Wednesday, November 26, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 22, 2008

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

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

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

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

For Teen Workers, It’s Already a Depression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

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

But instead, consider these two pictures:

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

Thursday, November 13, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads us back to Rahm Emanuel.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

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

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

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

Thursday, November 06, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

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

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

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

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

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