Monday, May 26, 2008

Say Goodnight, Dick

The passing of Dick Martin seems as good a time as any to recall a moment from "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-in" forty years ago. Dan Rowan, reading the News of the Future, refers to "President Reagan" serving in 1988. It was, of course, a punch line; the very idea that Ronald Reagan would ever be handed the world's most powerful job by any sane country was the stuff of comedy back in 1968.

Today we're living in Ronnie's world, so I guess the joke's on us.

Friday, May 16, 2008

In the Year 2013...If Man is Still Alive

I'm still buried by work, but when John McCain dons his psychic's turban, I have no choice other than to put down the grade books and pay attention. It seems that Senator McCain, desperate for any attention these days, decided to look ahead to the year 2013, telling us what we can expect by the end of his first term if he is elected president this November. Most candidates, of course, take an eight-year perspective, so some talking heads wondered aloud if McCain was trying to tell us that he would not seek to break Ronald Reagan's old age record by running for re-election in 2012. But anyone who expects a man this consumed by ambition to be a one-term Johnny is apparently still besotted with the notion that there is something "different" about the presumptive GOP nominee other than the fact that he was born only a year after Babe Ruth retired.

Anyway, McCain has apparently provided the following vision of the world after only four cleansing years of straight talking:

* The Iraq War will be won
* Osama bin Laden will be captured or dead (perhaps of old age?)
* No significant terrorist attacks will occur on U.S. soil
* Health care will be "available to more Americans than at any other time in history" (I guess if he meant "universal", he wouldn't have needed to use nine words)
* "Both parties" will have decided to fix Social Security without a decline in benefits
* Congressional earmarks will be eliminated
* You'll be able to talk to your dog and understand what he's saying to you
* The Tooth Fairy will be forced to find another line of work because teeth will never fall out

How we will get to this Golden Age remains unrevealed at this point. Presumably McCain has some "ideas" and "proposals" that will soon be unveiled, or maybe he'll just summon his straight-talking superpowers and make the whole thing happen overnight while we're sleeping. Maybe he'll do it all with a big loan from Lincoln Savings.

But that's not what I want to talk about. Rather, I am more interested in the media's reaction to what was, to even the most untrained eye, a fairly obvious case of election-year excess. I mean, how exactly will the Great Man persuade Congress simply to cede its institutional perogatives and bend to the new president's will? Has John McCain ever read Federalist 51?

None of this stopped some of the fools on CNN from gushing over McCain's courage in making promises by which he will be judged should he win the 2008 election. One of them marveled at the senator's willingness to stick his neck out in a way that most politicians would not. It was left to Jack Cafferty, ever auditioning for Andy Rooney's curmudgeon job on "60 Minutes", to point out to his starstruck colleagues that "the devil's in the details", a cliche that roughly translates to "McCain didn't tell us anything about how he would actually govern, you blow-dried airheads!"

Just to be clear, Senator McCain has done what politicians have done since the invention of elections. He has made promises that he knows he can't keep in order to win higher office. Like all the others, he figures he can finesse everything else once he's elected. By the time 2012 comes along and most of his pledges remain unfulfilled, he can blame the Democratic Congress or the terrorists or the United Nations or the freemasons.

Seems to me that some callow young Texas governor eight years ago was promising a humble foreign policy and compassionate coservatism. And look how well that turned out...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Day Job...

is a little overwhelming at the moment, so blogging will be sparse for a couple more weeks.

Not much to say about the election right now, anyway, except this:

1. After losing the special congressional election in Mississippi tonight, Republicans must be terrified at the prospect of losing the House for a generation in November.

2. John McCain's "I am not Bush" tour still has to face the problem that on the two issues people really care about--the economy and Iraq--he's pretty indistinguishable from the incumbent.

3. Barack Obama will not win West Virginia in the general election.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

It's Over

The window was there for a brief moment. The problems that have plagued Barack Obama over the past month or so provided Hillary Clinton with the chance to do something she had yet to do--mount a comeback in a state that had already been conceded to her opponent. Had she done so, had she somehow squeezed out a victory in North Carolina or even made the race close, it would have been a crippling blow to the Obama campaign.

But it didn't happen. Instead, Barack Obama swept to an easy victory in the Tar Heel State, leaving Indiana, where Clinton needed a strong victory, as the evening's nail biter. Whatever momentum Hillary gathered with her 10-point Pennsylvania triumph is now gone. Only the cold reality of mathematics remains, and it is not her friend.

It is quite possible that the Super Delegate dam will now burst, and Obama will be the presumptive nominee even before the next state votes. But it doesn't matter. The race is over. For better or worse, Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. Whether or not he is the strongest candidate (and it says here that he isn't) no longer matters. The sound you hear this evening is Hillary Clinton's window closing.

At this point, there is no need for her to continue seeking the nomination. As my seven or so readers know, this blog has generally argued for Clinton's candidacy on the basis of electability. But the question is now moot. Senator Clinton should withdraw from the race and allow her colleague to begin his general election campaign.

There is no longer any benefit in hanging around.

Monday, May 5, 2008

A Must Win State for Clinton and Obama

I'm on the road at the moment, so blogging will be sparse for the next day or two.

I just wanted to take note of an interesting fact. So far, we have had must-win states for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Tomorrow, we will see the first state vote that is a must win for both of them: North Carolina. If Hillary doesn't win the Tar Heel State, the delegate numbers will finally, irreversibly overcome her candidacy. By now it is clear that the Super Delegates will not overturn the will of the voters, however inadequately expressed through caucuses and the like. A loss in North Carolina will largely erase the gains Senator Clinton made a fortnight ago in Pennsylvania.

On the other hand, Barack Obama also needs to win the North Carolina primary, Unlike most states in recent days, this one has been regarded as a lay-up for Obama for several weeks. But Clinton has closed the gap of late and if she somehow won this southern state, with its large African American population, it would strike fear in the hearts of the Supers. Obama has been bleeding support over the past few weeks. Losses tomorrow in Indiana and North Carolina would turn that bleeding into a hemorrhage.

There is an emerging consensus that Barack Obama has been critically weakened by the recent negative press he has received, particular the Jeremiah Wright controversy. Should he suffer a loss in his southern breadbaskets, the whispers and murmurs will turn to shouts. For the first time since Super Tuesday, a Hillary Clinton nomination would be not only plausible, but even likely.

Grab the popcorn: tomorrow will see either the effective end of one candidacy, or the possible beginning of the end of the other.

Sunday, May 4, 2008


Here's another one you can add to that list of things you didn't think you'd see in your lifetime. You know the list, right? You never thought you'd witness a president actually impeached by Congress, or an election so close that the Electoral College overturned the will of the voters, or a Vice President become the most powerful man in the world. This is not a list of good things, you understand. It's simply an accounting of occurrences that everyone assumed would only happen (or happen again) after the Cubs won the World Series, the fifty-first state was added to the union, and we all drove around in our personal hovercrafts.

Well, here's the latest one: never in your wildest dreams would you have envisioned a scenario in which anyone on our side of the International Date Line cared how the people of Guam voted in a presidential primary. If you're like most Americans, you probably had no idea that Guamians (Guamanians? Guamsters?) actually participated in the presidential selection process. Actually, if you're like most Americans you probably don't know anything about Guam other than the fact that it's a Pacific island.

But that's how close the current Democratic race for president is this morning. In a jurisdiction far closer to Manila than Miami, a couple thousand people caucused while the rest of us slept. Four—count 'em—four delegates were at stake. And CNN actually interrupted the Saturday re-run of the Lou Dobbs Hour of Hate to tell us that Barack Obama had been projected the winner in a place so far away that (according to a friend who was once stationed there), the locals watch Tuesday Morning Football. Is this unbelievably cool or what?

But it gets better. Evidently, Obama beat Clinton in Guam by exactly seven votes. In one sense, of course, it doesn't matter. The candidates will each pick up two of the four delegates. But wait! It turns out that Obama's seven-vote margin may gain him an additional Super Delegate, since Pilar Lujan, who was concurrently elected the island's Democratic Party Chair, has said that she will support whichever candidate receives the majority of the caucus vote. Can you say "recount"?

I know there's a lot at stake here, but it's still fun to take a step back every now and then and reflect on how amazing this primary season has been. If Indiana and North Carolina don't settle things on Tuesday, the final result may come down to yet another island that rarely receives political attention on the mainland. Puerto Rico votes on June 7.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Educating Jazmine

Yesterday's on-line Wall Street Journal features an opinion piece by the newspaper's "deputy Taste editor", one Naomi Schaeffer Riley. I don't read the Journal on a regular basis, so I don't really know what a deputy Taste editor does other than assist the Taste editor. I presume from the capitalization that Ms. Riley works for that section of the WSJ that other papers refer to as "Style" or "Living". That is, her life is devoted to whatever it is that the spouses of mortgage bankers do on weekends before their mates are carted off to country club prisons for swindling the public. Or something like that.

Anyhow, Ms. Riley has decided that a devotion to Taste shouldn't prevent one from throwing one's in-laws under the Uptown Express. So she tells us the story of her niece Jazmine, a young lady who, in Ms. Riley's gentle opinion, "goes to one of the worst schools in Buffalo, N.Y." Now, I have no metric to judge such an assertion (for all I know, Buffalo schools are fabulous), but I'll proceed from the assumption that poor Jazmine attends one of those prisons with blackboards that Tom Berenger was forced to come in and clean up several times in those awful 1990s movies. "There are," Ms. Riley helpfully informs us, "security guards at the door", something that evidently shocks the conscience of the deputy Taste editor.

As an act of what sounds a great deal like noblesse oblige, Ms. Riley invites Jazmine to her side of the tracks to help the youngster complete a successful college application (this notwithstanding the fact that "Jazmine has learned very little in the last four years"). The deputy editor is forced to shoulder this burden because Jazmine's "parents and teachers seemed disinclined or unable to help." The niece's name may be a pseudonym, of course, but Ms. Riley's surely isn't, so by now Jazmine's mom and dad, their neighbors, and their friends probably know exactly which set of parents have been outed in the national press for dereliction of duty. One suspects that Thanksgiving at the Rileys' will be a little awkward this year, even assuming that people "with incomes of less than $40,000" actually know how to eat turkey that doesn't come in a plastic wrapper.

This would obviously not be the Wall Street Journal without a little editorializing about the supposed failure of public education, and Ms. Riley makes her de rigueur contribution:

"Public schools used to be the great equalizer in America -- the institutions that allowed the children of immigrants and the descendants of slaves to become fluent in the English language and prepare them for careers. In too many urban areas, they don't perform such basic educational functions. But they don't offer structured environments, either, for the few students who are trying to lift themselves up and get a better educational experience at college."

To her credit, however, the deputy editor offers not a single aside about the need for private school vouchers, that persistent right-wing hobby horse. Indeed, once she's done with the hackneyed public school bashing, Ms. Riley finishes with a fairly reasonable case against the unnecessary bureaucracy involved in the college admissions process. Jazmine evidently had to contend with some schools that were prepared to write her off simply because one small piece of her application package was incomplete and others that required additional letters and essays just to qualify for a vitally needed scholarship. If all of this is true, it is certainly something that American universities should correct. No teenager should be required to decode the Rosetta Stone just to further her education.

And what about the public schools? Well, Ms. Riley favors us with stories about teachers who couldn't be bothered to write meaningful letters of recommendation or even correct the grammar and punctuation on those they did manage, reluctantly, to generate. One teacher supposedly hand-wrote an illiterate paragraph ("Jazmine is enlightened by the journey of academia the twist, turns and heights elevated to farthest stretch imagined") and then told the girl to type it up herself.

The problem with all discussions of failing public schools is that writers tend to speak about the school entirely out of the context of its environment. Thus, Ms. Riley can oversimplify the issue by opining that "kids need a real high-school education, complete with literate, motivated teachers". Well, of course they do, so let's fire this sorry lot and airlift in Mr. Chips, Jaime Escalante, and that Robin Williams character from "Dead Poets Society". Or better yet, let's start a voucher system and auction these kids off to the lowest bidder.

Even Ms. Riley seems vaguely aware of the complications inherent in talking about failing schools. The security guard who so shockingly guards the school house door is not employed to protect the kids from grammatically clueless English teachers. He (or she) is there because the environment outside the schoolyard is one of hopelessness, violence, and desperation. As a society, we allow our inner cities to rot and then wonder why the only teachers willing to walk past the security guard every morning are those who are otherwise unemployable.

The other unintentional revelation involves Ms. Riley's swipe at Jazmine's parents, who "seem disinclined or unable to help". What superhuman motivation is required on the part of a teacher in the face of a classroom full of kids whose parents don't care? Presumably, since Ms. Riley refers to parents in the plural and speaks of her niece as "a smart, respectful young lady who has steered clear of trouble", Jazmine represents the best-case scenario at Buffalo's high school from Hell. And yet, even her mom and dad apparently won't gather themselves together sufficiently to contribute to their daughter's upward mobility. And this is primarily the teachers' fault?

Sure, there are some lazy, stupid, and burned out teachers operating in our nation's classrooms. But everyone who has been within ten miles of a public school anywhere in the country knows that they are a small minority of the total. Levels of competence vary, of course, but the overwhelming majority of school teachers works hard and cares about their students. Indeed, many of those who have given up have done so only after decades of walking past security guards and being stood up after scheduling meetings with parents who stopped trying years earlier.

If you can’t throw money at a problem, as conservatives invariably insist, then why is it that everyone wants to become rich? There are no doubt pathologies in our inner cities (and elsewhere!) that will not lend themselves to monetary solutions. But money can attract more talented men and women into public education. It can reduce the size of classrooms and allow for more individualized instruction. It can pay for the technology and other supplies that will allow poor kids to enjoy the same classroom benefits as youngsters whose parents read the Wall Street Journal's Taste section. And it can support early morning and late afternoon programs for latchkey children who must otherwise negotiate dangerous neighborhoods on their own.

In short, an infusion of financial support might just give hope to Jazmine's classmates who are neither so lucky as to have a successful aunt willing to help, nor so unlucky as to have one eager to spill the entire story on the pages of a national newspaper.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Lowest of the Low

It is now official. George W. Bush is the most unpopular president in American history, or at least the portion of history that post-dates the creation of computer punch cards. The Gallup Organization has been conducting public opinion surveys since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and they periodically ask their sample to weigh in on the performance of the current occupant of the White House. When asked recently to rate President Bush's seven years on Pennsylvania Avenue, fully 71% of respondents reported dissatisfaction with the incumbent. The director of the poll, commissioned for CNN, provides the following perspective:

"No president has ever had a higher disapproval rating in any CNN or Gallup Poll; in fact, this is the first time that any president's disapproval rating has cracked the 70 percent mark."

The previous nadir of presidential support stood at 67 percent disapproval and that record lasted for over a half century. George W. Bush has wandered into territory of failure previously unexplored by even the hapless Jimmy Carter or the reflexively corrupt Richard Nixon. Unlike Carter, Bush is the author of most of his own troubles. Unlike Nixon, he can claim no compensatory progress either in foreign or domestic affairs.

We've discussed this before, but Bush clearly continues to take heart in the fate of the man whose record for unpopularity he has now surpassed. Harry Truman, who has finally found the Roger Maris of futility to erase his own Ruthian standard, was not just the most unpopular president prior to last week, he was also the least popular. That he remains: a deluded 28% of the American public is still willing to rate W's performance in office as acceptable. On this measure at least, Bush has not yet dropped either to Truman's low mark of 22% or Nixon's of 24%. But it's only spring.

Truman, of course, is now generally regarded as having been an above average president. He was honest and forthright, which now, sadly, stands as something to praise in our leaders rather than something to expect. He oversaw the U.S. victory in World War II, the highly successful Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, and the reconstruction and democratization of Japan. By executive order, he required the integration of the American military. History has been kind to Truman because subsequent results have borne out the wisdom of many of his decisions: Europe, Japan, and South Korea, for example, are now free and thriving nations.

For his part, Bush looks to Truman and sees the possibility of his own rehabilitation, perhaps even while he is still alive to see it. It's a far-fetched scenario. Certainly, his legacy would be helped by the advent of a prosperous, de-fanged, democratic Middle East, but there is, at the moment, no reason to anticipate such an outcome. But then again, few back in 1945 would have predicted that the 21st Century would open with multiple Asian democracies contributing both to world prosperity and world peace. So anything is possible, though it speaks volumes about Bush's historical prospects that all he has left in his pocket is this single Iraqi lottery ticket.

More likely, George W. Bush will be viewed by history as a composite of the worst characteristics of every unsuccessful president who preceded him. He possessed Truman's bullheadedness without his vision; Johnson's deluded arrogance without his social conscience; Nixon's contempt for constitutional principles without his strategic brilliance; Carter's fumbling incompetence without his transcendent morality and goodness; and his father's patrician obliviousness without his intellectual depth and diplomatic skills. Bush even borrows the worst characteristics from two far more successful chief executives: he possesses Ronald Reagan's lazy over reliance on poorly supervised and power-hungry aides and Bill Clinton's overeager willingness to sacrifice civil liberties in the service of his political ambition.

For the first time since the sorry days of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, we have a president who is unable, at least plausibly, to lay claim to even a single domestic or international success. Bush's economic policies have resulted in (or, to be more generous, perhaps failed to stave off) rampant joblessness; the simultaneous collapse of the dollar and the U.S. housing market; spiraling oil prices; historically high budget and trade deficits; pervasive corporate corruption; and rising poverty and homelessness. As we speak, the country teeters on the edge of an economic meltdown that would make Jimmy Carter's 1970s look like a golden age.

The international side is obviously even bleaker. Two wars fought with such breathtaking ineptitude that America's very world leadership is imperiled. Under George W. Bush, international distaste for the United States has grown, terrorist recruitment has been made easier, and other global powers are gaining on and passing us while we spend ourselves in futile combat. The most powerful military in the history of the world has been extended to the breaking point, with four thousand young American lives lost so far. And the Iraqi people have experienced unceasing death and misery, rather than the democracy and prosperity that they were promised.

Say what you will about Jimmy Carter, but very few Americans or innocent foreign nationals lost their lives on his watch. Furthermore, despite his failings, Carter negotiated the most significant Middle Eastern peace treaty since World War II. The 1978 accord between Egypt and Israel represents an accomplishment that we take for granted these days, but will, I suspect, be recognized and applauded by future historians long after the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980 is long forgotten.

By contrast, the best anyone can say about Bush these days is that he overthrew Saddam Hussein (sure, but at what cost?) and that he threw a few paltry million dollars at the catastrophic AIDS crisis facing Africa. He promised more, of course, and could have—and should have—answered this fundamental test of world citizenship more vigorously. But even his strongest efforts have been inadequate.

I haven't even mentioned torture, but that, too, looms over the Bush legacy as a stain from which he will never escape.

The fact that George W. Bush is the most unpopular president in history should not even merit a headline from the national news organizations. The real surprise is that it took this long for the reality to sink in. Indeed, the headline should be the fact that, in the face of overwhelming evidence of incompetence, malfeasance, and corruption, more than one in every four people you meet on the street still insists that Bush is performing his job capably.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Mr. Bush's Five Year Mission, Unaccomplished

Today marks the five-year anniversary of George W. Bush's second most disgusting trip to San Diego, California. First place will forever belong to the morning of August 30, 2005, when a smiling Bush pretended to play a guitar emblazoned with the presidential seal while country singer Mark Wills and the traveling press corps looked on. At the same time the president was mugging for the cameras, coastal Mississippi was staggering from a blow that had leveled entire towns and the breached levees of New Orleans were distributing their deadly flood waters into some of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States.

Second place goes to one of the most widely publicized events of Bush's entire regrettable administration. On May 1, 2003, the cocky commander-in-chief, donning a ridiculous (for him) flyboy outfit, hitchhiked aboard a Navy fighter jet and landed on an aircraft carrier off the San Diego coast. He could have taken a five minute helicopter ride or even arrived via a Coast Guard speedboat. But this was Bush at his cockiest, the frat boy fulfilled and ready to lord it over every girl who had ever dumped him for a richer, smarter, or nicer kid. Sailors were used a props for this made-for-television spectacular and some genius in the White House P.R. office decided that the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, named for a far nobler president, should be defaced by a banner reading "Mission Accomplished".

Five years doesn't seem like a long time once you get past a certain age. But sometimes it's important to remind ourselves of just how long it actually is. If you are fifty years old, ten percent of your life has passed since Bush's act of maritime hubris. Entire classes of high school and college students have passed from their first day as freshmen through their graduation ceremonies. Anyone who bought a car on May 1, 2003 (and I hope, for your sake, it wasn't a low mileage SUV) just finished paying it off. Many of the men and women who will vote for president this November were in junior high school the day Bush dishonored the uniform he refused to wear when he was their age.

The problem with the passage of time is that what was once aberrant eventually comes to seem normal. Five years ago, nobody would have believed that the country would still be at war less than nine months before George W. Bush's presidency passes into the pages of what will certainly be scathing history books. Yet now the twin conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are such an accepted part of life that they even have their own regular slot on CNN, a program called "The Week at War".

Half a decade earlier, even after the horrors of 9/11, most Americans would have been repelled by the very idea of torturing prisoners of war. Torture was something that other, less civilized countries did, and our renunciation of it was a source of national pride. When we first learned about the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, the news was met with disgust and shame. But here we are now with the President of the United States admitting to the world that he personally approved the imposition of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on suspected bad guys and the story can't even break through the sideshow media obsessions with incestuous Austrian fathers and pitiful wives of West Texas polygamists.

Five years ago, the death of even a single American during wartime was cause for a headline. Each time the precious life of soldier or Marine was lost in combat the nation collectively mourned. Today, between one and two brave Americans die every day in the unforgiving deserts or the demolished cities and nobody screams out loud when the president calls it progress. In the month that just ended, 51 names were added to the list of those whose limitless futures were snuffed out in a hopeless war that arrogant, prideful politicians refuse to end. Almost nobody noticed.

In 2003, we were promised that our economy was slowly recovering from the devastation caused by the 9/11 attacks and that the cost of the mission that had supposedly been accomplished would remain in the millions. Today, the president's failure costs us over $300 million per day and the overall tally has exceeded half a trillion dollars. Even if all that money had been allotted to pork barrel spending, those "earmarks" that John McCain keeps yapping about, the country would have been far better off. Instead, our economy crumbles and the best solution the president can summon from his sycophantic advisers is a one-time rebate of a few hundred dollars in taxes.

And of course, sixty months ago, our military and civilian defense infrastructure was the envy of the world. Now recruitment is down to the point where we are enlisting felons, soldiers' families are dissolving under the strain of repeated deployments, and the stop-loss program reminds anyone who might consider a career in the reserves or National Guard that the only way they can be assured of getting out is never to get in. We are one international crisis from catastrophe and every honest general and politician knows it.

As for the Guard, much of our first line of homeland defense has been sent overseas to keep Bush's Mesopotamian house of cards from collapsing entirely. Thus, when the water rose on the streets of New Orleans in 2005, Louisiana's hapless governor knew she could not rely on the full contingent of troops that she needed. Perhaps the logistics of the disaster would have made their presence futile, but we'll never get another chance to find out. Or at least we fervently hope we won't.

If it were up to me, the FCC would require every television station every year on May 1 to replay Bush's "Mission Accomplished" ceremony in its entirety. Very rarely has a better cautionary tale been committed to video tape. It is almost as though we raided the catacombs and found the actual film of Nero plucking his violin amidst the flames of a dying Roman Empire. We may be far from finished as a nation, but we must never forget how little time it takes for incompetent, vainglorious politicians to push us toward the brink of disaster.

Happy Mission Accomplished Day, Mr. President.