Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ten Years in Review
I've been trying to sum it all up in a way that doesn't seem ponderous, cheesy or both, without success. All I can come up with is that this was a much, much better decade for me and for most of the people I care about than it was for the country or the world--this year in particular, as I traveled to Australia and Japan, had a much quicker and easier recovery from open heart surgery than I could have hoped for, saw my brother get married, and got a new job at the end of it (as did Annie).

Clearly, this beats the alternative, though it's a little disconcerting to feel out of step with the times. May the year and decade to come be as good for me and mine, and may the wider world catch up.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

We're Still Waiting for Us
Ross Douthat has mostly disappointed me as the New York Times' token right-winger in the paper's editorial stable. Particularly compared to his blogging at the Atlantic, Douthat often has come across as a ponderous scold, dutifully promulgating Republican talking points within somewhat-to-very disingenuous examinations of issues and slightly creepy forays into pop-culture philosophizing.

But his piece in Saturday's paper on "The Obama Way" reminds me why I had some regard for Douthat in the first place: when he can put the BS aside, the guy has a pretty sharp eye.

Obama baffles observers, I suspect, because he’s an ideologue and a pragmatist all at once. He’s a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf. He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer.
In hindsight, the most prescient sentence penned during the presidential campaign belongs to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama,” he wrote in July 2008, “is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.”

Both right and left have had trouble processing Obama’s institutionalism. Conservatives have exaggerated his liberal instincts into radicalism, ignoring the fact that a president who takes advice from Lawrence Summers and Robert Gates probably isn’t a closet Marxist-Leninist. The left has been frustrated, again and again, by the gulf between Obama’s professed principles and the compromises that he’s willing to accept, and some liberals have become convinced that he isn’t one of them at all.

They’re wrong. Absent political constraints, Obama would probably side with the liberal line on almost every issue. It’s just that he’s more acutely conscious of the limits of his powers and less willing to start fights that he might lose than many supporters would prefer. In this regard, he most resembles Ronald Reagan and Edward Kennedy. Both were highly ideological politicians who trained themselves to work within the system. Both preferred cutting deals to walking away from the negotiating table.

Actually, I don't think this is quite right. Douthat overstates Obama's core liberalism: if that were correct, he'd start engaging on issues with much farther left positions than has been the case. On health care, he might have used the specter of a single-payer plan at the jump to ensure that a public option survived into the final bill, for instance; instead, he expressed just enough support for a public option to keep it alive as a bargaining chip, but ultimately didn't expend any political capital to save it.

This take also misses a big piece of Obama's institutionalism: his deference to Congress. Perhaps this is more political expediency--letting the legislators take the lead is a good way to somewhat insulate the White House when things go sour--but I have to believe that the former Constitutional law professor and Senator has some fairly strong views about Article I. (This is lost, of course, on the right-wing hysterics who bleat about the incipient tyranny of Obama: at least when it comes to domestic policymaking, he might be the most institutionally deferential president we've had since Ford or even Eisenhower.)

But Douthat nails the essential pragmatism--which is why I thought the guy could be a successful president in the first place. I have the feeling that Obama's first year might look much better from the perspective of 20-30 years down the road than it did in real time--much as Reagan's has. (This is a point Andrew Sullivan keeps making as well. I think the analogy is somewhat overstated: Reagan had a large clutch of Southern Democrats who supported him on most big issues, giving everything he did a veneer of bipartisanship beyond Obama's wildest dreams, for one thing. But politically, barring some new disaster, it seems likely Obama will hit a dramatic economic upswing leading into his bid for re-election, and if he wins as convincingly as Reagan did in 1984, he might yet effect a similar political realignment.)

And yet the admittedly impressive list of legislative accomplishments it looks like Obama will be able to claim by the time he gives his State of the Union speech isn't exactly thrilling many on the left who worked so hard to get him into the White House and invested such hopes in his presidency. While they're blaming Obama--understandably, I believe, given large choices like the administration's deference to Congress and smaller ones such as not drawing lines on health care--that strikes me as less than half the story. A recent conversation on "Bill Moyers Journal" between the host, American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner and Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi--all opinionated liberals who have been disappointed with the first year of this presidency--covered much of this ground, and Kuttner made a fantastic point:

The other thing that's missing, if you compare him with Roosevelt or LBJ or Lincoln, the other thing that's missing is a social movement. In all of these great periods of transformation, you had social movements doing a complicated dance with the president, where sometimes they were working with him, sometimes they were beating up on him. That certainly describes the civil rights movement and Lyndon Johnson. It describes the abolitionists and Lincoln. It describes the labor movement and Roosevelt. Where's the movement?

My strong suspicion is that Obama understands this--and if anything, maybe he's been too subtle about communicating it. We know that there's enough of a "movement" on the left to power a campaign such as his to the Democratic nomination, and he's enough of a centrist to win the presidency from that perch. But the work of the organized left obviously isn't complete: it seems they can't yet exert a political price for taking them for granted, and I don't believe they've made a compelling case to the country why more liberal solutions will be embraced.

Unfortunately, it's not likely that Obama ever again will have as favorable an alignment in Congress as he does right now. At best, he'll have about a 10-12 seat majority in the Senate (down from 20 now) and maybe 20-30 in the House for the balance of his presidency. That will mean either changing the rules of the Senate, as many are beginning to talk about, or finding some Republicans willing to take a role in governing again. The man and the movement will have a lot of work to do.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Welcome to the Big Leagues
No, this isn't another baseball post; it's addressed to the Democrats and liberal activists hoping that the health care bill dies in the Senate. To put it succinctly, they're frakkin' nuts.

This isn't to offer a blanket defense of the measure. Frankly, there's a lot wrong with it--at least in the sense that it could be much, much better. My personal gripe list? I'd have loved to keep the Medicare buy-in for Americans ages 55 to 64, I think the individual mandate to buy insurance could be designed better (I like this idea, which suggests letting people opt out of the mandate but blocks them from opting back in afterwards for five years), and I would have included some degree of malpractice reform--which isn't the panacea the bad-faith Republicans present it as, but would help at the margin and isn't in because the Dems are shills for the trial lawyers. I also would have liked some more forceful reforms to push the system toward rewarding outcomes rather than interventions of any type whether effective or not--though it's possible that the cost controls measures that are included eventually will yield that result.

Maybe there's more; I don't present myself as a health care policy expert. But the guys whom I do regard as experts, people like Ezra Klein (here and here, and really throughout his excellent blog over the last few weeks, which I'll be adding to the permanent links around here) and Jonathan Cohn (here and here), are foursquare behind this measure. So are Nate Silver (here and here, among other places), Paul Starr and Mark Schmitt, as astute among liberal-leaning big picture political thinkers as you'll find anywhere.

They support the measure--again, while being fully attuned to its faults--for a myriad of reasons that I think are worth reading and considering in detail (which is my polite way of saying that I'm not gonna do that here). But boiled down, the two "for" arguments are that this measure still does much more good than harm, and that the track record of major social welfare reforms is that they get better, not worse, over time. Social Security and Medicare weren't what they are today when they were first passed; subsequent Congresses responded to public concerns over the flaws of those measures and improved them. So too will health coverage, which all but becomes an entitlement, be improved over time. We're getting a foot in the door, a nose in the tent, or whatever body part into an opening you choose to contemplate.

Really, though, it's even more fundamental than that. The Democrats--the progressive movement in America, arguably even the totality of people in this country who retain some faith in government's ability to take on and positively address major structural problems--need to win this one, and the win here is passing something. Enacting a bill that one can plausibly call "health coverage reform" would represent the biggest success for progressives in more than a generation. I know the polls are bad; as of yesterday, even the miserable status quo polls preferably to the measure.

But the Democrats need to ignore that data--which, as I noted a few days back, the polls really just show that the public is in a foul mood. They're in a foul mood because the economy still sucks for anyone who wasn't loaded three years ago and/or isn't well educated, and they're fed up with Washington because, in their eyes, this debate is taking friggin' forever. That it's the Republicans, who simply want to deny the White House a win without any regard for the policy consequences, who are holding things up, doesn't register.

Emotions are running high in this debate. Nobody loves the measure. But when those passions fade, what we're going to have--if this passes--is a major step forward for disadvantaged Americans, and a framework for a much better health care system in years to come. I wish all those on the left who are fired up to kill this bill would instead take the smart tactical approach and turn their energies toward figuring out how they'll improve it once the foundation is laid. They need to accept the reality that this is what it means to govern: you fight as hard as you can, take what you can get, celebrate the wins and mourn the losses, and then immediately turn to making it better.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"A Dream Come True"
At the beginning of this decade in 2000, Phillies ace Curt Schilling basically talked his way out of town. Upset that the team wouldn't sign him to a lucrative contract extension a year and a half before his deal was up and convinced that ownership would never show the financial and organizational commitment to winning that he himself felt, the large right-hander parlayed his excellence on the baseball diamond and his uncanny talent for generating media attention into a trade to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Two years later, third baseman Scott Rolen followed pretty much the same path--with the important difference that the team did want to pay Rolen an astonishing amount of money. But he just hated one or more of the manager, Veterans Stadium, and the city of Philadelphia so much that he turned down their offer, and after general manager Ed Wade misplayed his hand in the Rolen situation even more egregiously than he had Schilling, the Indiana native finagled his way to "baseball heaven" in St. Louis through a trade. (Five and a half years later, when Rolen had soured on the Cardinals organization, he did it again and wound up moving on to Toronto--making the Phils look considerably better in retrospect.)

Schilling and Rolen were the signature players of the Phillies in the 1990s, remaining so into the new decade, and they both couldn't get out of town fast enough. Their attitude seemed of a piece with the team's uniquely miserable history and the decrepit stadium in which they played. Through the 2002 season that saw Rolen shipped out, the team had posted losing records in all but two of the previous sixteen years.

But it began to change that winter. Despite Rolen's judgment, the team wasn't far off: they'd posted one of those winning records in 2001 and finished just game below .500 in '02. A good young nucleus was in place on the field, with more talent--Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels, to name three--already in the organization. And they knew they'd be opening a new stadium in 2004. So in early December 2002, the Phillies went out and signed the biggest name on the free-agent market, slugging first baseman Jim Thome, to what was by far the biggest contract in team history: six years, $85 million, with a vesting seventh year that brought the total value to $98 million. And with that, the Phillies were back on the baseball map in a sustained way for the first time in about 20 years.

The thing about the Thome contract, though, was that they overpaid. The only other serious suitor was the Cleveland Indians, Thome's old team, who offered fewer years and much less total money--something like four years, $55 million. The Indians were on the downswing as a franchise, and had fired their manager and Thome's close friend, Charlie Manuel, the previous summer. But it was known that if the deals were remotely comparable, he would have stayed in Cleveland. Only when the Phils guaranteed the sixth year and added the seventh (2009) as an easily reached vesting option did he sign his name.

Which is what makes today's conclusion to the team's yearlong pursuit of former Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay so astounding to me. Unlike Schilling and Rolen, Halladay talked his way *to* Philadelphia. Halladay's contract included a full no-trade clause, and he made it clear to Toronto management that he'd only waive it for a few teams, including the Phillies. It took two Blue Jays general managers and considerable giving way on the part of Phils GM Ruben Amaro Jr, who ultimately dealt several prospects he'd previously characterized as guys he absolutely wouldn't trade--plus, by most accounts, the unfortunate decision to trade Cliff Lee, the onetime Indians ace whom the team had acquired instead of Halladay last July, to provide payroll relief and replenish the minor-league system depleted in the Halladay deal--but the match has been made.

And not only did the pitcher, among the five best in the game and a possible future Hall of Famer, target Philadelphia as his destination; he agreed to a contract extension with the team almost certainly worth millions of dollars less than he could have made on the open market. Halladay's deal is for three years, $60 million, with two vesting options at the same average annual value of $20 million per; had the Red Sox and Yankees and Mets and Dodgers been involved, it's almost unimaginable that he would have gotten less than four or five years guaranteed, at a total value over $100 million. Knowing that the team wouldn't trade for him without the bargain extension, THE GUY TOOK LESS MONEY TO BE A PHILLIE.

From the press conference this afternoon:

"This is where I wanted to be. That was the bottom line for us. It was an easy decision. Once the opportunity came up to be a part of this it was something I couldn't pass up. I think there are things not only in business but in life that are worth it. For me, this is one of those things. There are so many positives to this for me and my family. I just couldn't pass it up."

"This is a dream come true. The longer you play in your carer the more important (winning) becomes. I've been able to establish myself, achieve things. The more I play, the more I realize how important that is for me. To see a team do it in back-to-back years and have that success says a lot about the players in the clubhouse and people that are putting the team together. It's not an accident. I want to be a part of that. I've heard great things about the people and great things about the organization. That is big for me."

"The biggest thing is having a chance to win and hopefully do it a couple of times. For me, that was the biggest factor."

That he made these two decisions, to highlight the Phils as the team he wanted to join and to accept less money--still a vast fortune, to be sure, but less than he could have made--as a condition of staying for awhile, is a tribute to what the team started to build even back when Schilling and Rolen were grousing their way out of town. The kids in the system then, Jimmy Rollins and Utley and Howard and Hamels, are superstars now. Thome's old friend Charlie Manuel, who was hired by the Phils organization almost as an afterthought that same winter of 2002-2003, has been the team's manager for five years now and is generally regarded as the greatest in its history. They'd built such a deep and talented minor-league system, through three GM regimes, that they could trade for both Lee and Halladay from their top prospects of just a year ago. They won back to back NL pennants, the first of which led to their becoming world f---ing champions, and with Halladay in the fold will start 2010 as favorites to become the first NL team in almost seventy years to make it three straight.

While part of me wonders what Scott Rolen thinks of all this, I'm mostly just gobsmacked and delighted that it all turned around so wonderfully in less than a decade. The circle is now complete.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Munch on My Poll
It's getting to the point where I wish I could install some filter on my computer to block out all results of public polling. Between the fickleness, the contradictions and the deep vein of ignorance that underlies it all, this information is really as useless as it is impossible for officials to ignore. Here are just two of many topical examples:

Skepticism of global warming is sharply up:

As U.S. negotiators fly to the Danish capital to forge a political agreement based on President Obama's proposal to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 17 percent, most of the American public doesn't know what the talks are about, according to the Harris survey.

Just 51 percent of adults questioned said they believed carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would cause the Earth's average temperature to increase. Two years ago, fully 71 percent of respondents linked greenhouse gases directly to global warming.

But so is support for Congress to pass cap and trade legislation to mitigate its effects:

An Ipsos Public Affairs survey finds that 52% of respondents support a cap and trade plan, similar to that working through Congress, with 41% opposing the measure.

The poll also finds that messaging is make or break for the initiative: Support drops to 43%, with 55% opposed, when cap and trade raises monthly electrical bills by $25, but support jumps to 60%, with 36% opposed, when that same spike in prices accompanies the creation of "a significant number of 'green' jobs."

On health care, a majority of respondents oppose reform...

--Voters disapprove 52 – 38 percent of the health care reform proposal under consideration in Congress, and they disapprove 56 – 38 percent of President Obama’s handling of health care, down from 53 – 41 percent in a November 19 survey.

--American voters say 63 – 30 percent that extending health insurance to all will raise their cost of health care, although they are split 47 – 46 percent on whether they are willing to pay more to make sure everyone is covered.

...but support the public option that's considered the most politically untenable aspect of the measure:

The new CNN poll like many others finds greater support (53% to 46%) for a "public option" than for the Senate Health Care Bill which just 36% support, and 61% oppose.

Not that they understand the public option: large majorities admit that they couldn't explain it to friends. The explanation behind this illuminates much of what's wrong with our entire system at the place where politics, policy and issues of substantive governance intersect:

This is one of those revelations that is newsworthy without being very new. Polling on the public option has long revealed that Americans loved the idea of a government-run insurance program -- until they hear any possible counter-argument. That's because polls aren't good barometers of popular support. They're good evidence that Americans feel perfectly comfortable taking hard stands on ideas they don't totally get.

Back in September the Washington Post released a poll that taught lawmakers this: (1) A majority (55 percent) support a government-sponsored health care plan. (2) A minority (46 percent) support health care reform overall. (3) A plurality (50 percent) support health care reform overall if you take out the public option. Killing the most popular part of health care reform makes health care reform more popular? I mean ... you figure that one out for yourself.

I guess I should add schizophrenia to the indictment of short attention span and ignorance laid out above. We despise the government, but want it to solve all our problems. We pay too much in taxes but will see services cut, even demonstrably wasteful ones, over our dead bodies. We're always for forceful response and bold action, until reality confounds us again by not immediately conforming to what we want it to be or, above all, moving as quickly as we wish it to.

It's easy and somewhat accurate to blame the media for this: people who should know better (but perhaps don't) cite these poll results and countless others--the public opposes the war in Afghanistan but approves of Obama's escalation speech--and present them as meaningful. The real kick in the teeth is that, in the sense that they bear some relationship to electoral outcomes and thus help set parameters for what government actually does, they do mean *something.* But parsing out informed opinion from received wisdom and context is almost impossible. At this moment, the public is in a foul mood about pretty much everything: right-wingers still hate the President and the Congressional majorities, those on the left feel mostly deep disappointment and betrayal, folks in the middle perceive little difference from two years ago in terms of lack of movement on key issues, and the millions suffering economically are just in despair and, I fear, increasingly receptive to demagogic messages. This helps explain why not only Obama is less popular than he was ten months ago, but a bunch of his possible Republican opponents in 2012 are as well.

It's no fun to admit this, but between official venality and mass public imbecility I find myself increasingly pessimistic that we'll ever have a functional political system again.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

No Good Options
I just read Obama's speech from last night on the escalation in Afghanistan; given the depressing nature of the material, I decided that it wasn't worth not going to the gym to watch it live.

I was adamantly against the escalation, seeing it as another sad perpetuation of our national policy of "when in doubt, choose more war" at a time when we particularly can't afford it and in a place where success is particularly unlikely. But I have to admit that the other choices on the table--withdrawal or perpetuating the status quo--are pretty much every bit as bad as escalating. Withdrawal means condemning that country to yet more open-ended misery, with the Taliban likely taking over again and women in particular facing nightmarish repression and torment. The status quo means that the Karzai-led kleptocracy muddles through for however much longer American and NATO troops are there to protect his crooked ass--and probably just defers the moment of decision.

So we'll try to force the issue. Andrew Sullivan seems to think that the notion here is to give the military basically what it wants, hope it works, and withdraw if it doesn't.

Obama was saying last night is that he is determined to return America to normal, to unplug this vast attempt at global control in Muslim countries that Bush and Cheney unleashed. He is trying to unwind the empire, not expand it.

How best to unwind the empire? By giving McChrystal what he wants and giving him a couple of years to deliver tangible results. If McChrystal delivers, fantastic. I will do a ritual self-flagellation and bow down to the man with no body-fat and a close relationship with 33 Kagans of various generations and genders. If McChrystal does his best and we still get nowhere, Obama will have demonstrated - not argued, demonstrated - that withdrawal is the least worst option.

The far right will accuse him of weakness - but they will do that anyway. All he need do is remind Americans of what the far right version of "strength" is: engaging an enemy on his own turf, sustaining an insurgency by our very presence, draining the Treasury of trillions, sacrificing more young men and women to shore up one of the most corrupt governments on earth, and basically returning to Bush-Cheney land. And that will be a very telling argument in 2012: do we want to go back to Cheneyism? To torture and endless occupation and a third war with a Muslim nation, Iran?

On reflection, Obama was saying something quite simple: one more try, guys. We owe it to those who have sacrificed already to try and finish the job. He has given the effort the full resources it needs at a time of real scarcity. He has given COIN doctrine one more chance to prove itself. He has put Petraeus and McChrystal and the 45 Kagans on notice: prove your case. And in this, I think Obama has found a middle balance that reflects where a lot of us are on this and that also offers a good faith chance for progress - with a good sense exit ramp after a reasonable length of time.

Maybe he's right, but my problem with it is that our politics don't really allow any president to be rational when it comes to "losing a war." In 2011, Obama will be starting his reelection campaign. If things are continuing to go to crap in Afghanistan, will he really begin a withdrawal? I just don't see it. Rahm Emanuel among others will make the case, echoing Lyndon Johnson, that the electorate will "forgive you for everything except being weak." Sullivan, and by extension Obama, posits a far more rational version of America than the one I perceive.

The one thing that could possibly upend this dynamic is the growing realization that we can't afford it. Democrats who are anti-war anyway, people like David Obey, are already getting on this train (and--not that my opinion particularly matters to anyone but me--it's a big part of my objection to the escalation); by 2011, as millions of Baby Boomers start to hit retirement age, some Republicans who for whatever reason can't call for huge cuts to entitlements might be there with them. The growing realization that our resources are finite and our finances aren't divinely assured of eternal solvency might be the factor that forces us into a rational assessment of costs and benefits.

But that's just a guess at what the tenor of public debate might be in eighteen months, as two political memes--the old chestnut that a president can't lose a war, and the upstart notion that a president can't blow the budget--directly collide. By then, this will be our longest war, ever.