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February 28, 2005

Georgia Power Grab Update

Unfortunately, the report is in the subscription-only Roll Call today, but here's the dish: Georgia Republican legislators have agreed on a re-redistricting of the state's Congressional districts that's basically designed to mess with two Democratic incumbents and shore up a vulnerable Republican incumbent.Freshman Dem Rep. John Barrow's home county of Clarke (Athens) is moved out of his district, though his staff makes it clear he'll run for re-election in the 12th anyway. Interestingly enough, the map-drawers managed to actually increase the African-American percentage of the voting age population in the 12th while reducing its Democratic performance level. That's because Athens (home of the University of Georgia) probably has more white Democrats than any city in the state. Still, it remains a majority-Democratic district, and it's hard to call Barrow a carpetbagger when the carpet's actually been pulled out from under him.More serious damage was done to 3d District (central-west central GA) Rep. Jim Marshall, whose district goes from 40% African-American to 33%, with Bush having won 58% of the 2000 vote (the measure of GOP performance since the population figures are from the 2000 census) in the new map as opposed to 52% in the old. Since Marshall waxed Calder Clay, a well-funded and hand-picked GOP challenger in 2004, by a 63-37 margin, Georgia Dems think he should be able to hold the district. But it's worth noting that the home of former Congressman Mac Collins, who lost the GOP Senate nomination in '04, has been quietly slipped into Marshall's district, which may mean Collins is considering a comeback.Meanwhile, 11th District (northwest GA) Rep. Phil Gingrey would get a district radically reshaped in his favor, with the African-American population dropping from 28% to 12%, and Republican performance being boosted from 51% to 64%. This is no huge surprise, since the 11th was originally designed as a very competitive district. And while I wouldn't want to call the Gentleman from the 11th a wingnut or anything, it is rumored he has to wear special weights to keep him from keeling over on his right side while walking.The lawyers who follow this sort of thing think the Power Grab will probably survive Voting Rights Act scrutiny, because its authors were careful to avoid any direct impact on Georgia's four African-American House incumbents. But there's a possible legal hook in the murky doctrine of "minority-influence districts," wherein the Voting Rights Act can be violated if action is taken to dilute a high if not majority percentage of minority voters, which arguably is the case with both the Marshall and Gingrey remaps.According to Roll Call, some Georgia Dems are reportedly relieved that the re-redistricting was not as drastic as some had feared. Perhaps the threat of retaliation elsewhere had a mitigating effect. But the principle of the thing remains outrageous, and for my money, Democrats should wheel out the lawyers and write up the talking points to fight it.

Before the (Snow) Storm

Thanks mainly to Kevin Drum, last week was "Before the Storm" Week in parts of the blogosphere, with a lot of people weighing in on the genius of Rick Perlstein's 2001 book about the early days of the conservative movement, culminating in the Goldwater candidacy of 1964.Perlstein's book has been on my reading list for a while, but keeps getting bumped down to the second tier, not because of any misgivings I have about his widely acclaimed brilliance in recounting the events of those days, but simply because I sorta kinda lived through this in detail and prefer to spend my limited reading time on stuff I don't know much about.As the most obsessive little political junkie you'd ever want to avoid in the early 60's, I paid a lot of attention to the Goldwater movement at the time, and in ensuing years, read a lot about its antecedents: the early National Review, the Sharon Statement, the rightward tilt of the YR's, the YAF, the Democrats-for-Goldwater, the Cliff White organization--the whole enchilada. I'm sure Perlstein has important insights about these phenomena that would never occur to me, but right now my top priority is reading Ted Widmer's new biography of Martin Van Buren, who basically founded the Democratic Party.I do find the Democratic blogospheric debate over the Goldwater campaign, via Perlstein (nicely sliced and diced by Mark Schmitt), fascinating and sometimes horrifying.The idea that today's Democrats should model themselves on Goldwater Republicans is by any standard, well, a bit nuts. They lost spectacularly in 1964, losing states like Vermont and Kansas that Republicans never lost, by big margins. They destroyed an African-American GOP vote that had been there since Lincoln. That was hard, but they accomplished it. They discredited conservative opposition to the Great Society, which had tangible results in the four years after Goldwater's nomination. And the magnitude of the loss marginalized movement conservatives in the Republican Party for a long time.A number of participants in the blogospheric discussion of Perlstein's book note that some of liberalism's most notable victories occurred under Richard Nixon, particularly the enactment of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and the first major federal affirmative action program. But Nixon's most important insults to the conservative movement were his wage and price controls--a truly satanic posture in the eyes of market conservatives--and his repudiation of Taiwan in the recognition of mainland China, which struck at one of the most emotional and original heart-throbs of the pre-Goldwater and Goldwater Right.The chronic estrangement of movement conservatives from the GOP after 1964 has been understated by many Left and Right enthusiasts.They often forget Reagan's insurgent effort to forge an anti-Nixon alliance with Nelson Rockefeller at the 1968 GOP Convention. They rarely know about the 1971 manifesto by conservatives (led by William F. Buckley) deploring detente with the Soviet Union, which nakedly offered to support a Democrat like Scoop Jackson in 1972. And nobody seems to remember the period after Reagan's failed 1976 campaign, when National Review's publisher, William Rusher, was promoting a "Producers' Party" that would combine Republican conservatives with Wallacite Democratic conservatives.Mark Schmitt's comments on the subject nail one point entirely: that the main lesson Republicans ultimately learned from the Goldwater movement was to hide their aims.It's no accident that conservatives finally conquered the GOP, and won the presidency, under the sign of Ronald Reagan's embrace of supplyside economics--i.e., the belief that you can promote massive tax cuts and deregulation without really demanding major retrenchment of New Deal/Great Society programs. David Stockman's brilliant if long-forgotten memoir, The Triumph of Politics, confirmed the final unwillingness of conservatives to accept the fiscal logic of their philosophy. And this basic dishonesty remains a heavy legacy for Republican conservatives today--a characteristic, of course, that would horrify Barry Goldwater.So: what do Democrats have to learn from the early conservative movement? How to lose elections, lose influence, and ultimately win by losing your soul?It's a good question, the night before a big snowstorm is expected to hit Washington, a place Barry Goldwater wished God or man would smite with every available plague.

February 25, 2005

Answering Armando Again

This is getting to be really interesting. Armando of DailyKos has done a second post responding to my latest optimistic epistle on the future of Southern Democrats, and poses a few more questions and challenges that I'm happy to try to answer. Maybe I should apply for a Sympathy for the Devil diary on the Kos site, as a combined party unity/missionary effort.The main question Armando poses is why, exactly, Dems cratered between '96 and '04 among Southern self-identified moderates. He answers his own question by suggesting that 9/11 made all the difference, elevating the national security issue.Certainly that answer has something to do with it. Maybe it's all those military bases; maybe it's the disproportionate number of black, white and brown southerners who sign up to fight for their country; maybe it's even that fightin' frontier Jacksonian Scotch-Irish heritage that Walter Russell Mead writes about--but there's no question national security matters more in the South than in, say, Iowa.But the problem with attributing the Dem decline between '96 and '04 to national security is the intervening election: '00, when the Democratic presidential vote among white southerners collapsed, even though the candidate was, technically, a Southern White Guy (and, technically, a Baptist to boot) named Al Gore.In another section of his post, Armando suggests that Clinton's personal qualities as a candidate, not his message or his positioning on issues, explains his relative success in the South. As I have argued at some length elsewhere, I don't think you can separate the message and the messenger so cleanly, especially in the South, where Clinton's communications gifts were considered natural, not supernatural.Personalities aside, the biggest difference between Clinton '96 and Gore '00 had to do with how each candidate dealt with two sets of issues: culture, and role-of-government--both big "trust" issues in the South. Clinton was thoroughly progressive, but went well out of his way to make it clear that he wanted abortion to be "safe, legal and rare," that he supported a modest gay rights agenda because everyone who "worked hard and played by the rules" should be treated the same; and that he fought to maintain and even expand the social safety net on condition that it truly represented a "hand up, not a handout." Everyone in Washington laughed at Clinton's "micro-initiatives" on supporting the family--V-chips, school uniforms, youth curfews, etc,--but they sent big messages in the culturally-sensitive South. And in general, Clinton's whole '96 message was that he was willing to reign in government's excesses, while fighting to defend its essentials--the famous M2E2 (Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment).Compare that message to Gore's, and you go a long way towards understanding why the guy lost nearly half of Clinton's southern white support. Gore was forever bellowing about partial-birth abortion legislation (supported by about three-fourths of southerners) representing a dire threat to the basic right to choose. While Clinton called for "mending, not ending" affirmative action, Gore pledged to defend every aspect of affirmative action with his life. Clinton talked about balancing gun ownership rights with responsibilities. Gore talked about national licensing of gun owners. Clinton talked about making government "smarter, not bigger." Gore never mentioned his own role in the "reinventing government" initiative, and boasted an enormous policy agenda that added up to a message that he wanted to expand government as an end in itself.Moving forward four years, Kerry tried to avoid Gore's mistakes on specific cultural and role-of-government issues, but never talked about these themes more than occasionally, and never came across with any kind of authenticity in his efforts to project himself as a man of faith, a hunter, a government-reformer, or a family guy. While Gore got killed by his positioning and the lack of a compelling message, Kerry got killed by the lack of a compelling message and by those personal characteristics--distorted and exaggerated by GOP propaganda--that made him seem alien to southern voters. And without any question, the polarization of the entire election pushed southern moderates, like moderates elsewhere, to pick sides instinctively rather than think it all through.(At the risk of gnawing this question to death, I might add that Clinton in '96 was advancing an increasingly successful national policy agenda; Gore in '00 perversely ran a campaign that avoided references to that success; and Kerry, of course, had to campaign as a critic, not as an achiever).The downward trajectory of the southern Dem vote between '96 and '04 also reflected demographic trends which I discussed in my earlier answer to Armando--trends that may not help Republicans that much in the immediate future, as the aging pains of new suburbs and bad GOP governance create a natural backlash that Democrats can exploit if they are smart enough.Armando seizes on my commentary about southern suburban moderates as a Dem target to suggest that maybe the belief that "values voters" are the key to the South is wrong.Well, that depends on your definition of "values voters." If it means people who want to criminalize abortions, demonize gays and lesbians, or institutionalize evangelical Christianity, then no, suburban southerners don't generally fit that category, and I'd personally write them off as targets even if that were the case, on both practical and moral grounds.My own (and generally, the DLC's) definition of "values voters" is quite different. They are people who: (a) don't must trust politicians, and want to know they care about something larger than themselves, their party, and the interest groups that support them; (b) don't much trust government, and instinctively gravitate towards candidates who seem to care about the role that civic and religious institutions can play in public life; (c) don't much trust elites, whom they suspect do not and cannot commit themselves to any particular set of moral absolutes; (d) don't much like the general direction of contemporary culture (even if they are attracted to it as consumers), and want to know public officials treat that concern with respect and a limited agenda to do something about it; (e) are exquisitely sensitive about respect for particular values like patriotism, parenting and work; and (f) have a communitarian bent when it comes to cultural issues, and dislike those who view them strictly through the prism of the irresistable march towards absolute and universal individual rights without regard to social implications.By that definition, I think southern suburban moderates, and especially women in that demographic, are definitely "values voters." In answer to Armando's particular question about how suburban southerners would react to that wingnut in Kansas who wants to explore the sexual histories of women seeking abortions, I think the simple answer is that they would say: "Mind your own business, boy! Aren't there some criminals out there you ought to be chasing?"Somebody at Vanderbilt once wrote a book entitled "The South's Compulsive Need to Explain." In that spirit, I hope the debate over the region and its political future continues. Clearly, Earle and Merle Black need some real competition.

February 24, 2005

Southern Comfort

Over a month ago I did a long, complicated post on prospects for some sort of Democratic comeback in the South, and probably lost a lot of readers halfway through with a "three-wave" theory and a tangent on the need for two-way biracial coalitions (an ensuing exchange with Armando of DailyKos got even further down into the weeds).So thanks to Ruy Teixeira of Donkey Rising for doing a post yesterday that zeroed in on the biggest sign for Southern Democratic hope on the toughest landscape, the presidential level: a set of statistics I cited but buried in too much prose.

In 1996, Clinton split the southern vote, 46-46, with Bob Dole. One of the keys to his strong performance was this: he actually carried southern white moderates by 46-44.In 2004, however, Kerry got beaten by 15 points in the south (57-42). So where have all the southern white moderates gone?In a sense, nowhere. The ideological profile of the southern electorate has barely changed since 1996: it was 17 percent liberal/44 percent moderate/39 conserative then; it is 17 percent liberal/43 percent moderate/40 percent conservative now. And among whites, the ideological profile was 15 percent liberal/43 percent moderate/43 percent conservative in 1996; it is 14 percent liberal/41 percent moderate/45 percent conservative now.Not much change. But what has changed is a big swing from Clinton's 46-44 support among southern white moderates in '96 to Kerry's 58-41 deficit among the same voting group, whose size and electoral weight remains as potent as ever, in 2004.There's your target. Move southern white moderates back toward parity and the Democrats are back in the (southern) ballgame.

The odds of making serious gains among Southern white moderates--and also of cutting modestly into the massive GOP margins among conservatives--are even better in non-presidential-year state races, like those coming up in 2006. Already, two strong potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates in the Deep South are focused on winning by swaying suburban moderate voters. Alabama Lieutenant Governor Lucy Baxley could benefit from a cultural-issues split between backers of incumbent Governor Bob Riley and his likely primary opponent, Ten-Commandments-toting former Judge Roy Moore. And Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox cites her ability to win key Atlanta suburban counties in 2002 as a major credential in her bid to topple incumbent Gov. Sonny Perdue.Just goes to show: sometimes the regional stereotypes can be misleading. Given all the talk in national Dem circles about the need to appeal to NASCAR-obsessed, pickup-truck driving rural Bubbas, it would be especially rich to see two women take over state houses by winning suburban moderates.

February 22, 2005

Re-Redistricting Wars?

The word a couple of weeks ago was that DC GOPers were less than thrilled at CA Gov. Arnold Schwarzennegar's redistricting reform ballot initiative, on grounds that the current system nationally is helping keep Republicans in charge, and they'd just as soon leave things as they are.Well, the odds of letting sleeping dogs lie on this subject just went way down, as Republican legislators in my poor home state of Georgia started a re-redistricting of Congressional Districts aimed at zapping a couple of Democratic incumbents. Their model, of course, is the Great Texas Power Grab of 2003, the re-redistricting engineered by Tom DeLay which ultimately produced a net gain of five House seats for the GOP, reversing what would have otherwise been a loss of seats in 2004 (Republicans in Colorado tried the same stunt, but were overruled by the courts citing a state constitutional provision limiting redistricting to once a decade). But in a way, the Georgia gambit is worse. In Texas, the fig-leaf justifications for the Power Grab were that (a) the Dem majority in the House delegation did not reflect recent partisan results in statewide elections, and (b) the map they were throwing out was drawn by judges, not legislators. In Georgia, (a) the current 7-6 GOP advantage in House districts is a pretty fair reflection of recent election results, and (b) the map they are throwing out was duly drawn by the legislature, signed by the Governor, pre-cleared by the Bush Justice Department, and upheld by the courts. In other words, the Georgia Republicans are undertaking this outrage, well, because they can. The new GOPer map is apparently aimed at snuffing two white Democratic House members, Jim Marshall, who represents a central-west central GA district, and John Barrow, who just beat a Republican incumbent to represent the Athens-Augusta-Savannah district. They aren't going after the state's four African-American House Members (John Lewis, Cynthia McKinney, David Scott, and Sanford Bishop) because that would raise an unmistakable Voting Right Act issue. But in any event, the GA Power Grab may wind up biting the national GOP in the butt. News of the latest Power Grab led (according to the subscription-only Roll Call newspaper) House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer to put in a few phone calls to Democrats in the three states where their party has taken over total control of the executive and legislative branches since the regular redistricting cycle prior to 2002: Illinois, New Mexico, and Louisiana. Illinois is a potentially ripe target for a retaliatory re-redistricting, since GOPers hold nine seats, and because the new chairman of the DCCC, Rahm Emanuel, is from that state. Moreover, one of the Illinois Republicans who could find himself in sudden trouble is a guy named Dennis Hastert. Personally, I hate all this re-redistricting crap, and the whole system of partisan and incumbent-protection gerrymandering that has reduced the People's House of Congress to a vast rotten borough where politicians choose voters rather than the other way around. But if Republicans continue to game the system, they can't complain if Democrats retaliate where they can, and maybe the whole spectacle can build support for a truly national drive for comprehensive redistricting reform. Maybe those Georgia Republican jokers will smell the coffee and call off the dogs before their own party's House speaker finds himself hunted as well.

February 21, 2005

Wingnuts Say the Darndest Things

The blogosphere is abuzz today with commentary on the Swift Boat Veterans-style smear campaign underway against AARP for its temerity in opposing Bush's SocSec privatization plan (Jeez, what did you expect, GOPers? Anything else would be like Jerry Falwell suddenly embracing an "alternative lifestyle.").I followed Josh Marshall's link to the truly bizarre and disgusting ad placed by the perpetrators of this smear, USANext, on The American Spectator site, and then took a quick gander at Smear Central itself. It's not surprising that USANext is setting itself up as a Wingnut alternative to AARP, but still, I was a bit startled to see this pitch from none other than Art Linkletter:

Do you want more taxes taken out of your earnings? Do you want more unelected bureaucrats taking over more details of your life and your family’s life? Do you want federal regulators making your health choices, instead of you, your family, and your doctor? Do you want government regulators to control the investment and retirement decisions of your family, instead of you?If you answered “Yes,” then AARP is your group. They continuously work to create high taxes, big, invasive, bloated government, herds of regulators, and dependency of citizens on unelected bureaucrats.But if you answered “No,” USA Next is for you! Do you want lower taxes, more control over your life, health, and finances, with less government, and more constitutional restraints on judges and unelected bureaucrats? Then USA Next works and fights for you!
Now personally, I hope that if I make it to Linkletter's age (92) I'll be more focused on Getting Right with God than on Getting to the Right of Jimmy Dean Sausage. And I have a hard time believing he's really sitting around all day worrying about the growing threat posed by "unelected bureaucrats."But in any event, it's clear that USANext's goal is to drive down AARP's membership dues, in one of those classic "defund the (sic!) Left" manuevers that Rove and Norquist are so fond of. The ploy also owes a lot to the old Communist fundraising tactic of creating a vast network of ideologically-approved civic and political organizations and forcing party members and fellow travelers to pony up for the cause.I do wonder, though, if these guys are really willing to go toe-to-toe with AARP in the full range of membership services by, for example, negotiating discounted rates with hotel chains. I just don't know how many seniors out there are so devoted to the cause of screwing up their grandchildren's retirement security that they are willing to pay full rates at Day's Inn.

The Moderate Mirage

Speaking of Republicans and polls, I guess it's time to comment on the early raft of opinion surveys about the identity of George W. Bush's successor as GOP presidential nominee in 2008.As the latest Gallup Poll illustrates, every poll of Republican voters and leaners shows Rudy Guiliani and John McCain stomping the field (Gallup has Rudy at 33% and McCain at 30%, with Jeb Bush being the only other name that attracts double-digit support at 12%).Let me be among the first to say: it ain't going to happen. The Republican Party is not going to nominate a pro-choice, pro-gay rights candidate like Rudy, and it's not going to nominate a Scourge of the Conservative Movement like McCain, a man who has so consistently defied the Norquistian gospel that tax cuts trump every other national priority. If either of these gents runs for president and gains steam, the Right will unite behind someone else, either a safe ideological bet like Frist or Allen or Brownback (I don't think Santorum is going to be in the Senate after 2006), or someone a bit less conventional like Hagel or Pawlenty or even Condi Rice, if she's willing to take all sorts of oaths on cultural issues and taxes. Why? Because candidates like Guiliani and McCain would unravel the whole coalition of the cultural Right and the Mammon-worshippers on which today's GOP has been so painstakingly constructed. And that coalition certainly has enough power to take down anyone it chooses in a Republican nominating contest.There's another poll out there (reported via Jerome at Mydd) that's a bit closer to the underlying reality of where the GOP will go in 2008: a "straw poll" taken at the recent Conservative Political Action Committee conference, which asked respondents who they thought would become the eventual nominee (NOT which candidate they personally favored). In this one Guiliani is basically tied with Rice in the high teens, and McCain's down there tied with Frist and Allen at 11%.And that's nearly four years out, before the Right has had the chance to mull over its options and road-test a new champion.Sure, GOPers are more than happy to let Guiliani and McCain get a lot of early attention, using them to give the party a more moderate image. But when the deal goes down, these guys will be discarded like an old Lincoln Day speech, and we'll find out for real where the Right wants to take its wholly-owned subsidiary, the Republican Party.

George W. vs. George W.

Now here's another depressing little item for your Presidents' Day reading. As Steve Clemons reported last week, the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College of Maryland did a poll asking Americans how they'd vote in a hypothetical matchup of George Washington, and George W. Bush. While the Father of Our Country managed to crush W. by 20 points among all respondents, Bush won a 62-28 landslide among self-identified Republicans.Lord have mercy. I can understand how today's Republicans have a healthy appreciation for Bush's (or more accurately, Karl Rove's) political skills. And I can even understand how a lot of people who aren't that crazy about Bush decided to vote for him last year because they didn't want a change of leadership or didn't like (or didn't understand) John Kerry. But Jesus, Mary and Joseph, how could anybody prefer Bush to George Washington? To be sure, the poll indicated that many Americans don't know much about George Washington beyond the cherry tree and wooden teeth myths, and it's abundantly clear that many Americans don't know much about Bush's actual record. But still, it's a sign that the Busholatry of today's Republicans has gotten really out of hand. Depending on what happens during Bush's second term, he is almost certain to go down in history as a president comparable to William McKinley at best (the symbol and vehicle for a political realignment he did little or nothing to cause) or Warren G. Harding at worst (the amiable front-man for a feeding frenzy of corruption and national irresponsibility). He clearly doesn't belong in any comparison with George Washington, and millions of Republicans must be drunk on their own koolaid to think otherwise.

The Strange and Terrible Saga Ends

This morning brings the sad news that Hunter S. Thompson, the sage of Gonzo Journalism, has died at 67, of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Woody Creek, Colorado.I never had the chance to meet Thompson, and haven't paid much attention to his writings since the early 1980s, but at his peak, he was without peer as a improvisational writer on subjects ranging from politics to drugs to pro football, to--well, to nearly every subject touching on his tortured vision of the American Dream. Any blogger who hasn't read Thompson is arguably missing the originator of the medium's distinctive style, long before the internet. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, his brilliant account of the 1972 presidential campaign, reads a lot more like a long series of blog posts than any kind of print journalism report. And all his earlier books, from Hell's Angels through The Curse of Lono, are worth reading and re-reading.Thompson's career also represents a cautionary tale about the cost of celebrity--a celebrity he seemed to endure rather than pursue. At one point Thompson was planning another Fear and Loathing book about the 1976 presidential campaign, but abandoned it, because, as he told an interviewer: "It's hard to cover a campaign as an Outlaw Journalist when you're getting more attention than the candidates.... I can thank friend Trudeau for that." He was referring, of course, to the Uncle Duke character in Doonesbury, based not-so-loosely on Thompson, which destroyed any sort of casual privacy for its model once and for all. And that's also probably why Thompson's later writings seemed often to read like self-parody.But his genius is without question, and in the welter of drugs and gunplay and sexual assault charges that appear to have marked his declining years, I can only hope he never lost his touching, almost naive faith in the possibilities of America "as a monument to the human race's best instincts"--a faith that fueled his rage at the "greedheads" who betrayed those possibilities.So: here's to Doctor Gonzo's memory, and I guess the only proper way of commemorating his passing is to hunker down somewhere, light up a King Marlboro, shrewdly rip the pop tops off a six-pack of beer, and read his remarkable prose.

February 20, 2005

George and Vlad

George W. Bush's upcoming summit with his soul-buddy Vladimir Putin is a serious test of just about every strategic claim of the Bush administration.During the late campaign, both Bush and his running-mate Dick Cheney suddenly showed interest in the "loose nukes" issue, suggesting that terrorist access to nuclear materials was the biggest single threat to our national security. Yet there is no real evidence that Bush has ever made this a major issue in his discussions with Putin, despite the former Soviet Union's unequalled status as the leaky valve in the world's system of preventing sale of nuclear materials to anybody with the cash to buy them.Similarly, Russia's headlong plunge towards quasi-fascism is a rather conspicuous challenge to Bush's claim that America is spreading freedom and democracy into every corner of the globe. Will Bush make either of these issues--one of immediate, urgent importance to our national security, the other of long-term importance--a really big, visible deal in his discussions with Putin? Or will he settle for the usual symbolic gestures that signify no real commitments from Moscow? We'll soon see if the Cowboy President who's allegedly afraid of no one is willing to stand up to this challenge, or will again show he's a virtual gunslinger who's afraid to take risks that don't excite the viewers of Fox News.

February 19, 2005

The Future of Liberalism

The New Republic's latest issue includes a provocative package of essays on the future of liberalism as part of a 90-year anniversary of that magazine's founding--an issue that notes the term was basically invented in its American context by TNR itself.It's all worth reading. E.J. Dionne argues that liberals have erred in conceding religious language and religious constituencies to the GOP, part of the reason the robber barons of the Bush-Rove-DeLay ascendancy have gotten away with casting themselves as moral traditionalists. Martin Peretz offers a dyspeptic and occasionally annoying but fundamentally accurate take on the intellectual emptiness of today's American Left (bloggers take note: definining yourself by savage partisanship doesn't really mean "standing up for your principles" unless you articulate them). The always-interesting John Judis suggests that the shifting dynamics of the U.S. and global economies have placed liberals on a permanent defensive when it comes to economic policy.But for my money, the most instructive piece in the package is Jonathan Chait's analysis of the asymmetrical war being waged by conservatives who have an ideological template for every policy they pursue, regardless of the context, the evidence, or the results; and liberals who are focused on real-life results as the end and are flexible as to the means for getting those results.Chait's discourse strongly confirms the New Democrat argument that American Progressivism has always involved fixed, result-oriented ends and flexible, experimental means. By that definition, all the great icons of American Liberalism, from Wilson to FDR to JFK, LBJ, and MLK, anticipated less orthodox figures like Carter and Clinton in challenging the idea that every "liberal" program or policy had to be defended as a matter of principle. But Chait also challenges liberals of every variety to understand that their principled willingness to act as members of the "reality-based community" creates a tactical disadvantage in competing with conservatives whose policies are based on ideological certainties that are immune to actual experience or results.And that, I submit, is an important question in today's debate within the Democratic Party about how to deal with the purely ideological politics of George W. Bush and the Republican Party. Today there's a strong sentiment, especially in the blogosphere, that we must closely emulate the conservative movement, and become as cynical, as fact-free, and as rigid as the opposition if we want to beat them. For a variety of reasons, including the superior appeal in the "reality-free community" of policies that offer free lunches domestically and a search-and-destroy missions internationally, I think that's a losing proposition, and an unprincipled position, for Democrats. We need to raise our game and appeal to our best instincts, and the best instincts of the American people.

February 18, 2005

The Man Who Would Be Lieutenant Governor

As my colleague The Moose reported earlier today, Ralph Reed gave Georgia Democrats something to get excited about by officially announcing his candidacy for Lieutenant Governor in 2006. This race, folks, will be more fun than a barrel of monkeys at a creationism conference.Why, you might ask, is the Lordly Ralph, the legendary architect of Christian Right politics and more recently the extremely successful Georgia GOP chairman and Bush-Cheney strategist, so interested in presiding over the Georgia State Senate? In an earlier post, I suggested that he may be the victim of the Raquel Welch Syndrome, the natural if often hopeless desire to become respected as a serious practitioner of one's chosen art, whether it's acting or governing. But I've since learned that Reed has harbored a burning ambition since childhood to serve as Chief Executive of the Empire State of the South, and views the LG job as a stepping stone to that Seat of Power, a necessity since one of his political makeover projects, Governor Sonny Perdue, is running for re-election in '06.But first Ralph must overcome a primary challenge from another guy who's been seeing a future Governor in the bathroom mirror since he became old enough to reach the sink, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, the scion of a well-known political family who's been elected statewide three times. The first published polls show Oxendine with a healthy lead over Reed. And he will not readily concede Christian Right support to Ralph: in his first race for Insurance Commissioner back in 1994, Oxendine's big proposal was to exempt churches from paying some state tax on insurance policies, arguing that he didn't want to "tax God" (you just can't make this stuff up).But I suspect that Oxendine's campaign against Reed will be, to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, "like sending out a three-toed sloth to take turf from a wolverine." With all due respect to the Insurance Commissioner, he's not exactly a Big Strategic Thinker. In fact, he'd probably draw even odds in a game of State Capitals with Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, the guy who's besmirching my surname in his campaign for governor this year.Should Reed dispatch Oxendine, the real fun will begin. Former state legislator Greg Hecht, who ran a respectable but losing campaign for Congress in 2002, has already announced for the Democratic nomination. But the buzz is that Hecht will likely face one of my favorite politicians, Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond. Thurmond is a smart, charming, funny, and accomplished African-American with a proven track record of biracial appeal (he used to joke that he did particularly well in heavily-white counties bordering South Carolina where they thought he was Strom Thurmond's grandson).If Reed is the GOPer in the race, the Democratic nominee, whoever it is, will have no trouble raising money in-state and nationally, and will need no more than fifteen minutes to compile an oppo-research file so toxic that they'll have to handle it with tongs. Indeed, Oxendine aside, the biggest obstacle to a Reed candidacy may be the possibility that Ralph will have to take crucial time off the campaign trail to cool his heels in various courtrooms and congressional hearing-rooms preparing to explain his alleged role in the ever-widening Abramoff Indian Tribe Casino Shakedown scandal, a truly bizarre tale of corruption and hypocrisy that is likely to tranfix the whole hep political world at some point this year. I'm not the only one who's looking forward to the moment when Reed has to testify before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee chaired by Sen. John McCain, the object of the famous 2000 South Carolina primary smear-and-whispering campaign by Bush operatives, reportedly under the direction of one Ralph Reed.If that's not enough intrigue to keep you bookmarking that Atlanta Journal-Constitution web page (or checking out Reed's exceptionally cheesy campaign site), there's additional irony in Ralph's aspiration to become Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. In between his better-known gigs with the Christian Coalition, the 2002 Georgia coordinated campaign, and the two Bush campaigns, Ralph tried his hand at being a down-home paid political consultant. In 1998, he was the key strategist for a Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor named Mitch Scandalakis, who ran a series of ads that (a) made an overt racial appeal, and (b) accused his opponent, Mark Taylor, of a completely fabricated cocaine addiction. Not only did Ralph's candidate get righteously stomped like a Klansman at a Hip-Hop club; the backlash against his tactics took down most of the whole state Republican ticket.If that's not enough irony for you, there's this: when Ralph's Republican buddies took over the state Senate in 2003, they stripped the Lieutenant Governor's Office--occupied by the self-same smear target Mark Taylor--of most of its considerable powers. If Ralph somehow wins, he will have to go back to those same senators (assuming his party hangs onto control) and explain why he needs to lord it over them with powers denied to his predecessor.All in all, it's going to be a wild ride.

February 17, 2005

Getting Serious About Election Reform

Today Senators Clinton, Boxer and Kerry, along with Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, held a press conference to unveil an ambitious and very comprehensive election reform proposal, which they want enacted in time for the 2006 mid-term balloting. Thank God they moved quickly on this idea, instead of letting the memories of a second straight presidential election nearly winding up in the courts fade.The proposal itself is pretty far-reaching, including (1) making Election Day a federal holiday, (2) creating uniform rules for handling of provisional ballots, (3) requiring early voting opportunities, along with no-questions-asked absentee balloting, (4) boosting training for poll workers, (5) criminalizing voter intimidation tactics, (6) restoring voting rights for former felons, (7) requiring paper receipts for electronic voting machines, and (8) providing the federal funds to make sure this reform isn't as shoddily impemented as its predecessor, the Help America Vote Act.The only quibble I have about the specifics of the proposal is that the sponsors should make sure to provide some leeway from the more prescriptive features of the bill for states with an exemplary record of fair and voter-friendly election administration. I'm thinking of Oregon, whose excellent administration of an all-mail-ballot system has produced remarkable voter turnout levels with virtually no complaints. And I'm also thinking of my home state of Georgia, where Secretary of State Cathy Cox (who may well be the Democratic candidate for governor in '06) has done the best possible job of implementing a statewide touch-screen system. Yeah, I know, Diebold Conspiracy theorists don't like that, but as Sam Rosenfeld recently explained in The American Prospect, Georgians seem to love the new system, and there have been no allegations of fraud or other irregularities there.The Diebold reference leads me to another point about election reform: Democrats need to go to considerable lengths to establish that this issue is not just about Democratic complaints concerning the outcome of the last two presidential elections, and that supporting election reform does not mean endorsing the views of those who believe the whole system has been completely rigged. Why? Because unlike a lot of Democratic proposals these days, this is one that we actually need to get enacted into law, because it will materially improve our chances of winning elections. And given the broad popularity of most of the election reforms contained in the new proposal, there is actually a fair chance that some if not most Republicans can be coerced, shamed or otherwise stampeded into going along. We definitely need to give it a shot, and keeping the message of election reform on a higher, nonpartisan, "good government" plane is essential to that task. If it doesn't work, then fine, we can go after the GOP hammer-and-tongs at that point.Beyond that, I hope Democrats who embrace election reform are willing to link this issue to a broader political reform agenda: redistricting reform, lobbying reform, corporate subsidy reform, budget reform, ethics reform, and a recommitment to campaign finance reform. The current system ain't benefitting Democrats, and ain't benefitting the country, so we should throw caution to the wind and make it definitively clear that there's little about the current system we are not willing to take a serious look at and, if appropriate, change.So: I enthusiastically applaud the sponsors of the Count Every Vote Act as trailblazers in what we can only hope will be a whole new theme in Democratic politics from Washington to every state and city. And I hope those bloggers who like to call themselves "Reform Democrats" will get specific about what that means and weigh in with what JFK used to call "great vigor."

February 16, 2005

Pro-Life Pragmatists and Ideologues

Both TNR's Noam Scheiber and Political Animal's Kevin Drum called attention today to a New York Times report that Carol Tobias of the National Right to Life Foundation had firmly rejected Hillary Clinton's invitation to find "common ground" in an effort to reduce unwanted pregnancies. Noam suggested Tobias' position reflected an unwillingness to admit that the Right to Life movement is only interested in celibacy-based approaches to reducing unwanted pregnancies, while Kevin's take is that it reflected the Right's determination to keep the culture wars alive instead of actually getting something done. They're both probably at least half-right, but there's something a little more basic going on here. While Clinton talked about sex education and abstinence training, the main thrust of her proposal was to encourage birth control, including "emergency" contraception, i.e., the morning-after pill. The Right-to-Life Movement dare not go there, for two reasons: (1) many anti-abortionists oppose "artificial" (anything other than the ol' rhythm method) contraception; and (2) even those anti-abortionists who support birth control--or who view it as vastly less horrifying than abortion--often embrace a very narrow definition of "contraception."This second point is familiar to habitues of abortion politics, but perhaps not to everybody else. Part of the full-human-life-begins-at-conception point of view is typically that "conception" occurs at the moment when an ovum is fertilized. Anything that deliberately interferes with live birth after that instant is an "abortion." Thus, most really hard-core right-to-lifers believe that birth control methods (including not only morning-after pills but IUDs) that in part or in full rely on preventing implantation of the fertilized ovum in the uterine wall are not "contraceptives," but "abortifacients" that are morally indistinguishable from a late-term abortion or, for that matter, infanticide. Never mind that this kind of "abortion" occurs naturally in a very high percentage of proto-pregnancies; ideology is ideology.Now: of the 40-45 percent of Americans who routinely identify themselves as "pro-life," how many do you think share this rather eccentric view of the line between "contraception" and "abortion?" Not that many, I imagine. And that's why Clinton's proposal, if it is repeated often by other pro-choice Americans, really could drive a big wedge between pro-life pragmatists and ideologues. Indeed, it's a classic example of how to completely revolutionize the politics of a cultural issue without abandoning progressive principles: it simultaneously refutes the conservative-fed perception that Democrats enthusiastically celebrate every single abortion, regardless of the circumstances, and exposes the extremism of those on the other side who pretend to just worry about a small category of repulsive-sounding procedures. And for that reason, Hillary Clinton has just given us all a textbook case of what it really means to "seize the center": it does not mean "moving to the right," it means moving to higher and stronger ground.

February 15, 2005

Death To the "Death Tax" Repeal

My colleague The Moose did a post this morning playing off fresh charges by the former deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives that the administration took the whole faith-based project about as seriously as, well, "compassionate conservatism" in general.But nestled in the post was another subject on which The Moose and I share a healthy obsession: the scheduled demise of the federal estate tax, a.k.a, in Republican-speak, the "death tax."The Moose specifically proposed reinstating a reformed version of the estate tax and dedicating the money to a real faith-based initiative. But aside from that particular idea, I think Democrats, as a matter of basic principle, ought to single out the estate tax repeal as a Bush/GOP outrage that must not be allowed to stand.This happens to be one issue where the standard lefty critique of centrist Democrats has some merit. At some point during the 1990s, the GOPers did some focus groups and discovered that sizeable majorities of voters didn't like the idea of family farmers and small business owners getting hit with high-rate federal inheritance taxes when they were struggling to keep the farm or business in the family for the next generation. They also discovered that calling the inheritance tax a "death tax" pushed even more buttons. Nothing excites Republicans more than finding an issue where they can simultaneously win votes and richly reward their richest constituencies. So not suprisingly, abolishing the "death tax" became a standard feature of GOP tax proposals in the Age of Newt, bearing poisonous fruit when Bush took office amidst spectacular budget surpluses and got the chance to cut taxes.A goodly number of Democrats--especially those from marginal and/or rural districts--saw those polls and just flat-out caved (for the record, the DLC never did so, and in fact made the "death tax repeal" an object of particular hostility and derision). In fact, other than the so-called "marriage penalty" adjustment, repeal of federal inheritance taxes probably got more Democratic support in Congress than any other feature of the Bush tax package. That was then. This is now. And now Democrats should seriously consider making opposition to a permanent "death tax repeal" a signature issue. Why? Well, for one thing, repealing inheritance taxes strikes at the very heart of a long--and until recently, bipartisan--American tradition of progressive taxation in which the burden of self-government falls on wealth as well as work. (As The Moose often points out, Teddy Roosevelt was the father of the federal estate tax). There are three ways to get very, very rich. One is to earn it with actual work (a rare but not impossible feat). A second is to earn it through investment income. And a third is to inherit it. (A fourth, I suppose, is to marry it, perhaps more than once, but we're not talking about Sen. John Warner here). A broad-based tax system should not mysteriously exempt the third source of enormous wealth, especially since it is the one that rewards birth-status rather than effort or initiative or good judgment, and that serves virtually no economic purpose. Moreover, truly dangerous and immoral concentrations of wealth often take generations to accumulate, with inheritances serving as the crucial link between economically rational and irrational--indeed, anti-competitive--consolidations of market power. To put it another way, accepting the abolition of inheritance taxes makes any consistent and progressive fiscal philosophy incoherent. We're gonna tax high earners and small investors, but not big fat trust fund babies? Oh, really? Aside from the principles involved, I am convinced Democrats can turn public opinion around on the estate tax. The extremist abolitionism of the GOP on this issue makes it easy for Democrats to be reasonable, in a way that's far more difficult in the complicated world of marginal rates on income. For years, most Democrats have supported a reform of the federal estate tax that would raise the threshold for applying it high enough to exempt virtually every legitimate small family farm or small business, and perhaps even lower the rates, which are significantly higher than for corporate or personal incomes. That would essentially return the estate tax to a simple, progressive purpuse: a tax on the inheritence of very large personal fortunes--a "billionaire's tax," to demagogue it just a little, in the spirit of "death tax." Let the GOPers defend that, for a change. Pivoting public opinion on inheritence taxes will require the kind of sustained, loud Democratic attention that is currently being paid to Social Security privatization. But it's worth it, both morally and politically. Repealing the estate tax is a central pillar of the GOP's plan to eventually shift the federal tax base entirely from wealth to work, with the goal of not only "starving the beast" of government, but of turning heavily taxed people of modest means into anti-tax zealots while solidifying the Republican Party's iron pact with the most privileged and powerful economic interests in the country. So: if and when the Beast of Bush's SocSec proposal is slain or at least firmly caged, I nominate "death to the death tax repeal" as a Big Fight worth having, and winning.

February 14, 2005

Bush Defends His Medi-Mess

We all know George W. Bush doesn't like to admit mistakes, preferring to flip-flop without acknowledging it when mistakes become unsustainable. And we also know that he has gone longer without vetoing a congressional bill than any president in living memory--rarely even rattling a veto pen as a threat.So what to make of his sudden announcement late last week that he would veto any effort to change the 2003 Medicare Rx drug bill that's become an ongoing source of embarassment to the administration, and a potential multi-facted disaster in the future?It's hard to find a recent domestic policy initiative that was born in such a series of Keystone Kops capers. The administration's claims that the benefit would cost a mere $400 billion over five years--a number that only passed the laugh test because the benefit's implementation was deliberately delayed until 2006--was widely disputed at the time. The House, famously, had to keep the roll call open for, oh, about fifteen times the normal period in order to get the votes to pass it, and succeeded, famously, only after a series of thuggish threats and blanishments, one of which earned Tom DeLay one of his three reprimands from the Ethics Committee last year.Meanwhile, as GOPers high-fived themselves for coming up with an approach to a hot-button issue that would stoke up health care industry donations while making seniors feel all warm and cuddly inside, the ink was barely dry before it became apparent old folks didn't much like it. Even the easy part--accepting a drug discount card--wasn't popular, even though millions of Medicare beneficiaries were signed up automatically. And as we get closer to the implementation of the full Rx drug program, with its steep premiums, skimpy coverage, and wildly complicated structure, it isn't likely to become the biggest senior sensation since Viagra (even if Viagra is, as reported, covered by the benefit).I mention all this to provide the proper perspective for Bush's banty rooster crowing about his brave stance in defense of his Medi-Mess."I signed Medicare reform proudly and any attempt to limit the choices of our seniors and to take away their prescription drug coverage under Medicare will meet my veto," quoth he, calling the Rx drug benefit "a landmark achievement in American health care."It was a landmark, all right, but not one of achievement, but of obfuscation and deliberate efforts to mislead the country in the dogged pursuit of power.

February 13, 2005

Big, Fat Government That Hardly Does Anything

Sheryl Gay Stolberg's feature-length raspberry mocking the small-government pretensions of the GOP in today's New York Times doesn't blaze any new paths, but it's fun reading anyway, full of quotes from past and present Republican "revolutionaries" deploring the party's current addiction to raw red ink, straight up. My colleague The Moose, who was present at the creation of the Republican Revolution of 1995, gets off the best line: "The era of big government being over is over." But there's a sober point here that shouldn't be forgotten. A big, fat federal government that tries to do too much is arguably a bad thing. But a big, fat federal government that fails to meet all the big national challenges, and hardly does anything well, is far, far worse. And the trajectory of Washington in the Age of Bush is the worst possibility of all: a big, fat government that hardly does anything other than paying off debt and serving the interests of the nation's wealthiest and most powerful citizens.

February 11, 2005

Expanding the Base

Well, I thought there was a fairly strong consensus among Democrats that the 2004 elections showed we have to expand, as well as "energize" our party base. But now comes Chris Bowers on the MyDD site with the news that the University of Michigan's National Election Project study of the 2004 results "proves" there are no swing voters, and winning in the future is all about increasing polarization and mobilizing the Democratic base. Now, before wading into this issue, let me stipulate total agreement with Chris on how we ought to talk with each other about it. He says it's a matter of strategy, not ideology. Personally, if I could be convinced that the best way to drive today's Republicans from their ruinous power is to polarize Democrats as much as Republicans, I'd be out there on the barricades right away. It's sure as hell a simpler strategy than coming up with a policy agenda and message that actually meets the challenges facing the nation, and mobilization is always easier than persuasion. So I'm down with that. But I've seen no real evidence Chris is right on the strategic front.I don't know if Chris is actually looking at the NEP data (maybe, like me, he's still trying to figure out how to access it intelligibly), but his announcement that "there's no middle" in U.S. politics seems to rely on a very selective interpretation of the initial take on the study by David Kopoian on Ruy Teixeira's Donkey Rising site, zeroing in on Bush's remarkable support levels from Republicans, and Kerry's strong but less-impressive support levels from Democrats. As Greg Wythe quickly pointed out, Chris sorta kinda ignores independents, who are a sizable bloc of the electorate (how large depends, of course, on your definition of that term), and creates a straw man wherein the "search for the mythical middle" is all about crossover voting from self-identified partisans. There's no question that the parties have been ideologically realigned in recent decades, and that largely explains why the "crossover" vote has dropped. But it's a logical fallacy of a very high order to go from that observation to a claim that promoting even more ideological polarization will somehow magically produce the Democratic majorities needed to win elections, which is what Chris seems to be saying. Let's remember that the percentage of the electorate self-identifying with the Donkey has been slowly and steadily eroding, most notably since 2000. You can make an argument (folks on the Left have been making it for years) that the voters leaving the party are doing so because it is insufficiently Left-leaning in policy, or partisan in strategy and tactics. But it's hardly self-evident, and in important respects is counter-intuitive.On that score, you should take a look at a small but remarkable John Judis piece in the current New Republic. John is not what you'd call a "centrist" in ideology or outlook, and has specifically spent a lot of time trying to show that large demographic trends are creating a strong tailwind for Democrats, whose "base" is expanding almost automatically. This point of view, of course, is very consistent with Chris Bowers' idea that we just have to get out there and harvest these voters with a powerful partisan message. But Judis' latest piece, based largely on a series of discussions with a leading Hispanic organizer in the Southwest, suggests that this particular element of the supposed Democratic "base" is in grave danger, in part because Republicans know how to do "deep organizing" rather than campaign- or Internet-based "parachuting," but also because the GOP is winning the cultural argument among a growing number of Hispanic voters. He doesn't quite put it this way, but Judis suggests that our problem in this community is not easily attributable to the failure of Democrats to advocate, say, a single-payer health care system, or to more stridently oppose Bush's national security policies. But the other point Judis is implicitly making is that our ideas about "base" and "swing" voters are often way out of whack with reality. Ask ten Democrats about our party base, and nine of them will start talking about Hispanics and African-Americans and labor union members and anti-war activists and professional women, and so forth. Karl Rove doesn't think like that. He views Hispanics as a "swing" group because he knows Republicans simply need to cut into Democratic majorities in that category to win close general elections. He views African-Americans as a "swing" group as well, not because half of them are "undecided" in any given election, but because getting 16 percent of the black vote in Ohio, in part through a carefully targeted cultural message, may have won Bush re-election. "Swing" voters are individuals, whatever group they are in, who are persuadable. And we're nuts if we don't take the opportunity to persuade them seriously. Had John Kerry done as well as Al Gore--much less Bill Clinton--in Republican "base" areas outside the metro cores of the country, we wouldn't be having this discussion. It's all about votes, every goddamn one of them, not about groups we "mobilize" or write off. We really do need to end the false choice between "mobilization" and "persuasion" and get on the with job of doing both.

February 10, 2005

Celebrity Search Update Update

Nine seconds after I published the last post touting Bob Dylan for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota, a colleague informed me that his candidacy might be impeded by "these really creepy ads he's doing for Victoria's Secret." That's what I get for never watching television. So here's my last suggestion, unless it's not: the Coen Brothers. Interest in the candidacy could be significantly enhanced by a party-wide debate over which Coen Brother should run: Ethan or Joel? Joel or Ethan? You betcha and darn tootin.' And BTW, who knew how many Jewish celebrities seem to have grown up in Minnesota? I mean, what's the Jewish percentage of the population up there, maybe one-fourth of one percent? Next thing you know, somebody's going to email me to let me know the Marx Brothers were actually born in Sauk Center, or that Sandy Koufax went to St. Olaf's. UPDATE ON THE UPDATE UPDATE: No, I haven't been informed of any heretofore unrecognized Minnesota Jewish Celebrities, but regular correspondent Russell King, bless his soul, did some research: the Jewish percentage of the Gopher State population is 0.9 percent--higher than I guessed, but still not enough to support more than one or two world-class delicatessens, I suspect. But Russell, who hails from the Cheesehead State of Wisconsin, went on to point out that the Jewish percentage of the population there is even lower: 0.5 percent. Yet Wisconsin boasts not one but two fine Jewish Democratic U.S. Senators. I guess it's time to say to the Jewish community of the upper Midwest: Mazel Tov!

Celebrity Search Update

A remarkable number of kind readers have emailed me in response to my last post, to let me know that Kirby Puckett may have, er, ah, some personal issues that would make him a less than ideal candidate to beef up the Democratic "family values" message. (It's interesting: I did a long post the same day wishing Howard Dean good luck at the DNC, which you might think would raise an eyebrow or two, and absolutely nobody noticed. But a joking reference to a celebrity or two really lit up the boards. Maybe I should get to work on post exploring the relevance of Prince Charles' engagement to the Social Security battle). In any event, I thought Al Franken's expected announcement that he would run for Mark Dayton's Senate seat meant I could suspend my "draft a celebrity" search. But now it appears he was just joking. So now maybe it's time to think about Minnesota native Bob Dylan. There should definitely be a place in Washington for the author of "Idiot Wind."

February 9, 2005

No Purple Reign

Just when I was getting all excited about launching a "Put a Prince in the Senate" boomlet in MN, an alert reader named Aaron Brethorst reminded me that His Royal Badness (the proper appelation for the Artist Once Formerly Known As Prince) is a Jehovah's Witness. Among that sect's peculiar beliefs is a fidelity to the Radical Reformation tradition of refusing to hold public office. (And for those of you who just think of Jehovah's Witnesses as the strange folks who press copies of Watchtower on you as you race towards your next appointment, they suffered brutal persecution by the Nazis for their defiance of secular authority). In any event, this deflating news was an appropriate rebuke for my hubristic dabbling in recent popular music culture. I can cite rock lyrics from the Beatles through Roxy Music and New Wave and up to early Punk with encyclopedic recall. And in part due to my parental responsibilities, I've tried to make a Rock Snob comeback with casual mastery of the oeuvres of White Stripes and Sleater-Kinney (both of whom I genuinely like), and have even risked narcolepsy by spending a lot of time in the company of Radiohead and Wilco. But the 80s and early 90s found me listening to NPR more than college radio; I'd rather watch paint peeling than music videos (which to me represent the final victory of the basic this-ain't-about-the-music ethos of Disco); and thus, I am uniquely ill-equipped to promote Rock Gods of that era for public office. But as another reader suggested: maybe we should find out if Kirby Puckett is a Democrat!

Party Like It's 2006?

With the news that Sen. Mark Dayton has decided against running for another term next year, Dems are worried about holding this must-hold seat, and beginning to mull over other potential candidates. So let's consider the ideal candidate profile: a Minnesotan with high name ID, smarts, charisma, a good work ethic, appeal across party lines and outside political circles, and enough dough to self-finance a lavish race. Put it in the computer and you've got: that's right, His Purple Badness, Prince! Wonder where he is on Social Security? Josh Marshall, call your office.

Comparative Book-Cooking

The Bush administration is conducting quite a tutorial this week in the dark art of cooking the fiscal books. First, you've got the by-now-customary virtuosity with which the Bushies deal with the costs of their tax cuts. Back in '01, of course, they sold their tax cut package as only costing a little over a trillion smackers by pretending the cuts would expire. Then, suddenly, they treated any suggestion that the cuts would indeed expire as a call for "tax increases," and also narrowed the budget window so that the visible cost of permanent tax cuts would be vastly lowballed as well. The latest wrinkle in this game is the administration's proposal that budget rules be changed to estimate the cost of extending or making permanent any and all tax cuts as zero. Quite a sequence, eh? Distort the cost, then minimize it, then officially abolish it. The definitive piece the DLC published opposing Bush's original tax cuts was entitled "The Emperor's New Clothes," and that's turned out to be a more prophetic title than we imagined. Now, with the Medicare Rx drug benefit the administration pushed through Congress in 2003, the Bushies couldn't play exactly the same kind of game. I mean, what's the point of announcing a new entitlement program if you're going to pretend it's only an entitlement for a few years? To be sure, the administration and its congressional allies messed around with the phase-in of the new benefit to hide the true costs. By delaying the full implementation until 2006, they were able to squint sideways at the benefit and claim it just might squeak by at a ten-year cost of under $400 billion, which is all the congressional budget guidelines allowed. And moreover, they hoped to build support for the benefit by putting the easy candy up front--a cost-free drug discount card--hoping seniors would buy into the program before they had to deal with the convoluted, expensive, yet disappointingly stingy premium and coverage system involved in the whole enchilada. Nobody really believed the original numbers, though the administration went to great lengths to hide internal estimates showing the true cost ballooning like a carbo-loading refugee from an Atkins clinic. This week, almost casually, the administration let it be known that the true ten-year cost of the benefit will come in at a cool $1.2 trillion. If you believe their estimates of premium revenue and of "offsets" from seniors leaving Medicaid for the shiny new Medicare, hey, it's only $720 billion! Such a deal. The bottom line is that these folks are resourceful and absolutely shameless when it comes to cooking the fiscal books. And as Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois pointedly remarked at a congressional hearing yesterday: these are the same guys who want us to believe their 50-year Social Security cost and revenue estimates are right on the money. With this administration, what we need is not so much independent counsels, but independent accountants.

Chairman Dean

Now that Howard Dean is certain to be elected the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, I've been getting some emails asking me if I'm going to attack the guy and generally create a new excuse for people to ignore everything else I say. I'm amused that anybody thinks my opinion on this particular subject matters at all, but actually, I'm happy to congratulate the Doctor and wish him the best of luck in a tough, important, and often thankless job. Like supporters of John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, John Edwards, Wesley Clark, Dennis Kucinich, Joe Lieberman and Al Sharpton, I opposed Governor Dean's presidential candidacy. (For the record, I was a Kerry supporter from the beginning). Dean's candidacy for DNC chair has been a different matter. I did a post back in November wondering why he wanted the job. I also suggested that the DNC was pretty much an empty fortress where there wouldn't be any resistance to Dean-style ideas about netroots-based fundraising and organizing, or for that matter, a fighting partisan tone (out-Republican-bashing Terry McAuliffe would be a pretty tall order). And I continue to believe that those Deanies who think his chairmanship represents some sort of revolution are going to be disappointed by the warm welcome they will get over on South Capitol Street, where the only heads available to put on a pike will be those of the failed political consultants who have (I hope) received their last checks from the DNC. But none of that really matters. The Doctor's campaign for the party chairmanship focused on the need to broaden the party's financial base, tap the activist energy so evident in 2004, and rebuild threadbare state party infrastructures nationwide. And he has consistently said he won't engage in policy or ideological fights that will get in the way of that task, usurp the policy-making role of elected officials, or disturb party unity. So I sincerely wish him well. And I join those Democrats who are steeling themselves to fight against a definite and long-planned GOP effort to drag up and exaggerate every controversial thing Dean said last year to paint Democrats as a party lurching towards the left. I'm sure the Doctor knows he will be playing by a different set of rules than previous party chairs--you might call them Hillary Rules, insofar as every word out of his mouth will be distorted and exploited by the GOP to reinforce right-wing stereotypes. Like Sen. Clinton, he will have to measure his words far more than is rightly fair, and like Sen. Clinton, he might want to throw a few counter-stereotypical comments into his public utterances to surprise people and set the record straight. Above all, the changing of the guard at the DNC should be an occasion for Democrats to remind themselves they can walk and chew gum at the same time. Yes, we need an energized activist base, but we also need to expand that base into hostile or indifferent territory until we get a majority. Yes, we need more (and more broad-based) money and better mechanics, but we also need a winning message. And yes, we need to reform the party, but that won't matter if we don't stand as a party for reform ideas which address the weaknesses (above all on national security, values and culture, and the role of government) that unnecessarily keep voters from supporting our candidates--ideas which enable us to expose the inner rot of the Republican ascendancy. The DNC's unique role is to deal with activists, money, mechanics, and party reform, and Howard Dean brings a strong resume and considerable enthusiasm to those tasks. Expanding the base, developing a winning message, and articulating a progressive reform agenda--those are tasks in which all Democrats must participate, and where the main impetus must come far from South Capitol Street, out there in the heartland and its electoral battlegrounds.

February 8, 2005

Donkeys, Elephants, and Redistricting Reform

The other day I did a long, and probably over-complicated post on the Democratic case for redistricting reform, and observed that more and more Democrats seemed to be interested in making this a nationwide and party-wide agenda-item, instead of just a tactic to be pursued in a fewe states where Republicans have engineered particularly egregious partisan gerrymanders. Well, this movement from skeptical and conditional to strong and universal support for redistricting reform got a big boost today when the LA Times revealed that California Republicans, especially in the state's congressional delegation, are really honked off at Arnold for raising the very subject. Kevin Drum of Political Animal read the piece and recanted his earlier skepticism to redistricting reform on the spot. I generally don't like it when Democrats define themselves purely in terms of reacting to Republicans. But in this case, it's probably a healthy development. When a genuine political reform is on the table, and the status-quo GOP is opposing it, Democrats have no reason left for failing to get behind it.

The Barney Fife Budget

I can't add much to the DLC's take on Bush's budget, other than to underline the cynicism of the administration on this topic. You really get the sense that half of OMB was engaged in an effort to cook the books in the most extravagant way possible, while the other half scrounged around the files looking for every half-baked conservative "savings" idea that's emerged over the last thirty years. The product certainly hasn't fooled Democrats, hasn't fooled the financial community, and apparently hasn't fooled Hill Republicans, especially the small but noisy band of fiscal hawks to whom this budget was telegraphed as an early Valentine. But the unseriousness of this budget does raise a broader question that continues to bug the hell out of me: exactly how smart are the Bushies? John DiIulio memorably described the White House senior political staff as "Mayberry Machiavellis." But with stunts like the Social Security privatization drive, and now this budget, are we seeing the work of the buffoonish Barney Fife or the devious Nicolo? In a recent post on national security, Mark Schmitt warned Democrats not to fall into the delusion that they can beat Republicans with superior policy stances, because that's not how the White House plays the game. Big "policy battles," he suggested, will be won or lost on the basis of big, general themes. I understand where Mark is coming from (though in a postscript, he had second thoughts and suggested that he might have succumbed to "nihilistic despair"), but I would add another warning: by the very nature of things, Democrats will never be able to out-dumb Republicans, because their message is inherently so simple, while ours is not, precisely because we actually want to accomplish things in the real world through public-sector activism, which is, well, complicated. By the same token, we'll never be able to out-bribe the Republicans by countering their tax cuts with our popular spending initiatives, because in the end, a politics based on personal, selfish calculation will always undermine the sense of community that is the foundation of progressivism. If we can't out-dumb them or out-bribe them, our only real option is to out-smart them in a way that doesn't make us look like smart-asses, right? And that's also the principled way to deal with unserious and destructive Republican initiatives, whether they are craftily stupid or just plain stupid. That's the burden of being the "reality-based community." UPDATE: I somehow missed writing the obvious coda to this post: the immortal Derek Smalls quote from Spinal Tap: "There's a fine line between clever and stupid."

Split in the Palestinian "Rejectionist Front?"

Like most American observers, I tend to think of any apparent progress towards an Israeli-Palestinian settlement skeptically, on grounds that extremists have crucial political leverage on both sides. In particular, it has seemed apparent that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are only giving the new government of Abu Mazen running room so long as he can secure concessions from the Israelis and the U.S. without seriously impairing their own freedom of terrorist action. But maybe there's hope. Check out this piece by Joseph Braude just posted on the New Republic site. It suggests new and potentially important rifts in the "Rejectionist Front" that might ultimately separate Jihadists from their base of support.

February 7, 2005

VA GOP Attack on Church Property Defeated

Ash Wednesday is two days away, but for right-wing proto-schismatic Virginia Episcopalians and some of their allies in the GOP, the day of reflection and repentence came early, as the Virginia Senate shelved legislation designed to make it easier for parishes to leave the Episcopal and Methodist Churches while taking church property along with them into their fever swamps. Sen. William Mims (R-Loudon County) pulled the plug on his bill today, complaining all the while that it wasn't designed to do what it was designed to do. Word around my own church this Sunday was that Mims' initiative was being pushed by the powerful Truro Church in Fairfax, best known as the religio-political stomping grounds of Ollie North and (on occasion) Justice Clarence Thomas. Truro has been positioning itself to leave the Episcopal Church for some time, arguing, of course, that the Church has abandoned the selective scriptural literalism which, sadly, passes for the Law, the Gospel and Church Tradition in so many places today.

Redistricting Reset

Adam Nagourney of the New York Times did a broad-brush review today of the widespread interest in redistricting reform across the nation. The piece is especially useful because it (a) makes it clear this movement is not limited to Arnold Schwarzennegar's high-profile initiative in California; and (b) suggests this idea may be catching on in the way earlier electoral reform efforts like campaign finance reform and term limits did in years past. Since I am a big advocate of redistricting reform, I'd like to play off the Nagourney article to clarify a few points that have confused the debate on this subject to date: (1) Redistricting reform deals with two distinct but inter-related problems: (a) the increasingly alarming ability of U.S. House members to obtain non-competitive districts, which in turn reduces the percentage of districts "in play," reinforcing the majority's ability to retain power (while also increasing the partisan and ideological polarization of that chamber); and (b) the inherent conflict of interest involved in state legislative districts drawn by incumbents themselves. (2) There are two types of gerrymanders at issue: (a) partisan gerrymanders that maximize the ability of one party or another to harvest a disproportionate majority of seats in a given state; (b) incumbent-protection gerrymanders that simply eliminate competition. After the re-redistricting of 2003, Texas produced a classic pro-GOP partisan gerrymander; Florida and Pennsylvania produced similar results prior to 2002. Georgia prior to 2002 produced a (partially successful) pro-Democratic partisan gerrymander. Meanwhile, California engineered perhaps the most efficient incumbent- protection gerrymander in history prior to 2002, both in Congressional and state legislative seats, virtually outlawing marginal districts. (3) Two potentially parallel but quite different "reforms" under discussion are: (a) partially or completely removing the power to draw districts from partisan state legislators to "independent" commissions or the courts (the central thrust of the Schwarzennegar initiative, and a feature in many states' systems at present); and (b) establishing legal conditions for redistricting that either reduce partisanship as a legitimate factor, and/or elevate non-partisan factors like compactness, contiguity, community of interest, or even competitiveness itself (Iowa being the classic example). (4) Interest in redistricting reform ranges from "good-government" groups and citizen actvists who support it as a matter of principle and would apply it everywhere, and partisans who want to pursue it selectively in states where the other party has obtained a significant advantage in redistricting. A growing number of Democrats appear to be moving from the second group to the first on grounds that the current system is in danger of creating a potentially enduring Republican majority both in the U.S. House and among state legislators. (5) A complicating factor in the law and politics of redistricting is the Voting Rights Act, especially as applied by the Bush I Justice Department during the 1990s redistricting cycle, which required not only the maximum number of majority-minority districts in jurisdictions subject to the Act, but also the construction of prohibitively large majorities for minority candidates. This meant that Republican voters were spread more "efficiently" across district lines while Democrats were often concentrated in extravagantly safe seats. (6) There is something of an academic backlash against redistricting reform, best represented by a recent Emory University study that concluded redistricting was at most a minor factor, as compared with partisan polarization and the financial advantages of incumbents, in the decline in marginal U.S. House seats (indeed, this study was rather hastily cited by Ruy Teixeira as "proving" Democrats should not think of redistricting as a problem worth worrying about). A contrary view was presented by Gary Jacobson in an analysis of the 2002 House results. But even if redistricting is not necessarily the primary cause of the plague of safe seats, that in no way suggests it could not be the cure: voters are not neatly, geographically self-segregated into nearly 400 isolated communities characterized by partisan leanings. An Iowa-type system that places a premium on competitiveness could definitely break up the duopoly, especially in larger states. Sorting through all these issues, the bottom line is pretty clear, at least for me: * The current trend towards selection of voters by politicians is inherently anti-democratic, inherently polarizing, and inherently corrupting; and if Democrats want to be the "party of reform," we should embrace redistricting reform as a matter of principle. * To the extent that Republicans currently control the U.S. House, enjoy a more efficient distribution of voters, and hold, for the foreseeable future, a red state/blue state advantage, redistricting reform is good for "large D" Democrats as well as "small d" democracy. * If the arduous task of redistricting reform is undertaken, reformers should not stop at changing the identity of the map-drawers, but should push for positive laws that create a larger and more even battleground.

February 6, 2005

Looking For a Different "Super Bowl"

Much as I love college football, the pro game, and especially the insane spectacle of commercialism surrounding the Super Bowl, have always left me as cold as the Lambeau Field turf on which championships were once decided, back in my youth. I have, however, developed my own Super Sunday ritual: going shopping, especially at those stores where 95% of the normal clientele is guaranteed to be glued to the tube from 3:00 until 10:00. So I am off to Lowe's shortly to buy bathroom equipment for a small cottage next to our house that my family is slowly renovating. Amidst the vast and empty aisles, I hope to find a cheap but functional sink to buy, and if possible, a truly super price on a toilet bowl.

Farm Subsidies and Food Stamps

Aside from Medicaid, another low-income safety-net program that may be in the administration's sights is the food stamp program. Haven't heard about that? Well, take a look at the latest leak of soon-to-be-announced initiatives in the administration's proposed budget, an attack on large farm subsidies. The Bush budget will apparently include a "cap" on the maximum values of farm subsidies that any one producer can harvest, an idea that will (rightly) get some progressive support. But the proposal will run directly into already-announced opposition in Congress, especially from Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran of MS, who is mobilizing the powerful farm lobby to defeat it. And that's where food stamps come in: Congress organizes its budget and appropriations work by federal department, and by a department-oriented system of budget "functions" that track the jurisdiction of congressional appropriations subcommittees. If the White House and the GOP congressional leadership can succeed in setting lower targets for USDA spending, then farm subsidies will be placed into a direct competition with food stamps for funding. I obviously can't prove it, but it may well be that the administration is deliberately planning a two-cushion shot to go after food stamps while shifting the blame to Congress. This stupid budget allocation system, reinforced by the jurisdictional boundaries of congressional authorization and appropriations subcommittees, is why cutting federal spending is almost never a matter of broadly looking across spending categories and separating the sheep from the goats. Instead, it's zero-sum game in which Hill Barons are provided with some sort of Divine Right share of spending, and then asked to divvy it up among their "constituencies." If that means screwing food stamp recipients to protect farmers, so be it; that's a "USDA budget decision." And that's why Democrats should not only play chess rather than checkers in anticipating the likely impact of budget "proposals" that seem to be remote from their dearest priorities; they should also get behind serious budget reforms that end this kind of mindless tunnel-vision that prevents the establishment of real national priorities.

Watch Out for Medicaid

With all the attention being focused on Bush's Social Security privatization proposal, it's important for Democrats to keep an eye on a different entitlement program: Medicaid, where there are lots of signs the administration will soon pursue something equally radical. Making Medicaid something less than a federal guarantee of minimum, defined benefits has long been a conservative goal. Ronald Reagan's first budget proposal included a "cap" on federal Medicaid payments, which would have basically left the states holding the bag for cost and eligibility increases. It was the one big proposal in the 1981 Reagan budget that was defeated in Congress. But the Medicaid "cap" has continued to circulate on the back-burner of conservative thought ever since. There was a very interesting story in WaPo last week in which the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, Mike Leavitt, preemptively denied that Bush was about to renew the Medicaid "cap" idea. But in the fine print, Leavitt made it clear the foreswearance of a "cap" would only apply to federally mandatory Medicaid coverage, which excludes a whole array of important Medicaid services offered by most states, including prescription drugs, long-term care, and indeed, most services made available to elderly and disabled adults. Leavitt went on to cite state "gaming" of Medicaid to draw down federal funds, and alleged abuse by middle-class families who hide or shift resources in order to qualify for long-term care benefits, as a big part of the Medicaid cost spiral. But as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out in a Feburary 4 report, rising health care (including Rx drug) costs, families losing employer-based coverage, and the aging of the population are the main culprits. So: expect the administration to propose a Medicaid cap-by-another-name, disguised as some sort of attack on waste, fraud and abuse. And recognize that states are hardly in a position to pick up the slack; any sort of limitation on federal fiscal responsibility for Medicaid will guarantee a significant reduction in services, and another boost in the ranks of the uninsured. The ultimate conservative plan for Medicaid tracks their main goal with Social Security: making it a defined contribution rather than a defined benefit program. For a glimpse of the Golden Future they desire, look no further than Jeb Bush's proposal for "Medicaid reform" in Florida, which would basically write checks to private insurers and give them unprecedented latitude over who they will cover and what services they will provide. If you care about old folks and po' folks, this is some scary stuff, and a token of how far both Bush brothers are willing to take their ongoing mockery of George W. Bush's pledge to usher in a "responsibility era."

February 3, 2005


After helping pound out the DLC's take on Bush's SOTU (to sum it up, we were unimpressed and unintimidated), I had the chance to appear on one of my very favorite NPR gabfests, Warren Olney's To the Point. My anticipation of spirited warfare was heightened when the producer told me I would be pitted against Cato/Club for Growth chieftain Steven Moore, who is a High Church Social Security Privatizer. But my bloodlust dissipated when my opening gambit--the absurdity of a president who has deliberately engineered a real and immediate fiscal crisis demanding that Congress show "responsibility" by taking on a dubious and remote Social Security "crisis"--met with basic agreement from Moore, who was as exercised as I was by the casual treatment of the budget crisis by Bush last night. I also got the distinct impression that Moore knows Bush's SocSec initiative is pretty much for show, since the highest praise he could muster for the purported Privatizer-in-Chief is that he was brave to draw attention to the issue. Libertarians generally make me nuts, but sometimes they offer a refreshing refusal to completely buy in to the tactical alliance they have forged with a Republican Party dominated by corporate porkmeisters, cultural warriors, and neocon empire-builders. In case you have an unslaked thirst for essence-of-SOTU, check out Dana Milbank's painstaking WaPo account of who stood, who sat, who clapped, and who looked like a fidgety nine-year-old at church, during the speech. He also reveals it was Rep. Bobby Jindal of LA, without question one of the smartest people in the GOP, who came up with the purple-ink-stain idea, which gave Republican backbenchers something useful to do other than hooting and hollering at every other Bush line. Purely in terms of entertainment value, last night's speech made me long for the days of divided government. One of the most interesting features of Bill Clinton's post-1994 SOTUs was watching Newt and Al Gore react to the president's applause lines, right there behind him, like cheerleaders forced to dance and prance on the field ten feet from every play. Would Newt screw up and fail to stand and applaud every time veterans were mentioned? Would Gore remember to nod sagely at the Chief's wisdom on the full panoply of issues? Watching Cheney and Hastert move sluggishly in tandem last night was not nearly so much fun.

February 2, 2005

A Speechwriter's Take on SOTU

From long experience, I've decided that giving my own take on a Big Bush Speech is a waste of space, because I invariably misunderestimate his rhetorical strengths, and know too much about his weaknesses, his record, and the Objective Reality he so often ingores. So: this time I've decided to paralyze my frontal lobes and look at this SOTU from the vantage-point of a professional speechwriter, which is what I used to be. Here we go: Speech Mission: Re-establish a sense of irresistable momentum for the administration's foreign and domestic policies, including those that seem to be in trouble. Primary Message: Freedom works, retroactively validating administration policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and prospectively validating administration policies at home. Secondary Message: We are up to great things here, and Democrats are simply obstructing the March of Progress. Desired Print Lede: "Bush Says Democracy Is on the March." Desired Electronic Media Bite: "Two weeks ago, I stood on the steps of this Capitol and renewed the commitment of our nation to the guiding ideal of liberty for all. This evening I will set forth policies to advance that ideal at home and around the world." Defensive Electronic Media Bite: "Our children's retirement security is more important than partisan politics." Speech Structure: economy, values, security. Flyover Country: sections on the economy up until Social Security were standard pablum; values section all pablum; rhetortical weight of speech all about security. Surprises: several, none of them dramatic: (1) much less on the budget than advertised; (2) an odd specific statement in a generally foggy Social Security section that ultimately, younger workers could divert a full 4% of payroll to private accounts (a high figure even among devoted privatizers); (3) a commitment of real dollars and unprecedented U.S. interest in Abu Mazen's Palestinian government, and (4) an overdue suggestion that maybe Egypt and Saudi Arabia ought to get with the democracy idea themselves. Bipartian Grace Notes: limited to former, and some of them dead, Democrats Bush cited as being worried about Social Security solvency. That was it. No acknowledgement of the closeness of the election or Kerry's quick and gracious concession; no acknowledgement of the legitimacy of any opposition on any issue. Generally, I thought the speech was pretty pedestrian other than the grande finale about freedom, dreams and threads of purpose. A CNN snap poll showed the public liked it a lot, but I doubt it will change too many minds on issues like SocSec. Pundits will eventually raise doubts about many of the details of the speech, such as Bush's belligerent and ludicrous claim that his energy bill is essential to the achievement of energy independence. From a speechwriter's point of view, however, this verbally challenged man got through another SOTU without inflicting much damage on his various causes, though when you really look at it, his rhetoric continues to represent a fog machine rather than any lighthouse for the truth. UPDATE: as a statement by Sen. John Kerry pointed out, the President's speech did not mention the name of Osama bin Laden. In its determination to identify the war on terror with administration policies in Iraq, the speech also said little or nothing about domestic terror threats, other than repeating the usual half-true chesnut about "staying on the offensive." UPDATE II, THURSDAY: as you can imagine, I was a little suprised to open up the papers this morning and discover that Bush's speech was ALL ABOUT SOCIAL SECURITY. There's a simple and rather interesting explanation for that: as a mental health measure, I didn't watch any of the pre- or post-SOTU media jabbering, and thus was not aware that the administration has released a briefing paper on SocSec before the speech. In other words, the speech wasn't just "the speech," but part of a rollout of a long-awaited proposal, or at least the parts of the proposal that the administration was willing to talk about. I felt better about my "mistake" when I read Josh Marshall's initial take on the speech. Nobody could accuse Josh of letting any Bush comment on SocSec get by him, but he, too, thought the speech underplayed SocSec compared to what we were all expecting.


The only thing worse than having to sit through and then write about another George W. Bush State of the Union Address (and yes, I will post an insta-comment shortly after the speech tonight) is to have to read the soon-to-be irrelevant speculation about what the man's going to say. In today's Post we learned that the speech has gone through 17 drafts, and that Bush had practiced it twice as of yesterday. We learned that it would last about 40 minutes, not counting the time that will be consumed by both routine applause over noncontroversial lines, and sycophantic GOP applause over the red-meat stuff. We learned that the Real People assuming the traditional position flanking the First Lady in the gallery will be Real Voters from Afghanistan and Iraq. And we learned that the speech will represent the Maiden Voyage of new chief presidential speechwriter William McGurn, though of course, the Old Master and author of the Second Inaugural Address, Mike Gerson, will have his hand in as well. On this last point, former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet did an online piece for The New Republic today predicting that McGurn, formerly of the Wall Street Journal's Editorial Page, will introduce a new, less high-minded, more conventionally conservative, and perhaps more harshly partisan tone into this SOTU. Seems to me that Bush has often used Gersonian universalist language to advance a right-wing policy agenda and to savage Democrats with a genial half-smirk on his face. We will obviously know what's in store for us soon enough, in painful detail.

VA GOPer Attacks Church Property Rights

It was buried pretty deep in today's Washington Post, but there was a story about a Republican legislative initiative in Virginia that tells you a lot about how deep the cultural war mentality runs in today's GOP. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. William C. Mims from exurban Loudon County, would give religious congregations seceding from their denominations control over church buildings, even if that violates longstanding denominational arrangements governing church property. There's zero question what this initiative is about: the conservative effort to pull Episcopal parishes into breakaway denominations in response to the ordination of a gay bishop in New Hampshire. The Episcopal Church has consistently told potential break-away congregations they must be willing to leave behind their buildings if they refuse to maintain communion with their brethren. (As the name of the denomination might suggest, the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States is not an alliance of independent congregations, but an organic union claiming its authority from the apostolic succession of bishops). A wide array of state and federal courts, up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court, have upheld this position as a matter of simple property law. Mims' bill would give Virginia the rare distinction of becoming the first state to force a reorganization of a major religious denomination. So: for at least one Republican, the imperative of encouraging the demonization of gay people overrides both the independence of churches and private property rights. As I recall, Virginia eliminated mandatory membership in or financial support for the Anglican Church (the precursor of today's Episcopalians) with the enactment of Jefferson's Statute of Religious Liberty in 1786. Those whose homophobic tendencies override their belief in the other tenets of the Episcopal Church have a rich variety of other devotional options available. (After all, what's two millenia of theology and liturgy as compared to the latest right-wing witch hunt?). They are entitled to take their views elsewhere. But they are not entitled to a nice little sectarian endowment in the form of property seized from the church they are repudiating, as a special gift from the Virginia Republican Party.

February 1, 2005

This Blog and That

Today one of the better-known bloggers out there, Andrew Sullivan, announced he was scaling back The Dish to an occasional post so that he could devote time to writing a book, traveling in Europe, and generally, I guess, having a life. Interestingly, Kevin Drum of Political Animal interpreted this announcement as as an abandonment of the blogosphere. Since Kevin also did a post this week suggesting that any true blog should include comment hosting, I guess it's time to wade into the perilous topic of blogospheric standards. First, there is the question of posting frequency. Most of the estimated two million bloggers out there obviously have day jobs, mostly with employers who don't think they have any obligation to subsidize commentary on Social Security or Iraq. Presumably most of these bloggers also have some sort of personal life away from their laptops; indeed, the number of political bloggers who comment regularly on sporting events indicates that they are stealing a few hours away from their civic duties to watch SportsCenter. Personally, my goal is to do a post a day, sometimes more, but my day-job work load is pretty brutal, and my domestic life is about as low-maintenance and predictable as The Thirty Years War. Some of you who follow the DLC (with interest or with trepidation, as the case may be) may have noticed that we recently changed our New Dem Daily into a slightly less regular commentary product called the New Dem Dispatch. The Daily was my responsibility for more than four years; I wrote well over a thousand op-ed length pieces on a daily deadline. But we recently made a decision that (a) it isn't really necessary for the DLC to comment on every sparrow that falls to the ground, and (b) with two unofficial blogs, this one and The Moose, there would be some commentary from a NewDem perspective available all the time to friends, enemies and insomniacs. This gives me a bit more time to blog, but the question remains: how often is enough? Now, blogging only when you only have something compelling to say and the time to say it coherently is not good for traffic. But it is good for the overall quality of choices available in the blogosphere. One of my personal favorites, Mark Schmitt's The Decembrist, is not terribly regular, but it adds value to political debate every time he hits the post button. Don't get me wrong: There are a number of high-profile blogs, some done by individuals, some by groups, that make a point of high frequency. Those are the ones I visit when political news is breaking, because I know Political Animal and Tapped, just to cite two, will have something to say that goes much deeper than CNN. And still others are useful to follow one ongoing subject in great detail. Despite the blog's general unfriendliness to my particular point of view, DailyKos was essential in keeping up with Congressional races last year. And Lord knows anybody who's following the Social Security debate needs to regularly read Josh Marshall, who has been equally dedicated to in-depth coverage of a lot of other issues (especially the run-up to the Iraq war) over the last few years. The rather obvious point is that different blogs serve different needs, and the idea that they need to follow any particular model or format strikes me as missing the whole point of the medium. That brings me to the issue of comment hosting. A lot of readers have let me know they are offended this blog does not accomodate comments. And Kevin Drum, in the post linked to above, appears to think it's essential to the "self-correcting" nature of the blogosphere, and that failure to include comments indicates a desire to suppress dissenting views. My prejudice--and that's what it is--against comment threads goes back to the pre-blogospheric era, when internet political chat was dominated by what we now call "freepers." I used to do a regular column for an e-zine called IntellectualCapital that posted comments after every article. It didn't matter what I wrote about; within two comments the threads invariably degenerated into an intra-libertarian food fight over slavery-as-a-contract or privatizing the sidewalks or Ayn Rand's Epistle to the Californians, or whatever. Within a few months, I just stopped reading them altogether. Obviously today's blogs, especially those of the left and center-left, are very different, but I try to read other blogs' comments, and in many cases, they, too, quickly morph beyond the topic at hand into intramural fights and insults and arcana. Does all this stuff (much of it, I suspect, written by people with their own blogs) serve a public service? Sure, no question about it. Does every blog have to function as a public utility? I dunno. Maybe David Brooks was right when he proposed a "Gresham's Law of Punditry," whereby the more people who are talking, the more there is to say. But there are hardly that many limits on talk in the blogosphere. And then, of course, there is the "troll" problem with comment hosting--the tendency of people--sometimes a lot of people--to come into the conversation merely to throw bricks. I gather from reading blogs like Kos that this is a constant headache, and that there are very complicated steps they take to cut down on it (as a self-administered blog, NewDonkey is ignorant and incapable of such counter-measures). But I do know this: there are a lot of extremely opinionated, angry people out there, on both the political Left and Right, who really hate the DLC and probably hate me; the former think we are orchestrating a Corporate Conspiracy to Create A One-Party State, while the latter think we are crypto-Marxists who are repackaging State Socialism and Baby-Killing for the middle-class (all these critics share a powerful disinclination to read what we actually say, and a hilarious belief that we exercise huge, occult power behind the scenes as a sort of Centrist Opus Dei). Do I want to publicize these ignorant and insulting views? Hell, no. Does this mean I am trying to "stifle dissent" or hide the fact that a lot of people don't like what I say, or more often, who they think I am? No, I'm telling you about it right now. As for the "self-correcting" function of comment hosting: when it comes to factual errors, I hope anybody who catches me in one will email me, and if their argument has merit, I will correct the post by editing if it's a typo or minor error or an update if it's more serious. If you inform me of an error and I don't react, then by all means, blast my ass on your own blog or on the comment thread of somebody else's, and it's as likely to get noticed as a comment buried at the bottom of some thread on NewDonkey. Believe me, I know I could get more traffic and props if I turned this thing into a wide-open forum, or posted like a rat in heat. But I ain't got the time, and don't have the stamina to do much more than trying to say something every day or so that some of you might find interesting and different from the billions of words out there each hour. And the blogosphere, despite the well-meaning efforts of some to impose order on it, is nothing if it can't accomodate that.