Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Brown vs. Whitman, redux

The hits keep on coming. Now Whitman has a nanny scandal and a new poll shows both Brown and Boxer with substantial leads in their races.

In the comments to my previous post on this contest, Montana asks if Fiorina and Whitman are falling in the polls because they are better candidates on paper than in reality, or if it's because people are figuring out that they're not quite in step with what Californians want to begin with. I think this is a really good question, actually. The new poll shows Boxer/Brown riding a stampede of women voters to their side, which is probably indicative of the public paying more attention an realizing that both Republican women are anti-marriage equality, Fiorina is pro-life, neither has a particularly compelling message, Whitman won't talk to the press, etc. The GOP had an opportunity here, and that both these races were close (or even GOP-leaning) suggests that they had the right idea in terms of candidate selection, image-wise. But it turns out that billionaire self-funders with no political experience (outside of shilling for the McCain campaign, I suppose) and no real vision aren't best positioned to exploit the public's anger at unemployment, corporate welfare, and phony politicians. In retrospect it seems so obvious.

They did it again

History repeats itself, and conservative Democrats have postponed a vote on the Bush tax cuts until after the election. I've heard several plausible explanations for this entire baffling episode: that the Blue Dogs are simply sticking up for the people who bought and paid for them, that they really think this is the better policy, or that they're simply so paralyzed by fear of Republican attacks that they don't want to vote. Undoubtedly elements of all three are at play, though I strongly suspect that what motivates most (though not all!) Blue Dogs is a deep desire to avoid sharp partisan contrasts. After all, it is unlikely that someone like Dan Boren, who represents an R+14 district, really wants to draw attention to how he differs from the Republican Party, even if he actually opposes the policy (which I don't even know is correct or not). Of course, the politics of this are stupid, and these Blue Dogs have to know that the simple argument "I voted to cut taxes for the middle class" will be more resonant to voters than their opponents saying "Well, sure, they voted for middle class tax cuts, but in doing so they didn't force a vote to cut taxes on high-income producers, which is the same as hiking taxes." That spin is so convoluted and strained that it sounds like the conservative argument against the minimum wage that nobody ever buys. I find it hard to believe that people with enough political skill to be sent to Congress actually think that argument would do anything, but these people exemplify the out of touch politician type.

A lot of conversation has gone into whether or not the Democrats will hold the House, but what interests me is the potential aftermath. According to Nate Silver, the Democrats are going to lose 45 seats in November, which I think is pessimistic but let's make the assumption. According to his projections, half of those casualties will be Blue Dogs, reducing their number from 54 to 32, and dropping their numbers inside the Democratic caucus from about 20% to 15%. By my accounting, only about half of the Blue Dogs sticking around even bothered to sign the letter to Nancy Pelosi to extend all the Bush tax cuts, which means they're perhaps clustered in the less conservative part of that group. All of which is to say that it's looking likely that, while the Democratic coalition in Congress is going to be smaller, it will also be more liberal proportionally speaking, and perhaps more likely to keep on Nancy Pelosi as leader and stick together more on key issues than is happening currently. In the long term, of course, a number of Blue Dogs represent substantially Democratic areas (many hail from safe districts in California, oddly), and will eventually be replaced by mainstream Democrats, while constant waves of attrition will clear out the rest of the legacy Democrats from the South. In the end, we'll wind up with a party split between mainstream and progressive Democrats, which strikes me as a desirable outcome.

The disaffected left

Larison lays into one of The Atlantic's less impressive bloggers, who makes the typical establishment critique of Obama:
Crook’s thesis rests on the shaky assumption that the public has soured on policies that were “less than perfect but vastly better than nothing” because of the way the policies were pitched. Never mind that it is progressives and Democratic activists who feel neglected, slighted, insulted and used over the last two years. According to Crook, they needed to be dismissed and marginalized completely for the sake of maintaining Obama’s centrist reputation, despite the fact that it is his centrist policies and reputation that have discouraged and dispirited so many of the people who got Obama elected. Perhaps many Obama voters had unreasonable expectations, as activists and ideological voters often do, and perhaps they don’t appreciate how good they have had it. Regardless, Obama’s political problem is clearly the problem of having a Democratic base that is disaffected, and that problem would have only been made worse had he prostrated himself before the Washington establishment consensus even more quickly than he did.
The discontent of the professional left with Obama is rapidly becoming one of my least favorite subjects to discuss. The media, of course, loves conflict stories and they are picking up on all this stuff and exaggerating it, as is their wont. But the truth is that some of the thing is the product of people not being able to get over themselves, others being willfully stupid and petulant, and still others who have entirely legitimate gripes. People who read this blog probably know who I consider to be in each category. It's all more pronounced in the political environment because this sort of thing only ever happens to Democrats--in spite of everything, Republicans never turned against Bush because all that really matters to them is holding power, not what they do with it. That the GOP has been so mushy on policy specifics for this election cycle merely confirms the hypothesis.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Time for a break

I found this post by blog friend Emily Hauser to be very entertaining: a list of things she hates more than she should. What would be on my list? Any number of traffic-related phenomena, Denis Leary, and televised awards shows. Maybe the latter is justifiable. These things don't actually exist to celebrate greatness in whatever media they represent, they exist for their own sake. And because they need to give out awards, it just becomes another campaign, with politicking and dollars making the difference. I'd love it if they didn't name winners and just picked a few noteworthy films and performances to honor--they could just ditch the awards and keep the nominees secret until the broadcast, and then let the people personally decide which ones they liked best. I suppose that would sap excitement from the broadcast, but you don't usually use "excitement" and "award show" in the same sentence, unless a negative is involved.


Native Michigander Jon Chait makes some funny digs at Ohio here, but I think this is a far more damning indictment against the Buckeye State:
A new Reuters/Ipsos poll in Ohio shows Rob Portman (R) leading Lee Fisher (D) by 13 points in the race for U.S. Senate among likely voters, 50% to 37%.

"The poll found a majority of Ohio voters brushed aside Democratic charges that Portman would represent a return to the failed economic policies of Bush, with 60 percent saying his work with Bush made no difference in their vote."
He didn't just work for Dubya, he was Bush 43's budget director, which is essentially the budgetary equivalent to being the navigator on the HMS Titanic. Before that, he was Bush's Trade Rep, passing bad free trade agreements that Ohioans usually dislike. (Full disclosure: I am a free trader, but there's a way to do it that prevents exploitation and environmental degredation and a way to do it that CEOs like. Bush's agreements tended toward the latter.)

As for the underlying attitude...I guess I just can't understand. I'd like to think I tend less toward despondency than most of the liberal writers I read. I'm as frustrated with the GOP's resurgency as any of them, but I view it philosophically: my short fuse post from a few months ago seems ever more correct to me, as I think voters are more just desperate than anything else. I actually do believe most of the Republicans' ideas will hurt the economy, and do you really think the GOP will be able to topple Obama if the economy gets significantly worse after a government shutdown next year? Democrats will probably wind up with even bigger majorities than they have now should that happen, as I believe it would. I still want the Dems to hold the House so that the GOP doesn't get to screw with agency budgets and what not, so I wouldn't say I'm halfway hoping they get the House, but maybe quarterway hoping, sure.

But I do have to admit that the aforementioned desperation really is pretty depressing to me. I get that most voters are low-information but seriously, how easy is it to get voters to ignore your entire record? Just saying that it doesn't count? This guy manned the Trade Rep's office and the OMB chair during Bush's term, two key policy positions that helped shape economic policy during the Bush years, and voters are actually buying the whole transformation act based on nothing but words? Hardly encouraging. I know that the Republicans won't succeed in their quests to demolish HCR and so forth, and that failure will harm them even more than they already are harmed. That doesn't make it any easier to take when complete frauds barely even have to try to make it into office.

The case for Jerry Brown for Governor of California: A megapost!

Boy, this got longish! Okay, I'll just try to get through all this.

A week or so ago, I finally just gave up in the face of the Meg Whitman's constant internet presence and visited her website. Personally, I've been skeptical of both Jerry Brown's and Meg Whitman's candidacies, and I don't think either of them either understands what needs to be done or has much of an interest in doing it. Everyone knows about the dysfunctional 2/3 budget requirement that makes every budget into a titanic struggle, which is a legacy of the Reagan years and Prop. 13, or the initiative process that lets gobs of money be spent without offsets or oversight. But while California is invariably thought of as some sort of ultraliberal, hippy-dippy state that spends too much on welfare programs or whatever, there are plenty of other things in our government like the 2/3 rule, relics of a past that nobody is particularly interested in changing. A big part of the problem is that we have lots of unduly harsh sentencing laws for a variety of things, a legacy of 16 years of tough-on-crime conservative governors during the 1980s and 1990s. The three-strikes law is merely the tip of the iceberg here. One of my local Sacramento-based news nets has a pretty striking fact here:
Right now, California spends $8.6 billion, or 11 percent of its budget, on state prisons. That works out to an average $52,363 per year to house an inmate in prison, according to the California Department of Corrections. That's $143 a day per prisoner.
That's right, and the headline says it all, "State spending on prison inmates outweighs spending on K-12 students." Clearly, this is the correct priority. Over ten percent of the state's budget is spent on prisons, largely because the Democrats that run the state are a bunch of worthless humps who don't want to be "soft on crime" and don't want to make an issue out of it. As is customary, Republicans deny that there's a tradeoff between guns and butter and Democrats are too wimpy to even make the argument. That crime is down country-wide to such an extent that even the City of Compton is livable now matters not at all. Police and prison unions are super-powerful, and that's pretty much that. The situation has gotten so bad that the courts have ordered the state to reduce prison overcrowding. Legalizing marijuana might take some of the pressure off, and it looks likely to pass in an initiative in November, but there are hard battles that need to be fought here, and nobody is particularly interested in fighting them.

So reading Meg Whitman's page on public safety (found right here) is pretty much the exact opposite of what we need in this critical (but underrealized) issue. It starts bad ("I'm going to be a tough-on-crime governor.") and gets worse. The ideas are basically these:
  • Supporting Three Strikes
  • Defending the death penalty
  • Opposing gun control
  • Building new prisons and opposing early release
  • Opposing the legalization of marijuana
The last one is particularly odious, trotting out the most tired cliche about pot ("gateway drug") that I'm frankly amazed she actually had someone write. Look, I'm a Democratic partisan, but I realize that one-party rule is usually a bad idea and I'd love it if the state had a Gary Johnson-like governor that brought sanity on issues like these. Whitman is no Gary Johnson, to be sure. But to actually recite such a hoary and idiotic cliche like this? Ugh. And the rest of these items are nearly as bad. The Three Strikes blurb has the usual boilerplate about keeping violent criminals in jail or whatever, but there's still the little problem about people getting sentenced to life because they shoplifted something worth twenty bucks, which is hardly infrequent. There's no way a judge can overrule the sentence either. I'm not surprised Whitman supports capital punishment, but given that the state's budget crisis is so bad, and that the Death Penalty Information Center says that abolishing capital punishment in California would save the state over $120 million a year (which is not chump change by any means) why not just do away with it? After all, there's no difference to public safety between killing a prisoner and just sealing him away for life. The rest of this is just as insulting: I'm no anti-gun crusader, and I'm sympathetic to Whitman's position here, but looser gun control does not enhance public safety, it reduces it. Unless you think the Wild West was a paragon of public safety, of course. And I don't want to even talk about the prison item. Whitman's solution to our overcrowded prisons is to build more prisons, instead of changing the policies that are imprisoning too many people and costing too much. Brown doesn't have a particular crime agenda on his website, merely this list of things he's done as AG. It's not a terrible list, but even if Brown merely maintains the (ultimately unmaintainable!) status quo, it'll do less damage than letting Whitman actively make things worse. Advantage: Brown.

Education is another big problem here in California. Our state routinely lists at the bottom of the 50 states (Thank God for Mississippi!), in large part because of the poorer areas of the state (pretty much anywhere more further inland than L.A. or S.F.) as well as the typical inner-city education problems in Los Angeles. Here, Whitman's fact sheet is mostly ho-hum. More money to the classroom is an education policy cliche and hardly a solution. Rewarding outstanding teachers is fine, but not that novel. I have no problem with charter schools or grading schools based on quality. Converting failing public schools into charter schools is an idea I haven't heard before and could be interesting. Putting $1 billion into the state's university systems is fine, but cutting welfare to do it isn't. And I wholly support bypassing the long credentialing process to let qualified people teach. That much of this agenda will require fighting the teacher's unions makes it tough for me to believe that Whitman, a Republican, would actually be able to do it. Just like it was easier for Republican Presidents to sign peace agreements with China and the Soviets during the '70s and '80s, it's easier for Democrats to take on the teacher's unions, not that they always do it. But in any event, for a candidate who has emphasized education to such a significant extent, this list seems so by-the-numbers and humdrum, that it seems to betray a lack of passion for changing the educational system. There's nothing new here, and nothing incredibly visionary. It's lukewarm and uncompelling, though I guess that's a step up from her actively terrible public safety material.

Brown, on the other hand, might have won my vote with this alone:
We must also reverse the decades long trend of transferring state support from higher education to prisons. We can do this without sacrificing public safety. For example, as Attorney General, I recently blocked a proposed $8 billion prison hospital expansion—which was unnecessarily expensive and which would have added substantially to our state’s deficit. By relentlessly pursuing similar cost savings, we can channel needed funds to our higher education system.
He gets it. Plus, he talks about community colleges, burdensome standardized tests, school principals' importance to reform, and in much more detail than Whitman can muster. Brown wins this one, no contest.

I'll briefly mention the Prop 8 case. Brown wants to drop it and let gays and lesbians get civilly married and Whitman doesn't. Your mileage will vary here, but it's a point in Brown's favor to me.

Of course, the economy is pretty important here in California, and it's worse here than the average. Whitman has some decent ideas, but it's all mostly small-bore. Eliminating the $800 business start-up tax isn't going to help the economy too much, as I would hope someone starting a business would have more than $800 to spend starting out. Cutting capital gains (presented here as a job creator, weirdly) doesn't seem likely to actually save many jobs, but I guess it's a Republican litmus test these days. (In related news, the Director of the Congressional Budget Office agrees with me.) In fact, almost all of the job creation efforts are tax cuts of some sort or other, and it's all conventionally Republican. Brown wants to actually take some actions to restructure the economy, mostly by actively promoting green energy, which is something California still leads at, as well as some of the same tax cuts Whitman wants to do. There are specifics here that sound good, and much of it revolves around new standards to encourage free-market innovation. Sounds good to me. Whitman's cutting of capital gains means that the money has to come from somewhere else, and some unmentioned welfare reform program seems to be the golden goose. In this state? I think not. I've got to give it to Brown here.

So, now we get to Whitman's proposals to cut spending. Great! Only one sheet of ideas, though, with the rest of it campaign boilerplate. What are her new ideas? Well, they are:
  • Instituting a strict spending cap
  • Defending the 2/3 budget requirement
  • Turning Sacramento into a part-time legislature
Seriously. That's all. Whitman is a conventional Republican if nothing else. Item #1 is redundant. We have a spending cap--it's called the amount of revenue we have! California, like most states, has a balanced budget requirement. This pretty much sets a cap on how much we can spend. Of course, Whitman wants to set a cap based on making government spending a specific percentage of GDP, which is the flip side of liberals' old penchant for price floors and ceilings on things like air travel and what not. Setting arbitrary caps is bad policy in my opinion--we should decide what we want the state to pay for and go from there. Whitman's way is invariably based on the notion that pretty much everything the government pays for is equally worthless, so we might as well treat it all equally by just setting a firm limit on it. Of course, future progress might well make government spending as a percentage of the economy rise or fall dramatically independent of budgetary decisions--for example, if inner-city L.A. has an New York-style turnaround in the near future, spending on social services would drop significantly since they would be far less necessary. Or maybe some sector of the economy would experience a technological breakthrough that would make living a lot less expensive. Private sector spending would go down, and government spending would proportionally go up, even if little new spending even occurred. So, this is completely stupid in every way. Item #3 would save a couple hundred thousand dollars at most, and is more a campaign gimmick than anything else. "If serving in Sacramento were a part-time job, maybe we wouldn't have so many full-time spenders at the Capitol," makes absolutely no sense to me at all. And you just know you're in for a line of bullshit when you start to hear talk about "citizen legislators" and how "professional politicians" are ruining everything. Look, I have no problem with citizen legislators. The reason we have so few of them is because modern-day politics costs money. A lot of money. If you have a system like ours, where raising money for television spots is the big expense, people with more money are going to be able to compete better than people without it. Of course, if Whitman supported some form of public financing of campaigns, then we might see more average folks getting into politics. But California voters voted down the pilot program for this in the primary election and Whitman presumably echoes the new Republican stance of huge, endless, and unmonitored expenditures on campaigns. For a current example, absolutely no U.S. Senate Republicans voted for even something as innocuous as the DISCLOSE Act, which would merely make it required for political organizations to say who is giving them money without even putting a limit on it. This is where they're coming from. And I won't even talk about her defense of the 2/3 requirement, which Whitman says lets legislative Republicans shake down the 65% of Democrats for whatever they want institutionalizes corruption gives the state GOP enough leverage over policy so that they don't bother to move to the center keeps taxes low. I'm not in favor of raising taxes indiscriminately, but supermajorities frustrate accountability and promote corruption. If budgets could pass with a simple majority in California, spending would certainly be quite a bit lower, since getting 2/3 of the legislature to sign off means that everyone gets all sorts of goodies inserted in there in exchange for their vote. But Whitman knows her audience well, and here, as most everywhere else, proves herself to be a joke. Brown's plan doesn't get us to where we need to go, but there's a lot in there that seems realistic and at least sane.

I could go on (Whitman's environment page isn't too bad, to be fair), but enough is enough. It's true that campaign literature doesn't exactly translate into a governing agenda, and I'm sure a lot of Whitman's items are things that the base wants more than she does. The same might well be true of Jerry Brown's agenda. But if this is basically all I have to go on, the choice is clear. Sure, Jerry Brown is running for governor because he wants the job and thinks he can win, but at least this guy is putting out a lot of specifics that, even if they don't all happen, at least reflect a passion for wonky detail and institutional reform. After reading Brown's material I'm quite a bit more comfortable with his candidacy and have a pretty clear view of where he wants to take the state, and I'm mostly fine with it. He's not nearly radical enough, but in many respects at least he'd be a step forward. And he actually bothers to put plausible, substantive ideas on his site, which might not be sufficient in the long run, but at least reflect a fundamental respect for the public and voters. I'm not fully sold on the guy, but his stock has gone up significantly on writing this. Whitman, on the other hand, offers hardly any specifics, has mostly old and uninspiring ideas, defends the worst aspects of California governance, and offers not a clue of what her "New California" would look like, aside from being likely as dysfunctional and sclerotic as the old one. What's more, there's little reason to believe she'd have any more influence with the state's Republicans than Arnold has had, a situation which has not exactly been a roaring success outside of the 20% of Californians who still like Schwarzenegger. I now think I get why Jerry Brown wants to be Governor. I have no idea why Meg Whitman wants the job. And since she doesn't speak to the press at all and seems to think that she can buy her way to the governor's mansion, I can't particularly say she's done anything to earn it.

In the words of another press-avoiding female Republican, thanks but no thanks.

Hello again!

Sorry for the light posting recently, as I've been on vacation. But I'm back, and ready to write some (hopefully) good stuff.

I see that the Marty Peretz racism controversy seems to have been wrapped up for now. It stuns me that someone with such a documented history of racism would be able to remain good company in Washington society. This quote by beer summit participant Henry Louis Gates somehow just irritates me even more. I think it's great that the guy likes debate and has friends of different viewpoints, but frankly I could give a damn so long as he uses his platform to push for AIPAC-style policies and anti-Arab sentiment disguised as scholarship. It somehow smacks of "but some of his best friends are black" style excuse-making, and yes I do appreciate the irony that it's Gates saying it. It's fine for people to personally think of the man as the equivalent of their funny uncle whose casual, occasional racism is mostly just dismissed as a product of some old-fashioned incorrigibility--after all, he's so funny and charming!--but all the same, I don't want anyone like that actually having power of any kind.

People often talk about why Americans hate Washington so much. Clearly, a big part of that now is the economy, and the seeming paradox of the public both hating Republicans and planning to vote for them en masse stems from a mentality in which the public trusts nobody and doesn't want any particular group to have enough power to do anything in Washington. But in a larger sense, I think it comes back to the simple belief that most everyone in Washington simply cares about themselves over the good of the people. I honestly couldn't say the extent to which this is accurate, as I tend to think that most politicians actually try to do their best to do what they think is right (though they usually tend to think that being re-elected is a pretty right thing). Then again, at some point we have to accept that a predominantly rich Congress (average net worth: $2+ mil, according to this) is simply going to see things in a certain light. This is another discussion entirely. But the public's trust in the media has plummeted so low in recent years, lower than most any other institution by most surveys I've seen, and I have to assume that things like this Peretz matter are, if not a driver of this trend, at least emblematic of it. I mean, we have a media that by and large doesn't give a flying you-know-what that it prints deliberate disinformation and spin without a critical look. They don't feel any particular need to educate their viewers, so much as to not chance alienating any of them by hitting any side particularly hard, and especially by not risking social and professional contacts of people in power. I tend to see this as the worst of all possible worlds of journalism, practically the complete opposite of the Ed Murrow model, and it's as lazy and cynical as can be. I do think the public has by and large picked up on this, and that's why the mainstream media is dying such a rapid death. Independence and moderation don't have to mean mushy, but at this point, I'd take just mushiness from the media. I think it's a lot worse even than that. But at least the complete lack of standards within the media is counterbalanced by the knowledge that Marty Peretz's parties are feisty and fun! That's a good tradeoff.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Bye, Bayh

Steve Benen flags a frankly remarkable quote by outgoing Sen. Evan Bayh on income inequality: "What we need to be focused on is growth, how do we create jobs, how do we expand businesses. That needs to be job one right now. And all these other issues involving, oh, fairness and things like that can wait."

It should be said that Bayh is by no means typical of the Democratic Party, but it's frankly shocking for one of the premier animating concerns of progressive thought and the Democrats to be so easily dismissed. I mean, I think it's important for the Democrats to have a moderate wing, but if Bayh really believes that expanding business is more important that alleviating poverty and reducing income inequality, then he's clearly picked the wrong party to be a member of. And I say this as someone who would rather keep the Blue Dogs than lose them despite all their bullshit. Bayh's deficit penitence--which doesn't apply to cutting the estate tax, naturally--is a particularly galling example. Despite all this I would prefer to keep him over an even worse Republican, though I certainly won't be too sad to see him and so many of his ilk go.

The next few years should be really interesting for the Democratic Party. By the beginning of 2013, I fully expect Bayh, Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman to be out of the Senate (I expect Lieberman to lose handily to an actual Dem in 2012). I've long had a special dislike for those four (to slightly varying degrees, of course), and I think they embody a lot of the worst elements of the Clinton-era Democratic congressionalist politics from which they all emerged. It will sure be interesting to see what happens to the Dem caucus after that, though I expect this Senator-to-be will pick up some of the slack.

Why are they unhappy?

Chait tackles liberal disappointment:

A few smart people I know have responded to my TRB column about liberal disappointment the same way, which means I didn't make the point clearly enough. In the column, I noted that liberals have turned against literally every Democratic president of the post-war era. The response I've heard is that the disappointment was warranted in this case or that -- Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton especially.

I mostly agree. My point is not that Jimmy Carter was a good president, or that liberals had no good reason to resent Lyndon Johnson. What I'm saying is that, if you're a liberal and you think every Democratic president is a disappointment, then you need to recalibrate your expectations.

It's pretty simple, really. Liberals expect every new Democratic president to be the next F.D.R., and they're always angry when it turns out not to be the case. Of course, the liberal idea of Franklin Roosevelt is as airbrushed and distorted as conservatives' view of Ronald Reagan--one in which Roosevelt's conservative legislation like the budget-slashing Economy Bill and the enduring shame of the Japanese Internment never happened--but the difference is that it doesn't seem that conservatives actually get angry when their presidents fail to live up to the Reagan model, while liberals still can't forgive Bill Clinton for welfare reform.

I have to agree with Chait here that our expectations have to be recalibrated. A decent expectation for a new Democratic President would be a second-term Bill Clinton--a moderate but progressive leader who knows how to fight conservatives and is able to win constant incremental change, all the while preserving past progress. To me, that should be the bar. I'd say that Carter falls below it while Obama exceeds it palpably, as does Johnson despite some rather gross missteps. But setting the greatest president of the past 145 years as your expectation is a recipe for disappointment, and so much of what Roosevelt accomplished was just so sui generis--a once-in-history combination of man and moment that frankly will never recur.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I followed a link from Andrew Sullivan's blog to his review of Dinesh D'Souza's prior book, and it's definitely good Sullivan stuff. I found this quote from D'Souza hilarious:
"If the left can convert national security -- usually a source of political strength for the right -- into a liability, then it has vastly improved its chances for winning future elections....The entire conservative agenda, from tax cuts to school choice to restricting abortion, would be stalled."
I realize that D'Souza probably doesn't mean to imply that those three items are the entirety of the conservative agenda--using the construction for items that don't form a logical sequence is poor, confusing writing and one of my pet peeves--but it really kinda is the entirety of their thing, isn't it?

Update: This bit is good as well:
Islam and Christianity together: that is D'Souza's dream. He does not seem especially interested in God. He writes nothing about his own faith, whatever it is. His interest is not in the metaphysics or the mysteries of religion, but in the uses of religion for social control. (Somewhere Machiavelli is smiling.) In the goal of maintaining patriarchy, banning divorce, outlawing homosexuality, and policing blasphemy, any orthodoxy will do. D'Souza's religion, in a sense, is social conservatism. He is not going to let a minor matter such as the meanings of God get in the way of his religion.
I don't think that you can find any individuals on the planet more cynical than neoconservatives. Not even ad executives or mobsters could touch them.

The only fiscally responsible Republican

Unsurprisingly, it's Voinovich. And he's retiring this year. The thing is, though, that he's right and he has the guts to say it out loud.

The Paladino Effect

The fallout from New York Republicans overwhelmingly nominating a Tea Party dude with a tendency of forwarding emails with racism and bestiality themes looks like more than just an expected embarrassing landslide loss to Andrew Cuomo--it might well wind up wrecking the Republican Party in the state for some time to come. In the long run, this could be more significant than the Delaware story.

Who is Chris Coons?

The likely next Senator from Delaware is profiled here:
A former lawyer, Coons holds a master's degree from Yale Divinity School and spent time in South Africa and Kenya doing relief work. He entered the Senate race after Biden's son, state Attorney General Beau Biden, declined to seek his father's old seat. Both Bidens recruited Coons before Beau Biden made his intentions known. Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, a Delaware native who knew Coons and his wife, also leaned on his old friend to make the run, despite Castle's clear advantages.

In an interview last spring, Coons said he had been looking forward to a quiet end to his second term when the Bidens first contacted him. "This was going to be our perfect year," Coons said. "We were going to take vacation."
Not quite. It's been a pretty tough year for Dems, but this is a huge break. I don't think it will make the difference in Senate control because I don't think the Senate is really up for grabs.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Do we win when moderates win?

Matt Yglesias:
A lot of people I know are excited about O’Donnell’s surge since it gives Coons—who’s much more progressive than either—the best shot. My view is that that kind of partisan view is a little short-sighted. Both parties are destined to govern approximately half of the time and what matters most is the strength of progressive ideas in either party. The increasingly rigid conservatism of the GOP is a huge impediment to progressive causes and Castle’s problems reflect that.
This doesn't make much sense to me. Castle is 71 years old and has health issues, so he'd only likely serve a term or two in the Senate and would unlikely to accumulate the seniority necessary to really become a force in the institution. But the other issue is that Castle highly resembles the Senate's current two Republican moderates, Sue Collins and Olympia Snowe, who have almost no influence among other Republicans and little vision on where to take their party. It's not like the guy is Nelson Rockefeller--like Collins and Snowe, he's a smart, professional officeholder who is constrained by the Republican base. This is terribly significant.

As for the larger point...I don't really have a clue. If the GOP runs people like O'Donnell and Sharron Angle and doesn't capture Congress, Rush and Hannity won't be able to say it was because their candidates weren't conservative enough. Or will they? In any event, one would hope that they wouldn't be believed as much, but you never know.

Glenn Beck, religion, and individual rights

He wants religion to emphasize them more. Larison, as always, says what needs to be said with style, and I love this irony: "Because he is reading political categories back into theological questions, which is the very thing he finds so offensive about liberation theology, he gives the impression that he is repudiating what most Christians would consider to be a core teaching of their faith."

Beck is clearly not someone to debate rationally (as if he ever debates anything aside from the straw men he creates), but it's worth noting that in Christianity there is a clear presumption of personal freedom, but also a very clear set of limits to be placed on them (i.e. the Ten Commandments, etc.) that reflects a pretty coherent view of humanity, one that Reinhold Niebuhr characterized as humanity's tendency to exceed its creatureliness. If you see murder as exceeding human authority by playing god and taking another's life, theft as exceeding human authority by deciding you should have what someone else has, and so on, it all pretty much fits into place. What unnerves me about Beck is that his rhetoric doesn't really ever acknowledge these limits, and it makes sense why: if there are limits that need to be observed, then you need to have an authority to enforce them. A government, say. And that means taxes to pay for what the government does. And all of a sudden we're back to where we started, and the Mormon libertopia that Beck desires goes away. Not that it's plausible to begin with, of course, since we are both individuals and members of society, and as members of the richest society on the planet we have a much greater chance at success than someone born in the Third World. Beck himself being born to upper-middle class parents in Spokane gave him probably 90% of what he needed to succeed as a morning zoo DJ, and I don't want to say that the guy hasn't worked hard or anything, but he certainly had an easy go of things compared to a poor kid in the Appalachians or even one in Somalia. Some of us feel that the arbitrariness of this arrangement leads to a duty to ensure that everyone gets at least a chance at success, but Beck does not, which is a valid point of view but one that requires an essentially God-like view of the powers of the free market, which is just not the case for something that moves primarily based on the mostly unconscious actions of people. In the end, Glenn Beck is a puffy-headed fraud, but you all knew that already, right?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Would catching a break be too much to hope for?

It's often seemed like Democrats just can't catch a break this year (as of this moment, it looks like they're going to be beaten badly in Pennsylvania, which is not exactly a Republican state), and the GOP's nominations of several extreme candidates has only backfired to a limited extent (Sharron Angle still has a shot in Nevada, Rand Paul is slightly ahead in Kentucky, and Joe Miller might well still win in Alaska). It's actually been rare that Republicans have picked candidates that will obviously lose over candidates that will obviously win, but evidently they might kneecap themselves in New Hampshire and Delaware. In both states, establishment Republicans could find themselves purged by Tea Partiers that would turn easy wins into likely bad losses in blue states. I mean, really, why people from Delaware would nominate the woman who lost to Joe Biden by 30 points in 2006 is strange to me, and it's probably too much to hope for, but I guess we need something to hope for these days.

It's all about money

I was recently talking to a friend of mine about television. My theory is that great dramas require quite a bit of world-building and setup that takes time to do properly, and dramatic shows usually take a few seasons to peak, seasons 3/4/5 are usually the best and the show might remain watchable for a few seasons after that. The Shield is a pretty clear thesis here, but there are plenty of others (The Sopranos and the middle two Star Treks come to mind). Great comedies, on the other hand, don't require any world-building because they depend upon a situation and not a world (hence, the sitcom), and the first few seasons are usually the best. Most aren't watchable outside of five seasons, and only some of the all-time greats (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frasier, Seinfeld) are able to put in seven or eight great seasons.

This is all preamble to say that, while I've frequently enjoyed the US version of The Office, I think the decision to keep it going (or even make a feature film!) after Steve Carell leaves is a bad one. The show, while quite good up until the most recent, very patchy season, is not immune from the problem that long-lived sitcoms come up against, which is that sitcoms generally do not support such sustained storytelling. Without the benefit of a rich universe for storytelling, the payoffs in sitcoms come from the characters interacting and gags. The notion that a show could do 150+ stories along these lines and still feel like there's so much more to do is so bizarre to me. A drama can do so much more because it has its world to fall back on, and it can refocus and do different things with the same premise (as The West Wing did so brilliantly after a post-Sorkin slump). Sitcoms that try to change their underlying situation usually fail miserably--like Rosanne suddenly being about a bunch of rich people who won the lottery--and there sort of isn't a point, since you might as well do a spin-off if you're going to change the situation. I find it hard to believe that a post-Carell Office would remain watchable or profitable for long, so why not just read the writing on the wall and end it with some dignity?

Indeed, I suspect that the decision to keep The Office going for however many seasons it lasts (eight? nine?) is due primarily to greed. NBC is in terrible shape and wants to keep one of its only hits on the air, and I'm sure that the pay and recognition is pretty good for everyone else on the program. I guess I don't begrudge them that too much, but I only wish Lieberstein would own that if it is indeed the reason, instead of spinning like crazy.

The politics of opposing Bush's tax cuts

Chait makes the case here. I agree with what he says, but there is a level of genius here that one doesn't often get from Democrats. Picking this fight with Republicans gives Democrats an opportunity to tie Republicans to Bush directly and rhetorically (at a time when voters inexplicably disbelieve the Republicans will not pursue the same policies as Bush). "Bush tax cuts" is a rhetorically excellent way of framing the issue, which is not exactly something Democrats usually excel at. Not to mention that it's actually good policy to let the cuts for the rich expire, since the rich are doing just fine in our great recession.

I'm beginning to see the outlines of a strategy here: use the tax debate to tie Republicans to Bush, and get the GOP to oppose their own ideas on job creation to show that they don't want to do anything about the recession. And now Democrats are the underdogs, which means holding the House--even by only a few seats--will be seen as a huge achievement. This fight isn't over yet.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Republicans' procedural advantages

Matt Yglesias, on the Franken/Coleman fiasco:
I think that this highlights one of the most admirable things about the Republican congressional caucus. Both its leadership and its rank and file show a good deal more commitment to the substance of things and less concern about transient matters of appearance. Senate Republicans clearly understood that legislative outcomes in 2009 were a very important issue and focused their energy pretty decisively on playing an objectively weak hand to influence them. Senate Democrats, dealt a strong hand, spent an amazing amount of time fretting about process and superficial matters and only really buckled down in 2010 by which time their hand was much weaker.
It helps that few Republicans put any stock in what mainstream media outlets say about anything, but there's something to this. I've had a long-running theory that I don't really have any data to support, but the gist is basically that elite Republicans tend to be in touch with their supporters because their supporters resemble them a lot (i.e. both are whiter, older, and more frequently male) while elite Democrats are more like their elite Republican counterparts demographically than they are like their supporters. The Democratic obsession with process makes sense if one assumes that someone like Max Baucus doesn't really know what preoccupies a white Manhattan neurologist or a female Hispanic housekeeper in San Diego, and just assumes that he is doing what he needs to do to represent a generally Republican state. If that means spending months unsuccessfully trying to get Chuck Grassley to not talk about death panels...then that's what he's doing. It doesn't help anyone besides Max Baucus, but that all-for-one ethic strangely doesn't seem to apply much among Democrats in Congress. In some ways the Democrats' tendency to focus on local issues serves them well electorally (as Mr. Larison argues here), but there are drawbacks as well. And quite a few Democrats come from places like Montana that don't quite match up to typical Democratic districts.

In any event the ideal here is for both parties to respect the process. Republicans usually don't, so Democrats should feel free to change the rules in my opinion. Not to do so is the same as fighting with an arm behind your back.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The enthusiasm gap

Steve Benen ponders it:

If you're reading this blog, you're probably significantly more engaged than the typical voter, so other examples -- Robert Gibbs' comments about the "professional left," the defeat of the public option, annoyance with Rahm Emanuel in general, frustration on judicial nominees, the administration's disappointing record on civil liberties in the context of national security -- likely come to mind to explain progressive disillusionment. But like Adam, I suspect these developments are noticed in far more detail among actively engaged voters, and occur under the radar of folks in general, most of whom don't keep up on current events at the granular level.

Of course, if Adam's assessment is correct, and I think it is, then there's just not much to be done between now and November. Major liberal initiatives are highly unlikely to be approved over the next 59 days, and the economy almost certainly won't see dramatic improvements. A party goes into an election season with the broader circumstances it has, not the broader circumstances it wants or wishes to have at a later time.

But there's one aspect of this that I struggle to wrap my head around. In campaign politics, there's always been one major drawback to playing exclusively to the base, and it has nothing to do with alienating the "middle." It's the risk of a backlash from the other side. If Republicans, for example, cater exclusively to the desires of right-wing lunatics, rank-and-file Democratic voters will see this and think, "Hey, I'm starting to feel more motivated all the time...." At least, that's the theory.

I really wish I knew the answer to that last one. And I'll agree that the Emanuelesque disdain for liberals is certainly coming through from, well, Rahm Emanuel. But what about the effect of almost all the major progressive outlets--DKos, HuffPo, the MSNBC crew--never missing a chance to dump all over Obama? Look, I think that this has been really stupid on all sides. The White House could have given these outlets a few interviews to these guys here and there, made them feel like part of the team, and that would probably have gone a long way to keeping everything going smoothly. How hard would that be? Not hard, I'm guessing. Not being listened to makes people angry. But ultimately you'd think the people who worked the hardest to get Bush out would want to actually see things get done and reap the rewards of their labor. That hasn't really happened, though, and at times it's seemed as if many of these people don't care what actually happens, so long as the right doesn't win, which has led to numerous symbolic fights that accomplished little. And now you have Arianna stuffing all sorts of passive-aggressive Obama snipes into a little post about the White House redecoration when her main page is almost a comic example of their Obama Insufficiency Syndrome. It's almost as if they can't help themselves.

And here's the thing: I don't agree with everything Obama has done. I really don't. On many matters I'd probably agree with, say, a Glenn Greenwald. If I were Obama I'd have done things plenty differently (such as pushing EFCA through back when there were 60 votes for it, for one), but I'm not him, so I try my best to understand what he's doing and support him when I can. But by not giving way to reality on, I don't know, the public option fight or even assuming the administration's good faith on financial regulatory reform, these outlets have set up a dynamic where the White House feels they need to do battle against the "professional left" to get anything done instead of working with them, and it just mutes the effectiveness of criticism from the left when it matters most. That Gibbs quote annoyed me (isn't it his job not to say stupid things?), but the thing that angered people the most was that he was basically right, and it's hypocritical for the likes of Kos to say that they are trying to apply aggressive pressure to Obama from the left on nearly every issue and then complain that the Administration feels they need to work against them. There's a cognitive disconnect in there that I find inscrutable. Not to mention that that whole "we're shifting the Overton Window" idea appears to be bad for business and demoralizing to readers. But I'm sure it generates interest from the mainstream press! I hear they just love conflict stories.

Now, as always, top progressives need to get over themselves. Might not do much in the short term, but for next time...

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.