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.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Should We Be Saved From Ourselves?
A couple weeks ago here, I alluded to Mayor Bloomberg's recent announcement that he wanted to change New York City's term limit law such that he could run for a third term, staying in office beyond the end of 2009. Actually, the active voice is incorrect in this case: what Bloomberg wants is for the City Council to pass a measure not repealing term limits, but lengthening the permissible tenure of an office-holder from the current two terms to three. The measure would apply only to current office-holders, which means that the approximately three dozen Councilmembers who otherwise would be looking for work next November have a strong personal incentive to vote for it. A Council hearing on the question, already in progress when I walked by City Hall on the way to a meeting about five hours ago, is still in progress: I've got it on TV here as I type.

Bloomberg has drawn fire regarding this move for its evidently self-serving nature, and for his own shift of position on the question: he once described attempts to change the term limits law, which was twice upheld at the ballot box in the face of efforts to repeal it, as "disgusting." His rationale for wanting to stay on strikes me as questionable: Bloomberg believes that his financial background and proven management acumen will be vital to the prosperity of the city as it heads into what promises to be a bleak economic era. The problem here is that the economic situation--which is much more closely tied to the health of the financial industry in New York, where Wall Street accounts for so much of our city and state tax revenues, than anywhere else--as of January 1, 2010, is largely unknowable as of October or November 2008. The implication is that Bloomberg, who wanted to run for president this year but couldn't find an opening as the two most center-friendly candidates won their parties' nominations, was looking for any excuse to remain in his other dream job.

None of which is to say that he might not be right on the specifics of the crisis the city will face and his possibly unique suitability to lead New York through that crisis.

When government budgets collapse, the big battle is over where to make the painful cuts. Pretty much any of Bloomberg's plausible successors would take office owing favors to their individual and institutional supporters, distorting that process. The foundation of Bloomberg's success in office--and he has been a successful mayor, even considering a few recent reversals and disappointments--has been that he's too rich to be bought. That could be more important over the years of the next mayoral term than ever. Poll results suggest that if Bloomberg, whose approval rating remains around 70 percent, has the opportunity to run for a third term, he'll win--even as other polling shows support in the abstract for the current law.

The problem opponents have with the proposal is that it would accomplish through the legislative process a result that has failed through the democratic process. For some--including, evidently, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo--term limits even at the conceptual level are such a bane that any means to get rid of them are justified. I'm skeptical about term limits too, but I'm much more skeptical that incumbent politicians who just happen to be acting in their own interests (and have the near-unanimous support of the business community, publishing moguls and other powerful stakeholders) can also act in ours, just this once, in an "emergency"... and be trusted not to do so again. If democracy means anything, it means the right to make (arguably) bad choices and the responsibility to live with them.

The counter-proposal is to take the immediate steps necessary to put another referendum on term limits--either the current incumbents-only measure now under consideration in Council, or an all-out repeal--before the public for a March vote. The argument against this idea is that such special votes always draw lower turnout and are more easily influenced by powerful interests. That's true enough. But I think the long-term integrity of New York City's political process demands that we go this route, flawed though it might be. I hope the Council votes down this proposal.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Nothing really to add to what I wrote here. But you really can't type those words enough.

This is one time it's a bit of a bummer to be a displaced fan. There's honking outside here in Brooklyn, but it's in aggravation, not celebration. I had phone calls with my uncle and brother, drank one celebratory beer, and now have to try and get to bed in advance of a full-and-then-some day of meetings and presentations tomorrow.

But the smile hasn't left my face since 11:37, when Carlos Ruiz squeezed the popup to end it.

We're going to the World Series.

Hard to believe, Harry.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Any of This Sound Familiar?
If George W. Bush was tragedy, I'm increasingly sure that Sarah Palin is farce.

Where Bush manipulated intelligence and had a CIA agent exposed to help start and then politically defend a war, Palin's abuses of power as mayor of a small Alaska town and governor of that state are a bit more, shall we say, relatable. But the pattern persists--and as was not the case with Bush, there's absolutely no question but that we should know what we'd be getting into this time. A just-released report to the Alaska legislature, commissioned on a bipartisan basis long before Palin was tapped as John McCain's vice-presidential nominee, found that the Alaska governor "abused her power" when she fired the state's public safety commissioner, Walter Monegan, after a long-running dispute over the commissioner's refusal to dismiss Palin's former brother-in-law, an Alaska state trooper. The full report is linked above; the AP story is here.

One of the few things we know for sure about Palin is that for her, the political is personal. A recent New Republic cover story traces her careerlong pattern of using office to settle scores. An earlier New York Times feature detailed how she repeatedly appointed childhood friends to well compensated senior positions in state government. Palin's circle isn't quite as elevated as Bush's--the difference between Wasilla High School and Yale Skull and Bones, I guess--but the mindset is the same: loyalty trumps ability, and the more the appointee is your creature, the better.

As the two investigative articles indicate, Palin apes Bush in other aspects: a yen for secrecy, evident disgust for the press, and trouble telling the truth. (One could add their shared evident certitude that, by virtue of their faith views, any and all means are justified by the divinely sanctioned ends.) If "Troopergate" is Palin's equivalent to the Plame scandal or the U.S. Attorney firings, it's only fair to point out that, like Bush's flunkies in the ongoing investigation of the latter, Palin won't cooperate either. And just as with the Department of Justice scandal, apologists for the Republican will blow off the whole to-do as a substance-free partisan witch hunt.

That the report does not call for any formal punishment of Palin, or a criminal investigation, will make this easier. And I don't think there's any need for the Obama campaign, now effectively focusing on the economy while, as has it, "keeping the prevent defense on the field," to bring this up. But Palin isn't going away: if they lose this year, she probably starts the 2012 cycle as the favorite or co-favorite (with Mike Huckabee) for the Republican nomination. Having already played this sequence once, with disastrous results, let's not do it again.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Second-Most Important Vote This Year
It's out in California, where a ballot initiative seeks to eliminate the right of same-sex couples in the Golden State to marry, overturning a decision of the state Supreme Court earlier this year. With less than four weeks until Election Day, Proposition 8 is currently supported by a plurality of California voters; it's gone back and forth all year.

A brief history of the issue, from Wikipedia (which seems credible in this case):

Until 1977, California did not explicitly define marriage as being between a man and a woman, but court decisions, and some statutes, dating from both statehood and the 1872 codification of the civil law, assumed as much.[9][10] In 1977, the legislature amended Civil Code section 4100 (predecessor to what is now codified at Family Code section 300) to read that marriage is "a personal relation arising out of a civil contract between a man and a woman".[10] In 2000, voters passed with 61% of the vote, ballot initiative Proposition 22, which changed the California Family Code to formally define marriage in California between a man and a woman. However, other laws have been passed by the legislature (since 1999) which recognize domestic partnerships and afford them some of the rights of marriage.[10]

A number of developments arose in the wake of Mayor Gavin Newsom's 2004 decision to perform same sex marriages in San Francisco. The 3,995 marriages were annulled by the California Supreme Court, but San Francisco began a legal challenge that was consolidated with other cases as In re Marriage Cases. On May 15, 2008 the California Supreme Court, by a vote of 4–3, ruled that the statute enacted by Proposition 22 and other statutes that limit marriage to a relationship between a man and a woman violated the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. It also held that individuals of the same sex have the right to marry under the California Constitution.[11] The court subsequently refused to issue a stay of its order.[12] As of June 17, 2008, marriage between individuals of the same sex is currently valid or recognized in the state.

While the case was under way, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed two legislative bills approving same-sex marriage. Anticipating that either the courts or the legislature might overturn Proposition 22, opponents of same-sex marriages introduced several attempts to place a constitutional amendment before voters that would prohibit same-sex marriages—and in some cases, domestic partnerships as well.[13] Prior to 2008, none had made it to the ballot.

Some--Andrew Sullivan, I'm looking in your direction--are pointing a finger of blame at Gavin Newsom, whose pugilistic stance on gay marriage is now featured in a commercial produced by groups seeking to ban gay marriage. Certainly, Newsom's judgment often leaves something to be desired, and it would be a bitter irony if this ad proved to be the difference--especially considering that some already give him a share of the blame for Bush's re-election win in 2004, bolstered as it was by all those state-level referenda on gay marriage. But I'm hesitant to blame Newsom for doing, albeit perhaps in an unhelpful way, exactly what I wish more progressive politicians would do on this issue: stand up loud and proud for equality, and make the important point that "gay marriage" in this sense doesn't mean anything in the private sphere. Nobody can force the Catholic Church, or any other religious group, to sanctify a same-sex union--but in the eyes of the state, which does not recognize religion anyway (that's why we don't tax churches), there should be no distinction.

That aside, I have the sense--it probably would be difficult if not impossible to prove this, though maybe the "Freakonomics" guys could take a shot at it--that the tremendous uncertainty around the economy is driving the surge in support for the measure. Regrettably, it's human nature to seek scapegoats in times of trouble--and while there's obviously no rational connection between gay equality and the economy, and to my knowledge not even the most rabid anti-gay bigots have suggested as much, it seems possible that the general climate would push people toward a harsher view of this issue.

Meanwhile, I wish that progressive communities physical and virtual would gear up more to win this fight. I kicked in some money today here, and would encourage anyone reading this who agrees that the state shouldn't codify bigotry to do the same.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

When Dumb Obsessions Collide
This was probably inevitable, given that Annie and I spent the first season of Battlestar Galactica referring to Col. Tigh only as "McCain." But the world has caught up to and surpassed our idiocy/genius:

Admittedly, I had Roslin more in mind while watching Hillary Clinton in the primaries--particularly, the sneaking suspicion that Hillary might have been more palatable to me as a leader if I wasn't holding her to a standard both unreasonably high and, um, fictional--than Sarah Palin. But McCain/Tigh at the top of the ticket, and the dark hair, sort of makes it work if you squint.

As for the other side, I'm just glad that I haven't actually misspoken "Obama" for "Adama" aloud, as I have more than once in my head. The show, of course, gives you two flavors of near-soundalike leadership options:

One of the most disquieting and brilliant things about the end of Battlestar's second season was how uncomfortably close the writers positioned Gaius Baltar--the practical, non-religious, science-venerating yet charismatic intellectual juxtaposed with Roslin's uber-faith-based, warlike, ideologue president--to a certain idealized archetype of liberal Democrats. Of course, the viewer knew what Baltar was really about... and that didn't help either.

Even though the narrative of the show has somewhat undermined that by stretching Baltar into so many different shapes since (quisling figurehead of a conquerer regime, captured Saddam Hussein, L. Ron Hubbard type, St. Paul), this version of the character is the one that abides in my head. And maybe would get my vote:

While this is probably the nerdiest thing I've ever put up on this blog, don't think I can't top it: last night a comparison occurred to me between the 2007 NL East champion Phillies as the Battlestar Galactica remake--where you never could see how they might make it because they seemed like such a self-destructive, self-sabotaging mess, but they eventually kind of got it together--and the 2008 division champs as the "Star Trek: the Next Generation" model, where they basically had their shit together all year and merely had to overcome some briefly frightening obstacles (the Borg, the Mets) which ultimately proved to be fatally flawed (the "Sleep" command, a terrible bullpen).

Heh heh. Heh heh.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

One Quick Thought on the VP Debate
At some point soon, I'll write at more length about the now-revealed worst-kept secret in New York City politics, that Mayor Bloomberg will seek a third term... but for now, with playoff baseball beckoning and some actual work responsibilities with which to concern myself, a thought about the vice-presidential debate set for tonight:

Joe Biden, pretty much without question, knows John McCain a lot better than does Sarah Palin. The two Senators have described themselves as "friends" on many occasions, and Biden famously volunteered to help McCain rebut attacks on the latter's character during the 2000 Republican primaries. (McCain didn't take him up on the offer.) I also think it's probably fair to say, with no offense meant to Palin since it's simply a matter of their having served together in the Senate for more than two decades, that Biden is much more familiar with McCain's positions on a wide range of issues--and can track their peregrinations, which is useful.

If Biden can manage to deploy this knowledge without coming off as meandering or bombastic (a HUGE if)--and if Ifill turns the debate in such a way that it's about the presidential candidates, as you'd assume she will--his greater closeness to and knowledge of McCain is another potential big edge for the Democrat.


As my breakfast burrito is cooling rapidly, I will be brief...

Biden clearly did have a much better grasp on McCain's legislative history, but he didn't pull it out of the holster until the last ten minutes or so. When he finally did so, however ("John McCain is no maverick"), it was devastating.

Palin strongly reminded me of Bush in 2000 with her performance tonight: she was facile with her talking points, but showed no deep command of the issues and couldn't think on her feet. The format, which sharply limited back-and-forth between the candidates and follow-up questions, saved her again and again through the first-hour plus. On the whole, she didn't embarrass herself--certainly not compared to expectations--but probably didn't change many, if any, minds either. For his part, Biden was good, not great, on checking his impulses to ramble and bloviate, but he didn't commit any big mistakes. I suspect both campaigns are satisfied with how this all went, but given the state of play right now, that outcome represents a win for the Democrats.