Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Yeah, Policy Matters
Princeton economist Larry Bartels observes a trend:

The Census Bureau has tracked the economic fortunes of affluent, middle-class and poor American families for six decades. According to my analysis, these tabulations reveal a wide partisan disparity in income growth. The real incomes of middle-class families grew more than twice as fast under Democratic presidents as they did under Republican presidents. Even more remarkable, the real incomes of working-poor families (at the 20th percentile of the income distribution) grew six times as fast when Democrats held the White House. Only the incomes of affluent families were relatively impervious to partisan politics, growing robustly under Democrats and Republicans alike.

The cumulative effect of these partisan differences is enormous. If the pattern of income growth under postwar Republican presidents had matched the pattern under Democrats, incomes would be more equal now than they were in 1950 — a far cry from the contemporary reality of what some observers are calling a New Gilded Age.

It might be tempting to suppose that these partisan differences in income growth are a coincidence of timing, merely reflecting the fact that Republicans held the White House through most of the past three decades of slow, unequal growth. The partisan pattern, however, is remarkably consistent throughout the postwar period. Every Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower presided over increasing economic inequality, while only one Democrat — Jimmy Carter — did so. (I allow one year for each president’s economic policies to take effect, so the recession of 2001 is counted against Clinton, not Bush.)

Bartels also grapples with the question of why Republicans win elections at the presidential level even though their policies typically don't favor working- and middle-class households over the course of their presidencies, and concludes that the tendency of Republican presidents to produce good economic results, broadly speaking, in election years--but pretty much only election years--specifically explains their success. Maybe there's something to this; the Reagan expansion was going pretty well by 1984 after two horrible years, and 2004 was easily the best year of Bush's presidency to that point.

His explanation, that early in presidential terms, Republicans tend to inflict economic pain (through "reining in inflation and cutting social spending") while Democrats invest in stimulus "producing economic booms that raise all boats in their second and third years but trail off as the next election approaches," doesn't hold up quite as well to me. Republican presidents tend to sling the pork around--which we might describe in a less pejorative way as "stimulus"--when they're up for re-election, and the Democrats have had exactly as many incumbents defeated in a re-election bid since WWII as the Republicans: one each (Carter and Bush 41).

But that's also less important than the trend itself: when you prioritize investments in people and broad-based growth over de-distributive policies that favor those who already have the most, and view government as the art of the possible rather than a "beast" to "starve," a larger segment of the public tends to benefit.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

All Too Easy
I think someone on the New York Times editorial staff has a wicked sense of humor. Today they featured a guest op-ed by Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former presidential candidate John Edwards, right alongside Maureen Dowd's latest excretion. A representative sampling follows.

Edwards: Bowling 1, Health Care 0

The problem today unfortunately is that voters who take their responsibility to be informed seriously enough to search out information about the candidates are finding it harder and harder to do so, particularly if they do not have access to the Internet.

Did you, for example, ever know a single fact about Joe Biden’s health care plan? Anything at all? But let me guess, you know Barack Obama’s bowling score. We are choosing a president, the next leader of the free world. We are not buying soap, and we are not choosing a court clerk with primarily administrative duties.
The decision was probably made by the same people who decided that Fred Thompson was a serious candidate. Articles purporting to be news spent thousands upon thousands of words contemplating whether he would enter the race, to the point that before he even entered, he was running second in the national polls for the Republican nomination. Second place! And he had not done or said anything that would allow anyone to conclude he was a serious candidate. A major weekly news magazine put Mr. Thompson on its cover, asking — honestly! — whether the absence of a serious campaign and commitment to raising money or getting his policies out was itself a strategy.

I’m not the only one who noticed this shallow news coverage. A report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy found that during the early months of the 2008 presidential campaign, 63 percent of the campaign stories focused on political strategy while only 15 percent discussed the candidates’ ideas and proposals.

Watching the campaign unfold, I saw how the press gravitated toward a narrative template for the campaign, searching out characters as if for a novel: on one side, a self-described 9/11 hero with a colorful personal life, a former senator who had played a president in the movies, a genuine war hero with a stunning wife and an intriguing temperament, and a handsome governor with a beautiful family and a high school sweetheart as his bride. And on the other side, a senator who had been first lady, a young African-American senator with an Ivy League diploma, a Hispanic governor with a self-deprecating sense of humor and even a former senator from the South standing loyally beside his ill wife. Issues that could make a difference in the lives of Americans didn’t fit into the narrative template and, therefore, took a back seat to these superficialities.

And now, for the defense... here's MoDo.

Hillary grows more and more glowy as Obama grows more and more wan.

Is she draining him of his precious bodily fluids? Leeching his magic? Siphoning off his aura?

It used to be that he was incandescent and she was merely inveterate. Now she’s bristling with life force, and he looks like he wants to run away somewhere for three months by himself and smoke.

Hillary is not getting much sleep or exercise, and doesn’t, like the ascetic Obama, abstain from junk food and coffee and get up at dawn to work out on the road. She’s still a long shot and she’s 14 years older than her rival.

Yet she’s the one who is more energetic and focused and beaming, and he’s the one who seems uneven and gauzy, often fatigued and unable to disguise being fed up with the slog. Even his speeches don’t have the same pizazz.
The Nixonian Hillary has a ravenous hunger that Obama lacks. Literally — at a birthday party in Philly for her photographer, she was devouring the chips and dip with two hands — and viscerally.

At Joe’s Junction gas station in Indianapolis, Obama did his best to shoo away the pesky elitist label. Accused by an Indianapolis reporter of looking like a GQ cover, he said he has only four pairs of shoes and buys “five of the same suit and then I patch them up and wear them repeatedly.” But his campaign refused to reveal the brand, presumably because it’s not J. C. Penney.

I know it's not the job of the opinion page to present candidates' proposals and policy views in their full detail. But what they can do--remember, these are supposed to be the best writers, not the best reporters (though most of them did start as reporters)--is to write about those positions in a way that makes them come alive for readers, and to call for a higher level of discourse in coverage overall. Remember that in the 2000 election cycle, when a little more analysis of the differences between Al Gore and George Bush might have been useful, MoDo was writing about Gore's sighs and sartorial choices, and Bush's ease and grace. Heaven forfend she ever learn or improve.

It's enough to make you wonder if the Times has the wrong choice of these two women as their regular columnist.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What's the Matter With MontCo?
Flipping on my computer Tuesday night between the Phillies game and the Pennsylvania primary returns, I kept waiting for Montgomery County, where I grew up right outside Philadelphia, to flip from blue (Clinton) to green (Obama). It never happened: though Clinton's ultimate margin was tiny--50.7 percent to 49.3 percent, around 2,200 votes--she held it, and the Clintons' unexpected success in the supposedly pro-Obama 'burbs, with their high median income and plentiful college grads, probably explains why they won by 9.2 percent and get to continue the Become What We Hate Tour, rather than, say, 5 percent and home to their own private dysfunction.

Philadelphia Inquirer political columnist/blogger Daniel Rubin went out to Montgomery to ask what happened:

"I voted for Hillary," said the first person I ran into, Shelley Goodman, a 53-year-old psychologist walking her coonhound, Blue.

"I don't think this country is ready for a black president." This again.

Goodman has adopted or fostered a household of mixed-race children, and so she is speaking from a giant heart.

"In this country, you are not half-black," she went on. "If you are any black, you are all black. We have a very skewed view in the East Coast. We think everyone thinks as open-mindedly as we do."
I found a balance of opinions at a home in Melrose Park, where twin signs sprout from the front yard, one for Hillary, one for Obama.
Inside, Linda Riley and her husband, Carl Rotenberg, sat in separate armchairs, parsing the results. Riley, the Obama supporter, relayed a recent conversation with a Jewish woman at the Philadelphia Council for the Aging. "She was concerned Obama would not protect Israel," said Riley, 57. "I don't know what he could do to assuage that concern, as he has said he would support Israel, is a friend of Israel. I guess it is not enough."
I reached Art Matusow by phone. He ran canvassing for Obama in Lower Merion and Narberth. Matusow said he'd been asking his door-knockers whether they'd seen support soften since Obama was hammered for calling some Pennsylvanians "bitter," for not wearing a flag on his lapel, and for the incendiary comments of his former pastor.

Matusow talked of two counties, the progressive inner suburbs like Cheltenham and Lower Merion, and the more rural and blue-collar places farther from the city.

He heard nothing, he said, to suggest voters were wary of Obama's race, but said some people did come into his office concerned about Israel's safety. The campaign had armed workers with pamphlets to try to quell the fears. "It is an area where Israel matters," Matusow said, "so I'm not going to say it is a nonissue."

Both my parents--my mom, a huge pro-Clinton Democrat, and my dad, a nominal Republican (I think) who generally votes for the Democrat on the presidential level--have raised this Israel question with me in conversation or e-mail. My mom, who flashes uncanny political astuteness once a year or so, actually predicted that the exchange about Israel in that disgrace of a debate last week would redound hugely to Hillary's advantage.

I guess it did. But I think the real story here is that upscale voters can be as attuned to "dog-whistle politics" as those church-going, gun-loving, salt-of-the-earth types before whom the mainstream media simultaneously venerates and sneers.

Clinton's formulation, that Israel was under the American nuclear umbrella and that any attack by Iran on the Jewish state would result in its "obliteration," might strike some as irresponsible or immoral. Obama's--that "all options would be on the table"--is much more in keeping with the tradition of strategic ambiguity around nuclear deterrence. (It also takes into account, at least implicitly, that Israel has a far larger nuclear arsenal than Iran ever will; if anyone is going to be doing the "obliterating" there, it'll be Israel.)

But from growing up around these people, having some idea how they think, I'm pretty sure that Obama misread or simply didn't understand the politics around this question.

The point is that when it comes to Israel among these folks, emotion trumps logic. The Clintons get this; Hillary (or Bill, which is the same diff in this context) understood that to the secular Jews of Montgomery County, belligerent rhetoric around Israel is a signifier of a larger worldview. That it's irrational--who the hell talks about "obliterating" anyone?--is actually the point: Israel is the one thing these folks actively choose to be irrational about. (The only time my late grandmother, probably the finest and gentlest person I've ever known, ever scared me was when she talked about how much she hated Arafat.)

That she did this against a man of color is an important point as well. I've read Obama's statements about Israel, the things my dad sent me. He's solidly in the mainstream in terms of America's relationship with the only Middle East democracy. But, as is his wont, he refuses to dumb it down beyond a certain point. And he does have relationships with people whom, I promise you, the decent folk of Montgomery County view as Scary Black Men: Wright directly, and Farrakkhan by (unfair) association. Because he's an honorable man, Obama doesn't throw Wright all the way over the side--and the Clintons, unburdened by honor, exploit that indirectly.

The people I grew up with certainly aren't "racist" in the Bull Connor sense, or even the Patrick Buchanan sense. But they are susceptible to indirect racist appeals--and "the black guy won't protect Israel as ferociously as I will" counts as one of those. This isn't the only issue where such an appeal can be made, triggering some lower-level or comparative ("he's just not enough like me in how he thinks") prejudice; I'm not sure how Obama pushes back against this.

Monday, April 21, 2008

For God's Sake, Don't Say the Obvious!

Here's that silly Barack Obama, committing another "gaffe":

Senator Barack Obama likes to tell his audiences that electing Senator John McCain would be the equivalent of giving President Bush four more years in the Oval Office.
Yet as he offered his closing words at a town meeting at Reading High School, after he delivered a speech and took questions for 40-minutes, Mr. Obama offered a different view of Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.

“You have a real choice in this election. Either Democrat would be better than John McCain – and all three of us would be better than George Bush,” Mr. Obama said. “But what you have to ask yourself is, who has the chance to actually, really change things in a fundamental way?”

In case you missed that line – “all three of us would be better than George Bush” – you almost certainly will be hearing it again and again from Republicans as a rebuttal to Mr. Obama’s often-stated argument that there would be no daylight between a President McCain and President Bush.

The Clintons--evidently forgetting Hillary's words about how she and Johnny Mac both offer "a lifetime of experience" compared to "a speech [Obama] made in 2002," and Bill's about a Clinton-McCain race being between "two people who love this country"--immediately went on the attack. But we know that consistency and honesty aren't big priorities for them, and anyway, what else are they gonna do?

Meanwhile, what Obama said seems pretty much incontrovertible to me. Who among us doesn’t think McCain would be better than Bush? Is McCain as weak-minded as Bush, as willing to empower the likes of Cheney and Addington because he can't be bothered or doesn't care about their weird obsessions? As cavalier about war and death? As likely to empower hyper-partisans, turning the bureaucracy over to monsters like Karl Rove? No, no, and no. This doesn't mean he'd be a "good" president; merely that he's a more thoughtful and more honorable guy than his predecessor, the near-consensus worst president we've ever had. A lower bar is difficult to imagine.

If you accept this premise, then what you’re left with is, “Well, yeah, but Obama shouldn’t have said it.” Why not? Because the public is so dimwitted that they can only accept absolutes–you’re either the Bestest Preznit Evah or the Chimpenfuhrer? Bullshit.

I think it would be a big mistake for the Democrats to try and win this thing by demonizing McCain. That’s the exact wrong approach to take--especially for an Obama campaign, which is trying to transcend and get beyond the zero-sum politics of the Bush/Clinton/Bush era. First of all, it’s a continuation of Rove/Carville, Clinton/Bush tactics: every contest is a Manichean, life or death struggle in which Everything Is At Stake. What that dynamic does is force everyone to dig in deeper; it pushes moderate Republicans and independents, who might have fuzzy fondness for McCain but doubt about his policy choices, back into his corner, because when you say he’s as bad as Bush, you’re insulting them too.

Second, people like McCain. Hell, I like McCain. I’d never vote for him and I don’t want him anywhere near the center of power, but that isn't entirely to do with him: mostly, I don’t like the idea of another president who cedes his budgetary policy to a psychotic asshole like Grover Norquist, won’t fully repudiate Bush--which is the real objective of this election, what I think the country at its deepest level wants to do--and is willing to countenance the monstrous likes of Bill Kristol.

The Democrats need to nail McCain to Bush on policies, not personality-–to make his unwillingness to repudiate Bush the anchor that sinks him. Holding that McCain is a good man in thrall to awful policies, Bush's policies, strikes me as the best way to do that-–and it subtly erodes those positive associations people have with him by raising the notion that he’s selling out to stay in the good books of people like Norquist and Hagee.

If this election is contested on the issues, Obama (or even Clinton, probably) can't lose. If it's conducted on the sort of nonsense that somehow dominated the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, he probably can't win.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Malaise, Despair, and Spring Fever
If it weren't for the Clintons' mad insistence on staying in a race they can't possibly win but just might force their enemy to lose, the country would be enjoying a much-earned and devoutly wished-for respite from presidential politics right now. I see this everywhere in work and social settings: nobody wants to talk about the race anymore, and everyone is disgusted with everybody.

Yes, the ABC debate Wednesday night was a singular disgrace; the absurdity of 45 minutes devoted to insider-politics bullshit and manufactured pseudo-scandals actually raises the question of whether representative democracy can thrive or even survive when its media tribunes are so entirely devoted to minutiae and irrelevancies. The lame excuse of the moderators--that all the issues they raised had sprung up in the two months since the previous debate--looks even lamer when you think about what else has happened since then: the collapse of Bear Stearns and the roiling of financial markets, the deepening mortgage crisis, the Petreus/Crocker hearings on Iraq, new revelations that the highest officials of the Bush administration discussed the specifics of torture tactics, the administration's vacuous promises of steps toward thinking about the discussion of long-term potential action around climate change, and all manner of other things.

But the outrage also reflects despair and bafflement that the good and necessary contest we were looking at two months ago, Obama versus McCain, is obscured by the refusal of the First Narcissists to go away and the hijacking of an issues-based campaign in favor of, literally, complaining about complaining. Democrats have the additional frustration of seeing their prospects dim in a year when everything should be going their way.

I'm not immune to this either. In about an hour and a half, I'll be headed to the Philadelphia area for the Jewish holiday; my plan had been to go down earlier today and do some volunteering for the Obama campaign in my home town. But between personal and spousal fatigue, and my own utter exasperation with the campaign that won't end, here I sit on Saturday afternoon, waiting for it to be freakin' over already.

edit: okay, this and this are almost-sufficient reasons to be glad the campaign continues...

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Now Why Might They be "Bitter"?
Barack Obama is in "trouble" again, as reports surfaced of remarks he made at a closed-door fundraiser in San Francisco last weekend and the Clinton and McCain campaigns--yet again singing from the same songbook--raced to condemn him as elitist and out of touch. Here's the apparently offending statement:

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

The great sin here evidently was to suggest that voters' attachments to "guns or religion" as criteria on which to vote isn't sincere and heartfelt, and that people are "bitter" about the inability or refusal of Washington to address their economic concerns. Neither the McCain campaign, which simply used the comment to blast Obama as a Kerry-like liberal elitist, nor the Clintons, who risibly claim that Obama is trying to divide the country between "those who are enlightened and those who are not," bother to address the underlying premise of the comment: that the residents of "these small towns" have been fucked over both by macroeconomic changes and the near-total absence of governmental response to help them cope.

Admittedly, he didn't phrase this as well as he could have. "Guns or religion" are loaded words in American politics, concepts near and dear to millions of voters (and not just economically marginalized conservatives or Republicans; far from it, in fact). By using them, he distracted the audience from the crucial underlying point.

Interestingly, a Times column just three days ago provides a lot of the backstory behind that "bitterness." In a brilliant piece about the economic expansion of this decade that's both chilling for its content and heartening in how it connects the dots, David Leonhardt gets at both what's fueling the dissatisfaction in the electorate, and why it's going to be so difficult to address:

The bigger problem is that the now-finished boom was, for most Americans, nothing of the sort. In 2000, at the end of the previous economic expansion, the median American family made about $61,000, according to the Census Bureau’s inflation-adjusted numbers. In 2007, in what looks to have been the final year of the most recent expansion, the median family, amazingly, seems to have made less — about $60,500.

This has never happened before, at least not for as long as the government has been keeping records. In every other expansion since World War II, the buying power of most American families grew while the economy did. You can think of this as the most basic test of an economy’s health: does it produce ever-rising living standards for its citizens?
The slowdown began in the 1970s, with an oil shock that raised the cost of everyday living. The technological revolution and the rise of global trade followed, reducing the bargaining power of a large section of the work force. In recent years, the cost of health care has aggravated the problem, by taking a huge bite out of most workers’ paychecks.

Real median family income more than doubled from the late 1940s to the late ’70s. It has risen less than 25 percent in the three decades since. Statistics like these are now so familiar as to be almost numbing. But the larger point is still crucial: the modern American economy distributes the fruits of its growth to a relatively narrow slice of the population.

Leonhardt makes the point that postwar prosperity didn't just happen, but was fueled by conscious measures to grow the middle class like the GI Bill, the highway system, and all that money invested in R&D. He suggests that we can do this again, and that finding the specific means and winning the related political fights will (or at least should) be Job Number One for the next president. But, he adds, this won't be easy:

[T]here is still a lack of strategic seriousness to the discussion, as Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution notes. After all, the United States spends a lot of money on education already but has still lost its standing as the country with the highest college graduation rate in the world. (South Korea and a couple of other countries have passed us, while Japan, Britain and Canada are close behind.)

The same goes for public works. Spending on physical infrastructure is at a 20-year high as a share of gross domestic product, but too much of the money is spent on the inefficient pet programs championed by individual members of Congress. Pork barrel spending does not add up to a national economic strategy.

Health care and taxes will have to be part of the discussion, too. Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel of the National Institutes of Health pointed out to me that a serious effort to curtail wasteful medical spending would directly help workers. It would spare them from paying the insurance premiums and taxes that now cover that care.

The tax code, meanwhile, has become far more favorable to high-income workers at the same time that they — and they alone — have received large pretax raises. That doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Here's where we get to the core of Obama's message: it's not that we haven't tried to make investments that advance the general prosperity, but the problem is that the twisted, insider-dominated politics of Washington, DC render those investments inefficient or counter-productive. In education, it's political game-players like the Loyal Bushies and the too-powerful teachers' unions who resist accountability at the cost of student outcomes. Regarding infrastructure, the elevation of pork as the guiding principle of funding (a killer issue for McCain, btw, if he has the guts and cleverness to seize it) is why we get a quarter-billion dollars invested in a Bridge to Nowhere while bridges that support hundreds of thousands of cars per day are at risk of collapse. We need not even name winners and losers when it comes to health care and tax policy during the Bush/Clinton/Bush years.

The question is whether Obama can change any of that. I'm skeptical, as you pretty much have to be if you've lived through the last 30 years. But at least he somewhat acknowledges the problem. His response Friday night, just an hour and a half or so after his rival campaigns went on the attack, suggests an awareness that he's stumbled upon a potential winning issue:

YouTube of Response in Indiana

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Where I'm Booing From
I love New York. I've lived here for all but two years since college, when I went to grad school in DC, and I hated those two years away in large part because DC was just so freakin' lame compared to New York. Brooklyn in particular is a wonderful place; I've been here for most of the last eight years, and the last five have easily been the best period of my life.

(I hate New York too--everyone who lives here sort of does--but we'll leave that for another time. The two emotions are not contradictory, even on a moment-by-moment basis. If you're here, you understand; if you don't, just trust me and let's move on.)

But I'm from Philadelphia, and that definitely shapes certain things. I can't really claim to "know" Philadelphia anymore, not having lived in the area full-time in nearly 20 years now, and my main attachments to the place are family still residing there, and the Phillies and Eagles. That said, those are serious attachments. Especially, with no disrespect to my family (with whom, after all, I'd presumably remain close with wherever they went), the Phillies.

Being from Philadelphia, and particularly having made an unhealthy, excessive and evidently irrevocable emotional investment in the Phillies at a young age, does certain things to a person. It inculcates a degree of fatalism tinged with inferiority. The team fails, you boo and jeer and otherwise act boorish, and the two things seem (some would say are) connected--though whether it's that non-supportive fans drag down the performance, or that poor performance is a just reward for the lack of faith, none can say.

So I read this article in Tuesday's Philadelphia Inquirer with both dread and recognition:

[Mitch] Nathanson, an associate professor of legal writing at Villanova's School of Law, set out to chronicle his own baseball pain, using his darkest memory - "Black Friday" - as a reflector.

"Black Friday," as all scarred Phillies fans recall, refers to Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on the sparkling afternoon of Oct. 7, 1977. The Phillies and Dodgers were tied, one game apiece, in the series, and Games 4 and 5 were set for Veterans Stadium. But with two outs and no one on base in the ninth inning, the Phils blew the game and eventually the series.

Somewhere in the research, however, the academic in Nathanson surfaced. He recognized that it wasn't just his mental state that had been negatively affected by this baseball tragedy, it was the entire city's psyche.

The result is a book that, though in carefully footnoted terms, perceptively dissects the always stormy three-sided relationship involving Philadelphia, its fans and its teams, particularly the Phillies.

"Philadelphia has seen its reflection in the Phillies more than in any other team or institution," Nathanson wrote, "finding in them support, or blame, for its opinion of itself. . . . While Philadelphians may love the Eagles, they identify with the Phillies."
The 1977 Phils were likely the best in franchise history. They won 101 games. They had power, speed, Steve Carlton, and a remarkably deep bullpen. That's what made Black Friday so maddeningly difficult to fathom. And when that optimistic bubble burst, it affected how Philadelphians felt about their city as well.

"We like to think we're rational decision-makers, that we reach conclusions like judges do, issuing a verdict after weighing all the evidence," Nathanson said. "But research shows that's not the case. We usually develop a gut feeling first, and then we rationalize it later. We pick and choose facts that support that.
"[The negativity] manifests itself, however, through sports and particularly baseball," he said. "In this way, we retain a link to our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers. In short, it's in our blood, passed down from one generation to the next. . . . It's what makes us uniquely Philadelphian.

I was four and not yet a fan when "Black Friday" struck, but I get it. Nathanson must have been 12 or so; I can't imagine what a bummer that must have been. By the time I was that age, the Phillies had fallen from their late '70s/early '80s peak and were beginning a 15-year stretch of awful play interrupted only by the improbable 1993 pennant... and, of course, the agonizing World Series loss that followed it.

Meanwhile, the rot has spread to the town's other teams as surely as the soul-corrosion of Philly fandom spreads within those families the author describes. Not only has it been 28 years since the Phillies' first and only championship; no Philadelphia team in any sport has won the big prize since the NBA's 76ers did it in May 1983. I was 10 then. In a few weeks I'll turn 35. Given how depressing a prospect that is to start with, perhaps I'll get Nathanson's book for my birthday.

Friday, April 04, 2008

When the Window Closed
As you've heard, today was the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr's assassination. Two worthwhile reminiscences: E.J. Dionne, on the King murder as the death knell for 1960s liberalism, and Kai Wright--a man with whom I shared an office wall for a year or so--on King's forgotten radicalism.

i have just one thing to add. In the incredibly consequential and ultimately horrific year of 1968, there was a period of not quite four days that I believe stands as the high-water mark for progressive politics in America: between March 31, when Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not stand for re-election, and April 4, when King was gunned down in Memphis. For those 90-odd hours, I imagine it was possible to believe that a proud liberal, probably Robert F. Kennedy, would win the White House, end the Vietnam War, begin to bring healing to the divisions of the period, and fulfill the promise of Johnson's Great Society. The killing didn't foreclose those possibilities, but it--or rather the riots that ensued--exacerbated the white backlash that ultimately helped elect Richard Nixon, and it began the demoralization and (to Dionne's point) self-doubt on the left that greatly deepened when Kennedy himself was murdered. The Chicago convention, at which the orphaned constituents of Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy first lost the nomination, then got their brains bashed in, was in some sense insult to injury.

Likely the promise of those four days was never realistic. Had there been no assassinations that year, had RFK won the presidency, things still might have come apart. Disengagement from Vietnam was never going to be easy, in a political or strategic sense. The Cold War was still on a low simmer, and we hadn't yet engaged China. (Indeed, with Kennedy instead of Nixon, who knows if that would have happened at all.) The Great Society was already stalled by 1968, and the racial backlash was going to continue anyway.

Even so, James Earl Ray's second victim was the hope that had bubbled up through the first few months of that year.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

April: Baseball's Cruelest Month
Every year I get intensely excited for Opening Day. Springtime, the assured presence of my favorite sport, maybe my favorite thing in the world, on TV somewhere more or less 24/7, the return of the Phillies.

And every year, within no more than 72 hours after that first pitch is thrown, they find some way to kick me in the figurative balls.

Monday's season-opening loss was at least characteristic of the team's pattern of play over the last few years: they fell behind, came back to tie it on some huge hits, then shat the game away in the 9th with cover-your-eyes, hide-the-children caliber relief pitching to lose 11-6. Tonight, though, just felt like the sort of metaphysical screw-you one only experiences through sport. (My strongest memory ever in this line was the 2006 game the Eagles lost to a last-place Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad, when a waiver-bait kicker beat them with a 62-yard field goal as time expired. I swear I could almost see some ghostly hand floating behind the uprights, all fingers folded in but the middle one.) Cole Hamels, Phillies ace and hero of the internets, pitched eight innings of one-run ball; the run was a wind-blown bullshit OFJOAB ("Our Fucking Joke of a Ballpark") special homer. The Phillies offense, meanwhile, was that special combination of inept (one hit all night) and unlucky (at least three rockets hit right at defenders in the final three innings).

So the team is 0-2 with the two good pitchers having taken their turns without any wins to show for it, and The Crap due the next three games. Usually I don't make this AIS post--it is a yearly tradition--until they hit 1-6 or so, but this year I figured why wait.