temperament for the times and a good sense for how much change, how quickly, the public and the power centers can accommodate; or the Democratic leaders in Congress, who probably will be reasonable in their demands on the new president... at least for awhile. Most of these folks, on both sides, have a decent awareness of how badly the Democrats screwed this unified-power thing up sixteen years ago, and likely will put those lessons to good use.

No, I'm worried about us. The big mass of Obama supporters out there, and (maybe more to the point) the policy analysts and advocates who have been waiting so long for this moment. Recently when speaking with colleagues, I've noticed this gleam in their eyes when they talk about the next administration--how, at long last, "we" are going to get a real hearing, and very possibly support and resources, for this or that worthwhile cause. That just seems like a huge setup for disappointment. Yes, there's going to be some stimulus, as virtually everyone agrees there should be, and probably most of the measures supported will be worthwhile. But neither money nor attention nor time is limitless, and Obama and his congressional allies are going to disappoint us. Maybe again and again.

Every leader does. And beyond the relatively small community of policy obsessives, how deeply the disillusionment cuts the first time an Obama administration official is caught lying or stealing, or the new president makes a bad decision, will be telling. Right now you can't turn your head on the New York City subway without seeing Obama buttons, t-shirts, hats, stickers. I'd be very comfortable betting that six months from now, virtually all of those things will be buried in drawers or closets. Everybody just wants to win this thing--to push aside the dismal Bush years with the most non-Bush alternative practically imaginable. But as any Phillies fan can tell you, things change when you win; your expectations go up, and you get cranky when the stars don't align.

Maybe I'm mindful of this because just two years ago, we were in the same place--not so much with the congressional Democrats, who seemed likely to retake the House but were still going to be facing an intransigent Bush, but with Eliot Spitzer, about to roll to a record landslide win in the New York gubernatorial contest. We all know how that ended, but even before Spitzer was caught cavorting with a hooker who thought he was the governor of New Jersey (true story), he'd squandered his goodwill and much of his popularity with an awkward, ineffectual first year. Spitzer had run on the slogan, "On Day One, Everything Changes." Very little did, and relatively little would have even if Spitzer had been as deft and prudent as I believe Obama will be. He's got to find a way to temper expectations without tempering excitement and optimism--or else those feelings are likely to curdle into disillusionment, and we'll have gone much too far toward squandering this opportunity.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Bill Comes Due
You've heard by now that Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama this morning on Meet the Press. But if you haven't seen it, take a look at the video:

What Powell really did here is not so much endorse Obama or repudiate McCain, as repudiate the Republicans. The campaign focus on irrelevant nonsense like Obama's acquaintance with William Ayres, the selection of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee--which was ultimately McCain's call, but was clearly not his first choice--and the general turn to an ever-smaller, ever more insular, paranoid and angry worldview on the part of the right, was what prompted Powell's defection from what he still calls "his party." Powell rejects the Little Roves who have come to run McCain.

He's far from alone. Whether it's the Chicago Tribune endorsing a Democrat for the first time in more than 150 years or Christopher Buckley apologizing to his late father (and getting fired from National Review) for his own defection, the ranks of "Obamicans" are growing by the day. These deviations serve Obama in two ways: first, every high-profile surprise endorsement helps him win a news cycle, running more time off the clock in a race that's dwindled down to days, and second, each of these unexpected shifts gives more comfort to disaffected Republicans who won't be changing their registration, but might regret their second George W. Bush vote and wish to give their party a two- or four-year timeout for bad behavior. (It seems plausible that Powell himself is in this boat.)

I didn't catch Powell's endorsement live this morning, but I did see the "roundtable" that closed Meet the Press. The panel--composed as usual with about two-thirds media establishment types, one-third identified Republicans like Joe Scarborough (whom I kind of like in his MSNBC role, but let's be frank about who he is and why he's there)--was remarking upon the surprising likelihood that a "center-right country" could be looking at the strongest unified one-party government in many decades, with 250-plus Democrats in the House, around 60 in the Senate, and a clearly liberal Democratic president. (Actually, taking into account the ideological sorting of the last forty years or so, it could be argued that the 2009 Democratic federal representation will comprise the most strongly liberal presence Washington has ever seen: the Democratic cohorts of the '30s and '60s still included dozens of southern conservatives, all of whom are now Republicans.) But even if you accept their basic premise, the reason why is that "center" is more prevalent than "right" in the electorate at the moment--and the Obama/Pelosi/Reid Democrats are vastly closer to the center than the Bush/DeLay/Frist Republicans.

Yes, DeLay and Frist are gone, and Bush is going. But as the Palin selection most clearly showed, it's still their party: small-minded, mean-spirited, less interested in governing than scapegoating and self-dealing. That's what is killing McCain this year, and that's why he lost Colin Powell among so many others.

As someone who once really liked McCain, and who still retains some residual appreciation for him, I have some sympathy for his plight. The joke is that Bush will have denied McCain the presidency twice now, the first time by smearing him in South Carolina eight years ago and the second time this year by creating such distance between the Republican Party and the political center. I wish these particular chickens had come home to roost four years earlier; and thinking about the shitstorm Obama will face about five minutes after he takes the oath of office, I'm still not one hundred percent sure that the Republicans might not be winning by losing this year. But in the biggest sense, it's deeply reassuring that the country seems likely to retain its capacity for small-d democratic self-correction.