Friday, February 29, 2008

You Can't Say That on Television

Washington Post writer David Ignatius drew attention in his column yesterday to a new book by a former CIA officer named Marc Sageman. The book (Leaderless Jihad) apparently argues that the current threat posed by terrorism is being vastly overstated. Based on his experience running spies in Pakistan and as a forensic pschologist who has studied information on over 500 terrorists, Sageman concludes the terrorists we have these days are not your father's terrorists. He argues that the first generation terrorists (like Osama bin Laden) are greatly reduced in number and hiding out. The second generation of terrorists (those who trained in Al Queda camps in the 1990s) have suffered a similar fate. That leaves the third generation who are drawn to terrorism more the way urban youth are drawn to street gangs than the way fanatics are drawn waging Jihad against the west.

Undeniably, it's an intriguing argument. Let's even assume for a moment that Sageman's research is impeccable, that his logic is sound, and that his argument is substantively correct. Even then, you're not going to hear anyone talking about it this campaign.

For obvious reasons, Republican John McCain is not going to come on TV and say that the whole War on Terror is overblown. He's essentially running his campaign on the premise that he's ready to be commander in chief in a dangerous world at war. What good is military background, years of experience on foreign policy issues, and being correct about the surge if there's no war to command? (For an interesting take on the surge, read Michael Kinsley's Slate column from a few days ago.) Undermining the war on terror undermines the rationale for McCain's campaign as it currently stands. So don't look for him to be opening his mouth on the issue.

Likewise, you can't expect either Democrat to say anything about it either. They're already being portrayed as barely one step above white-flag-waving surrender monkeys. What Democrat is going to come up on the stage and say, "You know, I don't think this whole terror thing is that big of a deal after all." The mind boggles at what a Republican campaign would do with that. So don't look for the Democrats to raise the issue either.

What we're stuck with - at least for the time being - is a situation where neither political party can blink on the issue for fear of being called weak, while the essential reality of the threat we're fighting may have changed.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Transactional and Transformational Politics

In the March 10 issue of The Nation New York State Senator Eric Schneiderman has written a very interesting article that's well worth the reading. While you should read it, let me give you the bare bones version here.

The gist of the article is that there are two levels of politics. There's the day to day transactions or the sausage making part of the process. There's also the transformative level that seeks to change the whole nature of the debate. Schneiderman's point is that an effective progressive movement would need to have both. You need the transaction side to get things done and move the agenda. This, in turn, boosts the transformation side by shifting the whole landscape. Think FDR for this. Transactionally, he got all sorts of programs passed through the New Deal using all of the political maneuvering we know and love. Transformationally, he radically altered what we expect our government to do. Had he spent all his time "making sausage" or all his time giving speeches about not fearing fear we wouldn't be hearing much about him today. (William F. Buckley Jr. is another example of a transformational leader whose influence encouraged others to alter their transactional dealings.)

Though Schneiderman doesn't say so, his distinction is exactly the distinction that has framed the Democratic primary race this cycle. On the transactional side we have Hillary Clinton saying that she knows how to work the system and get things done. On the other side, we have Barack Obama saying that he will fundamentally change how things are done in Washington. The problem is that neither alone will work. Whoever the president may be, he or she will have to find a way to tap into both streams in order to be effective.

Ultimately, that's why I support Barack Obama. I think he is the only candidate of the two who has the potential to be a transformative president. Clinton, despite her boasts of transactional know-how, doesn't have that potential. And I think that Obama can learn how to transact business as president. He may not be totally ready on day one, but he'll get there quickly. I think it will be much easier to learn how to make deals than to learn how to inspire people and lead.

The choice for me, then, is between two well-qualified candidates: one who will do well, one who will do well and fundamentally alter how we think of progressive politics and politics in general. That doesn't seem like much of a choice at all.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Buckley, R.I.P.

William F. Buckley died today. In a contoversial piece for Esquire Magazine in 1969, Gore Vidal described Buckley as, "not unlike Hitler, but without the charm." While I don't agree with his positions, I do have to admit a certain respect for Buckley. Say what you will about his political ideology or his personal manner, but the fact that conservativism is seen as a valid political ideology today is directly attributable to Buckley. He was a prime example of a transformational leader (more on that tomorrow) who for better or worse has shaped political discourse for several generations. Though he was wrong, that achievement deserves our respect.

Swift Turbans for Truth

Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even as new polls show Obama taking a pretty good lead nationwide (presumably as Democrats unite around their soon-to-be nominee) another tempest-in-a-teapot-here-today-gone-tomorrow controvery kicks up. This time, it's over a photo published on the Drudge website showing Obama wearing a turban. The photo was apparently taken on a trip to Kenya and it's also apparently common practice for visiting senators to try on the traditional clothing of the countries they visit. The Obama campaign claims (probably correctly) that this is an effort to stoke the fires that Obama is a foreign born radical Muslim (and probably a terrorist too) that flame up from time to time. He took the offensive immediately and shot back at the underhanded tactics that would lead to that photo being released.

Let's set aside for a moment the fact that it's custom for our senators - our duly elected representatives - to go to other countries and play dress up. I'm more interested in looking at the wisdom of the response from the Obama campaign.

Now, we're told over and over again that if we learned nothing else from the Kerry debacle - I mean, campaign - it's that no charge can remain unanswered. The fact that swift boating has entered the lexicon as a verb speaks to the wisdom of the strategy. However, I can't help but feel that the strength and vehemence of Obama's reaction was a mistake.

Whereas the damage from the original swift boat ads came from the words in the ads, the damage from the turban picture comes from the connotations that the picture will raise for people. Words are easy (at least relatively) to combat with words. Pictures are something else entirely. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I'd say it might even take more than that.

I'm reminded of the famous story of Leslie Stahl, then a CBS news reporter, trying to run a critical piece on the Reagan administration. The thrust of the piece was the difference between the president's photo-ops and his actual policies. Stahl ran images of Reagan surrounded by smiling senior citizens while she intoned about his cuts to programs for the elderly. After the piece ran on the news Stahl expected retrubution in some form from the administration. Instead she was thanked. They knew that the power of the images was going to be greater than the power of her words. She's basically just run an extended campaign ad for the president.

In a more contemporary example, think of all the drug commerical ads where soothing images run while a dry voice explains the variety of unpleasant things that may happen to you if you take the drug. You'll remember the image long after you stop being able to recite the complete list of side effects.

Where I'm going with this is that through his campaign's reaction, Obama gave license for every paper in the country to publish that photo. In New York alone I saw it on the cover of multiple newspapers yesterday. Yes, each photo will be accompanied by an article explaining the broader context. But the campaign is putting a lot of faith in people's willingness to read the article and in the power of words to overpower images. While I'm hardly one to dismiss "just words" I think that's hoping for an awful lot.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Finish Her!

The writing certainly seems to be on the wall for the Hillary Clinton campaign. The Associated Press is reporting that in order for Clinton to clinch the nomination, she would need to win 57 percent of the remaining delegates. That would require Obama-like blowout victories in Texas and Ohio next Tuesday and huge victories in Mississippi and Pennsylvania beyond that. This is seeming increasingly unlikely as Real Clear Politics averages show Clinton at under 50 percent in those states with Obama right behind her. The writing is on the wall that the campaign is done, but Clinton persists, leaving the press and other Obama supporters wondering why.

The best analogy I can come up with comes from my days playing the Mortal Kombat video game. If I did well, there would come a point where a voice from the screen would shout out "FINISH HIM!!!!" At this point, if you entered exactly the right combination of buttons your guy would do something pretty awesome to "finish" your opponent. However, I was never able to get those combinations right and so my opponent, after wobbling around a bit while I flailed away at the buttons, would just fall down, presumably from exhaustion and boredom.

Not to oversimplify, but right now the Obama campaign is like me trying to play video games. The opponent is wobbling, waiting for the slightest breeze to blow her down and he's just not doing it. And it certainly isn't for lack of opportunities.

After the surprise win in Iowa, all Obama had to do in order to become president was win New Hampshire. Victory was in his grasp, the polls were in his favor, and the momentum was palpable.

But he didn't win.

Okay, South Carolina got the campaign back on track along with some other small wins. Now it was Super Tuesday, do or die day in the Clinton campaign. Obama was expected to win most of the smaller, interior states. All he had to do was win one or two of the delegate-rich coastal states and he'd be cruising to victory.

But he didn't.

And so the campaign has kept on. He's run off a string of victories with big margins and once again the press is clamoring for the final blow. The Clintons have even served it up, declaring that if Hillary doesn't win Ohio and Texas she almost certainly won't be the nominee. As Obama closes the gap in the polls in both states Hillary stands wobbling before him. Here's hoping that he can find the right combination of buttons to get the job done this time. Otherwise, it's a long wait for the next chance in Pennsylvania and I don't see her allowing herself to fall of her own accord in the meantime.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Feeding the Beast

A recent New Yorker article ostensibly focused on whether or not John McCain could reinvent Republicanism also touched on some interesting points regarding the media strategies of the different campaigns. The profile of McCain opens with him engaged in long, frank conversations with members of the press aboard his campaign bus. This is contrasted with the "overly managed" campaigns of Obama and Clinton in which the media is held at arm's length and only fed pre-chewed sound bites and talking points. Obama's campaign in particular is singled out for its similarity to the Bush White House in terms of message discipline and rooting out leaks with "frightening intensity."

If there's anything that the Bush media team has taught us, it is that hyper-fanaticism in message discipline does not work as a long-term media strategy. It can certainly be effective in the short term (and a campaign may be just the right amount of time), but over the course of a presidency the magic is bound to wear off.

To use a slightly less-than-flattering metaphor, the modern media is a thousand-headed beast with a voracious appetite that has to be fed 24 hours a day (if not more) in order to be kept happy. Faced with this reality, presidents must choose what they are going to do in order to keep the beast calm and well-fed. After all, even thousand-headed beasts will usually refrain from biting the hand that feeds it. What the Reagan White House did so well and the Bush White House tried to take even further was placing such an extreme level of discipline on those who talk to the press that no matter how hungry the beast gets, there is still only one story to cover: the story the White House wants covered. In theory this makes an awful lot of sense. Limit access to the president, everyone else is saying the exact same thing, and there's only one game in town.

Except that's where the problem arises. While there's only one White House and one president, there will never only be one game in a town like Washington. If the press beast isn't being fed at the White House it will lumber elsewhere at which point the White House loses control over the story. Suddenly, the White House isn't dictating the agenda anymore and isn't in front of the news cycle. This is what we've seen over the course of the Bush years.

At first, the press was happy to take what was offered and coverage was generally good. As time passed, the beast began to grow restless. The Bush communications team didn't recognize their changing situation (no surprise there) and continued to insist on one line a day, one story, one morsel. When the press insisted on more and they didn't get it from the White House, they turned elsewhere. Coverage has only gotten steadily worse from there.

While an Obama team (or Clinton team) might be able to improve upon the Bush structure, the system itself is fundamentally flawed because it is impossible to satiate the beast entirely with pre-selected soundbites.

So what is a president to do?

Interestingly, John McCain might already be on the right track. (He is also following in the footsteps of Franklin Roosevelt more than he would like to admit as he tries to solidify his standing among conseratives.) What Roosevelt, and now McCain, did so effectively was coopt the press by giving them a steady stream of information that they wanted, but with his spin on it. FDR engaged in long conversations with members of the press answering virtually whatever questions they asked. In doing so, he was able to give them the White House version of facts first, before they had to go out and learn about it on the street. By getting the first word in, FDR was able to shape the coverage he received. By engaging in frank discussions of the issues the press wanted covered, he was able to maintain his advantage of getting the first word in.

McCain seems like he is doing that now and it should serve him well. Hopefully the Democrats figure it out too. After all, even a thousand-headed beast with a voracious 24-hour appetite will think twice before biting the hand that feeds it.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

He's Baaaack

CNN and others are reporting that Ralph Nader is once again entering the race for president prompting millions around the country to slap their foreheads and say, "WHY?!?"

Let me first say, that on the whole, Ralph Nader's career has been a force of good for the country. His many crusades have actually done quite a bit to improve the way we are able to live. However, I have a hard time trying to figure out what he really hopes to accomplish with this latest run.

He is quoted as telling Meet the Press that "dissent is the mother of ascent." Let's assume for a moment that makes sense. There is no question that Nader is a reliably dissenting voice on most issues. There is even less question that Nader's chance to ascent to the White House is slightly less than a snowball's chance in a globally-warmed hell. Clearly, winning the presidency is not a realistic goal. So then what's the point?

Most long-shot, not-a-chance candidates say that they're running to influence the debate. But do we really think that Ralph Nader is going to have much impact on the debate this year? Never mind the whole 2000 Florida debacle, the guy has now run in each of the last four (maybe five depending on your source) elections. There eventually comes a point of diminishing returns for this kind of thing. By running yet another hopeless campaign with little chance of success, Nader is putting himself into the realm of men like Lyndon LaRouche who act as sideshows to the actual campaigns. He knows he won't win and more and more, he's making it hard to take his ideas seriously.

An Unlikely Constituency

What follows is a conversation I overhead two days ago at a free lunch program in a senior center in New York City. I am recording it as faithfully as my memory allows.

Old Man: I hope it's Hillary that gets the nomination.
Old Woman: No! I want Obama!
[minor bickering around the table for a moment]
Old Woman: I just think he's going to be the best.
Old Woman II: Well, after Bush.
Old Woman: Right, of course. I would vote for Bush again, but he's not running. So I hope it's Obama.

That's right. As reported first here, Barack Obama seems to be capturing the elderly, New York City, fixed-income, pro-George W. Bush constituency. Victory now is inevitable.

Friday, February 22, 2008

What We Mean When We Say Post-Racial

I have developed a true and utter hate for the use of the word post-racial when talking about the appeal of Barack Obama (or Corey Booker or anyone else). What's set me off this time is a U.S. Today opinion story that didn't even really seem to make a point worth the time to read the thing.

What drives me up the wall is how blantantly phony the whole thing is. First of all, if we're truly post-racial, why is this a term that only seems to apply to black candidates? It seems like you could argue that John McCain is a post-racial politician because he isn't making race an issue in the campaign. If we want to go down this road, just about any white politician since George Wallace has run largely post-racial campaigns, they just haven't been labeled as such.

What we mean when we say a candidate is post-racial is that they're black, but they're not mad at anyone about it (to paraphrase Mike Huckabee). I agree that what politicians like Obama and Booker are doing is different from what Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have done. But to call it post-racial is ridiculous.

School and Education Reform

I promised earlier this week that I'd offer something a little more constructive in terms of the direction that education reform should take. Not one to break my word, here goes.

First, school reform can't come at a national level. As I posted earlier, there's no clear consensus on what direction reforms in the schools should take. Changing broad governance structures or individual classroom curricula may help, but there's so much conflicting data out there that I would never want it to be mandated at a national level. I even have some pretty major misgivings about it coming from a city level. The fact is, every kid is going to need something a little bit different in order to learn and achieve their full potential. The other fact to keep in mind is that no one knows what those keys for learning may be better than the teachers in the classrooms. Any sort of school-based reform has to come from the bottom up and must be tremendously adaptable to the needs of individual classrooms, teachers, and students.

Second, education reform has to be much more than school reform. I was told once that trying to reform education by focusing just on schools is like trying to purify the air on one side of a screen door. What comes from home and the community doesn't stop once the child walks into the schoolyard. It's a screen door (or, more likely, a chain link door). If we want children to learn, we, as a society, need to make sure that children come to school ready to learn. Doing that means looking at what is holding kids back.

Despite doom and gloom assertions by just about everyone you meet, public education in America works pretty well. But there is a set for whom the system is failing abysmally. Generally, that set is the residents of poor, urban areas. If we want to raise up education in these areas (and I do believe that a rising tide lifts all boats) then we need to focus on more than the schools in these areas. We need to make sure that there is health care, libraries, food, and all of the other things that make sure a child is physically, mentally, and emotionally ready for school.

Some of this can and should come from the government. But it can't all come from the government. There must also be a commitment in these neighborhoods to the ideal of education. Attention must be paid. Speaking solely from my own experience and from anecdotal evidence from friends and colleagues, I say that too often this commitment is lacking. Some parents just don't care. Others do care, but don't know what to do about it. Either way, the value is absent and the kids pay the price. In turn, their children will pay the same price.

The catch 22 of all this is painfully clear. The way to break the ghetto cycle is through education. Yet it is exactly the ghetto mindset that thwarts education from succeeding in its purpose.

I don't know the way out. Hopefully greater minds than mine will see farther than I do to find a solution. But I do know that it is in this realm that the solution lies.

Wishful Thinking

After thoroughly screwing up pretty much every prediction they have made about which candidates will win the nominations (remember when Huckabee was going to surge to victory? what about Fred Thompson?), the pundit class is now focusing more and more of their attention on predicting the imminent downfall of the Republican party and conservativism in general. I guess they're trying to hunt after some bigger, slower game than those fleet-footed individual candidates.

The latest example I've found is this article by Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek. The magazine ran a cover story a few weeks ago about the death of the Republican Party because of the myriad disasters that fall under the heading of the Bush presidency. I guess this column just wasn't finished in time.

The point of all the stories and columns is that conservative ideals have taken such a knocking during the last six years that no one will ever want to vote Republican again.

If only.

The 24 hour news cycle seems to have not only sped up the rate at which we receive news, it also seems to have affected how long the writers remember what they've written. Not that long ago I seem to remember reading about the permanent party realignment that was going to sweep Republicans into power (and Democrats out) for the next 50,000 years or so. I guess time flies when you're having fun because now the pendulum has swung the other way and it's the Democrats coming into their glorious ascendency.

On the one hand, I have to admire the sheer, straight faced nerve of pundits who can turn 180 degrees so quickly without blinking an eye. On the other hand, is there really so little news to report on in the world that we have to fill space with another round of overstated and likely incorrect predictions? Let's let the Democrats win an election or three before we start talking about the end of the Republicans.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

That's the Point

Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson wrote a piece today that essentially boils down to this: even though Obama says that he's about unity and reaching across the aisle, he's really a liberal.

I was sent the link by a friend as a kind of warning to prevent me from becoming an out and out Obamaniac. I guess my friend was trying to tell me, don't get caught up in the hype because Obama's actually liberal.

To which I have to respond: Yeah, that's kind of the point.

Even with his fancy rhetoric and stirring message, were Obama not liberal (as I am) than I wouldn't support him (which I do). Reagan talked about morning again in America and while I'm all for morning, that doesn't sway me. Promises of hope and unity are good, but if the unity is designed to work for an end I disagree with, I would oppose it.

For me, at least, Obama represents a chance to build a new progressive coalition. It's a chance to move the country not just away from partisanship, but toward a more progressive system. That's the goal I believe in. That's also the New Majority that Obama says we are building. It's a new, progressive, unified majority. And you can't get that without progressive goals in mind. For me, at least, that's the promise of an Obama presidency.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

More on the Attacks

While I don't think that the Obama nomination is as sure of a thing as the pundits would have us believe, we do seem to be heading toward that moment. If nothing else, you notice that the Republican attacks are focusing more and more on Obama rather than the dreaded Hillary.

That the tenor of the attacks is based on fear and imminent death for all patriotic Americans if a Democrat is elected should not come as a surprise. That's been the general Republican thrust since about 9/12. It was brought to it's clearest iteration lately by Mitt Romney who said that the election of a Democrat would be a part of aiding a surrender in the war on terror. There's not even an attempt at subtlety anymore. Now it's just FEAR FEAR FEAR!

Interestingly, Peter Wehner suggests a very different track for the campaign to run. Should Obama be the nominee, this could end up being a replay of the 1964 election. It's up to McCain which way it goes. Should he take the high road (as Wehner suggests) it could take the road of the would be Kennedy-Goldwater match-up as a campaign actually about ideas and whether America wants to follow a liberal or conservative road. On the other hand, if McCain continues the Bush/Romney/SCARY route, this could devolve into a mudslinging Daisy Ad kind of campaign. Let's hope McCain has the decency to take the high road and has the courage to run with his ideas rather than people's fears.

The Attacks to Come

CNN's basically calling this election for Barack Obama (seven of eight commentators were talking about the Clinton campaign in the past tense at different times tonight), but the more important thing we heard tonight was the sharp attacks John McCain's going to use on Obama should the young senator be the Democrats' nominee. He went directly after experience, saying empty eloquence isn't real leadership (this guy doesn't help beat back that argument much). And he went on for a solid five minutes about the evils we face in the world, making a clear argument that we're sure to die if anyone but the war hero is elected.

It's clear: Fearmongering and belittling of a candidate with clearly inferior experience will be the rallying cries for the cranky Arizona senator. Time for this Democratic race to end -- we need the whole brain trust to figure out how to beat what feels like a pretty scary attack.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Is McCain Right?

The answer to the above question depends on what you mean by right. If you mean the sense of correct in his worldview and proposed actions, the answer is no. If you mean conservative, the answer is resoundingly yes, despite the bloviating of Rush Limbaugh et al.

Let's take just two examples of McCain's supposed liberal leanings: voting against the Bush tax cuts and immigration reform.

First, voting against the tax cuts was actually a pretty conservative thing to do if we assume that conservatives are the ones who want to be fiscally responsible and limit the size of government. The reason for his no vote was not that he doesn't think rich people should be allowed to keep more money, but rather that it didn't make sense to cut taxes without correspondingly cutting spending as this would require running a deficit. (This should be a familiar idea for anyone who's read Barry Goldwater's Consience of a Conservative.) Since Bush was actually increasing spending at the same time he was cutting revenue, the "conservative" thing to do was vote no on the cuts. In that sense, McCain was more conservative than our darling president.

Second, the immigration reform debate has been hijacked by morons and nut jobs so any labeling of liberal and conservative on the issue is pretty skewed. The Republican party seems to have taken on the general consensus that illegal immigrants (all 12 million of them) should be rounded up and deported. No one has yet produced a plan for how we should go about doing that because, well, it's probably impossible. Anyone who says otherwise is operating in a realm outside of reality. So McCain takes the position that we've got millions of people in this country, many of whom are contributing to society, and we should work with what we've got rather than chase pie in the sky notions of Old West-style roundups. He's not proposing amnesty or opening the borders to the poor, huddled masses. He's just not giving into hysteria. His position isn't liberal so much as sane.

(On a related note, The New York Times reported today that maybe the immigration situation isn't as out of control as we've been led to believe.)

The point I'm getting at here is that even with the issues on which he's being called liberal, John McCain is still taking on conservative positions. That doesn't even touch on the issues like abortion rights or war in the Middle East in which even the far right wing has to see a kindred spirit. There's no doubt that McCain is running in the primary in which he belongs. He isn't liberal and he isn't even really that much of a maverick.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Problem with Education

The problem with education is that no one knows what the problem with education is.

For as many people as you hear bemoaning the state of public education in the county you will hear an equal number of rationales for why things are the way they are. Like the joke about economists, you can lock three educational reformers in a room for an hour and they’ll come out with four conclusions. And they’ll probably be willing to fight to the death for each one.

Ask parents in good schools what the problem in bad schools is and they’ll tell you poverty. Ask the parents in the bad schools what the problem is and they’ll tell you racism.

Is it that standards aren’t set high enough or that too much time is spent testing the standards? Is it that teachers aren’t prepared with a good education background or that they aren’t prepared with a good content background? Is it that parents aren’t providing support at home or that teachers aren’t engaging the students? Too much phonics or too much whole language? School day is too short, school day is too long, school is just in the wrong part of the day for kids to learn? Each of these views has a devoted following who can offer up as many facts and statistics as you please. Each will say that if the schools did things their way all the problems would be over.

One of them may be right. Heck, they might all be right (though that stretches logic a bit). The one indisputable fact is that we don’t know. And therein lies the rub. If we don’t know, how do we fix it?

The nature of the beast is that we try to find the problem by finding a solution. Education reform often takes on a striking resemblance to TV’s Dr. House (who is considered reckless even in the fictional world he inhabits). House diagnoses his patients through treatment. If the treatment works, his diagnosis was correct. If not, on to another one until the solution is found and the hour is up. It works well in fiction.

If only education could be reduced to an hour long TV show. Maybe it could be made a reality show. That might get some results and some decent ratings.

Running these kinds of experiments on kids is something very different. The stakes are much higher because we’re talking real lives with real consequences. A wrong turn doesn’t just mean a big “uh-oh moment” before a commercial. It could literally mean someone’s life. Those are the stakes we talk about when we talk about education reform.

The point of all this is not to spread hopelessness. Rather I want to lay the proper foundation before talking about the issues. Despite the conflicting claims of educational salvation, I think that there is a way out of the forest here and I’ll share more of those ideas in a later post. The point is that anything I (or anyone else) says on this has to be taken with several grains of salt.

Issue One: Education

Education hasn't been discussed much during this campaign, but it must come to the forefront in the general election. There are distinct differences between Democrats' approach to education and that of Republicans, and this is an incredibly urgent issue, with millions of students being left behind every year. But more on that in coming posts. First, what should national education policy look like?

It's important to ground the discussion in the current system's failings. As John will likely point out, our system actually only fails those from low-income backgrounds -- upper-income Americans who avail themselves of their local public schools actually get a quite good education. But as Democrats, we cannot see that as just. Two years in the classroom in the Bronx has given both of us some perspective on the current system's failings. In my view, they are these:
  1. Poor leadership: New York City is rife with unqualified school leaders who see their posts as opportunities to impose their wills, regardless of the merits of their opinions. This is the principal (ha) failure of our current system. Any education reform should start with training principals in management basics (how to make the most of human capital). If principals in urban schools knew how to hire and cultivate talented teachers, how to set up cultures of excellence by investing staff members in decisions, and how to set a high bar and hold staff members accountable, failing public schools would be a memory.
  2. Poor, unmotivated teachers: In my view, this is a failure by school leaders and by the teachers' unions, who are put in the unfortunate position of having to protect and defend the jobs of incompetent people. There are, of course, many incredible teachers (and they should be rewarded for their success), but there are many unqualified, damaging ones as well, and they happen to populate urban systems in much higher numbers than is acceptable. Principals should have the power to fire under-performers, education schools and districts must make teaching a more attractive profession in which to work (an elite profession -- certain programs are doing just that), and teacher training must emphasize service to the neediest schools.

There are, of course, many other issues, but those are the most important, in my view. So what should the federal government's role be? It does not run local districts -- that's a power that, like it or not, will be left to the states. So it must set national standards and use its resources to cultivate leadership and strong teaching.
  1. Keep accountability strong, but broaden it: John and I had a first-hand view of how damaging the current accountability system can be to genuine, broad learning. No Child Left Behind should require that students be assessed in all major subjects -- reading, writing, math, social studies, and science -- and that assessments not be limited to multiple-choice/short-answer tests that often assess students' ability to understand the questions instead of the their actual skills. Performance-based assessments, though more difficult to administer and standardize, must be included in students' assessments to broaden the data samples we gather and give a more realistic idea of how students are performing. The federal government should continue to leave it to states to develop their own accountability systems, but it should more stringently audit those systems (to ensure authenticity) and should broaden the sample national assessments it already does (the nation's report card).
  2. Develop national leadership and teaching academies: Use the federal government's superior resources to create national school leadership and teaching academies that make the profession aspirational and elite. These should be not only incubators of strong administrators and instructors, but they should be national incubators of ideas and best practices, drawing the best researchers from the education community. Participants would be required to teach or lead a school in a low-income community and continue in a life-long commitment to the academies by testing new ideas and allowing national scrutiny.
  3. Develop a charter school incubation agency: Again, use the federal government's resources to create charter schools -- schools that can serve as testing grounds for new school-management ideas that would, when successful, be pushed out into the broader world of public schools.
  4. Fund universal pre-K: Students in low-income communities are behind before they enter their local schools' doors for Kindergarten. Fund an effort run by the states to guarantee pre-K, allowing every student to spend time in an enriching environment before public education starts.
Again, there are a number of other steps I might take if I were in charge of education policy, but those are the four most important, and the top three answer to those two failings I saw so clearly during my time in the classroom.

Later this week: an analysis of each candidate's education platform.

Desperate, And Ready to Destroy the Party

Hillary Clinton is showing no hesitancy about it at all: If she's going to lose, she'll bring Barack Obama and the Democratic Party down with her. Personally, I find it unconscionable, and it's right in line with both the 1990s (the Clintons were victims of that kind of mentality, though Republicans were saying "if we're going to lose, we'll bring Bill Clinton and the country down with us") and the reason I'm voting for Barack Obama in the first place. Clinton isn't making a positive argument for her candidacy -- she's in effect saying, "I may be bad, but this guy's bad too" in a year in which Democrats are and should be excited about politics. They're excited about both candidates.

This is precisely the kind of nonsense that turns people off -- slash and burn, lowest-common-denominator politics. Obama needs to rise above it for the health of our country.