Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Moments of Clarity
A few thoughts on a morning when the world seems to be moving too fast for one beleaguered guy to get a handle on:
  • If Wayne Barrett is a Mets fan, this 24-hour stretch between the Santana deal and Rudy's drop announcement later today surely is the best of his life.

  • That goddamn Santana deal... kudos to the Mets and Omar Minaya, who leveraged their money advantages (they can both afford to extend Santana and quickly reload their farm system with big bonuses to amateur ballplayers) to strengthen their team, but if I ever see Twins GM Bill Smith, I'm going to kick him in his tiny balls.

  • Incredibly, John McCain will be the Republican nominee. I pronounced him politically dead last summer; bad on me, though everyone else did too... what's interesting is how McCain plays it now in response to his newfound good fortune. Think about this. From 2005 through late 2007, he tacked hard right and twisted himself into pretzels trying to make himself acceptable to the likes of Falwell and Norquist… and came face to face with political oblivion at the end of that process. Sometime late last year, he seemed to decide, “Screw it, I’ll go back to ’straight talk’ and see what happens.” Lo and behold, he’s all but won the nomination–but the Rush Limbaugh crowd still despises him. So is he going to reach for the middle (the accepted general election tactic) and go Sister Souljah on the right-wing nuts, hoping that Hillary Clinton scares the haters back into his corner anyway? Or will he try to shore up his right-wing bona fides, maybe by pledging to rip Nancy Pelosi’s still-beating heart out of her chest and eat it on live TV?

  • John Edwards is dropping out of the race, and won't make an endorsement--which probably helps Hillary Clinton, in that the low- and middle-income whites who backed Edwards seem likely to go with tribalism and Clinton Brand loyalty over Obama's tranformational appeal. While I had some issues with Edwards, he played an extremely positive role in this race, and I hope he stays engaged in public life–with his heroic and inspiring wife by his side. I'd love to see him as Secretary of Labor or Attorney General in an Obama administration... though I'm increasingly doubtful such a thing will come to be, at least in 2009.

  • I thought hard over the weekend about potential strengths of a second Clinton presidency, and came up with two:
    1) The most common squandered asset in any presidency is the first year/"honeymoon period." She'd almost certainly do more in this window than Obama (or anyone who hadn't been there before), by virtue of knowing the importance of that window and learning from the terrible mistakes of the first Clinton administration in 1993.
    2) In negotiating with Congress for legislation, having been there in the weeds of legislative horse-trading would give her an unusual insight into how to move reluctant supporters and neutralize opponents. ("Sen. McConnell, release your caucus to vote on my healthcare reform bill and I'll tell my guys not to get in the way of your Eat Babies for Freedom Act.")

  • Along these same lines, I concluded that my issue is actually more with Bill and "the Clintons" than with Sen. Clinton herself. I don't like the sleazoids she hangs with, and I don't trust her honesty or commitment to progressive principles, and I hate the idea of dynastic presidencies... but I've gone overboard in my opposition to her, and I'm going to try to check that from here on out.

  • More than anything, I'm upset that an event I'd so looked forward to--Giuliani's defeat and disgrace--is overshadowed in the world of politics by the Edwards announcement, and that I can't savor it as planned because Johan Santana now pitches in the Phillies' division. Bastards all.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Black, White and Gray
Obama's huge win in South Carolina yesterday might upend the race after all. While the Clintons tried to manage expectations of their likely loss yesterday afternoon, I think it was the Obama camp that pulled this off, intentionally or not; after polling from late last week that Obama might win as few as 10 percent of white voters in South Carolina, the fact that he got about a quarter of whites to support him looks pretty good. And while the demographics of South Carolina won't be replicated in many if any later contests, the Clintons' effort to spin the race along racial lines has been too overt: when Bill Clinton compares Obama's SC win to Jesse Jackson's, it's just too easy to note that Jackson never won more than 5-10 percent of white Democrats there.

It was probably inevitable that the primary contest would become a referendum on the Clintons, but the nature of that referendum was in doubt: would it be their record, or their personalities? Watching the Sunday blab shows this morning, the answer is becoming clear, and it's not the one the Clintons would have chosen. Chyrons like "Billary Backlash?" and discussion of poll findings that the former president hurt his wife's campaign in South Carolina call into question both his role in the campaign going forward, and what role and responsibilities he might have in a Hillary Clinton presidency.

The irony as I see it is that if Bill himself were allowed to run for a third term, he'd almost certainly win, and if Hillary Clinton was running a campaign on her own strengths--the incredible command of policy detail, the ability to listen that she displayed both in her 2000 Senate campaign and in seven subsequent years in the Senate--she'd be very formidable. But together they're much less than the sum of their parts. Even my mom, a stalwart Hillary supporter who revered the Clinton administration, yesterday described Bill to me as a "dirty politician."

Meanwhile, the trickle of institutional support that started to flow toward Obama after his Iowa win could be swelling: less than a day after Caroline Kennedy endorsed him in the Times, it seems that Sen. Ted Kennedy is about to follow suit--and will fight hard for Obama. That backing, along with the momentum from yesterday, could help turn around what still looks like a tough map for him on Ginormous Tuesday.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

One to the Gut
While it's become accepted wisdom that the Democratic presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has been "bare-knuckle," "no holds barred," or whatever other cliche strikes your fancy, two writers at The Politico suggest that if anything, Obama has been far too timid in taking on the Clinton machine--both its history and its future prospects:

Imagine if at the next presidential debate Barack Obama — who is agitated about what he calls Bill Clinton’s misleading criticisms — cocked his head, smiled ruefully and, in Reaganesque “there you go again” tones, said something like this to Hillary Clinton: “You know, I admired some aspects of Bill Clinton’s presidency. But let’s recall that it was precisely these sort of too-cute-by-half statements that caused him to be reprimanded by a federal judge and stripped of his law license. Senator, you may want to go back to those days and that style of politics, but I think most Americans are ready to move on.”

Had you forgotten that Bill Clinton voluntarily agreed in the closing hours of his presidency to be disbarred and pay a sizable fine in the fallout from the Monica Lewinsky scandal?

No doubt most Democrats have forgotten — which is testament to both Clintons’ indefatigable talent for framing political debates on their terms, rather than those of their opponents.

The authors point out that Obama has essentially given his opponent a pass on the aspects of the Clinton record that reflect worst on her--particularly Hillary Clinton's terrible mismanagement of the health care reform effort of 1993-94, a process that antagonized "not simply Republicans and insurance companies but senior officials within the Clinton administration such as Lloyd Bentsen and Donna Shalala who recoiled at the process she ran." They could have added key congressional leaders like Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who quickly went from a potential champion to a powerful and eloquent skeptic. The flaws that preordained her failure there--the penchant for secrecy, the unshakable arrogance, the unwillingness to compromise or even dialogue--have run like a red thread through much of Clinton's subsequent career.

They also highlight her terrible record in "an area in which she had virtually unchallenged authority — staffing the legal apparatus of the first-term Clinton administration":

Hillary Clinton’s decisions led to the appointment of Bernard Nussbaum as White House counsel (fired after a year), and former Rose Law Firm partner Webster Hubbell as a top Justice Department official (forced to resign and later sent to prison).

These colossal misjudgments about personnel should hardly be the sole basis for judging potential as an executive. But they are more relevant than subjects Obama has raised, such as her service in the 1980s on the board of directors of Wal-Mart.

Hubbell, of course, was a Clinton loyalist of the first stripe. Listening to the likes of Terry McAuliffe, it's not very hard to imagine that personal loyalty once again will rule the day in a Clinton administration--just as it has under the current president, and possibly with some of the same miserable consequences.

The other point Obama needs to push on is Clinton's proven lousy judgment: on health care, on appointments in the administration, above all on Iraq and Iran. And the meta-theme here is that all considerations--from ethics to war and peace to policy gains--are subsidiary to the goal of greater glory for the Clintons.

(He could also ask, as many have begun to ask, where all the Clintons' fabled "fight" was during the awful years of Bush. If we'd seen more of it against the substantive opponents of the party, maybe it wouldn't be so tough to swallow seeing it turned against Barack Obama.)

One radio ad running in South Carolina today represents a good start. If Obama wins there--and I still think he will, though the polls are starting to suggest reason for doubt--he'll have a new platform from which to speak. Saying the right things could revive his chances for the big contest on February 5th.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Il Douche in His Glory
I really need to go to bed, but can't forego recommending this Times story about how former Mayor Rudy Giuliani spent his time in between sexcapades. (Hint: it wasn't "studying Islamic terrorism" or figuring out which radios might work when firefighters needed them most.)

No, what Hizzoner--a misnomer if ever there was one--really liked to do was pick fights, ideally with underlings or nobodies, and best of all when they didn't have the stature or resources to fight back:

In August 1997, James Schillaci, a rough-hewn chauffeur from the Bronx, dialed Mayor Giuliani’s radio program on WABC-AM to complain about a red-light sting run by the police near the Bronx Zoo. When the call yielded no results, Mr. Schillaci turned to The Daily News, which then ran a photo of the red light and this front page headline: “GOTCHA!”

That morning, police officers appeared on Mr. Schillaci’s doorstep. What are you going to do, Mr. Schillaci asked, arrest me? He was joking, but the officers were not.

They slapped on handcuffs and took him to court on a 13-year-old traffic warrant. A judge threw out the charge. A police spokeswoman later read Mr. Schillaci’s decades-old criminal rap sheet to a reporter for The Daily News, a move of questionable legality because the state restricts how such information is released. She said, falsely, that he had been convicted of sodomy.

Then Mr. Giuliani took up the cudgel.

“Mr. Schillaci was posing as an altruistic whistle-blower,” the mayor told reporters at the time. “Maybe he’s dishonest enough to lie about police officers.”

Mr. Schillaci suffered an emotional breakdown, was briefly hospitalized and later received a $290,000 legal settlement from the city. “It really damaged me,” said Mr. Schillaci, now 60, massaging his face with thick hands. “I thought I was doing something good for once, my civic duty and all. Then he steps on me.”
Two private employers in New York City, neither of which wanted to be identified because they feared retaliation should Mr. Giuliani be elected president, said the mayor’s office exerted pressure not to hire former Dinkins officials. When Mr. Giuliani battled schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines, he demanded that Mr. Cortines prove his loyalty by firing the press spokesman, John Beckman.

Mr. Beckman’s offense? He had worked in the Dinkins administration. “I found it,” Mr. Beckman said in an interview, “a really unfortunate example of how to govern.”
In 1999, Mr. Giuliani explored a run for the United States Senate. If he won that seat, he would leave the mayor’s office a year early. The City Charter dictated that Mark Green, the public advocate, would succeed him.

That prospect was intolerable to Mr. Giuliani. Few politicians crawled under the mayor’s skin as skillfully as Mr. Green. “Idiotic” and “inane” were some of the kinder words that Mr. Giuliani sent winging toward the public advocate, who delighted in verbally tweaking the mayor.

So Mr. Giuliani announced in June 1999 that a Charter Revision Commission, stocked with his loyalists, would explore changing the line of mayoral succession. Mr. Giuliani told The New York Times Magazine that he might not have initiated the charter review campaign if Mr. Green were not the public advocate. Three former mayors declared themselves appalled; Mr. Koch fired the loudest cannonade. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Mr. Mayor,” he said during a news conference.
... A civic group estimated that the commission spent more than a million dollars of taxpayer money on commercials before a citywide referendum on the proposal that was held in November 1999.

Voters defeated the measure, 76 percent to 24 percent.

I experienced the smallest taste of Giuliani's government-by-goon-tactics in the waning weeks of his administration. After 9/11, as we all know, Giuliani was at the height of his popularity for his response to the attack. But the city's economy was reeling, not least because the damage to lower Manhattan had thrown more than a hundred thousand people out of work as their places of business were temporarily or permanently off-limits. In early November, I wrote a short policy brief for the Center making the fairly obvious point that the unemployment crisis that followed the tragedy might have been mitigated if the administration had simply expended more than $100 million in federal funds for workforce development that instead remained "under the mattress."

Within two weeks, administration officials had written to our board of directors and funders, accusing me of outright lies and calling for a public apology. Instead, my director and I wrote them back at length, refuting their charges--none of which had any factual basis--point by point. By the time they received the response, scant days remained in the Giuliani administration, and at any rate the fact that I'd been targeted by a hated mayor and an even more hated welfare commissioner was, if anything, a huge help with our board members and funders; I wanted to send the administration a thank-you note for their support with our 2002 fund-raising, but my management figured we shouldn't push our luck.

Still, if there had been another year to run in the administration, I'm sure they would have made trouble for me. It's just how that crew operates. And while we can all be thankful that Il Douche seems destined for the political scrap heap, he's hardly the last would-be Leader for whom vindictiveness is a guiding principle.
This is Not a Game (right?)
I didn't watch the debate tonight. I just couldn't do it, and I really couldn't put Annie through it. So we watched a Sopranos episode from a Netflix DVD, then the end of a Futurama episode on Comedy Central... and at 9.30 I came in here to start reading about the debate, which was still going on. It evidently got very nasty very quickly, a dynamic that I think always favors Hillary Clinton. That said, when I actually watched this seven-minute chunk, I thought Obama got the better of the exchange. But I'm biased, of course.

What I think is happening in the race right now is that the Clintons--and henceforth that's how I'll be referring to the Senator's campaign--are trying to position Obama's likely win in South Carolina this Saturday as somehow less important because, well, half the Democrats there are African-American and of course Those People will vote for the African-American candidate. Then when the real (read: whiter) states vote on February 5, we'll see what's what. The bloody hell of it is that this probably will work, because it's how the media thinks too--witness the quadrennial Republican lament, rarely commented upon, that the only reason presidential elections are close is that African-Americans vote Democrat at something like a 90 percent rate. Again, the implication is that these votes somehow count less, which I don't think is how it's supposed to work.

In the comment section on one of those sites linked to the right of this page, I just read the following:

The best thing for the Democrats is to nominate Hillary, watch her get whipped,dump the Clinton Reptile Farm out of the Democratic party and get on with building a real coalition. Plus, we get to watch the Republicans try and fail to deal with their recession plus Iraq. Four miserable years, but better a vaccination now, and 20 years of power later than four agonizing years of lies, triangulation, sex scandals and the certainty of 12 more Republican years afterwards.

Somewhat to my shame, I found myself nodding along with this. It's very possible that the next four years will represent a big fecal sandwich for whoever emerges in November, to the terrible detriment of both that individual and her or his party. And at this point I just want the Clintons gone. In the same article or another one on the same site, I wrote that one of the worst things about this political year has been being faced with the realization that, ten years after so many of us fought to save Bill Clinton's presidency, his opponents (vile as they were) substantially got it right in their characterization of him as a man who would do and say anything to hold onto power.

But the "screw it, we'll pick things up in four years" attitude is dangerous far beyond the point of being tenable for a lot of reasons. First, there's the judiciary; if Hillary Clinton is nominated, I think she'll lose, but her strongest appeal might well be to campaign explicitly on the dangers of what would happen if the right-wingers got a working Supreme Court majority. Second, there's agenda-setting and federal rule-making: I don't like that this is true, but one must assume that any Democrat--even one as personally odious as Clinton--will be better on environmental regulation, budgeting, the implementation of social policy and a million other things than any Republican. (Prove me wrong, McCain... prove me wrong.) Finally, a Republican successor to Bush would be far too likely to cement and institutionalize the perversions and distortions of our governance traditions--the Executive SuperDuperPowers, Addington's Monster--that this disaster of an administration has embraced.

And yet it's tough, for me evidently impossible, to get past the repellent messenger to the generally palatable message. As in 2000, I find myself almost glad that my vote as a New York state resident is so meaningless.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hyperactive Statism: It's the Balls
Big government out of control:

RICHMOND, Va. - It's one thing to dangle fuzzy dice from a rear view mirror, but decorating a trailer hitch with a large pair of rubber testicles might be a bit much in Virginia.

State Del. Lionel Spruill introduced a bill Tuesday to ban displaying replicas of human genitalia on vehicles, calling it a safety issue because it could distract other drivers.

Under his measure, displaying the ornamentation on a motor vehicle would be a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $250.
The Virginia General Assembly has some experience with offbeat bills. Three years ago, it drew widespread attention with an unsuccessful effort to outlaw baggy pants worn so low they expose underwear.

Spruill, 61, said the indignity of the "droopy drawers" debate wouldn't deter him. He said he won't hesitate to bring a set of $24.95 trailer testicles with him for a legislative show-and-tell.

"I'm going to do it," Spruill told a handful of reporters after Tuesday's House session adjourned. "I'm going to bring them out here and show them to you till they tell me to stop."

The hell of it is that he actually does have a point... sort of. The last time I was in Florida, for spring training two years ago, I was driving and saw this:

I started laughing so hard I almost crashed. The humor value more than makes up for the risk, I think.

Monday, January 14, 2008

What About the Cities?
One of my perennial policy fixations is that cities tend to get too little representation on the national agenda. I think it's true that the biggest municipalities in the country are net payers into, rather than recipients from, the federal treasury (and, at least in New York, the state's coffers too); cities are the engines of America's economic dynamism and drivers of our cultural pre-eminence, and at least since the early 20th century they really represented the staging ground of the American Dream. Yet for all this undeniable importance, cities remain at the fringe of what passes for the national conversation.

Syndicated columnist Neal Pearce tries to address this state of affairs today in an "open letter to the presidential candidates":

[T]ake immigrants. Overwhelmingly, they're landing in metro America. Beyond sending in federal agents for spot arrests of undocumented immigrants, what's Washington doing to help localities cope with a tidal wave of skill-short, English-deficient new arrivals? Or finding more affordable housing opportunities for long-term Americans, too — or dealing with today's mortgage foreclosure crisis? Do you have any new ideas?
Traffic congestion is becoming completely intolerable in many metro regions. There's scarcely any space for new roads, and everyone recoils from new gas taxes. Federal transportation policy is in a shambles, even while foreign oil dependence imperils our national security.
And what about infrastructure? Falling-down bridges, deteriorating highways, aging dams, failing water systems in the face of rising pockets of severe drought — and you would-be chief executives hardly mention the topic? Let's get real! How do we rebuild a greener, safer, more economically competitive America, focused on the metros where most of us live? Where's the new federal-state-local partnership to make it happen?
Focus on jobs, crime, housing, infrastructure, education and the environment, Mayor Manny Diaz of Miami counsels on that site — and don't succumb, he insists, to media and pollster interest in the emotional issues of the war, abortion and gay rights.

I give Pearce credit for the old college try here, but I wish he'd delved a bit more into how these issues interconnect (when crime is perceived to be a problem, schools are deemed unsatisfactory and there's no affordable housing to be found, families leave cities; when families leave, the tax base shrinks and neighborhoods decline, and the vicious cycle picks up speed), and why it's specifically important that those who wish to lead the entirety of the American community take both symbolic and substantive notice of the fact that most Americans live in urban communities.

Another reason I support Obama over Clinton on the Democratic side is that the community organizer from Chicago reached his political maturity while grappling with some of the most pernicious issues that face city residents--the availability and quality of jobs, for one. The Clintons went to law school at Yale, but that experience doesn't seem to have left much of a mark (hardly atypical, according to my in-laws, who live near New Haven), and their adulthood was spent in governmental "company towns"--Little Rock, DC. And needless to say, none of the Republican candidates have any urban agenda to speak of--"urban issues" are perceived, albeit incorrectly, as poor people's issues, and with the rhetorical exception of Huckabee and Romney while trying to win Michigan, these candidates don't see the poor. While they talk about immigration, the focus is on punishment, not assimilation--much less turning the energies, ambitions and creativity of immigrants into desperately needed revenue for city treasuries.

(Il Douche himself might be expected to have views on urban policy given his two terms as Mayor here. But the takeaway he wants for Republican voters is that his mayoralty was about Fighting The Liberals, Cutting Taxes, and Punishing Criminals and Welfare Cheats--in other words, that he brought the values and priorities of the suburbs to the Big Apple. Given the reality of his mayoral record--economic gains limited to Manhattan, further chaos in the school system, that sort of thing--this is understandable.)

Pearce is right that the problems of the cities are the problems of the nation as a whole, and that we need more from the candidates about how they'll address those challenges. Of course, these problems are among the most intractable on the specifics and the hardest to get action on at the federal level, given how the Senate is structurally stacked against working on behalf of the cities. The Republicans additionally face their constant paradox--that a proactive, effective government that really can solve tough problems creates demand for "more" government, and undercuts their ideological raison d'etre that since Government Sucks, one shouldn't fund it.

The unfortunate conclusion is that, as usual since Al Smith lost in 1928, nobody will talk about city issues--at least not as such--unless public sentiment forces them to do so. If Obama wins the nomination, I think there's a shot this comes up; otherwise, expect nine more months of largely substance-free politics.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Fairy Tale vs. Folklore
The Clintons continue to raise the vileness bar in the campaign for the Democratic nomination. Yesterday Bill went on Al Sharpton's radio show--maybe he was thinking, "At least I'm still classier than this guy"--to clarify his remark about Obama's campaign being a fairy tale (Bill: I was only referring to his view about Iraq. Bill's spin is, um, bullshit.), while an "unnamed advisor" made this snide remark about Obama's supporters. Given that the remark was to The Guardian, my guess is that the advisor's name is Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton courtier of long standing who wrote for that publication, among others, until joining the Hillary campaign late last year. It's insulting and absurd.

Obama's attackers, famous and unknown alike, paint him as an opportunistic self-promoter of modest accomplishment who lacks gravitas and toughness, and his supporters as easily swayed naifs who swoon for the man, and/or fail to grasp just how evil the Republicans are, and/or are working out their own racial guilt--hence the "imaginary black friend" smear. Obviously I think this is wrong on all counts, but the last charge strikes me not so much as totally groundless as a misunderstanding of how the American political psyche works. We aren't revisiting the civil rights movement with Obama, but we probably are connecting back to that movement as the most ennobling American accomplishment at least since the victory in World War II. Obama stands before us as the embodiment of the country's capacity for self-correction. That's not a small deal. Add in that he's a self-made man who advanced on merits--the Harvard Law Review does not work on the quota system, and if "racial guilt" was truly the fuel for Obama's career, I'm guessing there was a more "authentic" (i.e. not half-white, not cosmopolitan individual who'd really risen from inner-city poverty rather than the more or less middle-class upbringing Obama experienced in Hawaii ) African-American in Illinois political circles who could have benefitted--and after two terms of George W. Bush, meritocracy probably has its appeal too.

But there's another aspect of Obama's candidacy, also tied to Bush's years of misrule, that is worth considering:

The Democratic Party should have represented that half of the country that was appalled by Bushism. But the Democrats abjectly failed. Cowed by patriotic fervor and Beltway thinking, the Democrats fell in line behind Bush and his demented war. Only when it was clear to all but the most benighted neoconservative ideologues that Iraq was an unmitigated disaster did mainstream Democrats like Clinton and Edwards speak out.

A price had to be paid for this collapse, and the price was anger -- anger not just at Bush and his policies, but at the timid Democrats who went along with those policies. This anger is cleansing. Those establishment pundits who sanctimoniously tut-tutted about how Democratic voters were "unhinged" by "Bush hatred" failed to recognize that when a cancerous entity invades your body, the healthy response is to attack it. Anger is a patriotic response to Bush's profoundly un-American policies, and to the Democrats who failed to oppose them. It is the white blood cells coming to rescue an endangered organism.
Barack Obama's unique appeal is that he allows voters -- Democrats, independents and fed-up Republicans alike -- to simultaneously express their anger and transcend it. As a political outsider, as a black man, as someone who was opposed to the Iraq war from the beginning, Obama is the antithesis of both Bushism and the mainstream Bush-lite Democratic stance on Iraq. Yet Obama's entire message is one of reconciliation and unity, the belief that even the most implacable foes can come together. And it's his race that seals the deal. As a mixed-race black man appealing to whites without using traditional racial guilt codes, he is the living proof of his own credo. By voting for a black man, whites are voting for hope and change in the future -- but they are simultaneously making a statement that hope and change are happening right now, within their own minds, hearts and souls. They are leaping across the racial divide without a safety net.
Of course, "hope" is just a word. And while emotional catharsis is important, in the end what really matters is performance. But on the issues, there are no decisive differences among the three candidates. Those Obama critics who argue that his bipartisan rhetoric means he is the second coming of Joe Lieberman have seriously misread him. Obama is a classic liberal Democrat, whose message of inclusion and unity is at once sincere and tactically shrewd: He knows that a confrontational, partisan black man, even one who refuses to play the racial guilt card, has no chance of being elected president. At the same time, he clearly believes that conciliation is better than enmity. In this regard, ironically, he resembles the husband of his most formidable adversary, who also ran successfully on a "new Democrat" platform of hope and inclusion.

Last weekend in New Hampshire, Sen. Clinton threw everything at the wall, including the prospect of a terrorist attack and the strong hint that Obama and Edwards were spreading "false hope." Given that, I've been thinking about the old question about whether people vote their hopes or their fears, and whether they're more influenced by the unfinished business of the past or the unknowns of the future. Oversimplifications? Of course. But I think we're learning a lot about what this country is right now through this election, and maybe for that alone it's a good thing the contests aren't decided yet.

(Horserace Post-script: Obama's picked up a few interesting endorsements this week. The other day he got John Kerry, who's probably not useful for moving voters but has great fund-raising connections and the most comprehensive database in the party from '04. I wonder if Kerry's nod to Obama is a slap at Terry McAuliffe, the former DNC chair who's strongly pro-Clinton, to the point that, were I Kerry, I'd have some nagging doubt that McAuliffe was all that broken up to see a non-incumbent race this year. Yesterday he got the nod from Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano--a very popular figure in her home state whose appeal crosses party lines and might help inoculate against a women's sympathy vote out west for Clinton. And two red-state Democratic Senators, Tim Johnson and Ben Nelson, are now on record for Obama. Which of the two do you think they'd rather see as national Democratic standard-bearer?)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Proven Wrong
Well, I wasn't as ready as I thought I was. Rather than the expected Obama win at 8.15 or so, it's a few minutes before 11 and he's conceding.

What happened? Who knows, really, but probably some combination of:

  • Independent New Hampshire voters breaking for McCain;

  • Overconfidence by the Obama organizers;

  • The most brilliant rope-a-dope strategy on the part of the Clintons since the Ali-Foreman fight; and

  • The "fuck you, Iowa" effect.

And now? Again, who knows. Two rumors on the tubes (as I will now call the Internet) earlier today were that Obama was in line to receive a union endorsement in Nevada that would have made him the overwhelming favorite in that state's vote, and that Clinton was perilously close to running out of money. She'll be able to raise money now, and that union endorsement--which had been expected Wednesday--is probably being reconsidered even as I sit here.

In that the turnaround gives more people the chance to be involved in the process, this is a good thing for everyone. In that it will ensure that whoever the Democrats nominate will be much more battle-tested than might have been the case had either candidate won the first two contests, that's probably a good thing for the Democrats. In that it raises the hopes of perpetuating the Clinton dynasty, I'm less than thrilled. But life is full of these little disappointments, and after November 2004, I'm pretty certain there's only so much any election defeat can hurt.
One-Way Time Machine
I haven't been able to do much work today, to my increasing frustration. The NH primary is a plausible-enough distraction, and I started to write a post here about how Obama's similarities to Bill Clinton circa 1992 must be what's driving the former president to such nasty extremes. But the race feels over to me now--I'm fully prepared to be proven wrong after polls close tonight, but given the reported record turnout in New Hampshire it's hard to imagine the Obama train was derailed today.

No, something else is going on. And through a series of links I won't retrace here, I wound up on YouTube, looking at this.

I was 15 years old in 1988, and not even a fan of Throwing Muses yet. I got into them a year later, and while it somewhat took the form of angst-filled wishing I had a girlfriend as cool as Kristin Hersh--or any girlfriend at all, for that matter--the bleak beauty of their music just hit me like frigid air on a sore tooth. It still does.

I wouldn't go back to my teen years and I don't generally feel like I've wasted my time since then. But we're so far from those days now, and there's something very sobering in the occasional realization that, no, there's no way back. Ever.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Following the Money
Like an idiot, I got into an internet argument very late last night with a Hillary Clinton supporter who challenged me to back up an assertion I'd made that special interests have contributed sufficiently to Clinton's campaign that it's doubtful she would take them on in her self-assigned role as "change agent." The argument was dumb, but the exercise was worthwhile--I hadn't looked at in a long while, and in addition to trying to glean meaning from patterns of donation to Clinton compared to those to Barack Obama, I got to see that Eagles coach Andy Reid sent a check for the maximum $2,300 to fellow Mormon Mitt Romney back in September. (Feel free to joke that Reid's as bad picking winners in the presidential race as he's often been in the NFL draft.)

The differences between Clinton and Obama might or might not seem like a big deal, probably depending on the biases of who's looking at the numbers. For one thing, they're the two most successful fund-raisers in the race on either side, and nobody else is close. For another, while the site offers breakdowns of donors by industry--something they're required to disclose, of course, as I can assert from my various $18 or $35 donations to candidates over the years--it can't (and shouldn't, really) get into motivations. In other words, the CEO of Cigna might have given to Clinton (or Obama) because he deeply believes in her strength and experience message (or his change narrative), or because the CEO sees her (or him) as a worthwhile investment.

Clinton has raised the most money of anyone, just under $91 million, with $79.6 million dollars in contributions from individuals, $748,052 from political action committees (PACs), and the remainder from, I think, bank interest. (Note: all numbers are through the end of the third quarter of 2007.) Obama is next with $80.3 million, all but about a million of which has come from individual donations with almost all the remainder also accruing from bank interest; he's raised less than $7,000 from PACs.

So is the key point that only 1 percent of Clinton's money is from PACs, or that in raw numbers she raised more than 100 times as much from those groups as Obama? For context, the only candidate on either side whose PAC money comprised more than 1 percent of his total was Chris Dodd, at 4 percent.

A breakdown of what Clinton and Obama donors do is similarly open to interpretation. Among sectors, both Clinton and Obama raised a ton of money from donors in the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) sector, as well as Lawyers/Lobbyists--though Clinton raised more in all of those, as well as Agribusiness, Construction, Defense, Energy & Natural Resources, Health, Transportation, Misc Business, Labor, and Ideological/Single Issue. The only sectors from which Obama raised more were Communications and "Other," which isn't defined on the site. seems to list "Industries" as subsidiaries of sectors. Among these, Obama raised more from donors who work Computers/Internet, Education, Retired, and TV/Movies/Music. Clinton raised more from Lobbyists--more than seven times as much, in fact--as well as Health Professionals, Insurance, Lawyers/Law Firms, Oil & Gas, and Pharmaceuticals/Health Products. But they're 1-2, either way, in almost every case.

Another breakdown, by the size of donations, maybe makes a better case for Obama. His campaign is 25 percent financed by donors of $200 or less, and 46 percent funded by donors of $2,300 or more including 11 percent from donors of $4,600. Clinton's is 13 percent financed by donors of $200 or less and 63 percent funded by donors of $2,300 or more including 37 percent from donors of $4,600. So she's more dependent upon the very rich--again, whether that's because they believe in her for her, or because they see her as an investment--than is Obama.

I guess a final touch of gray is added by the fact that, somewhat depending upon the nature of the contest, one almost has to raise a lot of money to be viable. (Mike Huckabee's enormous cash disadvantage compared to his Republican opponents hasn't hurt him yet, but it probably will unless he wins the next three contests.) But above some level (and I don't know exactly what that number is) it's probably overkill. Saying Clinton has raised $10 million more than Obama is like saying the US had a thousand more nuclear weapons than the USSR at some point during the Cold War: either side had more than enough firepower to destroy the world. A parallel argument can be made as to whether it matters that Clinton raised a few million more from bankers than Obama did, when they both got at least four times as much from that industry along as Huckabee has raised total.

Probably the most one can say is that there's nothing in the disclosures to refute the notion that Clinton is the candidate more acceptable to "the interests." But it also must be said that there's nothing I found to absolutely confirm the notion either.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Maybe All We Needed Was a Shot in the Arm
A bit after 11pm this evening, we sat in our living room--Annie waiting to go to bed, me polishing off my third celebratory beer--and listened to Barack Obama's victory speech. Here's the key line:

...I’ll be a President who... understands that 9/11 is not a way to scare up votes, but a challenge that should unite America and the world against the common threats of the twenty-first century: terrorism and nuclear weapons; climate change and poverty; genocide and disease.

That's it. This is what we've been waiting for, more than six long years in which our hearts have been broken by degree, as we've watched our country stray so far from what we hoped it would be, what we wanted it to be. Obama's not a superhero, he's not a saint, and he's not infallible--but he is the embodiment, in our national politics right now, of what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." He makes me proud to be an American--and I'm pretty sure I've never felt that about a viable presidential candidate before.

The race for the nomination certainly is not over, but it's now his to lose. Clinton came in third; she was beaten by John Edwards, whose own speech, and the remarks to MSNBC of his top advisor Joe Trippi, made it pretty clear which of the other two Democrats they view more favorably. The campaign now shifts to New Hampshire, where the same independents who boosted Obama's margin tonight from "narrow" to "clear-cut" might well give him a second dramatic victory, then to South Carolina, where African-American Democrats seem to be shifting decisively to Obama, and Nevada, where Clinton might still win but Edwards' strength among union voters seems likely at the least to deny her a momentum-shifting triumph.

Maybe New Hampshire Democratic voters make a conscious decision to thwart Iowa; maybe all the independents do what they did in 2000, hurting Obama as they did Bill Bradley while stampeding to vote for John McCain. Failing either scenario, though, it quickly becomes tough to see how Clinton wins there on Tuesday.

A few other observations and half-informed guesses:

  • The Republicans are in huge trouble. The Establishment of that party threw everything they had at Mike Huckabee–and he blew out their guy, relatively speaking. The only question now is whether the Club for Greed slimebags will rally ’round John McCain--who evidently finished behind Fred Thompson tonight--in New Hamphire, or try something else to stop Huckabee–because they realize that once the Christianists grasp they can lead, not just follow in the Republican Party, they’ll probably never accept an Establishment candidate again.

  • Add in that the Democrats probably want Huckabee as the Republican candidate as desperately as the Establishment Republicans want anyone but the former Arkansas governor--his religious views, gaffes on the campaign trail and acceptance of public funds would put him at an enormous disadvantage for the general--and it’s not impossible to envision a landslide Democratic win in November. Were Clinton the nominee, I'd worry that Huckabee's clearly superior political skills and potential to run to her left on some economic issues and seize the "change" mandate could get him elected; not so if it's Obama, however.

  • I *love* that Ron Paul finished ahead of Il Douche, a/k/a 9ui11iani. Paul won't win, place or show anywhere, but he still has a part to play; he's got all this money now, and I wonder if it's transferable to a Libertarian campaign. FWIW, I think Paul would be slightly less likely to run against a Republican ticket headed by Huckabee, but who knows–-Huck does still support the war.

  • While I’m obviously no fan of Hillary Clinton, it still was pretty shocking how clearly biased against her the MSNBC coverage-–particularly Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell-–were. They detest her, and this is another reason why I think a McCain-Clinton general election race would be very bad news indeed for the Democrats. Then again, watching her speech and then Obama’s speech, it wasn’t hard to understand why the MSNBC crew was as slanted as they were; it was like watching a substitute teacher going up against Evel Knievel.

  • Senators Chris Dodd and Joe Biden dropped out tonight. (I was evidently incorrect when writing earlier that former Sen. Mike Gravel did so as well--thanks to the commenter who corrected me.) The more I think about it, the more sense Biden could make as a potential running mate for Obama; he's funny and willing to mix it up as the attack dog, he's got the experience and Beltway know-how, and he could take on a major foreign-policy role. And he ran an exceptionally honorable and substantive campaign, pushing all the Democrats toward greater focus and specificity on foreign policy in particular. Likewise, Dodd showed his integrity and courage throughout the race, and I think did the Dem field a great service by standing up loud and proud for the Constitution in the debates. I'd love to see him challenge Harry Reid for the Majority Leader role in the Senate.

We've got so far to go in this political year... but it couldn't have started any better. Thank you, Iowa.
Wilco has been one of my favorite bands for more than five years now, since I picked up "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" in 2002. That album and the two that followed it have all ranked among my favorite albums of this decade, and after being very underwhelmed the first time I saw the band play live in 2002, I thought they were tremendous in a tough outdoor venue three years later. Wilco is the very rare band that can do it all: great, interesting writing and playing and compelling live performance, all while seeming to retain their humanity and humility. Among bands of this decade, only Guided by Voices also boasted all these elements.

But the one album of theirs I could never get into was "Summerteeth," the 1999 release that came between their breakthrough "Being There" (the only Wilco disc I still don't have) and "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." A friend burned this for me a few years back, I popped it in and was immediately turned off by what I perceived as cheesy songwriting and overdone production. I buried the disc at the bottom of a pile, and there it stayed (through a move) until this morning, when I decided to rip it to the computer and give it another spin.

And it's awesome. I have no idea what the hell I was thinking with this. Maybe it was getting reintroduced to a couple of the songs ("Shot in the Arm," "Via Chicago") through the excellent live CD "Kicking Television," which I bought last summer. Maybe it's just the mysterious time-delay process of some good music that's initially slow to yield up its goodies. Maybe it's me, that my tastes have changed a little since I first heard the record. But "Summerteeth," for all its troubled gestation process (click the link) and experimentation--you hear how Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett were playing with some things that came to fuller fruition on "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"--is a fully worthy entry in the band's impressive catalog.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

How to "Fight Corporate Greed"
Here's another new year's resolution: when I write about politics here, I'm going to make much more of an effort to incorporate real policy arguments rather than just who's-maybe-winning-and-why, which is little if at all better than the brainless mainstream media coverage.

So let's begin, at this ungodly hour, with John Edwards. The former Senator from North Carolina has tried to position himself as the angry populist in the Democratic race, and has substantially staked his hopes on an upset win in Iowa on Thursday. Edwards has an emotional and, I think, effective closing ad that features a testimonial from a laid-off worker who believes that Edwards has what it takes to fight for politically and economically marginalized working people.

Edwards is offering a political narrative that partisan Democrats are likely to find satisfying: this country is becoming ever more polarized along lines of income and political access, and the unhinged greed of corporations is at fault. The Republicans have actively abetted this rapacious cartel, while Democrats--very prominently including his nomination rivals Clinton and Obama--have done too little to stop them in their current jobs and could not be counted upon to do so in the presidency. I find this analysis simplistic but certainly not wrong, which is the main reason I'd be relatively happy to see Edwards win the nomination and the November election.

But what is he actually going to do about "corporate greed"? A look at his website yields surprisingly little substance. I have a theory about this, which I'll get into in a minute--but the fact remains that while Edwards offers some detail and commendable policy proposals for supporting working families and reducing poverty, the site is silent on just how he's going to take on what an earlier generation of populists called, ominously, The Interests. Edwards does attack lobbyists and has a few proposals to sharply restrict their influence, but that's still not exactly the same thing.

What should he be promising in this fight? I'd start with the following:

  • To make the National Labor Relations Board and the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration the instruments of workplace justice they were designed to be, rather than the strongholds of anti-union mischief and corporate enabling they've been under Bush and Cheney;

  • To empower the regulatory arms of the executive branch, most prominently the Food and Drug Administration, Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission, under the leadership of bulldog prosecutor types bearing the message that "there's a new sheriff in town" and that the days of consequence-free corporate lawbreaking are over;

  • To submit federal budgets to the Congress that end the public subsidies to oil companies, agribusiness and multinationals and take bold steps to provide more support for the economic stability and upward mobility of the American worker.

I should note that, were Edwards to win, I believe he'd do all these things. He just isn't, as far as I can tell, talking about them right now. Why not?

I think one reason is that these steps are hard to communicate in soundbites, particularly when the likely vessel is someone like Wolf Blitzer who quite possibly doesn't know what the NLRB is. Even if he wasn't met by blank stares or derision from the Beltway Kool Kidz Klub, Edwards would face the problem of seeming to produce relatively undramatic solutions to problems he's cast as existential in nature--not a great way to motivate voters.

The second reason could be that these steps would be the policy equivalent of a football quarterback giving away where he plans to throw the ball. Giving the regulatory agencies teeth might not fire up the voting public--but it would send the Club for Growth, National Association of Manufacturers, National Federation of Independent Businesses and other Republican-leaning lobbies into a frenzy of attack that this unhinged Bolshevik would stifle the economy in his wooly-headed pursuit of hippie-dippy economic equality. (The Clinton campaign, seriously addicted to corporate money in its own right, probably would take a shot or two as well.)

So there are probably good reasons why Edwards is keeping his pitch at the level of rhetoric alone--though I do wish he'd at least try to add a little substance. At least in theory, these campaigns are supposed to make us smarter about the country we live in and how it's run; there's a lot of room to do that without going all pedantic.