Sunday, November 29, 2009

Re-Learning to Love the Eagles
With an ugly but well-earned 27-24 win at home Sunday against Washington, the Eagles finish November with a 7-4 record that looks a lot better than the team generally has. The same problems of the last half-decade have surfaced again throughout the first eleven games of the 2009 season: shaky play-calling, awful clock management, trouble converting third-and-short situations and scoring in the red zone, over-reliance upon the blitz to pressure opposing quarterbacks. And they've added some new wrinkles this year: way too many penalties, struggles to protect the quarterback, and a more than occasional inability to stop opponents on third-and-long. Watching them play often feels like having dental work done.

And yet that 7-4 record is their best at this point in the season since 2004, when they started 10-1 and went to the Super Bowl. Last year at this juncture they were 5-5-1 and all but left for dead in the playoff race; they won four of their last five and two more in the playoffs before falling in the NFC Championship Game. In 2007, when they finished 8-8, Game 11 was a 31-28 loss to the Patriots team that ended the regular season 16-0--the first of three straight close losses to playoff teams in a season when seven of the Eagles' eight defeats were by eight points or less. In 2006, they were 5-6 thru eleven games, then came back to win their last five plus one in the playoffs behind unlikely hero quarterback Jeff Garcia. The year before that, they also reached this point at 5-6, but were fading fast in the midst of a 2-8 slide to end a miserable season.

So 7-4 isn't bad, especially when you consider they've done most or all of it without expected key contributors like Brian Westbrook, Shawn Andrews and Stewart Bradley--two former Pro Bowlers plus a guy who was expected to assume the leadership of the defense after the team let legendary safety Brian Dawkins leave as a free agent last winter--and with a slew of injuries to the offensive line, linebackers and secondary. Perhaps even more encouraging is that the emerging stars on offense--running back LeSean McCoy, wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, and tight end Brent Celek--are respectively 21, 23, 21, and 24. Donovan McNabb, the veteran quarterback who along with Westbrook is probably my all-time favorite Eagles player, has done an underrated great job guiding them toward NFL maturity.

Those kids, particularly McCoy and Maclin, keyed fourth-quarter comeback victories last week in Chicago and again in the game Sunday. The Eagles hadn't won a game in that manner, ripping it away from the other team at the end, since early last season; they'd done it once the year before, also against Washington, but that win had somewhat gotten lost in the cascade of taint-kick losses in 2007. Most of the team's wins since the start of that season had come when the game plan drawn up during the week had more or less worked all day long; but great football teams have to win both with elegant conception and gritted-teeth resilience after things go wrong.

Though no NFC teams look unbeatable to me (the Saints, who put their perfect record on the line Monday night against New England, are the closest), I don't give the Eagles a great chance of making the Super Bowl in February, much less winning it. Good quarterbacks kill them: without taking anything away from the Eagles for beating Chicago and Washington, better passers for either team would have won those games. They can't run the ball consistently, and coach Andy Reid remains all too prone to trip on his own mental shoelaces. (And there's evidently a good chance that Jackson and Celek, McNabb's two favorite targets, will miss at least next week's game with injuries sustained today.) My guess is that they'll finish 10-6 and might or might not win one playoff game before getting dispatched by the Saints or, ugh, Vikings. But considering both the youth of the roster and the toughness and growth they've shown, it feels like they might be back on the way up, building toward another legitimate shot at a title, rather than running in place as it's so often seemed since 2005.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Base Motivations
The online liberal community has its collective knickers in a twist over this poll for Daily Kos, which finds that while 81 percent of Republicans surveyed report themselves definitely planning or likely to vote in 2010 against 14 percent who are unlikely to vote or certain they will not, just 56 percent of Democrats intend to vote against 40 percent who say they probably or certainly won't. Midterm elections are won and lost on enthusiasm, and it's all on one side; that suggests near-certain doom for freshman and sophomore Democrats in moderate to conservative districts, like these folks.

This is the problem with a moderate and "pragmatic" (consider the scare quotes optional) governing course: nobody reads it that way. Supporters perceive a want of spine, and/or suspect that the promises made or implied during the last campaign were cynical plays for power; opponents meanwhile smell blood in the water. For Barack Obama in particular, the problem with raising voters' hopes to the extent that he did in the 2008 election is that doing so created much more room for disappointment. This is particularly so if you believe that Obama failed to convince his supporters that getting elected was just the first step to creating the change he called for--and the easiest.

But whether or not expectations were unrealistic--and putting aside considerations like the fact that the economic crisis was far more acute in January than most anyone thought it would be six months earlier--isn't important from the standpoint of next year's elections. The question is how close he and the Democrats in Congress have come to meeting them, and the answer, unfortunately, is "not very."

If you’d surveyed Obama voters in November 2008 about the three things they most wanted to see him do, I suspect the most common responses would have been “end the wars,” “turn around the economy,” and “fix health care.” Right now, he’s 0 for 3, and the one that's closest and most likely in the short term, health care, falls far short of what most informed liberals hoped it would be. (Moderates and conservatives who voted for Obama, meanwhile, seem to think it's unvarnished Bolshevism anyway.) Next week he's going to announce a big escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and while aggregate economic growth has returned, unemployment continues to rise and the only sector that's clearly recovered is finance.

He's also fallen way short on a range of issues that are lower-profile but perhaps closer to the hearts of what we might call "liberal values voters": full equality for gay Americans, ending or even curtailing the Bush-era terror policies (the failing that prompted me to take myself off email lists and stop donating money), and re-regulating the same financial industry that seems more deeply entrenched and as unapologetic as ever for its past, present and future excesses. Add in near-total silence on the Employee Free Choice Act--a good call, I think, considering the state of the economy, but still something likely to de-motivate labor supporters--and a relative low profile until very recently on climate change, and that's two pretty well organized and deep-pocketed Democratic constituencies that might well sit on their hands, at least relative to what they did last year.

Yet his political enemies still see the same horror to which they reacted so viscerally during the campaign. It reminds me of a great line The Navigator offered probably ten or twelve years ago now: "Why is it that my most cherished liberal fantasies only come true in the minds of paranoid right-wingers?"

So Obama hasn't fed his base, and right now it seems unlikely that they'll be there for his Democrats next November. Was this entirely foolish? I'm not sure. Ultimately a "base mobilization" strategy helps with politics but not with governance: the few Republicans who are reachable on this or that issue would be much less so if the president was serving up partisan red meat on a regular basis. He also likely recalls that this was what Bush did for his first six years; at the end of that time, he'd more or less resurrected the Democrats--and, since the base is by nature insatiable and upset about what they didn't get (war with Iran, greater oppression of gays, overturn of Roe v. Wade, privatization of Social Security) rather than grateful for what was gained (two other wars, a heavily right-wing federal judiciary, enormous tax cuts), it didn’t even save Republican congressional majorities politically.

It’s also arguable—and it’s being argued--that Obama’s first year has been, or will turn out to be, remarkably successful; it's just that his successes aren’t things that translate to political mobilization. I find the contention that the stimulus has worked--in that if we hadn’t done it, things would be far worse--convincing, but that’s not a great way to excite voters. Same with the alleged repositioning of American foreign policy and our supposed gains in global esteem: it’s probably real, but it isn’t tangible and thus not meaningful for the overwhelming majority of Americans who vote.

Maybe these things will translate later on, as the foundation lain this year for future growth, less war and fundamental reform is built upon. Another point that a friend of mine made the other night is that Obama's first year has set him up to take congressional losses in 2010, but win big for reelection in 2012. Given both the likelihood of full economic recovery by then and the ongoing unattractiveness of the Republican Party to the leftmost 80 percent of the electorate, I think it pretty likely Obama will win reelection in three years. But that kind of brings us full circle: the real value of "winning" is pretty much dependent on what is done with the victory. And in our system, you need governing majorities to fulfill that promise. The Democrats have one right now, and the perception--fair or not, accurate or not--is that they haven't done much with it. Thus they're likely to lose part or all of it in 2010. You can't make the care and feeding of your base the sole or primary focus, as Bush did, but starving it isn't smart either.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sand in the Gears

E.J. Dionne makes an important point about the Senate and the politics of delay.

[I]t's ... time to start paying attention to how Republicans, with Machiavellian brilliance, have hit upon what might be called the Beltway-at-Rush-Hour Strategy, aimed at snarling legislative traffic to a standstill so Democrats have no hope of reaching the next exit.

We know what happens when drivers just sit there when they're supposed to be moving. They get grumpy, irascible and start turning on each other, which is exactly what Democrats are doing now.
Republicans are using the filibuster to stall action even on bills that most of them support. Remember: The rule is to keep Democrats from ever reaching the exit.

As of last Monday, the Senate majority had filed 58 cloture motions requiring 32 recorded votes. One of the more outrageous cases involved an extension in unemployment benefits, a no-brainer in light of the dismal economy. The bill ultimately cleared the Senate earlier this month by 98-0--yes, that is a zero.

The vote came only after the Republicans launched three filibusters against the bill and also tried to lard it with unrelated amendments, delaying passage by nearly a month. And you wonder why it's so hard to pass health care?

The change in usage of the filibuster is the tactical innovation, if that's the word. But the larger point might be that fundamentally we now have a system increasingly out of sync with the times: the Senate famously is supposed to take a long time to pass big legislation, and it’s not supposed to be easy. But as the standard for even routine stuff, like judicial nominations, gets ever-closer to that for major legislation, the effect is that nothing happens until opponents take their pound of flesh. Meanwhile, the mean attention span of Americans gets shorter and shorter: if it doesn’t happen quickly, goes the assumption, it probably doesn’t deserve to happen at all. Supporters lose enthusiasm, in frustration with both the slow pace and the myriad compromises necessary for any forward progress, while opponents come to smell blood. And everybody disengages somewhat, leaving the field to those with the most direct interests.

Dionne’s fear seems to be that the Republicans will gain politically from a strategy that essentially degrades the capacity of government. Again, it’s more understandable on something big like healthcare, where objections can be presumed to be at least somewhat in earnest, than extending UI benefits or filling judicial vacancies. But it constrains the possible: if health care bills had passed both Houses by the August break, as Obama originally called for, Congress likely now would be focused on the problem of jobs, which is the main thrust of Republican attacks right now. But dropping health care in the middle, or even further slowing down the pace, would constitute a serious political loss for the president, and for the Democrats. So dragging that out strengthens the criticism that the majority is neglecting the problem of jobs, while hiding the Republicans' role in clogging the legislative highway.

This tactic of all-purpose delay is a better fit for the Republicans, whose current political identity is largely based on hind-brain fear and loathing of government, than it would be for the Democrats if and when power shifts back. Still, pressure from their activist base probably would impel the Democrats to ape the tactic and dig in on small stuff as well as large. The result would be that less and less public business will get done. One eventual outcome from this could be ever-larger swings of power: imagine as the next president somebody further on the right than Obama is to the left, followed by someone still further back to the left, and so forth.

As the problems get bigger and consensus in dealing with them becomes more and more vital, the risk is that "the middle"--by which I don't really mean mushy centrists or preening egomaniacs of the type now at center stage in the healthcare debate, but anybody willing to bargain in good faith on issues of the public business--could collapse entirely. That eventuality, coupled with a governance structure that intentionally thwarts small majorities, would mark a point of no return: Any system that proves structurally unable to grapple with a society's fundamental problems is living on borrowed time.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Year, and Change
I'm a couple weeks late to get in on all the navel-gazing around the fact that the country elected Barack Obama president last November. But the last post I made, about deficit reduction, probably gave away that it's been on my mind: [T]hough it pains me to admit it as someone who was such a big fan of the guy only a year ago, I haven't seen many signs that Obama himself has the political courage to really take on these tough fights in his own party. Is he going to push for changes in entitlements to save them, even though seniors will vigorously resist? Can he withstand the political heat that any Democrat draws when s/he utters the mildest peep of protest against our absurdly bloated military spending and global posture of empire?

I was emailing with a friend this weekend and trying to articulate what it was about Obama's first ten months in office that has disappointed me so. The seeming timidity I alluded to in that post has something to do with it, as does some of the substance: that he's essentially kissed Wall Street's ass, proven much more reactionary on gay rights issues than could be expected from his campaign, and perpetuated most (not all) of the Bush-era policies around the SuperDuper Executive and the Permanent War State. There's a moral center that I and many others perceived in the man during the campaign which feels like it's gone missing through his first year.

A style that verges on the overly deliberative can rankle, too--not so much on Afghanistan, where I want him to take the time and get it right (and where I was pleased that he essentially rejected the first set of options with which he was presented, telling his advisors to go back and figure out something better--that's the mark of a guy with a highly sophisticated BS detector), but on things like the recently-announced "jobs summit." Maybe it's because I actually know something about this issue, but my first reaction was that we don't need more talk--we need policy initiatives that put federal resources behind wage subsidy programs, transitional jobs, and shared work models as well as immediate help for community colleges, some of which around these parts are now literally turning students away. (During a contracting labor market, you want more people going to school: it takes them out of the jobseeker pool for now and positions them to ride the wave when employment rebounds later.)

But then I remember that coming up with the policy is only half the answer; the other half is getting political buy-in for it. Governing is, as Obama's predecessor memorably put it, "hard work": it's easier, and in some ways more fun, to be outside the gates brandishing your torches and pitchforks, which is why all the energy in American politics seems to be with the Tea Party/Palinoid Right at the moment. Obama's Jobs Summit, pointless stunt though it might initially seem, is probably a necessary prerequisite to getting buy-in from Congress, labor, big business and perhaps even Republicans, who would find it awkward to blast the administration and Congressional Democrats next year for not focusing on job creation right after opposing whatever job creation proposals emerge from the summit.

What drew me to support Obama in the first place--aside from his merits as a man of letters, the subject of a very interesting GQ feature I read this evening--was that he seemed to have an idealistic sense of where he believed the country should go, coupled with a core pragmatic streak that would ensure we didn't get there so quickly that people would freak out--the same match of visionary ends and incrementalist means that was the key to the presidential mastery of Lincoln and FDR. Big change not supported by a durable, popular majority isn't likely to be very successful or long-lasting. It could be argued that on health care, on national security and foreign policy, on fiscal responsibility, on the proper role of government in the economy, he's engaged in a long game toward building those big, durable changes. And there's some reason to believe he's made progress in that direction.

Yet it's frustrating to see him give ground on core issues: silent on gay marriage even when it's the status quo, as in Maine before the referendum a couple weeks back, and on Don't Ask, Don't Tell when he could end it with the stroke of a pen. I understand the political calculations in favor of taking it slow--more for the internal/institutional audience than the electorate, which I don't think much cares anymore--and as I think about it I realize that I actually do have faith that he'll ultimately end it. But if "the time is always right to do what is right," then isn't delay a moral defeat?

It's also important to remember--and I haven't always managed to do so--that the presidency is a job one grows into. I think I wrote on here earlier this year that it's like being in an auto race in which you have the best car, but don't really know how to drive at the start. Probably it takes a year or two to understand the power and limitations of the office; it certainly did for Clinton and Reagan. In the meantime, the number of ways in which you can screw up is almost unlimited. In Obama's case, I think he waited too long to make a real effort to impose some structure and responsibility on Wall Street--and for that matter, he brought too many "captured" guys inside his administration. I don't doubt the brilliance of Larry Summers or Tim Geithner, but both had their fingerprints all over the crash. Maybe Obama had to hire them for the same reason Joe Biden says they had to go through with the bailout: to do otherwise would have been to court disaster. But I think they rolled him.

Ultimately, a lot has gotten done in Obama's not-quite-completed first year in office. (If you don't think he's desperate to get that health care bill signed before Jan. 20--and the CBO score of the Senate bill released tonight will help--you're nuts.) The stimulus did help in the short term, and set down markers for long-term investment that many of us who work in public policy found very heartening. The bailout, while politically toxic, seems likely to work out well for the taxpayers. Our international reputation has improved considerably. And all this has happened in the face of a political opposition little short of insane.

But the story really is yet to be told. When Biden was on the Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart said, "I don't know if you guys are Jedi masters that are making ten chess moves ahead or if this whole thing is kicking your ass." I'm not sure they know themselves.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Prove It
The White House announced yesterday that its focus for 2010 would turn to deficit reduction. Even beyond the political atmospherics--the hardening conventional wisdom that the Democrats are at grave risk of getting pounded next year because of the public perception that they've revived mindless liberal big-spenderism--there are good substantive reasons for this: it would be nice to approach China from a position other than cravenness informed by the ardent wish not to offend one's banker, and the long-term budgetary situation is legitimately scary. At the same time, as Andrew Sullivan points out, the imbecility of Politico's coverage (see the first link) itself contributes to the lameness of the debate around spending.

But Sullivan seems much more sanguine than I about the prospects of Obama actually establishing some fiscal discipline bona fides--and, much as I hate to credit the Politico given its painfully dumb framing, they've got some valid points on the substance:

[T]here is no evidence Democrats are willing to aggressively cut the biggest parts of the budget, such as entitlement programs and defense. Former President Bill Clinton told Senate Democrats at their policy lunch this week that one of the biggest reasons to finish health care is to allow Obama to focus on economic concerns next year – in part with more spending. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said afterward that Clinton had advised getting health care out of the way to “clear the tables and allow the focus to be on jobs and education and infrastructure.” None of that is free.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday the White House is considering applying some money from the $700 billion financial bailout bill to deficit reduction, and that Cabinet agencies have been asked to submit two budget plans for next year, one that freezes spending at existing levels and one that trims spending by 5 percent. Congress has long history of taking those requests and piling on money for programs it favors. The only way Obama can prevent Congress from imposing its will – a tactic he has been reluctant to do during his presidency – would be to threaten vetoes. And if Obama’s political goal is to minimize tough votes, gutting domestic spending bills could mean fewer projects lawmakers can brag about back home. History shows that that’s often an impossible sale on the Hill.

I remember that once for a college class--this was 1993 or 1994--we were asked to look at the federal budget and make cuts to bring it into balance. Reading the items of expenditure on a computer screen, I was shocked at how easy this actually was... in the abstract, without real-world political considerations. We're all aware that the defense budget includes billions of dollars on items that the military actively doesn't want, that billions more are poured into agricultural subsidies proven to have little to no value, that pork (some of which is defensible on its merits, and much of which is not) persists whichever party is in power, and so on. Medicare, some argue, spends billions more than is necessary (though who argues this seems to depend on the current power dynamic; when it's helpful in thwarting Obama, Republicans become passionately pro-waste in Medicare). All this spending is deeply institutionalized and very well defended politically--and as Politico notes, attacking any of it means incurring difficult and painful political conflict.

Everybody agrees that getting the budget under control is a long-term necessity. But nobody wants to see their pet expenditure sacrificed on the altar of fiscal responsibility, and in the context of one vote or one campaign the tangible thing lost--spending on a pointless weapons system that nonetheless employs hundreds of voters in a key congressional district, or on a subsidy to agribusiness interests that are major campaign contributors to midwestern Democrats--always will outweigh the theoretical gain.

To solve a problem this important and deeply rooted requires a systemic approach that transcends political norms--which in this case impel officials and candidates to pursue victory by blaming the other party rather than proposing inevitably painful solutions. Ideally, Obama will propose in his State of the Union speech (when this will be presented to the country) some kind of bipartisan, bicameral commission to make sweeping recommendations for cuts in the military budget, entitlements--the biggest long-term driver of our budget nightmare--and discretionary spending, which is the "easiest" area to cut (to the dismay of liberal-leaning domestic policy wonks like, um, me) but also the least impactful. The idea, which I guess is the reason Sullivan has some optimism, is that either the Republicans agree and participate in good faith, or they refuse and are rightly blamed for mindless obstructionism.

But I don't think it works that way. Our political culture is set up to emphasize conflict; the result is a style of coverage that effectively rewards mindless obstructionism. Add in that voters frustrated with what they perceive as excessive spending are likely operating in a closed or semi-closed information system anyway, to the point where their biased information sources (whether explicitly like Fox News, or implicitly like Politico) will reinforce their sense that since the Democrats have the power, they should do this unilaterally. That Republicans would rip them, and be effective in doing so, for "short-changing America's defense," "hurting seniors," or "crippling our global competitiveness" won't register.

Also, though it pains me to admit it as someone who was such a big fan of the guy only a year ago, I haven't seen many signs that Obama himself has the political courage to really take on these tough fights in his own party. Is he going to push for changes in entitlements to save them, even though seniors will vigorously resist? Can he withstand the political heat that any Democrat draws when s/he utters the mildest peep of protest against our absurdly bloated military spending and global posture of empire? Right after either barely winning or painfully losing a debilitating year-long fight to pass health care reform--and, if he does win, having to live with a piece of legislation that conservatives loathe and liberals are deeply disappointed with--I don't see him pushing as hard here as is needed. And why not? Deficits and debt represent a problem that always can be kicked down the road. Until it can't.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Jobs and Votes
So we now have a resumption of positive economic growth coupled with, by many measures, the worst labor market in a generation, in which more than one in six American workers are unemployed or underemployed. The share of those not working who have been unemployed for six months or more is also at an all-time high of 35.6 percent.

What to make of this? I don't claim to have more than a decent layman's understanding of the economy, but it seems to me that there are two ways to look at it, with very different political implications. One, employers are narrowcasting the pain onto those would-be workers who add the least value to the bottom line, and who are also (we know from data) by and large less educated and less civically engaged--in terms of things like voting--than their still-employed counterparts, with the effect that for those outside that circle of pain, things are actually okay now and, with growth having resumed, likely to get better. As David Leonhardt writes, in the second link above:

One of the more striking aspects of the Great Recession is that most of its impact has fallen on a relatively narrow group of workers. This is evident primarily in two ways.

First, the number of people who have experienced any unemployment is surprisingly low, given the severity of the recession. The pace of layoffs has increased, but the peak layoff rate this year was the same as it was during the 2001 recession, which was a fairly mild downturn. The main reason that the unemployment rate has soared is the hiring rate has plummeted.

So fewer workers than might be expected have lost their jobs. But those without work are paying a steep price, because finding a new job is extremely difficult.

Second, wages have continued to rise for most people who still have jobs. The average hourly wage for rank-and-file workers, who make up about four-fifths of the work force, actually accelerated in October, according to the new report.

If this is true, it's possible that the emerging meme in political pundit circles, echoed by voices as disparate as cranky liberal economist Paul Krugman and oft-obnoxious libertarian cheerleader Megan McArdle--that the Democrats are D-E-D dead in next year's midterms unless they find a way to create jobs--is almost exactly wrong. So long as those now employed stay employed, and in fact are seeing their wages increase while inflation stays low, "their" economy is in good shape.

(Of course, this implies that they'll recognize the situation for what it is and vote accordingly. I read recently that New Jersey was one of the few states to add jobs over the last year; while the economy wasn't the only issue, its relative good health evidently didn't do much to help Jon Corzine in his failed bid for re-election. It's also difficult for the Democrats, given who they are and who they claim to represent, to defend their majorities on a message of "screw the folks who aren't working; y'all are doing great!")

But the second interpretation is that the recovery is fragile and conditional to an extent that the undertow could yet drown it. My big concern is that states and localities, which have seen tax revenues plunge by record margins this year, will have to pass budgets that inflict a ton of new pain--wiping out jobs, degrading service quality, and generally doing damage beyond what's anticipated or projected. This is where the limitations of my own understanding cloud the analysis: I'm not sure exactly how bad trauma in the public sector has to be before it swamps the private sector.

Then again, this is also where it feeds back into politics. The Democrats are defending a lot of governorships next year, and if those governors have to preside over budgetary bloodbaths, their re-election efforts are going to suffer badly. That plus the more important consequences--the jobs lost among teachers, healthcare workers and other high-value individuals whose salaries are paid through public monies--should be enough to prompt a second federal intervention. It won't be called a "stimulus," as national politics have somehow made that a bad word, but that's what it'll be.

Unfortunately, the cowardly Democrats in Washington probably won't have the stones to push something like that through on their own. So they might have to buy Republican support by including a tax cut--either something targeted toward businesses for hiring (the problem with which is that a lot of firms that would have hired anyway will take the credit, reducing federal revenues), or a payroll tax holiday--which is better, but problematic in that when the holiday ends, consumer spending might go back down. And even with those measures, the Republicans are so crazily nihilistic right now, and becoming more so seemingly by the day, that they either might not get behind it no matter what, or demand such absurd concessions--nine dollars in a wasteful tax cut for every dollar of assistance to states and localities--that there isn't much point.

I'm not sure I get why any sane person would choose to go into public life these days.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Seven Before Six
As you might have heard, the Philadelphia Phillies are in the World Series again, facing the New York Yankees. As a deeply invested Phillies fan who lives in New York City, I've been following this battle with interest. By "interest," I mean that over the last week-plus I've found it difficult to impossible to think about anything else for more than a few minutes.

The Phillies won the first game in the Bronx, lost the next three in various agonizing ways, and then barely hung on to win the fifth game and send the Series back up the Jersey Turnpike/Amtrak Northeast Corridor route. Game Six is tonight at Yankee Stadium II/III. My (usually faulty) psychic sense tells me that the Yankees are going to win 5-4 in walkoff fashion, either in the 9th or 10th inning; obviously I'm hoping the result goes the other way and we get to the baseball Valhalla of a World Series Game Seven. But before it wraps up, as it will sometime in the next 72 hours (GameSevenifnecessary is scheduled for Thursday, but rain is in the forecast; more on that below), I figured I should get some thoughts down here:
  • Tonight's pitching matchup, in which future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez goes for the Phillies against all-time postseason wins leader Andy Pettitte for the Yankees, almost certainly will be the last time two pitchers older than I am oppose each other in a World Series game. It's kind of amazing that this can still happen at all: the last time pitchers older than me faced off in the Series was Game One of the 2005 Series between the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox, when (ex-Yankees) Roger Clemens and Jose Contreras went at it.

  • Phils second baseman Chase Utley has tied Reggie Jackson's World Series record with five home runs in the five games thus far. As several pundits have noted, there's a real chance that Utley could be the Most Valuable Player of the Series even if the Yankees win: no one player has stood out for New York other than perhaps Johnny Damon, who's batting .381 and has scored five runs, and closer Mariano Rivera, who has finished off all three Yankee wins to this point. (Hideki Matsui is batting .556 with two homers, but he was reduced to pinch-hitting for the three games in Philadelphia; he has just nine at-bats.) Meanwhile, Utley hit two homers in each of the Phils' wins, has scored six times, and leads all batters with eight RBIs. If Pettitte pitches a great game tonight and gets the win, he'll be MVP with two victories in the Series--but if, say, the Yankees win a high-scoring game in which someone like Mark Teixiera (2 for 19 thus far) or Robinson Cano (3 for 18) is the big hitting hero for the home team, while Utley goes 4 for 5 with another homer and a bunch of RBI, he'll probably by the MVP. This would be, frankly, awful: for Chase Utley, the one downside of greatness is having to talk about and generally be recognized for his greatness. Imagine Fox's Ken Rosenthal saying, "Congratulations Chase, but your team lost--how do you feel?" You'll get either nothing or a response they'd better have on at least a five-second delay.

  • Neither manager has covered himself in glory this Series. I love Charlie Manuel, an evolved soul who's easily the greatest manager in Phillies history--but his in-game decisions hurt the team in each of the last four games. He left Martinez in too long in Game Two, made an inexplicable decision to pinch-hit the horrendous Eric Bruntlett in a big spot in Game Three and then left reliever Chad Durbin in too long when he obviously had no command, did the same with Brad Lidge in the nightmarish Game Four, and then futzed around with the outfield defensive alignment late in Game Five to near-disastrous effect. Maybe worse, he has a dead spot on his roster in the person of rookie lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo, who hasn't yet pitched in the Series and almost certainly won't unless the Phils are getting blown out; meanwhile, with Shane Victorino hurt after getting hit on the hand early in Game Five, there's a chance he'll have to use Bruntlett, among the worst hitters in baseball, as his DH or left fielder in a win-or-die game tonight. Meanwhlle, Yankee manager Joe Girardi failed to leverage the advantage he earned by his team winning three of the first four games, starting talented but erratic righty A.J. Burnett on short rest for Game Five and watching him get pummeled and now having to sweat out the 37 year-old Pettitte doing the same tonight. If he falls short, Game Seven would go to ace CC Sabathia, on double-short rest (he pitched to a no-decision in Game Four on three days' rest)--a situation in which the Phillies knocked him around in the 2008 National League Division Series when Sabathia pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers. Girardi's bullpen management has been questionable as well: heading toward the end of the Series, he really only can trust Rivera and perhaps veteran lefty Damaso Marte.

  • Characteristically--and this goes to both his great virtue as a manager and his possibly fatal (at least in terms of this week) flaw--Manuel has trusted his two biggest pitching stars from the 2008 title run, Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge, in big spots in this Series, and they've let him down. If the Yankees go on to win, the big turning point in the Series will have been the role reversals of Hamels and Pettite in Game Three (which I attended with my blog compadres from The Good Phight). Hamels took a 3-0 lead into the fourth inning, got a tough call on a full-count pitch to Teixiera that went for a walk, and then fell to pieces, allowing a controversial home run to Rodriguez that made it 3-2 and surrendering three more runs before getting pulled the next inning. It was Hamels' whole season writ small: bad luck or bad karma followed by bad pitching and a downward spiral he couldn't escape. (I'll gloss over his unfortunate postgame comments and the apparently overstated "fight" he got into with teammate Brett Myers after Game Five. Hamels was the single biggest reason we won it all last year; for that, from me, he has a lifetime pass.) Pettitte, by contrast, escaped near-disaster early on: he'd thrown 51 pitches and allowed three runs through two innings, but held the Phillies to one run over the next four on a night when, as he reportedly later told teammates, he had "nothing." I kind of hate the guy, as I do most ostentatiously religious athletes, but he pitched like a champion Saturday night.

  • In part because I'm fascinated by this stuff anyway and in part because it's going to be a prominent theme in the novel I'm trying to write, I've been thinking a lot about fan psychology and neurochemistry in the context of team victory or defeat. There's a book called Your Brain on Cubs that I'm eager to check out in this regard. It's not news that superstition and ritual is an enormous part of baseball, among both players and fans; we've got endless examples on, and there's a tradition within my family that, somehow, we're all causal factors. My brother is convinced that when he watches the whole game, the Phils lose; when he just checks in, they're more likely to win. His latest bit of data half-"confirms" and half-confounds the theory: he says that he turned it on Saturday night just in time to see Hamels walk Teixeira, after which the game quickly went to crap. For myself, in a moment of drunken exaltation after the Phillies finished off the Dodgers to win the National League pennant, I went online and bought a Jayson Werth jersey--the first sports jersey I've purchased in thirty years of fandom. I wore it for the Game One win and the losses in Games Two and Three; Sunday night, sick from sitting out in the rain in Game Three, I sat in an undershirt and watched them lose Game Four. The next night, recovering, I wore my Ryan Howard t-shirt and they won. I also drank to the point of intoxication during the victorious Series opener, had a few beers at a friend's house during the Game Two loss, one at the ballpark for Game Three, and nothing (thanks to feeling sick) during Games Four and Five. For tonight, I'm thinking I should go with the Howard t-shirt, Werth jersey, and heavy drinking. It has to work, right? This is the sort of madness you fall into seven months on in a baseball season. As always, I blame my parents.

  • It will be very tough to be here in New York if the Yankees win. Should they finish the Series tonight, the parade through the "Canyon of Heroes" could come Friday, when I usually go into the CUF office; I'd be much closer to the celebrating players and million-odd fans than I would prefer. Maybe worse, I'd have to spend the rest of however long I live in NYC occasionally running across "Yankees 2009 World Champions" swag--on the street, in the gym, shopping, wherever. But what really turns my stomach about this Yankee push for a 27th world championship is the notion that they need to "win it for the Boss," ailing owner/tyrant George Steinbrenner. Big Stein is baseball's answer to Kim Jong Il, but he's probably less fun to hang out with; he's a true motherfucker who's both a convicted felon (for illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon, a kindred spirit in that regard) and a confirmed sexist. He should have less sympathetic appeal than Monty Burns (whom even Yankee great Don Mattingly preferred to Steinbrenner). The Yankees, and their fans, should have enough reasons to crave victory beyond wanting to provide still more ego validation to a world-class asshole like Steinbrenner, who's probably too unwell to enjoy it anyway.

  • As I said, my guess is that it won't go to Game Seven: the Yankees just match up too well with Pedro, who's long on guts and guile but a bit short on stuff, and Rivera is probably good for two innings tonight after not pitching since Sunday and throwing only thirteen pitches over the weekend. But if the Phillies do win to force a winner-take-all seventh game, it'll get really interesting. Sabathia now has thrown more than 265 innings this year, after working more than 260 in each of the previous two seasons. The Phillies have seen him a lot, and he hasn't been at his near-unhittable best since the AL Championship Series in which New York dispatched the Angels of Los Angeles of Anaheim. On the other hand, the Phillies' pitching options start with the psychologically battered Hamels, then proceed on to rookie J.A. Happ, who hasn't been really sharp in more than two months, and then go on to a figurative cast of thousands. If the forecast nor'easter washed away a game Thursday night, the Phils probably could turn to their ace, Cliff Lee, who's earned victories in both Phillies wins, on three days' rest. But Lee has thrown even more innings in 2009 than Sabathia--over 270--and he has about 100 pounds less of body mass to sustain him. Plus Sabathia would be going on full normal rest were the game delayed to Friday. But it would be a contest for the ages, and potentially the sort of glorious Fall Classic finale that baseball hasn't seen since 2002.

Here's hoping.