Saturday, December 29, 2012

Andy's Last Stand

One late night probably four or five years ago, I was finishing up the only full season I’ve ever played of a “Madden” NFL game. I’d bought Madden ’08 for my Mac in December 2007, and piloted the Eagles—led by Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook and L.J. Smith on offense and surprisingly effective defensive tackles Broderick Bunkley and Mike Patterson on defense—to the Super Bowl against an opponent I can’t now remember, probably the Broncos or Patriots or Titans. I’d gone something like 13-3 or 14-2 through the regular season—this was probably on the easiest level, as I’m not particularly good at any of these games however much I enjoy them—and gotten through the NFC playoffs without difficulty, but this Super Bowl was a war. I couldn’t stop them, and they couldn’t stop me: two- and three-touchdown leads dissipated like smoke at a tailgate, and at the end of regulation the score was something like 59-59. Then in overtime I managed to get a stop on defense, maybe through a turnover, and drove deep into the opposition’s territory before David Akers won it with a field goal. As the game went into its championship sequence, the montage included a bunch of joyous Eagles players dumping the mandatory bucket of Gatorade on (an unrealistically slender version of) coach Andy Reid… and to my own disbelief and slight annoyance, I felt myself tearing up.

One of the things about intensive self-consciousness is that there are relatively few surprises, but when it happens, it sticks. So what I’ve known ever since that incident is that I was considerably more emotionally invested in Andy Reid winning a Super Bowl with the Eagles than I’d previously understood. However richly deserved—the team has been screwed up for a solid two years now, and every move Reid’s made to set things right has only served to dig the hole deeper—it’ll be a sad moment sometime in the next 48 hours, when the organization cuts him loose at long last following Sunday's season finale against the Giants (a team whose number Reid's Eagles have had for years, and who I'm sure aren't thrilled to seeing him this last time).

I'm too lazy to look it up, but someone in the Philly media nailed it a few weeks back when he wrote that the years brought a subtle but unmistakable change in Reid: from a consistently smart coach to a coach who seemed to believe his every idea was gold because he was so freaking smart.  His successes begat his failures: he started with great offensive and defensive lines he built and a holistic multi-year plan that famously got him the job. When he couldn't quite get over that last hill beyond which a Gatorade soak awaited, he shifted approach, and the results were disastrous. From those solid beginnings, he will finish amidst the wreckage left by idiosyncratic old coaches and mercenary players and wild swings from one scheme to the next. 

Reid probably shouldn't have coached this year at all, after the tragedy of losing his son to a drug overdose over the summer. Many think he'll find another job immediately, and might well get his ring somewhere other than Philadelphia. Maybe so, though I kind of doubt it: while Reid's not "real-life old," he's old by NFL coach standards, which doesn't often correlate with winning titles, and he probably won't have the likes of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson and franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb awaiting him wherever he lands next. 

But maybe I'm wrong, and I kind of hope so. Reid seems worthy of a happy ending, and I'm just bummed it won't come in Philadelphia. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Some Thoughts on the 2012 Election

My memories of Election Night in 2008 all involve exhaustion and joy: listening to the returns while driving back from Ohio, the news getting better and better, while exchanging texts with friends in NYC and around the country and around the world. Making it home in time to see the celebration in Chicago's Grant Park, Democrats assembling to claim their great triumph in the same space where, forty years earlier, they'd torn themselves apart. It was a great ending to an incredibly compelling story, populated with vivid characters and packed with wild plot twists.

But real life can't sustain drama the way fiction can, and is resistant to happy endings because the actual story continues. Even as the country elected Barack Obama and brought the Democrats to the brink of a super-majority in the Senate, marriage equality failed in California and the remaining Republican caucus very quickly showed its determination to block the new president across the board--and it turned out that the economic crisis was far worse than most understood at the time. When Obama actually took office, he faced the same steep learning curve that confronts every new president: I think I once compared it to having the fastest car in the race by far, but not really knowing how to drive. In his first year, he seemed to get things right on substance (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), or on style (his speech in Cairo that spring), but almost never both. The economy first got worse more slowly, then began to improve. The process of passing healthcare reform disappointed literally everybody in real time: Republicans because it was happening at all, liberals because of everything it wasn't (no single-payer, no public option, no clampdown on Big Pharma or other predatory interest groups). Once in office, Obama the graceful and resourceful above-it-all candidate was replaced by a president who evidently was straining and often was, or seemed to be, failing. 

Looking at it from a distance, Obama actually accomplished enough during his first term that he had an argument not only for re-election but a plausible (not inarguable) case for greatness. But, as he himself has acknowledged, he's struggled to articulate that case to an almost shocking degree. With all that in mind, and more to the point the sustained high unemployment and slow growth throughout his first term, Obama certainly could and arguably should have lost his re-election bid last Tuesday.  Yet he not only won a second term, but did so by larger electoral and popular vote margins than almost anybody had predicted. In my opinion, this outcome was due to a failure of Republican strategy and a triumph of Democratic tactics. 

The tactical piece is pretty straightforward: in terms of infrastructure and technology, the president's re-election campaign is probably the best anyone's ever seen. What happened last Tuesday was the culmination of eight years of work to determine what the electorate might be, and how to ensure that it would be. The Democrats now have a decisive advantage in electioneering theory and practice. Some of this might be specific to Obama, but I wouldn't count on it: whatever enthusiasm the next Democratic presidential nominee might lose among African-Americans or the most highly educated urbanites with PhDs, he or she likely would recoup among women or blue-collar white men or other groups. The targeting and GOTV methodologies will persist and if anything might get stronger. 

The strategic failure of the Republicans is a bit more complicated, but it starts with their four-year effort to shift blame for everything wrong in the country to the president. History began for them on the day of Obama's inauguration; there was occasional grudging acknowledgement that the president inherited a challenging situation, but no evident self-reflection about either why they lost so badly in 2006 and 2008, or why and how the policies they'd been able to put in place through the Bush years had led to such a signal disaster. There was no admission of error and thus no profession of what they'd do differently; without that, their only path was an attempt to convince the country to blame the black guy with the weird name. Inside the echo chamber, it worked perfectly, probably because they so desperately wanted it--a common theme on the right, consistent with the magical thinking that brought us "we'll be greeted as liberators," "deficits don't matter," "this government does not torture," and indeed that they would win the election itself, possibly in a blowout.

But outside, few were buying. Hence an election where most of the country felt like we are on the "wrong track", yet so distrusted the party out of power that they voted to retain the current president. 

I think the Republicans have a deeper problem, though, a core incoherence in their message that will severely limit their electoral potential until they resolve it. I've written here before about Philip Bobbitt's book, The Shield of Achilles, which charts the evolution of the State through the last five hundred years and posits that we are moving toward a "market-state" in which individual autonomy and well-being, rather than that of the collective, is the explicit goal of government. I believe this is correct, though the pace and manner of the transition from the old nation-state to the emerging market-state obviously is very much in question. 

Given that the Democrats were the guiding party of the nation-state in its full flowering--leading the U.S. to victory in two World Wars, creating the regulatory structure and social insurance framework of the New Deal and Great Society that did so much to provide for the common good, and leading the gradual push for greater social inclusion and expansion of the national community--it would make sense for the Republicans to hold an advantage in this transition. Under Goldwater and Buckley and Reagan, they began to articulate a very compelling critique of the flaws and limitations of the nation-state as defined and administered by the Democrats, arguably helping to hasten the arrival of the "market-state."

But somewhere along the line, they lost the plot: concern about the pace of social change devolved into flat-out resistance to social change, and sensitivity to the displacement caused by deregulation and the dismantling of the welfare state mutated into a smug and arrogant certitude that the winners and losers in an unfettered market were defined by morality rather than circumstance. They went from making an argument to assuming that the rightness of the argument was so blindingly obvious that anyone who didn't see it was an idiot, a traitor, or both. (While I can claim honestly to have come up with this analysis on my ownsome, David Frum makes these points exceptionally well in his election post-mortem.) 

To put it simply, the Republicans as a group are too far ahead on economics--ready to embrace the full "You're On Your Own" worldview, and damn the consequences--and too far behind (and going backwards) on social issues. By contrast, the Democrats are probably in exactly the right place on social issues, and seem to be moving more or less with the tide on economics: interested in reforming the structures of the regulatory state and social insurance programs while remaining committed, at least for the time being, to sustaining them. 

The Republicans' schizophrenia could be papered over so long as they were winning: David Koch isn't a homophobe (the opposite, in fact; he's consistent in his libertarian views), and Mike Huckabee isn't a fanatical deregulator, but each was willing to support the other because their objectives weren't in direct conflict. But unless they can put Humpty-Dumpty back together, there's no real reason for libertarian billionaires and populist social reactionaries to remain clustered within one political faction. How this cleavage plays out over the next few years might be the most interesting story in American politics. 

The role of Fox News is another fascinating aspect here. Some have said for awhile that ratings and profits at Fox rise when Republican political fortunes fall:

Unfortunately for Republicans and fortunately for Roger Ailes, a feedback loop has been created: As disaffected conservatives turn increasingly to Fox News, Fox News caters its programming to keep them coming back, turning, for instance, the Tea Parties into a daylong televised festival of rage. But given Fox's well-earned brand identification with the Republican Party, and vice versa, that programming serves to promote a view of Republicans as angry white people who hate Puerto Rican judges. Which turns off independent voters, which further isolates the diehard rejectionist wing of the party, which increases the importance of Fox News in their lives as a reassuring voice telling them to be strong in the face of the barbarian hordes—or, as Glenn Beck puts it, "We surround them." 
The more viewers Fox attracts, the more voters the GOP repels. And the more voters the GOP repels, the more viewers Fox attracts. The most important part of the dynamic is that Fox News has no interest in doing anything other than attracting viewers. It will continue to ride this wave of anger and resentment irrespective of what impact it has on the Republican Party until it stops making them money.
But Ailes surely wants to win elections as well as ratings. And he's smart enough to understand that continuous catering to a worldview increasingly out of touch with majority opinion and objective facts will only lead to more head-on, full-speed collisions with reality of the kind his audience (and his on-air talent!) suffered Tuesday night. If and how Fox attempts to bring its audience along to a set of positions that won't fatally handicap its candidates for national office will be fascinating to watch as well. 

There's been a great deal of demographic analysis regarding the election results. Maureen Dowd had one of her occasional truly insightful columns about this today, noting that Romney won big among the group he most assiduously courted: middle-aged and older white men. This has led many to note that "if these trends continue," Republicans are doomed indefinitely. This is both true and entirely irrelevant:  the nature of democracy is that parties evolve to remain competitive. It's ironic in a deeply satisfying way that the Republicans, who endlessly claim to be the Party of Business, recently have failed to embrace this signal truth of market capitalism. But they'll get there--the debate already has some strong entries--and that's something that all of us should welcome. 

For now, those of us who were determined to see them beaten back this time can take great satisfaction in last week's results. Not only Obama's victory, but the election of numerous strong progressives to the Senate and, best of all in my opinion, wins on all four marriage-equality votes at the state level should hearten progressives and, hopefully, spark a revival among honorable libertarian conservatives at the expense of the right-wing radicals who've hijacked their party. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Some news from the world of entertainment:
The Walt Disney Company, in a move that gives it a commanding position in the world of fantasy movies, said Tuesday it had agreed to acquire Lucasfilm from its founder, George Lucas, for $4.05 billion in stock and cash. 
The sale provides a corporate home for a private company that grew from Mr. Lucas’s hugely successful “Star Wars” movie series, and became an enduring force in the creation of effects-driven science fiction entertainment for large and small screens. Mr. Lucas, who is 68 years old, had already announced he would step down from day-to-day operation of the company.... 
In a hastily convened conference call with investors late Tuesday, Mr. Iger said Disney planned to revive the Star Wars franchise and release a seventh feature film in the series in 2015, with new films coming every two or three years thereafter. Mr. Lucas will be a consultant on the film projects, Mr. Iger said.... 
Jay Rasulo, the company’s chief financial officer, said Disney’s financial calculations in agreeing to purchase Lucasfilm were driven almost entirely by the potential of the “Star Wars” series, which already has a place in the Disney theme parks. Lynne Hale, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lucas, said he was on a flight back to San Francisco from Los Angeles and could not immediately be reached. “It’s now time for me to pass ‘Star Wars’ on to a new generation of filmmakers,” Mr. Lucas said in a statement.
Honestly, the truth is the best time for that was probably about 15 or 20 years ago. But here we are.

My initial reaction to this news was that it was as if Lucas, having dug up a much loved corpse and drawn a mustache on it and put it in a silly costume before re-interring it, decided to let a bunch of goons pay him money to dig it up again for some group necrophilia. But on reflection, I agree with the emerging consensus that Disney probably will do a good, or good-enough, job with the Star Wars franchise, just as they seem to be doing with their Marvel properties. One friend suggests that they'll let a dozen of the best filmmakers of our generation fight it out to tell great Star Wars stories; another predicts that we'll all go through a cycle of overexcitement and disappointment as news leaks through the production cycle, before the first movie finally comes out and we all agree that it's better than the prequels though obviously not close to the original trilogy. 

I agree with that, and I can't imagine that I won't see the films. But I still wish they'd left it to rest. Maybe it's the incredible disappointment I felt with Episode I in particular, after waiting 16 years for that moment of the lights going dark and the Lucasfilm logo and the 20th Century Fox fanfare to sound; maybe it's just impending and inevitable grumpy-old-man-ness. Yet the sense, irrational but undeniable, is that something is lost every time they go back to this particular well. 

I've always said that Star Wars--the original trilogy--was the single best thing about growing up when I did. For all his flaws as an artist, Lucas succeeded completely in his goal of creating mythology for a new generation, and I don't doubt that those films influenced me in ways I couldn't possibly understand. I know that making more doesn't, can't, diminish the power of the first three; they remain fixed in memory (even if Lucas can't stop futzing with them in various infuriating ways), and nothing can change that my mom's greatest act of parenting through the first 39-odd years of my life was those four straight Wednesdays in 1977 when she took me to matinee showings of Star Wars. 

I guess a generous gloss on what I'm saying here is that it would be nice for younger generations to have their own cultural touchstones, and for entertainment conglomerates to show more faith that the artists of today can bring them into being. A related point might be that the endless perpetuation of franchises must exert some kind of creative opportunity cost, in terms of what else those great filmmakers might have worked on. It's also clear that Star Wars was always, in addition to much else, a franchise; from the start, Lucas had ideas about how to perpetuate the series in various media, including print. But there's a difference between knowing this on an intellectual level and being faced with it for, quite possibly, the remainder of my life and beyond. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Big Split Scenario

Everyone seems increasingly worried about an election resolution in which President Obama wins in the electoral college, and thus secures a second term, while losing the popular vote. Notwithstanding the possible implications for electoral reform--the option I think I'd like to see is adding an electoral vote  bonus for winning the popular vote--and putting aside the fact that I clearly am hoping for the president to be returned to office anyway, I decided I'm fine with this, should it come to pass. Here's why.

In 2008, Obama won the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton in a somewhat similar way. His campaign organized the hell out of early caucus states, which generally saw turnout of fewer registered Democrats, claimed a disproportionate share of delegates and built up a large lead. That lead held even when Hillary beat him soundly in primary states, in part because you did better, delegate-wise, by losing 55 percent to 45 percent in California or Texas with a few million Democrats voting, than losing 70-30 in North Dakota caucuses. (I'm pulling these numbers and states at random, but pretty sure the argument holds.) Obama won enough primaries to have an argument for popular legitimacy among registered Democrats who cast votes that winter and spring, but he and his team built their strategy to win the contest according to the rules clearly set forth by the Party.

Same deal here. Barring something crazy happening, Obama won't come close to his popular vote margin from four years ago because in pretty much every large safe Democratic state--New York, California, probably Illinois--his percentage win will be much smaller as disaffected or lazy Democrats rightly conclude their votes aren't "needed," and will stay home. (The same is true of Republicans in safe red states, but other than Texas there just aren't very many big ones--plus I suspect that there's more impetus to vote out an incumbent, even in a state you know will go that way, than to return one.)

Knowing that 270 electoral votes, not 50.1 percent of ballots cast, is what matters, the Obama campaign has thrown everything in the small number of states where the outcome is in question. It logically follows that turnout will be higher in those states than in the noncompetitive ones. Were the rules different--if popular vote was the determinant--the campaign (both campaigns) would look to run up their margins in the large safe states, and given what we know about the efficacy of their Obama campaign, they'd probably be able to do so. In the scenario we're considering, it can and would be argued, plausibly, that millions of non-voters favored the president; were they "needed," he probably could have had most of them. (Again, this is also true for Romney and the Republicans, but there seem to be fewer of them.)

Obama's team matches its strategy to the rules of the game. The resentment that will attach to him and the Democratic campaign apparatus if he wins the electoral college while receiving fewer votes would be more properly directed toward the Founders.

There's a second component to my thinking here, less important but probably worth noting. If Romney does get a popular vote majority while losing the electoral college, my strong guess is that it will be closer to the half-million votes of Al Gore's plurality in 2000 than the two and a half million vote advantage George W. Bush had in 2004. Bush in 2001 was a minority president, but just barely. (The problem I and, I think, millions of other Democrats had with the outcome in 2000 wasn't so much that Bush lost the popular vote, but that we think he really lost Florida under a fair count, which never actually happened.) Had 50,000 Ohio votes switched in 2004, John Kerry would have won the presidency despite a much larger popular disadvantage.

As Josh Marshall and others have noted, concerns that Obama would "lack legitimacy" in the eyes of Republicans if he won a second term despite losing the popular vote are risible mostly because they didn't grant his legitimacy even when he won big in 2008. ("ACORN stole it for him!") Given everything at stake in this election--whether we'll retain the near-complete social safety net reinforced with Obamacare, whether we'll continue moving toward full equality based on sexual orientation, whether we get back on a path toward fiscal sanity through devastating cuts alone or a blend of spending reductions and tax adjustments--it's tempting to say that an Obama win in any form is acceptable. But the inevitable efforts to deny his win if he draws fewer popular votes are specious anyway, and should draw no response other than "don't hate the player, hate the game."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Alternate Universe 2012 Election

I was thinking this evening about recent elections and started speculating about how things might have unfolded had John Kerry had beaten George W. Bush in 2004.

I'm pretty sure that Kerry would have been a one-termer in this scenario. The economic bubble was a bipartisan creation, and my sense is it still would have popped around 2008 leading to a financial crash and subsequent economic downturn of more or less the same magnitude. This almost certainly would have sunk Kerry in his re-election effort... though it likely wouldn't have unfolded until well after the Republicans had chosen a nominee to oppose him.

But I don't think John McCain would have been the beneficiary. McCain came reasonably close to running with Kerry in 2004; I can't imagine he would have turned around and run against his friend four years later. In fact, I'm not sure he wouldn't have joined Kerry's administration as Secretary of Defense or something. So you would have had a different Republican nominee in 2008, running against a charisma-deficient incumbent who'd barely won four years earlier (and might well have been a popular vote loser: a switch of 50,000 votes in Ohio would have gotten Kerry the White House even though he was down a couple million votes nationally), burdened by the economy having crashed on his watch.

Presumably we would have had the same set of Republicans running in 2008 as we actually did, minus McCain (who, lest we forget, was far from an inevitable nominee: he almost dropped out in the summer of 2007, and benefitted from the demolition derby of Huckabee, Romney, Giuliani and Thompson through the early set of primaries). So the nominee likely would have been either Huckabee or Romney, the runners-up to McCain, and that guy would have gone on to beat Kerry, quite possibly in a landslide. (An interesting scenario would have been W. looking for a rematch in 2008, but I don't think he would have been nominated again after losing.)

But then what? I don't doubt the Republicans would have done some stimulus, as Obama did--but given their ideological disinclination toward Keynesian policy solutions and tax cut fetish, likely it would have been smaller and even more tilted toward the cuts which were the least effective component of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. So the response very likely wouldn't have been effective, and the Republicans probably would have had a harder time blaming Kerry than the Democrats have on Bush--because you would have had a one-term Democratic president and likely continued Republican control of Congress this whole time. Kerry likely would have interpreted his victory as a mandate to draw down more quickly in Iraq, taking that issue off the table and likely ensuring that control of Congress never flipped in 2006.  (It's very possible that the Democrats would have taken control in 2010, creating a political dynamic in alt-2012 similar to that in real-world 2008.)

Since the incumbent, John Kerry, would have had the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, the actual '08 contest would have been pushed back four years. Romney or Huckabee (Romnuckabee!) is running against one of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards, the former Vice-President in this scenario who's likely tainted by his prominence in the failed Kerry administration in addition to whatever else he might have gotten up to over the eight years.

My guess is that in this alternate if-Kerry-won-in-'04 universe, Hillary would have been the 2012 nominee. Part of why Obama won in real-2008 was his newness and fatigue with sixteen years of Clinton/Bush; neither factor would have been as strong in a world where he was in his second Senate term and no Clinton or Bush had been in the presidency for eight years. But I do think he would have run, and likely would have come the closest to unseating Hillary--enough to have been asked to join the ticket. He's still just 51, with plenty of time to run in his own right in 2020 or 2024 backed by whatever the Clinton political machine looks like at that point and boasting executive branch experience. So we'd be looking at an election in six weeks' time that would see a Clinton/Obama ticket take the presidency, likely with a mandate to implement fairly strong economic policies.

Needless to say, there are a ton of unknowables in this scenario: how Kerry would have done in disentangling us from the mideast wars, whether the Republican president might have gotten us into new wars between 2008 and 2012 (given his comments this year, the thought of Romney in office during the Green Revolution and Arab Spring is unsettling to say the least), how the Supreme Court might have evolved with Kerry rather than Bush replacing Rehnquist and Souter, and Romnuckabee rather than Obama replacing O'Connor and Stevens... or for that matter whether the ones who are still alive would have left with a president of the other party in office. But it's an interesting line of speculation, to me at least.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On Mistakes, Atonement and Shamelessness
It's well known that on August 6, 2011, President George W. Bush received his daily intelligence briefing, which that day was titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." It's further known that when his CIA briefer was done, Bush (who was then vacationing at his Texas ranch) said, "All right, you've covered your ass, now." Presumably he then went on to a day of brush clearing, and/or golfing. Thirty-six days later, al Qaeda did indeed strike in the U.S., killing nearly 3,000 Americans, destroying the Twin Towers, and setting in motion a chain of events that's led to thousands of additional American deaths, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghanis, trillions of dollars spent and a core change, not for the better, in American life.

Today in the New York Times, reporter Kurt Eichenwald writes that the declassified August 6 brief is actually not the truly damning document as far as the Bush administration is concerned:

On April 10, 2004, the Bush White House declassified that daily brief — and only that daily brief — in response to pressure from the 9/11 Commission, which was investigating the events leading to the attack. Administration officials dismissed the document’s significance, saying that, despite the jaw-dropping headline, it was only an assessment of Al Qaeda’s history, not a warning of the impending attack. While some critics considered that claim absurd, a close reading of the brief showed that the argument had some validity.

That is, unless it was read in conjunction with the daily briefs preceding Aug. 6, the ones the Bush administration would not release. While those documents are still not public, I have read excerpts from many of them, along with other recently declassified records, and come to an inescapable conclusion: the administration’s reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed. In other words, the Aug. 6 document, for all of the controversy it provoked, is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before it.

The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.

But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.

In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.

The combination of Bush's own incuriosity and the neoconservatives' insistence that everything must fit into their master narrative of Getting Saddam Hussein goes a long way toward explaining why an eminently preventable catastrophe went forward. (The failure of Condi Rice, then the National Security Advisor, to push back against the neocons is an important element as well.) But that's not even the main point here. What's really of interest to me is how Bush, who presumably remembered that he'd been briefed--evidently not just once, but on multiple occasions--subsequently went forward and not only didn't cop to any responsibility, BUT ACTUALLY MADE POLITICAL USE OF A TRAGEDY THAT OCCURRED ON HIS WATCH AND THAT HE FAILED TO PREVENT.

We don't expect failed leaders to commit ritual suicide or even drop out of public life, but there are plenty of examples in modern American history of policymakers who made severe mistakes with fatal ramifications for thousands of human beings, including ones for which they should have known better. Robert McNamara, the brilliant Secretary of Defense under JFK and LBJ, was tragically wrong about the Vietnam War. He probably knew it long before he left office in early 1968, but didn't say so publicly until almost 30 years later. He eventually did come clean, no doubt in part to salve his own tormented conscience but also in hopes that his successors might avoid his mistakes. In between, McNamara led the World Bank--by most accounts, commendably--and found other ways to serve. Colin Powell, Bush's first Secretary of State and hero of the first Gulf War, has admitted to shame at giving testimony to the UN Security Council that later proved inaccurate in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. He left public office soon after, and mostly has focused on philanthropic activities since then.

Bush and his team simply used the disaster they failed to prevent to justify their long-desired war with Iraq, and jam through as much of their desired domestic and foreign policy agenda as possible. They ran for re-election in 2004 primarily on national security arguments. They mismanaged both the more or less logical retaliatory war in Afghanistan and the totally unnecessary and pointless Iraq war. They won re-election and continued mismanaging the Iraq war. Many of them are now advising Mitt Romney and likely would guide national security if he wins the presidency.

I remember when Curt Schilling endorsed and campaigned for Bush in 2004, I compared it to Schilling making an argument for his own greatness not based on his World Series heroics in 1993, 2001 or 2004, but on the worst start of his career. Schilling, for all his sometime jackassery, didn't hide from accountability; when he sucked, he copped to it. Regarding his most dramatic consequential failure, George W. Bush never showed the least sense of contrition or responsibility; in fact he treated it like some kind of triumph. I don't understand it at all, can't even really grasp how someone could possibly respond in that way.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Read These
One reason the frequency of posting on this blog has declined so much in the last few years is because it's now pretty rare that I post just to highlight writings elsewhere that I think are very worthwhile. (The biggest reason is that I started working full-time again in early 2010, followed by a rise in my own standards of what I thought was worth setting down words about, but ending the "hey, isn't this cool?" posts is in there somewhere.) I'm doing it today, though, because, one, these two pieces are just that good, and two, they both align to things I've been thinking about but haven't bothered to fully articulate.

  • I think Joe Posnanski is generally recognized as one of America's best sportswriters, but this undersells him: the guy is among our best writers, period. Yesterday morning, while enduring one of those episodes of concentrated misery in which the Metropolitan Transit Authority specializes, I found this piece through Posnanski's Twitter feed, and by the end of it I was laughing, smiling and much less interested in killing everyone else on the shuttle bus. Pretty much every word of it, from the paean to Electronic Football to the dread engendered by the Alcoa commercial and the ritualistic invocation of "The executive producer of CBS Sports is..." rings true to my experience between about 1981 and 1986. Note that the Eagles (whose new season starts in about an hour and forty-five minutes) mostly sucked in those years, plus there was a strike, plus my parents split so my exposure to my dad, a huge football fan, really plunged. It was probably those other aspects of football fandom that left me a fan for life. Posnanski, who I think is about five or six years older than me, just nails it. And he's right that while the fan experience is unquestionably better today, it's somehow less intense and special precisely for the wealth of options now available to us. (I have added Posnanski to the nav bar of AIS, replacing Glenn Greenwald who recently left Salon.)

  • Then there's Timothy Snyder's identification of Paul Ryan as the exemplary ideologue in American politics today, and his perceptive trace of how Ryan's extremism is grounded in earlier totalizing philosophical traditions including but not limited to his infamous veneration of Ayn Rand. A few weeks back, after Romney tapped Ryan as his running mate but before the Republican convention, I was contemplating a post here about how bad ideas resonate down through history, creating vicious cycles of reaction and counter-reaction that serve to multiply the original harm done to actual humans. Rand's Objectivism emerged from her visceral (and justified) loathing for Soviet communism, which itself was a reaction to the absolutism of tsarist Russia focused through the lens of Marxist theory. (Hayek, the other intellectual touchstone Snyder names for the Republican ticket and about whom I know much less, evidently had the same sort of intellectual response to Nazism as Rand did to the Soviets.) Snyder makes a compelling case for how Romney and Ryan complement each other as embodiments of the current Republican Party:
    Romney provides the practice, Ryan the theory. Romney has lots of money, but has never managed to present the storyline of his career as a moral triumph. Ryan, with his credibility as an ideas politician, seems to solve that problem. In the right-wing anarchism that arises from the marriage of Rand and Hayek, Romney’s wealth is proof that all is well for the rest of us, since the laws of economics are such that the unhindered capitalism represented by chop-shops such as Bain must in the end be good for everyone.

    The problem with this sort of economic determinism is that it is Marxism in reverse, with the problems of the original kind. Planning by finance capitalists replaces planning by the party elite. Marx’s old dream, the “withering away” of the state, is the centerpiece of the Ryan budget: cut taxes on the rich, claim that cutting government functions and the closing of unspecified loopholes will balance budgets, and thereby make the state shrink. Just like the Marxists of another era, the Republican ticket substitutes mythical thinking about the economy for loyalty to the nation.

    What they all got wrong and continue to get wrong--Marx, Lenin, Rand, Ryan--is that the proper response to a failed system claiming absolute truth isn't an opposed absolute truth, but an empirically based philosophy of doubt and restraint. Don't overstate your own capacity to know and do; experiment, doubling down on what proves effective and cutting back on what doesn't. At one time, this approach might have been described as "conservatism."

Monday, September 03, 2012

What's the Election About?
I surprised myself by watching a lot of the Republican convention while on vacation last week--something I've been hesitant to do most years since Pat Buchanan's "culture war" speech at the 1992 convention almost gave me a nervous breakdown. (I was young then, and probably about three times as emo as I am now.) The only thing that really bothered me was Paul Ryan's speech, for its shocking, possibly unprecedented dishonesty and straight-up hypocrisy.

Romney's speech was pretty much what I think everyone expected: competent and unmemorable. It probably "worked" in that it helped recast him as a viable alternative to an incumbent president who's lost a lot of his luster to the low-information, weak partisan voter--which he had to do after that disastrous trip abroad earlier this summer. But it presented neither a compelling biography-based argument nor a convincing, or even really present, policy-based argument. Nate Silver wrote that Romney was presenting himself as a generic Republican, which is the correct call if the idea is to frame the election as a referendum on the incumbent. But, as I wrote last month, the Ryan selection went a long way toward positioning the vote as a choice between two sharply contrasting sets of plans.

But the contrast was present, just at a lower and more fundamental level. It's been well documented that the Republicans' fixation on President Obama's misstatement of "You didn't build that" is dishonest, intentionally or otherwise. (In this sense, the Clint Eastwood episode--an old man arguing with an empty chair as a stand-in for a president who's only present in their imagination--was the perfect representation of how Fox News fills most of their program day.) Yet it does align to how they think the economy works. Gail Collins says it in her most recent column better than I could:

The big, if-not-quite-articulated, message in Tampa was that in a free economy, everybody will get what they deserve. There is no need to worry about the vast, growing gap between the richest and the rest, or the shrinking middle class, or the fact that America currently has one of the worst rates of social mobility in the developed world.

Untrammeled, the business sector will create plenty of jobs, and the hard-working big-dreamers will jump in, amass wealth and achieve success. You cut taxes, reduce regulation and let the magic happen. It’s that or what Paul Ryan called “a dull adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.”

Listening to the convention speeches, it was easy to get the impression that every high-ranking Republican in the country had parents who were truck drivers or convenience store workers who moved up entirely through their own efforts. Also, there were a lot of grandfathers who worked in the mines.

Her Times colleague David Brooks cited a finding from a recent Pew survey that sets out the crucial partisan difference I've come to believe is the biggest issue in this year's election:

Overall, 46% say that circumstances beyond one’s control are more often to blame if a person is poor, while 38% say that an individual’s lack of effort is more often to blame; 11% blame both. These views have fluctuated over the years, but opinion typically has been divided or pluralities have blamed circumstances, rather than a lack of effort, for people being poor.
By more than two-to-one (61% to 24%), Democrats say circumstances beyond a person’s control are primarily to blame for them being poor. By about the same margin (57% to 28%), Republicans blame a person’s lack of effort. Among independents more say circumstances, rather than a lack of effort, are mostly to blame (46% vs. 37%).

Now, we've all heard the stories about these proud individuals who airbrush all the external help out of their own bootstrap story, including a few of the speakers at last week's convention and--my all-time favorite--the actor Craig T. Nelson saying, "I've been on food stamps and welfare. Anybody help me out? No." And I actually sat in some "media trainings" around the middle of the last decade in which PR consultants insisted to me and other policy researchers that it was always best to emphasize structural forces rather than individual circumstances when writing about poverty, because if you focus on the individual it's too easy for the reader either to fault her/his choices or to conclude that the circumstances were unique to the individual. (My reaction to this bit of dubious wisdom was to wonder if these people ever actually had tried to pitch stories.)

Of course, in the large majority of cases the answer to the Pew question is "both": circumstances and individual decisions--or, as a consultancy I used to work with and continue to admire pithily puts it, "chance and choice"--will play their parts. But the two factors don't exist in isolation, and one even could say that low effort in a context of daunting external obstacles is a rational choice. Children growing up in impoverished and dysfunctional families, attending lousy schools in unsafe communities, have to make much more of an "individual effort" to be successful by the definition of mainstream society: educational success, avoidance of unhealthy behaviors, and so on.

The really talented ones might conclude that their best chances for advancement lie on a very different path. One of the great and subtle themes of "The Wire" was that Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, Marlo Stanfield and "Proposition Joe" Stewart are exceptionally able individuals, the Mitt Romneys of their milieu. (And their henchmen, Boadie Broaddus and Wee-Bay Bryce and Chris Partlow and Snoop Pearson and the rest, are probably analogous to reasonably effective but limited middle managers.) Stringer, the visionary drug kingpin and part-time business student, was probably the only one who saw this and definitely the only one who contemplated the other path, but the intention was pretty clear.

To put it another way, the odds for Mitt Romney were a lot better than those for Bill Clinton. (I say Clinton, not Obama, because while Obama's circumstances were challenging in some respects--the absence of a father, the constant moving around--his parents were both supremely well educated and he had a supportive and reasonably well resourced extended family. Romney's dad actually didn't finish college, yet was a huge success by any measure. I find it mildly interesting that Romney's policy agenda would be a lot better for children with dual Ph.D. parents, as Barack Obama was, while Obama's policies pretty clearly would be better for children of non-college grad parents, like Mitt Romney.)

At any rate, each side offers what amounts to a caricature of the other's position: in classic Ayn Rand style, Republicans assert that Democrats endlessly indulge society's "losers," and support the wrong side in the battle of takers vs. makers. Democrats blast Republicans as holding an unrealistic notion of individual agency, if not outright contempt for those worse off. (I've been guilty of this more often than I'd like.) But I think the Pew numbers suggest that Republicans in reality are closer to the Democratic stereotype than vice-versa.

The Republican story is simpler, as their stories tend to be--and I mean that as a compliment. I suspect there's something very deep in human nature that compels us to believe that everyone is the author of his/her own fate, which is the essence of what Romney/Ryan is selling. But I also think most people have an understanding of the larger forces that helped inform their success, or lack of same, and probably a sense of how relatively lucky or unlucky their circumstances have been. The Obama/Biden policy menu is much more aligned to this notion of how the world works.

Democratic policy thinkers such as Jared Bernstein sometimes describe this conflict as YOYO ("You're On Your Own") versus WITT ("We're In This Together"). It seems far-fetched to contemplate an election that turns on which vision is more compelling to whatever small slice of the electorate is up for grabs; I don't think undecided voters really work that way. But what's more likely is that the result of the election will go a long way toward determining what agenda is implemented in the coming years.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Drawing Lines
I'm surprised and glad that Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate for this presidential election. Putting aside for a moment the political ramifications and what it says about Romney's evidently boundless deference to the far right wing of his party, Ryan's presence on the ticket draws the clearest possible contrast on policy grounds, and might even force the press to focus on substance rather than the trivia of the trail.

Among other things, the choice shows just how completely we've become a parliamentary system, albeit without the structures that allow parliamentary majorities elsewhere to implement their chosen policies. Ryan already was probably the most important Republican in the country in terms of defining their agenda, and if he'd remained in Congress as Romney took the presidency, Mitt would have had to deal with him anyway. In that sense, the choice is somewhat reminiscent of John Kennedy's thinking when he tapped Lyndon Johnson to run with him in 1960: better LBJ as institutionally obligated vice-presidential subordinate than "partner in governance" with a distinct and separate power base as Senate Majority Leader and, at least occasionally, different objectives and motivations.

Then again, it was already likely that as president, Romney would have implemented Ryan's agenda anyway, which leads me to the other presumptive motivation: if they win, they'll now be able to claim majority justification for the radical upward redistribution of wealth that is at the heart of Ryan's famous budget plan. Its core components are--and I'm using the most neutral language I can come up with here--very large tax breaks for highest-income taxpayers, major restructuring of entitlement programs with the effect of restraining their growth, and enormous cuts to all non-military domestic spending. The part that isn't explicit but universally assumed is an effective tax increase for most people, as popular deductions are eliminated to help balance the big cuts for the wealthiest. Romney has made noises about "not running on Ryan's budget," but unless and until he articulates what he plans to do differently--and specifics have not been abundant in Romney's campaign to this point--he'll own that plan.

How they intend to sell this vision to the chunk of the electorate that's probably in play--working/middle class white voters who don't have strong partisan affiliations, are employed but have seen their wealth disappear in the downturn and are very worried about the future--is the part I don't understand. Ron Brownstein notes that the priorities of the Ryan plan would seem to sit worst with the older whites who are now at the heart of the Republican electoral coalition.

By definition, you can't get an electoral majority from the 1 percent. And a less extreme version of this basic approach to governing was tried under George W. Bush and clearly failed in terms of what happened with economic growth and budgetary consequences. I think Ryan's position amounts to a belief that the wealthiest Americans simply deserve to keep more of their wealth, regardless of the opportunity cost exerted by lower tax revenues in bridges and roads not repaired, seniors not medically cared for, schools not improved, meat not inspected and so on. Philosophically, it's a valid position (albeit one with which I totally disagree); politically, it would seem to mean a much steeper hill to climb in places like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida.

Still, I think we can be glad that the differences are sufficient for most disaffected voters on either side to now fully engage, and perhaps also that Republican culture-war appeals will be a bit more subtle than was the case in 2008 when the nominee, who wasn't exactly a policy wizard himself, picked a running mate with no more substance than the reality TV stars whose ranks she would soon join. So long as they didn't nominate Ryan because they know there's an economic cataclysm coming anyway--like an Israeli attack on Iran, ordered by Romney's old consulting buddy Bibi Netanyahu--that will tank the world economy and send gas to $10 a gallon--and want to be in maximum position to leverage that crisis by claiming majority support for the Ryan plan.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

How the Other Half Runs
It's pretty much a given that any sharp elbows thrown by a Democrat in a national campaign will send the pundit class into fainting spells and occasion monocles popping out in shock all across the Beltway. Most anticipated the blow would land against Mitt Romney's Mormonism, the way in which "he's not like us" most evident to the paid observers of politics. But the Obama team is pretty smart, and has (to my eye) completely avoided discussion of religion in favor of a much more palatable point of difference: Romney's decades-long immersion in the economic hyper-elite. It turns out the way he's really different is in the rules that apply.

For the better part of two weeks now, coverage of the election has turned on Romney's foreign investments and just when he left Bain Capital, about which he's told some different stories at different times. Despite the possible overstatement of the Obama campaign that Romney might have broken the law, I'd be shocked if he left himself in any jeopardy: the guy is too smart and too careful to make that kind of mistake. But his Friday pushback, making five TV appearances on different networks hoping to kill the story and jujitsu the issue into an a focus on the president's negative tactics, seems to have failed. I happened to see one of the appearances, on CNN, at the gym Friday night; with the sound off, all I focused on was Romney's eyes, rapidly blinking like any bad liar.

The through-line of all the stories about Romney's wealth--his Bain activities both before 1999 and during the period when his role was in question, the overseas accounts, the tax return issue that, to the growing frustration of his media cheering section, he can't dismiss and won't defuse (I almost wonder if he's standing on principle, just to see what that's like)--is that Romney has maximized his wealth by taking advantage of every loophole, every special-interest tax provision, every service available to those of his class. Probably none of this is illegal, and as far as I can tell none of it is even unusual in that world. (If you buy that Romney really did take a "leave of absence" from Bain to run the Salt Lake Olympics effort and planned to return, it was responsible and appropriate for him to sit in on board meetings of Bain companies, so he'd be able to jump back in when the time came.) What the public isn't used to is a candidate seeking election after decades spent in full-throttle pursuit of every last dollar.

Absent a track record of achievement in office (by his own choice, in the case of healthcare reform), and without a particularly appealing personality, Romney is trying to run on his business record. But he didn't make anything and he didn't invest in communities, at least not in any kind of conscious or intentional way; rather, he more often destroyed communities, as this ad powerfully suggests. So he's trying to both run on that record, and hide from it. There are probably politicians out there who can pull off that kind of trick, like Bill Clinton. But Romney isn't one of them.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Try as I might to take a more optimistic view, I seem to drift back to a default view of American politics that holds the difference between Democratic and Republican leadership of the government amounts to nothing more than the pace at which things get worse. Not that this isn't meaningful--it would be nice to see my days out in a country that bears as much resemblance as possible to the one I grew up in, even if it's fading--but it's not what I grew up aspiring to in my thoughts about public affairs.

In a way, it was the seeming failure of Barack Obama, a politician into whom I put more money, effort and faith than any other in my lifetime, to change this trajectory that brought me back to this view. It isn't that I think Obama's presidency has been a disaster, by any stretch; I see his performance in the office as among the best of any chief executive in my lifetime, with an impressive list of accomplishments in both domestic and foreign policy and a mostly admirable record in terms of candor, probity and personal conduct. But thus far he's fallen short in what I thought he might be able to do: reclaim the role of small-d democratic government as a felt force for good in the lives of the citizens who choose its officials.

Thursday's stunning Supreme Court decision to uphold the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act doesn't necessarily change that story--but it does give the president and supporters of the law more time and another opportunity to make the case. Vastly more important in terms of the immediate real-world consequences is that tens of millions more Americans will have access to care, as Paul Krugman points out. And as Obama himself said, expanding access to healthcare is the right thing to do even if the politics are adverse, as they sure seem to be.

Finally, for people like me, moving toward universal healthcare was one of the great liberal goals to aspire toward, a signifier of the values we believe America should stand for and the society in which we wished to live. The long journey toward enactment, with its many reverses and disappointments, was the policy equivalent of Red Sox fans until 2004, or Cubs fans to this day.

With so much air time and print and internet to fill, there have been no shortage of very clever analyses holding that Chief Justice Roberts delivered a pyrrhic victory to liberals through his constriction of allowable activities under the Commerce Clause, or an adrenaline shot to Republicans by his determination of the mandate as a tax. Perhaps. I have enough of a suspicion of government not to mourn overmuch the idea that there are some limits on what's allowable under the Commerce Clause, and as for the tax issue, the rather small number of people who would be subject to it (by their own choice) should defuse its potential as a political rallying point--though it won't.

The reason for this, as is so often the case, is that the Republicans refuse to grant any legitimacy or value to the position of their opponents. There's no acknowledgment of any good to "Obamacare" being allowed to stand, no granting that yes, it's okay for the Medicare "donut hole" to remain filled, or that cost control experiments might be helpful in some way at some point, or that in itself it's better--for fiscal as well as moral reasons--to have more people covered than fewer. No, it's entirely and only an unconscionable attack on American liberty, which evidently is much bound up in the freedom to suffer and die because you can't afford preventative care or treatment for chronic health problems. The worst of them compared the Court's decision to 9/11, or claimed America was "lost" or transforming into something unrecognizable.

The historical pattern following the passage of major legislation--Social Security is the most famous of many examples--is that the law improves over time as both parties add their best ideas to the framework now in place. Certainly there's much room for improvement with the Affordable Care Act: more cost controls, malpractice reform, adjustments to the subsidies, a public option, and so on. But it's almost impossible to imagine Republicans coming to the table in good faith to improve a law they consider downright evil. Jonathan Chait suggests, and I don't disagree, that the core of their opposition lies in a belief that healthcare itself is a privilege, not in any sense a right. There are things for which they're willing to expend the public money--defense, tax cuts for the very wealthy--but not this.

It's likely that about a third of the electorate subscribes to this view. I doubt many will change their views even when the policies of the law go into full effect and directly benefit these haters of Obama and Obamacare. It's possible and maybe even fair to blame the president and the supporters of the law for their failure to explain it fully, but at some point idiocy truly is invincible.

Even so, my reaction to the Court's decision was and remains nothing but shocked joy. Perhaps it shouldn't have been so surprising that Roberts would decide, even if on the narrowest of grounds, to uphold a law passed by duly elected majorities, based on an idea born in a Republican think tank and a measure implemented at the state level by a Republican governor and current presidential nominee. But in these hyper-polarized times, and after a decade in which the Court seemed to rule at every turn only in ways that aligned with the best interests of the Republican Party, it was wonderful to see nevertheless. And success is its own reward and its own fuel: perhaps when it becomes clear that this law is working for the betterment of the country, it will do something to move public opinion of the public sector back toward a sense of ownership and even some faith. Hope dies hard, it turns out.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The big fuss in NYC late this past week was Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to place limits on the sale of sugary drinks as a public health measure. The idea has drawn opposition ranging from the transparently self-interested to the viciously satirical--the Colbert clip, linked here, is truly awesome--with the pushback drawing additional zing from the mayor's push to ban large sugar drinks while making the media rounds to celebrate (who knew?) National Donut Day.

The proposal makes me uncomfortable on liberty grounds, though the public finance implications give me some pause; if I had to come down one way or another, I'd probably oppose it and urge continued educational measures, maybe even as far as requiring labels on 32-ounce sodas similar to those on cigarettes. (Imagine a Before-pic of Louie Anderson looking up at you as hold the Big Gulp, saying, "Do you really need all 600 of these empty calories?)

But what's really interesting about this to me is how the various ostensible shapers of opinion in the City have lined up on this question. The generally liberal New York Times published an editorial criticizing the ban; the consistently right-wing New York Post wrote in support of it. Add to this that the two ideologically opposed outlets took the same respective positions recently when the City's controversial "stop and frisk" policies resurfaced on the public agenda.

Stop-and-frisk infamously falls most heavily on the poor and non-white. Though I don't have numbers for this, my strong suspicion is that the sugary drinks changes would have the biggest impact on the same groups. And this to me explains why the Times and the Post, and those whose views they more or less represent in the public discourse, have taken the positions they have.

The thru-line is whether or not you believe that low-income, less-educated, less connected non-whites really have the same rights and deserve the same consideration of their wealthier and whiter counterparts. Yet another issue in this bucket, on which the Times and Post would take (and have taken) the editorial positions you'd expect them to take, is on measures that make it more difficult for individuals to register and vote. The right-leaning outlets will cite concerns over voter fraud--which pretty much always have zero basis in reality--to justify restrictions, while the liberal-leaning voices will emphasize equal access.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Murdoch-owned voices and their allies consistently favor policies that, in contrast to the old journalistic truism, comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Come the Evolution: Obama, Marriage Equality, Bloomberg, and my Dad
The consensus around President Obama's public endorsement of marriage equality this week seems to be that it's a solid net plus for him politically. It's very unlikely that he'll lose many if any net votes over this statement, and already it's fueling a surge of donations and energy around a heretofore somewhat demotivated Democratic base. I thought it was kind of cynical in terms of the timing, yet I'll admit the announcement had me considering going into pocket for the president for the first time in this cycle.

One thing I haven't seen in the coverage, however, is how Obama's announcement might impact the race in terms of a powerful centrist figure whose own view on marriage equality long has been known: Mayor Bloomberg. Check out this item from Tuesday, the day before Obama made his statement; then consider what Bloomberg said following Obama's declaration of support:
Mayor Michael Bloomberg called President Barack Obama’s newly announced support for same-sex marriage “a major turning point in the history of American civil rights.”

“No American president has ever supported a major expansion of civil rights that has not ultimately been adopted by the American people — and I have no doubt that this will be no exception,” Bloomberg said in a statement today.

Mayor Bloomberg carries a kind of totemic power for a small but important segment of the electorate (not to mention outsized, borderline-absurd-and-embarrassing influence within certain pundit precincts). My father is one of those voters who just digs the guy. He's very suspicious of Obama, not particularly turned on by Romney, more or less indifferent to social issues, and basically looking for someone to make government function, as he perceives (with some justification... says the City employee) Bloomberg to have done in NYC. I'm fairly sure that were Bloomberg to endorse Romney, that would signal to my dad, and probably at least a few hundred thousand other politically homeless but fairly engaged types, that the Republican is the better of two tepid choices. I don't know for sure that these folks tend to concentrate in swing states, but it's not hard to imagine them in Pennsylvania (where Dad lives), Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Colorado.

I have no information whatsoever, but prior to Obama's announcement, I would have put the odds of Bloomberg endorsing Romney at something like 50 percent. The presumptive Republican nominee certainly is gunning for the mayor's blessing (as is the president). Notwithstanding their serious policy differences on abortion and gun rights, I suspect that Bloomberg is much more personally comfortable with Romney, a fellow rich guy and sharp-elbowed capitalist who in his Massachusetts guise wasn't really at odds with Bloomberg's social views, than the former community organizer and occasional Wall Street critic in the White House. Yes, the City Bloomberg governs will go something like 75 percent for the president, and the administration he leads likely an even higher percentage, but the mayor won't face the voters again and, mostly for better and occasionally for worse, he's shown on many occasions that he forms and states his opinions without concern for what his constituents or subordinates think.

Now, though, a Romney endorsement will prompt a barrage of questions on how he can support a candidate whose public position on perhaps the defining civil rights issue of the era is inimical to the mayor's own strong and oft-voiced view. He'll have to face friends and colleagues who are in same-sex marriages, including his likely candidate of choice to succeed him, Council Speaker Christine Quinn (who's getting married a week from today). He can say that the economic issues, and particularly Romney's position on finance-industry deregulation, trump everything else, and maybe he will. But I have trouble seeing it--particularly considering the questions of legacy that now occupy so much of the thinking on the part of the mayor and his close advisors.

I don't think Bloomberg will endorse the president; I just don't believe he likes the man, or sees him as good for the City. But I think Obama's announcement has cut the odds of Mayor Bloomberg endorsing Romney by quite a bit, and I'm not sure that wasn't somewhere in his head when he made the decision. Meanwhile, I'll keep working on my dad.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Thinking About Guns
Jill Lepore's disturbing recent New Yorker article about the policies and politics of gun control isn't likely to resonate in this political year. This is unfortunate, because it gets at some of our deeper national pathologies. Interspersed with accounts of and references to rampages of gun violence--including both well-known episodes like the massacres at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, and less covered (but more recent) multiple murders at schools in Ohio and California--are daunting facts about our national fascination with deadly weapons and statistics on their dreary impact.

Even more interesting is a story I hadn't known before, about the evolution of the National Rifle Association from a "sporting and hunting association" often supportive of common-sense gun control into the maximalist and ferociously partisan lobbying entity we know today. The NRA has moved toward a harder line even as the national incidence of gun ownership has declined; Lepore reports that significantly fewer Americans own guns now than was the case a generation ago. But gun-related violence certainly hasn't decreased, probably owing in part to the slackening of gun laws as well as the increasingly easy availability of ever-deadlier weapons.

It's well known and not even much lamented anymore that the Democrats have all but entirely ceded gun control as an issue. (Though this hasn't stopped the leadership of the NRA from insisting that Barack Obama's very silence on firearms through his first term is itself proof of his utter commitment to seizing Americans' guns if they're foolish enough to re-elect him.) The automatic weapons ban signed by Bill Clinton in 1994 lapsed in 2004, and when Obama took office there was little effort to reinstate it despite Democrats' sizable congressional majorities in 2009. No matter how egregious the gun-related crime--Columbine and Virginia Tech, the January 2011 massacre in Tucson, Arizona that killed six people (including the granddaughter of Dallas Green, manager of the 1980 world champion Phillies) and wounded another twelve (including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords)--there's no serious effort to tighten up gun laws. Even the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, which Lepore discusses at some length, seems unlikely to lead to serious consideration of repealing the "Stand Your Ground" law under which George Zimmerman claims justification for having shot the teenager.

This is the nature of interest-group politics: a small faction that holds a minority viewpoint can prevail so long as its commitment to that position is disproportionately greater than that of the majority and has the resources to press its case. The irony here, if that's the word, is that the NRA as an organization seems to hold positions far more extreme than that of its membership: "According to a 2009 Luntz poll, for instance, requiring mandatory background checks on all purchasers at gun shows is favored not only by eighty-five per cent of gun owners who are not members of the N.R.A. but also by sixty-nine per cent of gun owners who are." It seems reasonable to assume that non-gun owners would be even more solidly in support of stronger gun laws. But given what we've seen over the last fifteen years, it's almost impossible to imagine what series of events would suffice to shift the political dynamic in a way that would lead to tighter regulation.

In addition to the obvious factor--our national and ongoing romanticizing of weapons and what one can do with them--I have a theory on why this is. The one common complaint across the American political spectrum is the feeling that the average citizen has lost control. Banks seemingly can foreclose upon your home at will; certainly the vast majority of Americans now can be fired without much advance notice or recourse; your retirement savings can be wiped out in an eyeblink. Some of this is specific to our politics; some of it just has to do with modernity. But whatever the reason, the collective sense is that things are out of our hands.

In some respect, the possession and use of a gun is a logical, though not rational, response to that circumstance. I imagine that the seeming rightness of that response increases as you head down the socioeconomic ladder.