Monday, December 29, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 26, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 20, 2008

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 15, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 11, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 07, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 06, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

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

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

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

The initial count was as follows:

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

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

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

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

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