Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Kerry and His Ilk Hurt the Democratic Party -- UPDATED

There is no conceivable political advantage to insulting the intelligence of the men and women serving in our armed forces, but that is exactly what John Kerry did in a speech in California. His exact words:

You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq.

Kerry is claiming the remark was a botched joke and that his intention was to insult George Bush … I guess the joke being that Bush’s C average in college led to him being too stupid to keep us out of Iraq – never mind that Kerry’s grades were just as bad. Kerry’s speeches are often obtuse and ridden with weak attempts at partisan humor, but even when you factor that in, it’s difficult to believe that quote was meant as anything but a condescending comment about American service members.

Kerry should apologize. He should have apologized the moment it came out of his mouth. But even if he does admit he crossed the line, it’s hard not to see this as an unfettered glance into the mind of John Kerry. There’s a good reason why Republicans were able to paint the senator as aloof and not “one of us.” It’s kinda true. He comes from the brand of liberalism that believes in its superior intelligence to the point of automatically assuming anyone who thinks differently must be ignorant (or crooked).

Kerry is a walking, talking symbol of what’s wrong with the Democrats and his wing of modern liberalism. He’s spiteful, condescending and politically clumsy. He defines himself in opposition to what he loathes rather than defining himself by what he hopes America can become.

If the Democrats want to reclaim their position as America’s dominant party, they need to quietly (or even noisily) push aside Kerry and his ilk. I hope to hear more than a few Democrats condemn his remark and prove, should America give them the keys to Congress, they won’t be advancing the bitter and tired philosophies of John Kerry.

Update: The Russell Record has some good thoughts on this.

Update #2: Kerry has apologized for flubbing a joke and inadvertantly insulting the troops. Meanwhile, a number of Democrats have criticized Kerry as I hoped they would. I still don't know if this was a flubbed joke or not. It's possible. Kerry has a history of bashing the President with really stupid cliches, particularly regarding Bush's intelligence. But it's certainly not out of Kerry's character to be condescending towards those he disagrees with. I guess I'll take him at his word because, really, this isn't a big deal as he's not running for office and his words shouldn't reflect on the whole party.

All Politics is Local? Not Anymore.

As I’ve tried to educate myself on the 30 or so elected positions for which I’ll be voting, I’ve realized that there is almost no way for an average voter to fully or even adequately inform him or herself on candidates outside of those running in the biggest elections. Even with the help of a sparse local election guide, most of us end up basing down-ballot decisions on little more than party affiliation.

Not so long ago, people chose to join a party for its local party leadership and policies. As we all know, a northern Democrat and a southern Democrat were once entirely different breeds. But not anymore. Perhaps through the forces of modern media and high-speed communications, there is a lot more similarity in attitudes and policy preferences among party members of different regions. National party identity now trumps local identity.

This trend, more than anything else, is why I think Democrats have completely lost control of Texas over the last 15 years or so. There is no longer any real difference between a Texas Democrat and any other kind of Democrat. But this is a conservative/libertarian leaning state. We’re simply not going to vote in large numbers for guys like Chris Bell (Democratic nominee for Governor) who seems like he could run for office in Vermont or Oregon.

The increasing influence of national party identity is not unique to Texas. The same phenomenon is undoubtedly hurting Republicans up North and out West as much as it’s hurting Democrats down South. The large tents of the two major parties are shrinking as both the Dems and the Repubs lose their regional variances.

Is this the reason for the increasing number of independents? It’s one thing to be a part of a party conforming to local opinions, but it’s much harder to join a party that asks allegiance to a national agenda not rooted in any specific local concern or attitude.

All politics is local? Not nowadays. In fact, so much of political identity is now national that any candidate who puts a D by their name in Texas knows they’ll lose a significant number of votes simply because national Democrats so poorly represent the average Texan.

I seriously doubt that the national parties will ever return to their local roots, but I do believe the increasing number of independent voters will eventually force candidates to rethink party labels and their worth. The current status quo is just not sustainable in a nation of such diversity.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Overplaying Iraq

The Democrats are set to run ads focused on Iraq in competitive races across the country. Everyone knows that the mess in Iraq is one of the keys (if not THE key) to the Democrats' resurgence this election cycle. But will running ads about Iraq really help or will it potentially hurt?

Most Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq and many even support a timetable for withdrawal. But the Democrats have to be careful how they position their intentions. The last thing they want to do is present any form of a defeatist message that over-emphasizes the "get out quickly, to hell with Iraq" attitude prevelent on the party's left wing. Voters who are still undecided at this point could be motivated to vote against the Democrats if the Dem ads leave the impression that a vote for Democrats is a vote for retreat and defeat.

Every voter in America is reminded every day that Iraq is a mess. And we all know which party has been in charge throughout the conflict. I don't think the Democrats need to risk alienating security-minded Independent voters with ads focused on Iraq. This is really not an issue Democrats want to get specific on at this point. They can spend their money on other issues not getting constant play in the news.

Where Republicans are Most Vulnerable

The right-wing news and opinion magazine, The Weekly Standard has a very informative article analyzing the districts in which Republican House members are most vulnerable. All these districts sit in a norther swath of the country the magazine as dubbed "The Blowout Belt" because, if the Democrats are going to stage a blowout, these are the districts that will yield the most seats.

Well worth the read.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Who Wants to be a Grownup

Earlier this week, Callimachus wrote briefly about the dumbing down of language and erosion of informality in our culture. Then yesterday on NPR, I heard an interesting commentary on the “wine and cheese liberal” slander that is often leveled against Democrats. And that got me thinking: is our culture forgetting how to be classy or even proper?

I have always had a liking for the formal and the sophisticated. Perhaps I am a born snob but more likely I learned the importance of propriety from my grandmother who, at 91, is still the most delightfully proper woman you’ll ever meet, even though she grew up on a cattle ranch in West Texas. To her and to many in her generation, life has levels. How we dress and act while doing housework is not the same as how we dress or act at dinner. Situation dictates manners.

A lot of people would argue that our increasingly informal society provides us with a broader freedom. That may be true in a general sense, but what are we losing in the process? Informality is, after all, the natural province of children who have not the self-restraint or understanding to act properly. When a grown man wears a ball-cap out to a restaurant or curses repeatedly at a dinner party, is he exercising freedom or is he merely being childish?

Society needs grownups. We need maturity. Formal modes of communication, proper dress and decorum, even an appreciation (or at least not a condemnation) of adult foods and drinks like cheese and wine provide our culture with necessary levels. It is not elitist to buy into such distinctions. It is merely mature.

But America seemingly confuses what is grownup for what is elite. A taste for wine, even inexpensive wine, is seen as snobbery. Formal rhetoric, no matter how commonplace it once was, is seen as aloof. A suit and tie is still acceptable, but in far fewer situations than it once was. Sure, if one only drank wine, only spoke formally and only dressed well they’d be rightfully labeled as out-of-touch. But just because someone can do all of the above doesn’t mean they don’t also appreciate a can of Bud, a crass joke and torn jeans.

Somehow I feel that our abandonment of the proper ties into the decline of our political rhetoric and leadership—not just among the politicians but also in the media. Civility has been replaced by a cursory politeness that easily devolves into disrespect. Earnestness has been replaced by stubbornness. Sophisticated ideas have been replaced by inflexible ideology and vapid catch-phrases.

This is not across-the-board. There are politicians and media members comfortable with mature debate just as there are still communities where proper manners are appreciated rather than distrusted. But, on the whole, our society seems to be slowly losing our ability to interact at levels higher than the informal. I only hope that we don’t altogether forget how to be grownups.

Schwarzenegger Beating Anti-Republican Trend

Polls show that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has a commanding lead over his Democratic rival. This is in a solidly blue state in a time when anti-Republicanism is at a peak. Yet Schwarzenegger is easily avoiding the pitfalls many others in his party face this year.

Why? Easy. He’s not a party-liner. He takes positions independent of national Republicans and, after a rough patch a year ago, has worked hard to build congenial relationships with Democrats. The style has worked because he’s found an untraditional base of voters who don’t demand rigid ideology but appreciate a more considered and centrist/moderate form of government.

This isn’t to say Schwarzenegger is perfect—only that there’s a lesson here. As the Republicans look to 2008, they should recognize that there are more ways to win than appealing to the strong-right base. That, in fact, appealing to the middle can lead to greater success in many situations.

There’s also a lesson here for Democrats as their candidate is a former McGovernite and the more liberal choice in the primaries. As Ned Lamont’s sinking campaign proves, what the base wants and what the general electorate wants is not the same thing. A truth both parties could stand to learn.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Why the Republicans are Positioned to Lose

Yesterday I laid out how the Democrats could still lose the upcoming election. But, let’s be honest, the Republicans are the more likely losers, sure to lose seats and in danger of losing one if not both houses of Congress.

So, if they lose, what will be the reason? Unlike the Democrats’ medley of unfocused vision, weary ideas and poor national organization, the Republicans’ fatal flaw can be summed up in one word: hubris.

In its modern definition (rather than its original Greek meaning) hubris is destructive arrogance, pride run amuck. It is a common trait of the powerful not exclusive to any political party or nationality. But it has unquestionably infected the GOP.

Americans, for all our insatiable interest in the powerful and influential, have little patience for hubris. Whether you are a movie star like Tom Cruise or a politician like Tom Delay, American culture generally punishes those whose arrogance blinds them to their own shortcomings.

For the last few years, the entire Republican party at the national level has given off an air of hubris. Whether it’s overstuffing spending bills with blatantly wasteful earmarks or overstepping their authority with the Teri Schiavo case or forming corrupt relationships with lobbyists or over-relying on one sect of Christianity to win elections and inform policy, the Republicans seem more interested in raw power and the advancement of a few key interests than they are in the common good of the nation—or even in their own proclaimed ideals of small government and fiscal responsibility.

The actions of Congress have only been compounded by a White House that has seemed superciliously inflexible on a number of issues, most importantly Iraq. The total effect is to make the entire party appear out-of-touch.

Twelve years ago, the Democrats paid the price for getting fat and lazy after years of their own hubris. In many ways, the Dems still suffer from a superiority complex that inhibits them from regaining the trust of the voters. But this year it may finally stop being about the Democrats’ problems. Barring another late rally, it looks to be the Republicans who will suffer the consequences of their failings.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Can the Democrats Find a Way to Fail?

I look into how things might turn out poorly for the Dems in a post at Donklephant.

The Problem with Pelosi

William F. Buckley takes a look at Nancy Pelosi and pinpoints why it is I find her so dislikable. She is part of the problem in modern politics. In fact, she is one of the main instigators of needless divisiveness.

She is a Democratic version of the deplorable attack-dog Republicans – only she isn’t as disciplined or shrewd. But make no mistake, she tries to run the Democrats with the same level of nastiness employed by Karl Rove and his surrogates. Her likely ascension to Speaker will do nothing to raise the level of discourse in this country.

Voting Democratic in these elections is not a vote for honest debate or greater civility. Vote for the Dems for policy reasons. Vote for the Dems as a no-confidence vote against the Republicans. But don’t vote for the Dems because they’ll do anything to heal the rifts in this country. They won’t as long as Nancy Pelosi is in charge.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Texas Election Could End in Surprise

I’m not accustomed to being an undecided voter. I’m the type of well-informed, highly opinionated voter who usually chooses a candidate six months or more before an election. But here I am just two weeks before election day and I don’t know who I’ll pick for Texas governor.

I’m not alone. In an informal survey of friends and family, I have yet to find one person who is 100% sure what they’ll do in the voting booth. Almost all agree Rick Perry, the incumbent governor, needs to go. But no one seems quite sure with which of the three major challengers we should replace him.

Admittedly unscientific, my polling of friends and family may indicate we Texans are in for a surprise. The conventional wisdom is that Perry will get just enough of the vote to win reelection with a plurality (around 30-35%). But all observers agree that the election is far from decided. If a good deal of anti-Parry voters converge on one candidate, then we’re going to have a new governor in Texas.

Right now, Democrat Chris Bell looks to be in the best position to gain the momentum necessary. But he still has to overcome a wet-blanket image that has left a lot of us voters looking to the much-more personable and fiery independent candidates Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn. He also has to overcome his party’s immense weakness in this state.

Personally, Bell is third on my list of candidates for whom I’d vote. But I’m growing more and more disillusioned by Friedman and people who know Strayhorn keep telling me negative things about her. So Chris Bell has an outside shot to win my vote.

It’ll be interesting to see how the election breaks.

Republicans Done In by Their Own Marketing

Here is the new White House line on Iraq, as iterated by Bush advisor Dan Bartlett:

"It's never been a stay-the-course strategy. Strategically, we think it's very important that we stay in Iraq and we win in Iraq. And if we were to cut and run and go and leave that country too early it would be a disaster for American policy."

The Bush administration is masterful at marketing. Where Clinton’s presidency was marked with a lawyerly ability to parse phrases and force wiggle room into any situation, Bush’s presidency has shown an MBA-style leniency with reality, preferring sharp marketing strategies to drawn-out logic.

When the marketing is backed by a good or at least desired product (think tax cuts and numerous national defense issues), Bush wins. But when the Bush administration neglects to tie a real deliverable to the marketing blitz (think Social Security privatization that was all hoopla and no solid plan), they lose. And that’s what has happened with “stay the course.”

“Stay the course” is reliant on the perception of progress in Iraq. If things were looking up, then “stay the course” would have been fine. But the intensification of violence makes the phrase sound like a hollow reassurance offered by a leadership beset by hubris and situational blindness.

Obviously the Bush administration has never meant “make no adjustments” when they’ve said “stay the course.” But when you live by marketing you die by marketing. To most ears, “stay the course” sounds as useless a strategy as “cut and run.” The result from a marketing perspective is that the Republican advantage is neutralized. Their positioning sounds as uninspiring as does the Democrats’ mealy mix of immediate withdrawal, quick withdrawal and timelines for withdrawal.

Continuing problems in Iraq have forced the administration to do the one thing it simply isn’t geared to do: convey nuance. In the sound-bite era, the media loathe nuance. If your ideas can’t fit into a catchy tagline, you’re in trouble because far too few in the media take the time to explain complicated ideas.

The Republican position on Iraq no longer fits into a tagline. Nor does the Democratic position. But, in this case, a neutral field is a Democratic advantage. One they look increasingly likely to ride to victory.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Who I'm Rooting For

Recently I’ve come to terms with the fact that although my stances on individual issues are all over the map, the sum total of my political philosophy is to the right of center. If both parties were weighted to the middle, I’d probably be a Republican. But that’s not how it is. The political gravities of modern America have moved towards the ends. So I sit without a party, trying to determine who I’d rather see win control of Congress.

I will probably split my own ticket as I tend to vote for the candidate and not the letter after their name. But as I watch the election results, I will root for the Democrats. Here’s the not-so-short reasoning:

My biggest concern about the Democrats is that many members of the party, particularly the hard-left base, clearly misunderstand the nature of the conflicts encompassed by what’s called the War on Terror. It’s not just that they have ineffective plans on how to deal with the threats, it’s that they habitually minimize the threat, believing it to be more a PR trick of Bush’s than a real and serious issue.

This is not me being bamboozled by the Republican’s attempts to paint the Democrats as weak on national security. This is me taking a hard look at what is said and written by Democrats and their supporters and concluding that a solid portion of the party lacks the good sense and necessary wisdom to adequately confront the terrorist/radical Islamic threat or deal with the problem of Iraq.

So how do I get past this? For one, it’s easy to be out of power and claim that threats are being grossly exaggerated. It’s another thing to be in power and make the decision to temper or cease efforts to protect the nation. I have full faith that there are more than enough Democrats serving in the House and the Senate to ensure Congress doesn’t do anything monumentally stupid on national security or on Iraq. Plus, President Bush has final say on Iraq and almost every national security issue anyway, so a Democratic Congress will still lack the power to enact a leftist foreign policy agenda—even if it somehow wanted to.

My other concern with the Democrats is that, should they seize the Congress, they will turn it into a Bush-bashing circus of investigations, hearings and even impeachment. While I have no problem with Congressional investigations into the executive branch, I worry that Democrats won’t bother to consider merit or need and their lust to go after Bush will eclipse all other concerns that face the nation.

But isn’t that version of the future really just a little too heavy with Republican propaganda? Nancy Pelosi has insisted there would be no impeachment and that Democrats would focus on real issues. Should we trust her? Is it really any harder to trust what she says than it is to believe the predictions of a Congress gone wild?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in politics, it’s that things never turn out as badly as the partisans predict. In 1994, Democrats made dire predictions about what a Republican Congress would bring. If even half of those hysterical warnings had come true, we’d be living under a Christian Fascist state.

So, if the Democrats aren’t going to get us all killed and aren’t going to set up a big top inside the Capitol, why not give them a shot at running the shop? Call it a two-year probationary period with Bush around to provide some checks-and-balances. Let’s see what they can do.

The Republicans no longer have a real agenda and are focused mostly on adding pork-filled earmarks onto spending bills and trying to get useless Constitutional amendments passed. Even on national security they seem to have lost much of their clarity and can no longer distinguish necessary actions from politically opportunistic ones.

So let’s find out if the Democrats can do better. Let’s give them a chance to stop complaining and start governing. Have they really skewed unacceptably far to the left or is that just an illusion created by the fundraising power of the liberal base? Are they serious about helping out the least among us without taxing the rest of us to death? Do they have a vision of a better America like they claim?

Give them two years and we’ll see what they got. If they blow it, we’ll vote them out and cast them to the depths. It’s not so much that they’ve earned control of Congress. It’s that the Republicans have lost the right to be in charge. Democrats win by forced forfeiture. They’ll earn no mandate. They’ll have no time for crowing. We’ll give them just enough skeptical trust to allow them to prove whether or not there’s something there.

I offer no ringing endorsement. I simply think we can afford to try a little change.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

More than Inexperience Stands in Obama's Way

Amba directs us to an excellent post by Mark Daniels where he lays out the reasons why Barack Obama shouldn’t run for president in ‘08. I agree entirely. Despite Obama’s glowing charisma and clear intelligence, the man is politically undercooked. He needs more time in the oven.

But I completely understand the push to get Obama to run. After all, he offers more than a magnetic personality. He offers Democrats a new direction. Many Dems know that their left flank is disastrously wrong. The party will not win by becoming more purely liberal. Instead, they need to be reconnecting with middle America, forging new alliances and leaving behind the heavy old grudges of the past. Obama is one of the few prominent Democrats who seems to “get it.”

Nevertheless, even if his campaign went as well as did his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (and it’s nearly impossible to believe he could maintain such a glorious high), he’d still be battling for the same ground that Hillary Clinton has claimed. Let’s not forget, as polarizing a figure as she is, her tenure in the Senate has been filled with bipartisan cooperation and earnest outreach to her political opponents. She’s claiming the middle and she’s the early frontrunner. That’s why most of the other potential candidates are setting up shop to Clinton’s left (even Wes Clark is flirting with the party’s liberal base).

Barring a radical shift within the Democratic party, the nomination of a candidate in 2008 will most likely be a fight between a centrist-leaning Dem vs. a Daily Kos approved left winger. There is room for Obama OR Clinton to make a serious run—but I don’t think there’s room for both. And I certainly don’t think Obama wants to get in Clinton’s way, creating tensions with the very powerbrokers and fund raisers he’ll need if and when he runs in a future Presidential election

Of course, I’ve just given the exact reason why so many want Obama to run. If the nomination ends up going to either Clinton or a left-winger, that will make winning the national election a seriously difficult challenge. A lot of Democrats want another middle-of-the-road Democrat to knock Clinton off her perch. Mark Warner was their best hope, but now that he’s dropped out, who remains?

Obama is the most obvious choice, but he’s also the Dems most valuable future asset. There’s no need to sacrifice him now in what could very well be a failed bid to halt Clinton’s advance. If Clinton is going to be stopped by someone who isn’t to her left, it’ll have to be by someone not currently in the public limelight.

There isn’t anyone with Obama’s charisma, but there very well could be a likable candidate with the right mix of wisdom and deep experience necessary to win the national election while keeping the Dems from falling off the left side of the political map. Moderate Dems should start looking because they’ll make a mistake trying to pull Obama into this race.

Monday, October 16, 2006

A Day Inside the Global Economy

This morning when I turned on my computer, I discovered that my Internet connection was down. That happens from time-to-time and I was unconcerned, knowing all I had to do was unplug and then replug the DSL modem. But my nonchalance ended the moment I saw the quickly pulsating lights on the modem’s face. It was in the midst of a death rattle and there was nothing I could do.

After an hour of slogging through AT&T’s soulless automated “help” system and speaking with several gentleman in Bangalore (just a guess … could have been New Delhi or Hyderabad for all I know), I was finally assured of what I’d figured out in a matter of seconds: the modem was dead.

I was first given a number to call and check if my warranty was still in effect—but that number dead-ended at a message urging me to call back during regular business hours. I’m not sure what AT&T department doesn’t consider 9:45 a.m. CDT to be normal business hours, but I’d like to work there. After another round with my friends in India, I eventually found my way to a nice young lady who sold me a new DSL modem and insisted she needed to email me the confirmation data—which was about as helpful as giving it to me in Hindi. She must have missed the part about my modem having committed suicide that morning.

Then again, maybe she knew I’d end up online at Starbucks because a day without Internet is a day without paying work for me. Hey, these massive corporations know a lot. They probably know I can only survive when tethered to the umbilical cord of high-speed Internet.

One thing though—while Starbucks provides fast, reliable wi-fi and a startlingly vast selection of beverages, there seems to be only one plug. And some other guy has it, meaning my battery keeps dying and I have to run home to recharge it.

Guess it’s just another day interfacing with the ever-conscientious global economy. Still, it's amazing I can get tech-support from India, earn a living at a table in a coffee house and then tell the whole story to a bunch of people I’ve never met via my blog. When I think about it, the sum total of globalization is decidedly positive--at least for a lot of us.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

What to do About Lieberman -- UPDATED

I wonder what the Democratic Party will do if and when the newly Independent Joe Lieberman wins the Connecticut Senatorial election (he's eight points ahead in the polls). The Dems may very well need Lieberman to caucus with them in order to control the senate. But what if he chooses to caucus with neither party? What if the successful campaign by leftists to nominate Ned Lamont actually ends up costing the Dems a solidly Democratic seat?

This could be interesting.

UPDATE -- I have since read that Lieberman has said he will caucus with the Democrats if he wins. But it will still be interesting to see how that relationship works.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Democratic Party Still Missing the Point

An editorial in the Christian Science Monitor puts the problem with the Democrats in clear and concise words. The party has yet to earn our trust.

America is not a country of intellectual voters. We do not calculate our ballots on the basis of financial or class interests. Sure, advocacy groups back candidates by virtue of their sympathy with cherished causes. But more often, voters base their decisions on sentiments that are more amorphous. Traits such as toughness and likability are key factors, subject to the standards that media establish.

Democrats should know more about checkout lines at Wal-Mart, and less about windsurfing. They should also show an ability to speak different "languages" depending on their audience. If they cannot speak evocatively to union members in Seattle one day and an African-American congregation in Georgia the next, they can't win.
It's not enough for Democrats to repeat: "We have had enough." They have to tell people what they'd get if elected. And they have to create trust in their ability to make Americans more secure.

Some Democrats have figured it out. Jon Tester in Montana is in position to unseat the incumbent Republican. Democrat Harold Ford Jr. is either in the lead or at least in serious contention to win the Tennessee seat being vacated by Bill Frist. Both of these men have appealed to the voters not with the intellectual/elitist affectations of so many Democrats these days but with an of-the-people charisma.

Doubtlessly there are other Democrats who “get it,” but the party itself is still off track. From Howard Dean to Nancy Pelosi to Al Gore and John Kerry, the party’s biggest names are decidedly not “of the people” (excluding Bill Clinton who no longer defines the party).

They exude a type of we-know-best elitism that is mirrored by the new base of Daily Kos, MoveOn types who are forever discussing the need to “educate the people,” presumably so the people won’t be so stupid and vote so wrongly. Unfortunately, this type of Democrat is disastrously unaware that their rhetoric makes them alien to “the people.”

For the last decade plus, Republicans have been the party that seems most in tune with the people’s will and wants. Now, a lot of that is smoke-and-mirrors, but a lot is also based on an earnest connection to the voters. Gone are the George H. W. Bush elitist types and in their place are the George W. Bush plain-spoken types. Whether you think that’s all show or not, the fact remains that Democrats have lost their populist aura and their ability to convince a majority of Americans that they are the party that can be most trusted to preserve our way of life.

The party-at-large still misses the point—or at least still lacks the ability to communicate the point. The Democrats best hope this year is that enough individual candidates can win on the power of their own personalities and convictions. The Republicans deserve to lose. Will the Democrats convince enough people that they deserve to win?

--To be continued soon when I reveal which party I’m rooting for in this election--

No Good Choices on North Korea

At Donklephant, Sean Aqui takes a look at the blame game being played over North Korea. Sean correctly notes that North Korea, not any U.S. President, is most responsible for North Korea building nukes.

Sean then links to his excellent analysis of Clinton’s and Bush’s North Korea policies.

My take is this: foreign policy is REALLY complex—a truth Sean Aqui readily recognizes but one many foreign policy commentators would have you ignore. Decisions are not cut-and-dry and are almost never obvious. Even 20/20 hindsight is blurry because we simply don't know, for any given situation, how things would have turned out had we acted differently.

I firmly believe that there has never really been a "good choice" when it comes to dealing with North Korea. Each president has had to pick from a collection of bad choices and then hope he picked the least bad action (or inaction) available. Would we be much better off had Bush, Clinton, Bush I, Reagan or any other U.S. president made different choices on North Korea? Maybe. It’s conceivable that different choices could have created a much more favorable outcome. But I tend to think that different choices would have just led to different but equally bad results.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

How the Center IS Vital

Several weeks ago, I wrote that there is no vital center. Those that call ourselves centrists do not exist as an organized political force and cannot be organized because we share too little in common on a philosophical and even practical level. In the end, I said centrists either need to step back and develop a coherent philosophy or we all just need to join one of the two parties and work to change them from the inside.

After some extended thought on the matter, I stand by my conviction that centrists are not and will likely never be an organized force in American politics. But I believe I was too short-sighted in the options I laid out for centrists. I missed a key reality, best said by Dean Esmay in a recent post.

Dean said: Centrism doesn't really exist as a philosophy, but it's still vital.

And that may very well be the truth a lot of us centrists have missed in our drive to organize. Our vitality is not in speaking with a unified voice. Our vitality is in our very existence. As long as a great swath of America is made up of people who choose not to conform to the dogma of one party or the other, both parties will have to be mindful of us. Those of us who give allegiance to no party require both parties to win our vote anew with each and every election.

The frustration, of course, is that both parties have become increasingly disinterested in voters outside of their base. In some ways, that’s the effect of gerrymandering, where too many districts are ideologically stacked to ensure a safe seat for the Democrats or Republicans. In other ways, the polarization is the effect of current events, with 9/11 being the boulder dropped in the lake, creating two large waves rushing away from one another.

Many have been caught up in the waves. Those of us who haven’t, feel left out. More than left out—we feel obliged to calm the currents, as if only those of us not caught up in the modern polarization have the clarity to end the polarization. Problem is, we are no less a product of our times than those we call partisans and ideologues. But where they have regimentation of ideas and real political power, we have a diffuse grouping of hermits, large in numbers but incapable of organization.

The truth of the matter is, in times of upheaval and realignment, the center’s vitality is not as a wall, thrown up to stop the advance of extremism. Instead, our vitality comes from our ability to hold firm, to not be drained and to still be here when the waters calm. That’s not to say we should sit quietly and wait. In fact, that’s to say the very opposite—that we should talk and talk loudly so that people know there is still a center in America.

We need not talk with one voice. We can be of a thousand, a million, ten million different minds. All that matters is that those in power remember that there are Americans who don’t conform to the political divides laid out by the two parties. There are people who may support the war but are pro-choice. Or who are against gay marriage but for heavily taxing the wealthy. Or who oppose free trade agreements while supporting privatizing social security.

The specifics don’t matter. What matters is for politicians and party loyalists to remember that we all won’t march in lockstep—that speaking just to “the base” may work right now, but it won't create long-term success. As the emotions of the day calm, those bases will shrink. But the center will still be here.

We need not be an organized force to achieve these ends. We may or may not be members of a political party. We may or may not have a core philosophy. But we must keep speaking—whether on the blogs, or in letters to representatives, or just to our fellow citizens. We CAN be vital without being organized.

It has taken me far too long to realize that.

Monday, October 09, 2006

How Long Now?

Since August 9th, 1945, we’ve been on a countdown to the next nuclear blast. Problem is, we don’t know how close we are to 0:00. That’s why the world gets so jittery every time another nation acquires nuclear weaponry. We sense the clock is ticking faster.

So the whole international community paused today and condemned, North Korea’s nuclear test. Strong but likely futile sanctions and non-military actions will be forthcoming. Everyone will talk big but nothing will really be done. Just like nothing was really done when India and Pakistan tested their weapons.

The real question isn’t how to punish North Korea (even though punishment of some sort is proper). The real question is: how do we keep these new bombs from ever being used? And that’s a multi-level question for which I don’t pretend to have all or even many of the answers..

However, I can point out that it’s extremely unlikely North Korea would ever use these weapons directly. To do so would be suicidal. After all, our enemies’ trigger fingers have always been staid by the knowledge that we’re the largest nuclear power on the planet and can destroy any enemy within minutes. As megalomaniacal as Kim Jong Il may be, he doesn’t seem hell-bent on ending the world – or, at least, his world.

No, North Korea has acquired the bomb not with the intent to use it militarily but with the intent to use it diplomatically. Problem is, now that they have nuclear weapons, what’s to stop them from selling a bomb or two? After all, with all the newest sanctions the nation is likely to face, an under-the-table deal to make some quick cash is hardly out of the question.

Surely the intelligence forces of our nation and of our allies must focus on ensuring North Korea’s nukes stay in North Korea. We certainly do not want to see the rhetorical axis-of-evil become an actual one with Kim Jong Il striking a deal with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad is, after all, a lot more likely to actually use a nuclear weapon as either a way to destroy Israel or as the catalyst to bring about the end-times—two goals he says he desires to achieve. A man that welcomes or at least doesn’t care about retaliation is not a man you want in possession of nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that North Korea may not be the most worrisome nuclear power. That dubious honor belongs to Pakistan where strongman/president/quasi-ally Pervez Musharraf is keeping a finger in the nuclear dyke. Should that nation ever fall into the hands of Islamic radicals, we could very well see a nuclear strike on India or even elsewhere. Pakistan the nation wouldn’t even have to instigate such an attack. All that needs to happen is enough internal chaos whereby the nuclear weapons fall into the hands of those willing to use them.

In the end, we’ve had a surprising run of 61 years without a nuclear attack. And we may last many, many more years. While proliferation undoubtedly increases the chances of another mushroom cloud, the real worry is the increase in people unconcerned about the consequences of using the bomb.

We should be able to contain North Korea simply because North Korea doesn’t want to be wiped from the map. But not every leader or faction is concerned with self-preservation. Those are the people we need to worry about most. And those are the people we sure-as-hell better be keeping away from nuclear weapons, whether they are self-developed or acquired from another nation.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Texas Four Step -- Debate Reactions

Tonight was the one and only Texas gubernatorial debate. One hour. Four candidates. On a FRIDAY night. Apparently, this is all incumbent Rick Perry would agree to. And that’s a shame because this has to be one of the most unique gubernatorial races in recent U.S. history. A four-way race that is competitive enough for each candidate to believe they have a shot. We could use as many as six debates. But we got just one.

Here’s my rundown of the debate, candidate-by-candidate.

Rick Perry – The current Republican governor came off as exceedingly blow-dried and somewhat bored. He seemed to have little sense that Texas needs improvement. Surprisingly, I did not hear him trump up his faith in his usual pandering to the Christian Right. But he did spend most of the debate pretending his half-ass governorship has been a boon to the state. I guess that’s no surprise. He’s never been a leader so much as a hanger-on who got lucky enough to advance into the top job when his predecessor (George Bush) vacated the position. I see no way I can vote for the man.

Chris Bell – The Democratic nominee was by far the least Texas seeming of the lot. Slick and effete, he is the picture of what the Texas Democrats have become—a party more in tune with the national base than with the average Texan. Nevertheless, I thought he did very well. He was a little over-eager to paint himself as the lone left-of-center candidate, but he seemed to have a superb grasp of the issues and some solid, if uninspiring, ideas on how to improve the state.

Kinky Friedman – The songwriter, poet, humorist, Independent and all-around Character (capital C) had an opportunity to really set himself apart as a plain-spoken, no-b.s. alterna-candidate. Unfortunately, he seemed ill-prepared for the debate and left me wondering if he really has the grasp of the issues necessary to lead the state. Yes, some of his solutions are the kinds of radical ideas I think we need, but he really came off as out-of-his-league. I have been planning to vote for the man but now I’m not so sure.

Carole Keeton Strayhorn – The former Republican and current state comptroller has been the less-interesting of the two Independents. But she was by far the most articulate, forceful and intriguing of the four candidates in the debate. Other than spacing on the name of Mexico’s President-elect, Strayhorn came off as the kind of smart, tough leader well-suited for Texas Governor. Her ideas are not as radical as Friedman’s, but they seem well-considered. I am now going to have to give her serious consideration.

And that’s that. The one debate is over and now us Texans have to choose based on a smattering of ads and news stories written or produced by news agencies that seem less-than-capable of handling a four-way race. My concern is that most Texans will be undecided on election day and Perry will win. Those of us who would prefer a change, really need to rally around one of the other three candidates

Exporting Fascism

Amba has a fascinating look at the very real connection between WWII European fascism and modern-day Islamo-fascism. Read the whole post. It makes you realize that as much as some people may say the West and the Mid-east are culturally incompatible, the reality is that the cultural overlap is far greater than it seems.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Hastert and Spinach

As everyone now knows, House Speaker Dennis Hastert is is some seriously hot water over the Mark Foley imbroglio. His entire career hangs on one question that always seems to arise during political scandal: what did he know, and when did he know it?

Make no mistake, the what and the when are extremely important. Hastert was not Foley’s boss in a corporate sense and his duties do not include policing the private lives of his fellow party members—so he can reasonably claim to have been in the dark. If all he ever knew was that Foley was a bit creepy, then should we really expect him to have done anything? I mean, “seems to ogle teenage boys” is not really grounds for an investigation.

On the other hand, if he had knowledge of the inappropriate contacts between Foley and teenage pages, then we sure as hell should expect him to have at least requested an investigation into the matter. To ignore such information is inexcusable.

Hastert claims he forced Foley’s resignation as soon as found out about the inappropriate emails and IMs. If true, then Hastert acted properly. But it seems that a fair number of congressional staff members knew Foley was more than just a little creepy, he was predatory. Are we to believe the House leadership never heard this? The Republican Party is, for the most part, pretty mechanized. I can’t imagine something like this never making it up the chain of command.

Problem is, with nothing more than hearsay to go on, there will be reasonable doubt as to what Hastert knew and when he knew it. The Speaker could escape the noose. But the party might still pay the price.

The Republicans are putting themselves in a position where they may end up appearing so irreversibly corrupt that the ineptitude/confusion/idiocy of the Democratic Party won’t really matter come the elections. It’s kind of like all the restaurant patrons who, during the spinach e-coli outbreak, decided it was ok to eat asparagus rather than spinach with their meals. I can’t imagine many diners particularly liked asparagus or found it an exiting or even decent substitute. It’s just that the spinach made people incredibly ill.

No one chooses the option that makes them ill. Not at the table and not in politics.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Biggest News Story...

...is North Korea's announcement that it may soon test a nuclear bomb. But what happens if they do?

The Christian Science Monitor has a great overview of what such a nuclear test could mean for us and the world. I encourage you to read it because this may very well be the number one topic in a very short time.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Finally, a Story Democrats Can Easily Tell

The political opportunism surrounding the Mark Foley story is getting pretty bad. Foley is a sick man who needs help. The story itself is a small and unfortunate one, worth a day or two of moderate coverage. If the Republican leadership covered-up Foley's contact with these boys, then that's a story too and worthy of more intense coverage.

But many of those who oppose the Republicans have reacted to this story with a disturbing amount of glee. (I don’t need to link – just go check out the numbers of breathless stories about Foley on any left-of-center blog.)

A Republican who's gay! Who has a thing for underage boys! Who abused his power! In an era where the lowest-common-denominator story gets top billing, this is just what the Democrats needed to cast the Republicans as hypocrites. Not enough people were paying much attention to the far bigger stories of incompetence in Iraq and at home. But people will pay attention to sex. And the media will always feed us salaciousness whenever they can.

I guess that's just the way the game is played these days. It'd probably be politically idiotic for the Democrats and their allies not to jump all over this. But does the reaction have to be so coldly and blatantly opportunistic? I don't believe too many people commenting on this even really care about Foley or the boys he coerced. They are just symbols to exploit for political gain.

And that in itself is a symbol of what’s gone wrong in our system.

Baseball Playoff Time! (and I couldn't care less)

So, the baseball playoffs are beginning. That great moment every fall, as the weather turns cool and ballpark lights cast light on the unmistakable Americana of … oh, forget it. I don’t care about baseball. I don’t even care enough to find a link to a story about the playoffs.

I’m no sports hater. I love, love, love NFL football and really, really like NBA basketball. I even enjoy watching World Cup Soccer. But major league baseball? It’s boring. Sure, I enjoy going to a game now and then, like I enjoy sitting on the beach. It’s nice to have a drink and zone out in a place where nothing even mildly exciting ever happens.

Don’t get me wrong. Baseball the sport is fine. It can be very fun to play and heart-pounding to watch. It’s Major League Baseball that, for lack of a more accurate description, royally sucks. First of all, they play a bazillion games a season, rendering any particular game rather meaningless. This was a fine scenario back before we all had 500 TV stations, the Internet, mega-movie theaters and everything else. But now? There are a lot more entertaining ways to spend my time than watching a low-stakes, regular season baseball game.

Secondly, only four teams in each league make the playoffs. Coupled with the insanely long schedule, this playoff format means most teams are out of the running shortly after the All Star break. That’s boring enough. But MLB makes it even worse by letting the richest teams horde all the talent, ensuring that, most years, the exact same handful of teams are in contention.

I know that some will read my words as heresy … possibly as unpatriotic. But I stand by them. Major League Baseball is boring. I’ve watched all of two games the past five years and I don’t plan to add to that number this year.

And why did I feel the need to share all of this? Because I think there should be a movement to shorten the baseball season by half, even out the playing field between teams and expand the playoffs. But I’m too disinterested to start the movement myself. Maybe by writing this, someone else will take the lead, reform America’s pastime and get sports fans like myself actually caring about baseball again.

Addendum: the author reserves the right to unashamedly jump on the Texas Rangers bandwagon should that team, at any point in its wretched existence, actually make it to the playoffs and advance.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Congress Drawing Dead When it Comes to Poker

Within the next few days or weeks, President Bush will sign The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act into law. This law is the U.S. government’s attempt to stop the prevalence of online gambling, including online poker. Already, corporations who run these gaming sites have seen their share price tumble on the London markets.

Online gambling, and particularly online poker, has long existed in a grey area of the law. While it is illegal to run an online casino or poker room from within the U.S., it has never been explicitly illegal for American citizens to play at online sites based offshore. This law does nothing to officially criminalize online wagering. But it does attempt to cut off the money by banning American financial institutions from transferring money to-and-from gaming sites.

The law is strong enough to have already prompted one of the largest poker rooms, PartyPoker.com, to announce it will bar American players once the bill is signed into law. Other sites will likely follow suit, although many have announced they are staying pat for the moment. After all, online poker rakes in billions of dollars a year and the poker world is adamant that poker is not gambling. It’s a game of skill.

Now for the full disclosure. I’m a poker player. I play recreationally but I take the game seriously and have spent many hours studying and practicing strategies. It is, without a doubt, a game of skill. Yes, there is a luck component, but playing well is all about understanding the mathematic probabilities and human impulses that comprise “luck” and using that information to maximize profit.

If you play well, you will win money over the long run. In fact, so many people make a living playing poker that the IRS recognizes “poker player” as a legitimate profession.

In a perfect world, Congress would figure out a way to legalize online poker, regulate the industry and bring in tons of tax dollars. But Congress, particularly this Congress, is not keen on studying matters and acting reasonably. Nope, gambling is “bad” so therefore it needs to be banned – never mind that most states have some form of legalized gambling, including everything from the lotto to Keno to horse tracks to full-blown casinos.

Banning online poker is at best shortsighted and at worst blatant pandering. It’s not a threat to the nation’s well-being and you’re not going to keep the money from finding its way to the poker rooms. All this bill achieves is to cast an aura of disrespectability over a profession that had just recently crawled out of its smoky hole (thanks to the popularity of poker on TV).

I’d hate to see talented poker players never try the sport because our government is throwing up useless roadblocks. I personally do not like playing poker online. But a lot of people do enjoy it as a harmless recreation. And many others make a living or supplement their income through online play.

I say don’t ban it. Legalize it. Regulate it. And tax it. But then our representatives couldn’t get on their high horse and claim to be protecting our values.