Monday, March 31, 2008

Remember Howard Dean?

Remember when Howard Dean was cool?

It seems like not that long ago Howard Dean was the fiery presidential candidate out of nowhere (Vermont actually) who took the party by storm. He was the one who wanted to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. He was the one who made it okay to run against George Bush in 2004 rather than run as George Bush. He was running more liberal than Clinton, more straight talking than McCain, and more out of the blue than even Obama.

So what happened?

Somewhere along the line there Dean became chair of the Democratic Party. The renegade has not only joined the establishment, he's kind of become the establishment. And so now he's acting like it.

His recent remarks to cool the rhetoric in the Democratic primary are certainly welcome, but is that really the best he can do? The whole appeal of this guy when he ran for president four years ago was the straight talking, no nonsense, down to business, ready to rumble persona that ultimately exploded in his face. Maybe that brought him back to earth. Maybe he's mellowed with age. But what I'm reminded of most right now is a substitute teacher trying meekly to get an unruly class calm by saying, "Come on guys. Be nice."

I agree with him that the primary is not as much of a mess as some pundits are saying it is. I don't think an extended primary is going to kill the Democratic Party. But I do think that if the current climate continues, it's certainly going to hurt. Dean doesn't need to go around busting heads or anything (at least not yet), but he does need to stand up here and get things in control. The Democratic wing of the Democratic party needs something more than, "If you don't mind, please be a little nicer."

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Tom Cruise Effect

The big question when a scandal breaks is this: Will it or will it not stick to whoever is in the middle of it? Sometimes these things come and go and after a day or so of anxious pundit hand wringing they've gone gently into that good night where old scandals go to die. Other times, the scandal sticks around and haunts a candidate or politician until either a bigger scandal comes along or they get out of the game.

Matt Bai wrote a brilliant piece yesterday explaining why some scandals stick like Krazy Glue and why others slip away. It was brilliant for it's insight, depth, writing, and the fact that it's something I've said several times before. Basically, Bai writes that a scandal will stick if it jars against the general narrative of your campaign or fits the narrative that someone else is trying to tell about your campaign. For instance, the controversy over Hillary Clinton NOT landing in Bosnia under sniper fire will probably stick around because it jars against her claims of having tough commander in chief qualifications and it fits with the narrative that she'll say anything (true or not) to get elected.

I've been calling this the Tom Cruise Effect. The gist of the effect is that a news story will be made to fit the narrative that already exists about a person. That's where Tom Cruise comes in. In recent years the general narrative about Tom is that he's off the wall loony. Fair or not, I don't know. That's just the story. However many years ago, he and Katie Holmes had a daughter. There was a stretch after she was born that none of the press got to see or take picures of the baby.

Now, had this been someone with a normal, nice guy reputation (think Tom Hanks) the story would have been about what a great parent he was being by trying to shield his daughter from the glare of the paparazzi. But this wasn't Tom Hanks, this was Tom Cruise. And the Tom Cruise story is that he's a Scientologist nut job. So the story that I ended up reading wasn't about how great a dad he was. I was reading a story about a sinister conspiracy (interestingly, no one could really say of what or why) to keep the baby hidden - if there was a baby at all.

We've seen pictures of the baby now, so the media can breathe a sigh of relief. But the story remains instructive for our look at political scandals. In short, a scandal won't hold on if it comes out of nowhere and doesn't fit into any sort of narrative that has already been established. However, beware the scandal that fits the narrative. It sticks around and it makes the narrative even stronger. That can be a dangerous double whammy for anyone seeking office.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Conspiracy Theory

Well, spring has sprung and the conspiracy theories are in full bloom. The latest one that I've been seeing from time to time was just printed in the Times in Maureen Dowd's latest column. The latest theory is that Hillary knows she's lost this election to Obama. Knowing that, she's now running a campaign to destroy Obama's chances in the general election so that in 2012 she can run again, this time without Obama to spoil her chances.


Interesting, but somewhat unbelievable.

Now, in case you haven't picked up on the trend from earlier posts I'm not the biggest Hillary fan. I 100% agree with anyone who says that her current strategy is damaging to the party. As I wrote a few days ago, the strategy she's using is going to hurt whichever Democrat makes it into the general election, even if it's her.

But is she intentionally trying to sabotage the party for her own ends?

I don't know Hillary Clinton or anyone who works with her or is friends with her. So obviously, I have no idea and couldn't say anything definitively. However, I find it hard to believe. My guess is that this is a case of an ego that doesn't know it's not supported by facts any longer. Like Woody Allen still casting himself as a romantic lead with 25-year-olds or an over the hill pitcher still trying to overpower hitters with a mediocre fast ball, Hillary just can't look into the mirror and say, "You know what? It's time to hang 'em up." I just hope that someone brings her to her senses and soon.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Progressive Takeover

Kind of a strange thing has happened and I haven't been seeing a lot of notice about it. Somewhere along the line, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party took over. Not only have they taken the party, but they've taken a pretty good chunk of America too. So brilliant has this takeover been, that the ideas they espouse are pretty much just mainstream ideas for an awfully big chunk of the country.

What got me thinking about this is a recent article in The Nation team-written by Tom Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Danny Glover, and Barbara Ehrenreich. The article says that progressives should vote for Obama in this election because he's the one who has the best chance of getting a progressive agenda enacted.

Note, they did not say that he is the candidate with the most progressive agenda. They said he's the one most likely to get it done. We've been hearing for months that there's very little in the way of policy differences between Clinton and Obama. That's not because both of them are so moderate. It's because they've both staked out such progressive opinions.

Compare this state of affairs to the election even four years ago. Can you imagine in 2004 two candidates arguing over who would pull the most troops out of Iraq fastest? Can you imagine two candidates debating which universal health care system is best? The general policy assumptions are agreed upon - we need to leave Iraq, the government should create a universal health care system - now the debate (like the devil) is in the details. What a stunning transformation in such a short time frame.

The other development we're seeing is that one-time liberal ideas are just ideas now. Social security, Medicare, Medicaid, federal funding of education, increased attention to the environment. The list goes on. Each item on it was once considered the domain of the far left. Now they're just assumed to be platform pillars in both parties - even the Republicans.

Now, obviously some progressive ideas are more progressive than others. John McCain's vision is still strikingly different from Barack Obama's. But you've gotta admit, the general trend here is encouraging.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Political Battles and Wars

I've tried to give Hillary Clinton the benefit of the doubt throughout this election. Yes, she and her surrogates have done some things that I might classify as slimy. But I still tended to think that she was doing what she thought was best for the party and the country. At this point, I find that argument a tough one to make. Now it's about ego or something. I just can't figure it out.

As has been clear for nearly a month now, Clinton will not be able to overtake Obama's delegate lead unless she wins over the superdelegates in sufficient numbers to overturn the popular vote. The only way to do that, as Adam Nagourney writes for the New York Times, is to tear down Obama to the point where he's seen as unelectable. That's it. That's her big hope. And she's certainly being pretty audacious about pursuing it.

Now, there are several problems with this approach. First, is that it depends on the inherently undemocratic idea that the superdelegates (the Democratic Party elites) will overturn the popular will (the people who actually voted). This is troubling enough in itself. However, the plan goes further in that it requires her to basically destroy the man who's brought more new voters into the process than ever before. Indisputably, Obama has tapped a whole new electorate for the Democratic Party. I'm not saying that this entitles him to the nomination. If he were still to lose based on the votes, that's one thing. But a political kneecapping like this is very different. A candidate who wins the nomination following that game plan is one who will be entering the general election with a severely divided so-called base. This is not a winning strategy long-term.

And speaking of the general election, let's look at the implications there. At least part of the time, Clinton is campaigning as McCain. Saying things like she and McCain have passed their commander-in-chief test (whatever that means) is essentially ceding McCain his strongest point come the general election. Neither candidate is going to be able to beat McCain on experience. The only shot on that front is to say that he's experienced but wrong. Hillary, if she somehow becomes the nominee, has essentially given up the right to say that. Obama, will now have a tougher time making that point because Hillary said McCain is right. Doesn't anyone think beyond next week in this campaign?

And don't get me started on the message boards and blog posts saying Obama needs to drop out because he can't win and he's just hurting the party by dragging this thing out. Were he in Hillary's position, I would agree. But he's not. He's winning, in fact. The only one in Hillary's position is Hillary, and I couldn't agree more that the one who's losing needs to get out now before real damage gets done.

Obama has a chance to win the election and do real good for this country. Hillary's only chance to win the battle and the nomination will certainly lose her the war.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The (In)Equity Project

Yet another story about charter schools has been brought to my attention. This time, a school is being founded around the idea that paying teachers more will attract more top-flight teachers, which in turn will lead to greater student achievement. I think this is all true. In order to test this premise, the new school, The Equity Project, will be paying its teachers $125,000 a year and up to $25,000 in performance incentives. Not to state the obvious, but that's a whole lot of money.

In the New York Times story about the new school, the school is being presented as an experiment in increased teacher pay and in charter schools in general. However (as is often the case when we start talking about charter schools), I have serious misgivings about what we're actually going to learn from this experiment, rather than what we're going to perceive to learn from this experiment.

First of all, let's assume that the program is a success. Let's assume that the students at this school perform significantly better than their public school counterparts. The assumption will be that this was caused by better teachers and the better teachers were attracted by better pay. And that may be the case.

But it may also be the case that the students perform better because they have more engaged parents. While the students are selected by a lottery, the parents still have to be engaged enough to enter their child into that lottery. Even that small step means that they're engaged in the process somewhat more than what may be the case for the average public school parent. Clearly, having engaged parents will help children.

Also at the school, there will be different discipline structures than public schools, a non-unionized staff, longer hours, and a host of other differences from your standard public school. Anyone trying to compare apples to apples here is going to be pretty much out of luck.

Even beyond the impossibility of meaningful comparison between this charter school and a public school, I worry about some of the tactics that are being used. The principal of the school says in the article that he's not interested in hiring first-year teachers. That means that everyone he's hiring is already in the school system is in one way or another. Pulling these top-flight teachers out of their current schools really amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul. Unless you're bringing new teachers into the system (which The Equity Project is not) then you're talking a zero sum game. An increase in good teachers at one school becomes a decrease in quality teachers at another school. In that light, The Equity Project becomes a rather ironic name for the school indeed.

A related concern is that this project cannot be widely duplicated if it does work. The whole premise of the project is that paying teachers above the prevailing wages will attract better teachers. If everyone starts trying to pay above the prevailing wage, then that new elevated salary becomes the prevailing wage. And then you're back where you started. Because you aren't trying to attract new teachers into the system, nothing has been accomplished for the kids.

What this school scheme is doing is showing that people within a profession will seek the highest salary they can in their profession. Well, duh! A-Rod demonstrated that years ago to anyone who was paying attention. I don't see it bringing equity and I don't see it creating meaningful education reform.

I have no doubt that this school will produce results. Similarly I have every expectation that when it does it will be hailed as a prototype for new school reforms. Maybe the seeds are there for reform, but this isn't it. Don't buy the hype.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Three Quick Thoughts

1. In terms of endorsements, I think Bill Richardson's endorsement of Barack Obama is a pretty big one. I don't think it's big in the Al Gore sense where suddenly public opinion will really start coalescing unanimously around him. There's still a lot of work to do on that front. Rather, I think it's big in terms of super delegate psychology. Remember, Bill Richardson has been widely speculated to be in the running for the vice presidency. He also has a lot of ties to the Clintons. That he would throw his weight behind Obama indicates that he believes Obama is going to be the one who wins. Again, not a hugely compelling argument in an election, but in terms of shifting super delegates, this counts as a big plus.

2. In preparing to endorse Obama, Richardson is quoted as saying, Obama will be a "historic and a great president, who can bring us the change we so desperately need by bringing us together as a nation here at home and with our allies abroad." In saying so, he's touching on a point that I've made earlier, that Obama represents the chance for a truly transformational presidency, rather than just a transactionally skilled presidency. As Joel Klein writes in Time Magazine, the big question is whether or not 2008 will be a big election or a small election. If either of the Democrats is elected, it will be a historic election, at least for a while. But once the buzz of first __________ president dies down, what then? If it's Obama there's a chance for more. If it's Clinton, the demographic change in the White House is all we get.

3. Lastly, in the news of the weird file, it seems that Obama's passport file was looked at by unauthorized contractors on at least three separate occasions this year. While it's tempting to chalk this up to more privacy invasions from the Bush administration, I don't really know what's going on here. Hence, news of the weird.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Turning the Tide (again)

This seems to be the season for political rebirths, or at least redirections. First, it was John McCain swooping into the Republican nomination. Then it was Hillary Clinton's stubborn refusal to lose a big state and just end the whole thing. Now it's Barack Obama who's making his comeback.

I know the newshounds among you may point out that as he's been leading the entire time, it's a a little hard to argue that Obama is making a comeback now. But I'm not talking about delegates or states or popular votes. I'm talking about in hearts and minds. I have to say that the last few days, for me at least, have led to a big comeback in those areas.

I don't want to give the impression that I was starting to lean toward another candidate or anything like that. However, I had noticed in myself a decrease in passion for my candidate of choice. I still wanted him to win, but I was much less convinced that he would win and felt my enthusiasm for the whole campaign starting to diminish. Given the national poll numbers during this time, I can only assume that I wasn't alone in this.

But after the week he's having, I'm back and better than ever.

First, there was his tremendous speech on race in America. Talk about reseizing control over a story. After days of being battered about his pastor and months about being battered about race in general, here was Obama defying the conventional political wisdom to tackle the race issue head on. And what a job he did. A clear, eloquent, insightful, and (of course) hopeful analysis of where we are with race and where we can go. Just in time to remind me how badly I want this guy to be president. Especially given the current administration, an Obama presidency would be a masterful change of direction.

Speaking of changes in direction, yesterday Obama pulled another masterstroke with his speech commemorating five years in Iraq. Once again, he took on a big controversial issue. This time he just shredded the opposition viewpoint ("there is a security gap in this country -- a gap between the rhetoric of those who claim to be tough on national security, and the reality of growing insecurity caused by their decisions") and articulated a new vision for what American foreign policy can and should be.

For me, about three days ago will be the high water mark for the Hillary campaign and for my sense of despair (maybe malaise is more accurate) for this election. In two speeches in two days, Barack Obama turned that around. This is the man who should be president.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Eighth Grade Insanity

Well, New York City's education system just got a little more insane. And in a nice change of pace, this time the insanity isn't coming from the kids.

On Monday, the Department of Education created a new policy that all eighth graders have to pass core subject area classes and score at a basic level on statewide tests in order to move on to high school. There are already high stakes tests in third, fifth, and seventh grades. This latest move is just one more high stakes test that does nothing to actually boost achievement in schools.

On the surface, this sounds like a reasonable plan. As Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said, "In the end, passing kids through the system without making sure they’re ready for the next grade level is not a formula for success. Our job is not to move a kid out of middle school; our job is to move a kid from middle school to high school, prepared for high school.”

Fair enough, Joel. But you're forgetting a major part of that plan: the preparing them for high school part!

Such is the focus on accountability and high stakes testing right now that it alone has become the educational plan in NYC and across the country. Give the kids tests, punish them if they don't pass, and the system will get better seems to be the logic. How do you punish them? Well, you make them do the grade over again.

That's where the insanity comes in. I've always heard that a functional definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting different results. Obviously, that's crazy. And just as obviously it's what the DOE is doing now. They aren't working to address the middle school crisis in the city. They aren't providing additional supports for the kids who are struggling. They aren't being sane. They're just saying, try again, try again, try again.

Accountability for kids is all well and good. But alone it's not an educational philosophy or strategy. You still need to find a way to teach the kids.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Penumbras, Guns, and Abortion

A lot more than gun rights may be at stake when the Supreme Court hears arguments today in the case District of Columbia v. Heller. The case immediately at hand is whether or not Washington, D.C.'s ban on individual gun ownership is legal or if the Constitution guarantees individuals the right to bear arms.

A quick walk down Constitution lane. As it was written by the Founding Fathers, the second amendment says, "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.'' So, in the Constitution, the right to bear arms is explicitly tied to the formation and existence of a well regulated militia. Clearly, random people owning handguns in their homes is not a well regulated militia. As such, D.C. says that it has not violated any Constitutional rights by banning individual weapons. The argument goes that there is a collective, not individual, right to have a gun. Clearly, others (the NRA being foremost among them) disagree. And that brings us to the lawsuit before the court today.

There's been a lot of writing about how the court hasn't really heard a gun rights case in 69 years and how the second amendment has never been comprehensively interpreted. And in that sense, this could be a big case. However, I want to know how this case applies to abortion rights.

Pretty much since the day that Roe v. Wade was issued, it's been attacked for inventing rights that don't exist in the Constitution. (Technically, this isn't accurate. The right to privacy was actually invented in the case Griswold v. Connecticut. But that's not really the point here.) Strict constructionist judges (think Scalia) say that we need to look at what the Constitution really says and that it's not the role of judges to go around saying what should be in there or not. This sparks an elaborate argument that I won't go into just now. However, keep in mind that the position usually staked out by the conservative justices is one of strict construction that shuns the so-called "penumbras" of implied rights that "emanate" from the explicit rights laid out in the Constitution.

And yet, now in order to find an individual right to bear arms unconnected with a well regulated militia, the court would have to find a conservative version of those very penumbras that gave us the right to privacy. A strict reading of the Constitution would lead us to think that the right to bear arms is tied to the existence of a well regulated militia. Absent that, the Constitution is silent. That being the case, states have the power to make their own decisions on the matter (thank you tenth amendment) and the D.C. ban should be valid. However, if there is an implied right for individuals to own guns (say, from the second, ninth, and fourteenth amendments) then why could there not also be an implied right to privacy, and with it, the right to have an abortion?

While the arguments will be held today, we won't get the decision for months yet. And my guess is that when we do hear the court's ruling, it will follow the O'Connor model of a narrowly written opinion that doesn't address the sweeping issues at stake. But maybe it will. And if it does, it will be very interesting to see what the court thinks.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Wastes of Time and Wire Taps

I've made the editorial decision to pretty much ignore the latest tempest in a teapot controversy surrounding Barack Obama's pastor. Frankly, I don't see it as a big deal. The only thing it really does is give us a preview of what the weeks leading up to the Pennsylvania primary are going to look like. The Obama campaign took down Ferraro from the Clinton campaign. Now the Clinton campaign has taken down Wright from the Obama campaign. Maybe now they'll go back to real campaigning. Somehow, I doubt it.

On a note of actual substance, Julian Sanchez wrote a great article in the Los Angeles Times over the weekend about the real dangers of wire tapping. First, Sanchez makes the point that pretty much since the wire tap was invented, political leaders have used it against their enemies to forward their own ends and seek more power. This was all done in the name of national security of course. But, you know, once you start violating the Constitution it's hard to stop.

Sanchez also refutes the argument that if you are a regular, law-abiding citizen who doesn't spend his free time consorting with terrorists, you don't really have anything to worry about, even if the government is listening in on you. That always bothered me as a slippery slope toward Big Brother in which all opposition is crushed by, "What do you have to hide?"

Sanchez, however, points out that most of us never have and never will invoke our first amendment rights (or many other Constitutional guarantees, come to think of it). But while we may not have anything particularly controversial to say, we recognize the importance of allowing others to say controversial things for the sake of our democracy.

When we start allowing our liberties to be taken, we lose our freedom. In a nation built on liberty and justice for all, that's simply unacceptable.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Of Rules and Revotes

All the sturm und drang regarding the Florida and Michigan primaries has made me think about an interview I heard once with a Major League Baseball umpire. The interviewer asked what was the hardest call the umpire had to make. The ump replied, "Throwing the coach out of the game when he comes out to argue my bad call." What a great answer, I thought. The ump knows that you can't back down and try to change the rules midway through the game, even if it was a bad call. Once the call is made, it's made. Anything else leads to anarchy.

Which brings us to Florida and Michigan. Just in case you haven't been paying attention this year, those two states lost their delegates to the Democratic convention by scheduling primaries too early in the year. They were trying to increase their own importance in the process by getting in the game early. The DNC stripped both states of their delegates and the candidates agreed not to campaign there. Clinton won both primaries (though with only about 55% of the vote in Michigan, shocking since hers was the only name on the ballot) and now says that either the votes should be counted or that some sort of revote should take place. Not a terribly surprising stance for her to take given the increasing desperation with which she needs to win delegates.

I hear the arguments that the Democratic Party shouldn't alienate two battleground states right off the bat and should probably try to come up with some sort of compromise. I also agree that stripping the states of all their delegates was probably not the wisest move Howard Dean and his crew could have made. But I can't shake the feeling that the rules are the rules. I say this not just as an unashamed Obama partisan, but also as someone who thinks we have to actually abide by the rules we agree to abide by.

The fact is, Michigan and Florida tried to cheat. Now, maybe they're right that the system is wrong to invest so much importance in Iowa and New Hampshire. But that's not a justification. Just because the SAT may be culturally biased doesn't mean we should let poor and minority kids cheat on it. These two states knew the rules and tried to beat them for their own ends. Now that they got caught and suffered the consequences, they want a do-over. This do-over would likely give them more clout than had they been allowed to vote early when their primaries were scheduled. Is that fair? You can bet that some super Tuesday states sure wish right now that they hadn't rushed to the front and could hold a crucial, late in the game election on a day all to themselves right now. Should we allow them to hold a re-vote?

The fact is that 48 states followed the rules for better or worse. And the thing about rules is we can't go around bending or breaking them when it's convenient. Then we don't have rules at all. We have anarchy.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

New York Snapshot

Just a picture of what's happening here in the state:

It's looking like New York City Councilman Dennis Gallagher will be resigning from his position as part of a plea agreement stemming from charges that he'd raped a grandmother in his office over the summer.

The funny thing about this (relatively speaking, I guess) is that if you go to the main New York Times page there's no mention of this because of all the Spitzer coverage. Such is the state of New York politics right now that the resignation of a grandmother-raping Councilman doesn't quite make the main page. What a world.

New York. It's a hell of a town.

What About Barack?

As the smoke clears over the remains of what was once Eliot Spitzer's promising career, it's time to look at the important question: What does this mean for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?

The general tone of articles I've seen is that this isn't going to have much of an impact, but it will probably hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign more. If nothing else, she's losing Spitzer as a super delegate. Plus, she comes from the same state and this reminds people of how generally unpleasant and destructive sex scandals in politics can be.

While I see some of the logic here, the first point about super delegates doesn't make any sense. First, the new governor-to-be is also a Hillary supporter so she's got his vote. Also, you can't throw a rock in Albany without hitting a potential superdelegate for Hillary. So don't worry about the replacement. Also, I know it's close, but do we really think this is going to come down to one vote? Seriously?

What I'm more concerned about than the effect on Hillary is the possible effect on Obama's campaign.

Remember, when Eliot Spitzer ran for governor his slogan was "Day one everything changes." Changes? Sound familiar? A little change we can believe in, anyone? Further, he ran on the idea of ethics reform and fixing the way things were done in state governmnent.

In other words, he was the white proto-Obama of New York. More aggressive, more of an attitude, but the similarities are inescapable. I just hope they don't turn out to be harmful.

While I don't think that Obama is going to end up in a prostitution ring and I don't think anyone is going to try to link the two change candidates in that way (though the month is young), I'm more worried about the effect on the electorate. Obama's great strength in this election so far has been his ability to turn people who were turned off by politics into voters. Change and hope and all that good stuff was really connecting. To have seen another change candidate go down in a politics-as-usual-but-worse scandal has to damage the credibility of change.

I worry that yet another letdown by our elected leaders is just fuel for the cynicism fire. Let's hope that I'm wrong and that people can still believe in change.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Out With a Bang

Well, the sad drama is over. Eliot Spitzer officially resigned the New York governorship effective next Monday. The details of the whole mess have been hashed out and rehashed so many times that it seems pointless to dwell on them here. What's clear is that the more that comes out about this the worse it looks for Spitzer.

Compounding all of that is the sense that poetic justice has really been served here. More than anything else that's what seems to stand out the most of this whole thing. Here was the Sheriff of Wall Street, the White Knight of Albany sleeping with a hooker.

In the coming days before everyone loses attention and moves on to the next train wreck we're going to be seeing a lot of speculation about why he did it. The answer is pretty simple. He did it because he was dumb, thought he was smarter than everyone else, and thought he could get away with it.

It's sad because this guy was supposed to be bound for the White House. There was so much potential and promise. Now he really had no choice but to resign. With Democrats scrapping to gain control of the state senate and his once powerful mandate (and credibility) completely shot, there was nowhere for Spitzer to go but out.

Two more notes on this before I wrap up.

First, during New York 1's coverage of the press conference they had the usual talking head commentary about what this all means. On the show was someone who purported to be a friend of the (now ex) governor. He very helpfully put things in perspective by saying something to the effect of: I just hope it doesn't turn out that he was using drugs or sleeping with more than one at a time. Boy, with friends like these no wonder he's out.

Second, my favorite line during his resignation was when he said, "Then I will try once again, outside of politics, to serve the common good and to move toward the ideals and solutions which I believe can build a future of hope and opportunity for us and for our children." Outside of politics. You think?

Maybe Hillary was Right

Unsurprisingly, CNN is reporting that Barak Obama won the Mississippi primary by a pretty healthy margin (61% to 37%). In addition, CNN is saying that Obama won the Texas caucuses by a big margin and so won the most delegates out of the state. Both of these reports are good news, yet I find myself troubled this morning.

First, exit polls showed that race was a big factor in Mississippi. In addition to blacks voting for Obama 91% to 9%, 40% of primary voters said that race was an issue in deciding who they would vote for and 90% of those people said that they were voting for Obama. This is worrisome. Obama's appeal is his widespread appeal. He's not supposed to be appealing just to blacks any more than Hillary is appealing just to whites. Yet coming out of Mississippi, that seems to have been the case. I worry about potential backlash from whites and I worry that Hillary will use it as ammunition to say yet again what a victim of the process she is. Further, I worry that this means Obama's base is narrowing. That's not good for the primaries or for the general election.

Second, I worry about the results in Texas. As it's now being reported, Obama lost the popular vote in the state as reflected in the primary. Despite that, he was able to win the caucuses and take the most delegates. For weeks now, the Clinton campaign has been saying that the caucus process is undemocratic, that it doesn't really reflect the will of people. The Obama campaign has been ably to plausibly say it's just sour grapes from a candidate who can't get her organizational act together.

Suddenly, that isn't as plausible.

In black and white with solid numbers to back it up, we see that the caucus process didn't reflect what the majority of people in the state wanted. That's very troubling to me. It's troubling in the same way that the 2000 election where Gore won the popular vote but Bush got the presidency was troubling. We pride ourselves on being a democratic nation with democratic proccesses for determining who our leaders are. Yet when systemic issues (like the electoral college) don't reflect the will of the majority we lose some of the claim to our democracy and the winners who succeed in that system lose some of their legitimacy.

For weeks, Hillary Clinton has been saying that the caucus system is part of the problem. Sadly, Texas just showed she may be right.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Talk about a guy who just can't catch a break. He was mendng fences, working with the legislature, and his main opponent was getting wrapped up in an ethics scandal. Things were starting to get back on track for New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. Then something like this happens.

We don't know the facts yet, but the situation is bad however it turns out. The word right now seems to be that the Governor paid about $4,000 for a night with a prostitute. The newscasters yesterday must have used the word "stunning" (as in "stunning revelations", "stunning charges", etc.) about 10,000 yesterday, but I don't blame them. After all, this was the guy who was supposed to clean up Albany.

While we wait for more facts to come out (and see how the Governor responds), here are a few loosely connected thoughts.

1. Note to politicians: You will ALWAYS get caught.

If we haven't learned anything else from Bill Clinton, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, and now Eliot Spitzer, it's that politicians will always get caught. Brilliant people though each of them may be in their field, they are very dumb about this. What Spitzer lacks is a plausible excuse for why he thought he'd be able to get away with hiring a prostitute. Larry Craig demonstrated pretty clearly that even trying to solicit anonymous sex in an airport bathroom gets caught. What did Spitzer think was going to happen if he paid for a prostitute.

2. Even smart guys can be dumb.

This is kind of a corollary to the first point. By most accounts Eliot Spitzer is pretty brilliant. Well, he was. But this has to rank as one of the more boneheaded moves we can expect to see from a politician. I don't know if it's ego, libido, or something else entirely, but this was not a smart move.

3. The perfect storm of circumstances.

In addition to being dumb, Spitzer set himself up in a perfect storm of circumstances and revelations. First of all, coming to Albany as a crusading ethics reformer and then sleeping with prostitutes is obviously going to be made a big deal of. Every news report is going to make note of that fact and the phrase hypocrite is going to be in pretty heavy circulation for the next few days. In addition, as more and more details come out it becomes clear that this is like some sort of tabloid writer's fantasy. Prostitutes, Client-9, "Kristen", wire taps, "unsafe acts," and the sadly ironic detail that the whole thing took place the day before Valentine's Day means there will be plenty to write about for a while.

4. The New York Times is not afraid to pull the trigger.

Just weeks after being roundly panned for running a thinly and anonymously sourced story about possible sexual indiscretions from Republican presidential candidate John McCain, the Times was back in action again. The story, as posted when I first read it at around 2 p.m. yesterday seemed to have one or two unnamed sources. That was it at the time, though now the floodgates have opened and the story has been fleshed out. It's interesting that these allegations are much more sensational (stunning even) than what was released on McCain. But the Times ran with it. Give them chutzpah points for not being afraid to pull the trigger.

We'll see what happens today and in the next few days. My guess is that soon Eliot Spitzer will have plenty of free time to dedicate to regaining the trust of his family.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Liberty, Shmiberty

Taking another page from the book Who Cares What Congress or the Constitution Say?, the Bush admininstration continues in it's efforts to show that Big Brother is alive and well.

An article in today's Wall Street Journal spells out an NSA program of domestic spying. While the program technically is focused on international information, it's hard to draw the line in the digital age. As such, there's a lot of domestic spying going on apparently. For those paying attention, this is substantially the same program that Congress killed when it was the Pentagon doing it. That's right. Congress said no, but the administration is doing it anyway. I know. Stop the presses, right?

For those of you out there who might worry that a domestic spying program seems awfully Big Brother-ish, don't worry. Kit Bond, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee says, "that's not what is happening today." Really? Because when I read the quote below, it makes me wonder.

"If a person suspected of terrorist connections is believed to be in a U.S. city -- for instance, Detroit, a community with a high concentration of Muslim Americans -- the government's spy systems may be directed to collect and analyze all electronic communications into and out of the city."

WHAT?!?! If there's a suspected terrorist somewhere in a city, any electronic communication into and out of the city can be monitored by the government? I'd be curious to hear when Senator Bond thinks that a Big Brother program begins. If being able to monitor every electronic communication in a city isn't Big Brother, what is? Where does that line get drawn?

Essentially, this program gives the federal government power to monitor electronic communications from anyone in the country. I mean, what city doesn't have someone who could be a suspected terrorist? I certainly doubt that the government is actually monitoring every communication I send, but the fact that they could is troubling to me.

What I really don't understand is why this isn't equally troubling to everyone. I get that we're fighting terrorism and that we have to take an aggressive stance to defend our liberties. But, in the end, should we have some liberties left to defend?

In Case You Missed It

Just in case you missed it over the weekend, President Bush vetoed the bill that would limit CIA interrogation tactics to those that are allowed to military and law enforcement officials. Senator Ted Kennedy is quoted saying that this is one of the most shameful acts of Bush's presidency. And that's saying something.

The point of the bill is that it would say that U.S. officials aren't allowed to torture people. In other words, it's just reaffirming the Constitution and the international Geneva Accords. But sometimes you need to remind this president of things like that.

The lead in the New York Times story about the veto said that Bush "further cemented his legacy of fighting for strong executive powers" through his actions. That's one way of putting it. Another way might be that he further cemented his legacy of wrong-headed, unconstitutional, arrogance. But I guess the Times wanted to go with a more positive approach to keep all those media-are-liberal accusations to a minimum.

Bush and his allies on this issue (I'm assuming there are some) say that CIA interrogators need to have every tool available to them in order to combat terrorism. While I agree that we need to work to be kept safe, this is crossing the line. It's simply ridiculous.

In the first place, torture like waterboarding is of dubious effectiveness. Even Gen. David Petraeus (patron saint of surges) says that it's a bad idea because it doesn't work and increases the risk for our soldiers. Experts say that torture increases the likelihood that suspects will say what they think their interrogators want to hear, not necessarily what the actual truth is. So with torture the tactics don't work, you aren't getting the truth, and you're putting our soldiers at greater risk. Tell me again how this is helping us?

Oh yeah, and there's the Constitution. Surely Bush has heard of it at least. The eighth amendment bans cruel and unusual punishment. That's even for after someone has been convicted and found guilty. For torturing suspects there's not even a guarantee that the victim has done anything wrong.

Don't get me wrong. I think that the War on Terror is incredibly serious and needs to be fought in a focused, intense way. But this is not focus. Nor was the War in Iraq. Both of these endeavors have been wrong from the start. They require a dangerous ends justify the means philosophy just to start with. Even if we assume that this is a valid philosophy, let's look at exactly what we've accomplished to make us safer and to win the War on Terror. Osama bin Laden is still at large. Al Queda is still out there. Iraq is destablized and apparently totally dependent on us. If we were to leave there's a chance that the whole region would be destabilized.

So far, I'm not convinced that the ends are doing much justifying at all.

The bottom line on all this is that what makes America a great country is that we don't go around doing things like torturing people. At least for me, I'd like to win the War on Terror, not become a part of it.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Dream On

Fresh from winning three primaries last Tuesday, the Clinton campaign camp is starting to talk about putting together a "Dream Ticket" for the presidency with Clinton (of course) on the top and Obama as the VP. The idea certainly has some appeal (order notwithstanding). First, it would spare Democrats the agony of having to choose between two well-qualified and historic candidates. Also, as the Clintons are saying, the Dream Ticket would provide the kind of balance rarely achieved in politics. You'd have experience and change. Urban and rural. Masters degrees and GEDs. Chardonnay drinkers and beer drinkers. It would lead to a Democratic landslide that hasn't been seen since FDR. There would even be a rainbow over the White House for the next eight years.

Dream ticket? Dream on.

Never mind that it's a tenuous proposition at best that Clinton is going to be the one choosing a vice presidential candidate. I just don't see this dream coming true.

Despite the signals Clinton is putting out right now, it's hard to imagine her actually putting Obama as the VP on the same ticket as her. Despite her numerous strengths as a candidate and a potential president, Hillary lacks the star power that Obama has. She would be continually outshined by her number 2. That alone makes the choice unlikely. Furthermore, the traditional role of the vice president during a campaign is the attack dog, the one who does the dirty work for the presidential contender can maintain clean hands. Of the two of them, does Obama seem the likely candidate for this job?

So what about the other way? Given Obama's delegate lead, does he pick Hillary to even out the ticket, add some experience to the campaign, and get a real fighter on his side?

This may be more likely, but I still wouldn't put any money on it. First, where does Bill Clinton fit into this picture? Obama would run the risk not of being upstaged by his VP, but of being upstaged by his VP's husband. Not a great position to be in. Second, after decrying the standard politics of division, could he really pick the one person left in the campaign who is pretty much guaranteed to deepen those divisions as his running mate?

The Dream Ticket idea is like something out of a political fantasy. Unfortunately, it's likely to stay there.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Winds of Changes Shift

For months the campaign narrative on the Democratic side of the race was almost completely defined by Barack Obama. Everyone was running as the change candidate. One can't help but think that even George W. Bush would have been running on a change platform were he allowed to run again. Obama was in control because he'd defined the terms of the campaign and, thus, they were most favorable to him. No one could compare to him in that realm.

But now the winds of changes have shifted.

Following setbacks in Ohio and Texas (and largely attributing those setbacks to negative campaigning by Clinton), Obama is now pledging to come out swinging. The narrative has shifted away from high-minded change and is now about fighting.

Coincidentally, that's Clinton's tag line.

My advice to Obama is this: never argue with an idiot. They bring you down to their level and then beat you with experience.

I'm not calling Clinton an idiot. In fact, it's a testament to her smarts and political skill that the debate and the narrative have shifted the way they have. What I'm saying is that at this point Obama has to be very careful. Obviously, he can't just ignore every attack that gets flung in his direction. He's going to need to do some fighting. But if her allows the the debate to hinge on who's the best fighter, he's bound to get beaten by experience.

Coincidentally, that's another Clinton tag line.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Obama's Football Problem

Is it just me, or is the Democratic primary contest starting to resemble a Peanuts comic strip? As I think about the election I find myself reminded of Charlie Brown's perpetually futile attempts to kick the football held tantalizingly within grasp by Lucy Van Pelt.

Barack Obama has the unenviable role of Charlie Brown in the process as he runs headlong at the football over and over again (New Hampshire, California, Texas) and has it snatched away at the last moment. While Obama tends to land a little more gracefully than Charlie Brown the fundamental disappointment remains. The football is always just out of reach.

The question then becomes, who is playing the Lucy role?

It's tempting to say Hillary. After all, she's the obvious opponent and the biggest impediment to winning. Her recent trend of going negative before the election also fits the image.

But what about the media? They set the football out there within tantalizing grasp in the first place. Media-driven polls show Obama has a chance, which in this metaphor is liking holding the football.

Is it some sort of Bradley effect? Do voters decide at the last minute that they can't vote for a black candidate after all, regardless of what they told pollsters? I find this less convincing
because it's not like voting for a women is that much more conventional of a choice.

Maybe it's that Obama just doesn't have the support in these big states. He comes in with a burst of thrilling oratory and gains support. But when faced with the actual voting lever, they decide he's too new.

To be honest, I don't know the answer and neither does anyone else, regardless of who opines to the contrary. Just keep that in mind if the football continues getting snatched away.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

News from Home

As a native of the proud state of Arizona, there's nothing that does my heart prouder to see that the nut jobs who run state politics haven't changed much since I left. Never mind that in their Congressional Power Rankings, ranks Rep. Rick Renzi of Arizona dead last in both chambers. That's just kind of piling on to a long-standing embarrassment that is no surprise or stranger to Arizona political watchers.

No, the latest example of good old politics as usual in the state comes from a bill introduced by State Senator Karen Johnson (and explained here) that allows permitted individuals to carry concealed weapons at public colleges and universities. You know, so if another shooter comes along, the proud students of Arizona can gun them down before things get out of hand. Because nothing breeds peace and harmony like more firearms. While I strongly disagree, this isn't even where the real lunacy comes. For that, I have to quote the New York Times story on the bill. "[Senator Johnson] initially wanted her bill to cover all public schools, kindergarten and up, but other lawmakers convinced her it stood a better chance of passing if it were limited to higher education."

That's right. The idea wasn't shot down (get it?) because it's stupid to have concealed, loaded firearms around kindergarteners; it was shot down because it might be easier to pass if it's limited to high education. You know, to get the wimpy moderates to agree.

Of course, this isn't the first time that Senator Johnson has gone out on a limb on the crazy tree. In 2000, she introduced a resolution that called for "abolition of the federal government and allowing individual states to assume their sovereign rights if the president, Congress, or any other federal agent were to declare martial law and suspend the Constitution. These states then would be free to form a new nation."


Did I mention that this is where John McCain is from? Just something to think about.

Save Public Education

If I try to write about the election today it's only going to make me sad or angry for the rest of the day. So with that in mind, it's back to the old standby: education reform.

Let me start by saying that even with it's problems (and they are numerous) I am still a 100% believer in free public education. In addition to the obvious economic advantages of having a well educated society, public schools act as an Americanizing, socializing influence that create a common culture in a way that little else can. Free public education is one of the great democratizing forces in our country today.

That being said, reforms are obviously necessary. One reform track that's gaining more and more steam in places as far flung as Arizona and New York City is the charter school movement. A charter school is a tax payer funded school run by a private and/or non-profit group rather than the government. The idea is that this will both create more market incentives for a failing system and that different charter schools will be more free to experiment and try new approaches to teaching than would be allowed in the regular, government-operated public schools.

It all sounds very attractive in theory. However, I view the charters with great suspicion. First, it strikes me as a plan to essentially have tax payers pay for private schools that have a fair amount of say over who gets in to the school and who gets to stay in the school. Second, because of those differences in enrollment, it's nearly impossible to have a true apples to apples comparison between charter and public schools. Even charters that select based on a lottery of all parents who submit an application are still drawing from a group of parents that care enough to fill out an application. Such cannot necessarily be said for a public school. If we assume that parental involvement influences student learning (and I think we can) then the "random" kids at the charter school are going to have a leg up. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

With all that in mind, I present for your viewing pleasure this video from Reason TV. If you can get past the fact that Drew Carey is the host and that the representative from the teacher's union looks a lot like Tom Hanks' character from the Ladykillers then it tells a pretty interesting story about a failing public school in L.A. trying to become a charter school.

The video hinges on the idea that powerful interest groups (the Department of Education, teacher's union, etc.) are what's holding back education in America and that if we could get past those groups the schools would be better. In this case, the way to move on is to create charter schools.

Frankly, I'm not sure if this is really the answer. As I said earlier, I'm already suspicious of charter schools as inroads to doing away with public education in favor of a privatized system. I also think it's naive to think that there will be no institutional hurdles to educating children in a private/charter school model. Also, it overlooks the obvious point that public schools can be reformed.

Assuming that the charter school representative can be taken at his word that the charter school will take everyone and keep everyone (which I would want to see to believe), then he's basically operating a public school in a different way. So why not operate a public school that way? Yes, it would take a school board willing to institute reforms and a teacher's union who remembers that unionism is a means, not an end in itself. But it can be done. And I think we should give it a try before we start dismantling the system.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Song Remains the Same

Another Tuesday has come and gone and the situation stands pretty much as it did on Monday. Clinton won the big states (and a small one) to keep her campaign alive through the next two months until Pennsylvania. (See CNN delegate counts here.) Clinton showed yet again what a fighter she is and Obama maintained the delegate lead, but yet again missed the opportunity to end the campaign in one swoop. So things grind on as they have been without any real change.

Of course, that's just the Democratic side. On the other end of things, John McCain just became the presumptive Republican nominee having won the requisite number of delegates to clinch the nomination. Not that that will come as a surprise to too many people (other than those who thought he already had won the nomination). However, the contrast between the two parties is interesting to note here. In some senses, I think it's the real story about what's happening right now.

Once McCain took a commanding delegate lead, most of the rest of the Republican candidates dropped out and voters united behind the front runner. Sure Huckabee stayed in, but that shows his own tolerance for electoral humiliation more than any true divide in the Republican party.

On the Democratic side, though, Obama has a virtually insurmountable lead in the delegates. This isn't a secret as it's been written about in pretty much every publication in the country. By rights, he's the front runner and you'd think that Democrats would start to unite behind him the way that Republicans united behind McCain. But it's not happening. That majorities in Texas in Ohio would vote for someone who doesn't really have a realistic chance of clinching the nomination is a sign of major trouble for Obama and for the Democratic party. It reflects a deep split and raises questions about Obama's ability to unite all sorts of people when he can't quite seem to get his own party in line.

This situation now leaves both Democrats fighting a two-front war. They have to scrape with each other plus respond to whatever fire John McCain sends their way. As anyone who's read about the world wars or played Risk can tell you, they're not in a good place right now.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Today's the Day

Well, it's upon us. The superest Tuesday since Super Tuesday itself. It's make or break day for the Clinton campaign. To a lesser extent, I think it's make or break for the Obama campaign as well.

Clinton obviously needs to do well tonight. She's invested the last hopes of her campaign in the idea that the Giuliana strategy will work if it's done out of desperation in the middle of the race. Bill has said she needs to win Texas and Ohio in order to stay competitive. While the latest polls show her with a marginal lead in Ohio and a slim lead in Texas, it's not looking terribly optimistic. (And let's be honest. Rhode Island and Vermont don't really count.) If Hillary doesn't win both states tonight look for her to be gone by the end of the week. The pressure among Democrats to have a nominee already will continue to build and resentment toward her will continue to build if she's seen as hanging on to a hopeless campaign.

For Obama, the stakes are also pretty high tonight. As I've written before, he has yet to show that he can really put Clinton away. He's had his opportunities (I'm thinking New Hampshire), but hasn't been able to get the job done. If he falls short yet again, the questions about his killer campaign instinct will get much louder. While I don't buy the argument that not winning one of the big states in the primary means he won't be able to win them in the general election (do we really think that California might go Republican?), Obama does need to eventually win a battleground state just to show that he can. If he falls short again, it adds credence to the idea that Hillary is the fighter we want in the general election and it gives her a reason to stick around for another two months.

P.S. For an adictive good time, check out CNN's Delegate Counter Game. Run through the various election night scenarios and see what happens to your favorite candidate's delegate count. It's very enjoyable in an OCD politics junkie kind of way.

Monday, March 3, 2008

More Post-Racial Nonsense

Oops. Turns out the pundits were wrong. Now we're getting reports that far from being the first and greatest post-racial politician, Barak Obama may actually be setting back the post-racial movement in America. At least, that's what Shelby Steele says, as explained in a recent article in Prospect Magazine.

I have to admit that I don't think I entirely understand the logic of what Steele is saying. However, the parts I do understand don't really hang together. The gist seems to be that whites see Obama as someone who will leave all talk of race behind and just happen to be black. Meanwhile, blacks see Obama as someone who will act as a new kind of civil rights leader and advance the black cause for equality. As these necessarily conflict, Obama can't achieve both. Thus, his presidency would disappoint one group or the other on racial grounds. Thus he is not post-racial and may even set back the movement for his having tried.

This is exactly why I hate the phrase post-racial so much. It doesn't reall mean anything and just gets people's heads twisted up in knots.

First of all, I'm not sure if the choice is as stark between pleasing black America and pleasing white America. As Obama himself might say, There's only the United States of America. But even from there, I'm not sure if this argument makes sense. First, it assumes that whites wouldn't see their own interests represented in efforts to bring all people equality. I think this is false. Steele also seems to assume that blacks only want massive programs of enforced equality, which I also think is false.

The entire argument seems to say that there is no one who could ever bridge the racial divide in America because helping blacks upsets whites and ignoring race upsets blacks. Not only is this view overly pessimistic, I think it's as much nonsense as saying phrase post-racial to begin with.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

So It's Come To This

The Hillary campaign sent out a campaign e-mail yesterday that seems to speak pretty clearly to the secret weapon they're relying on in Texas and Ohio next Tuesday: women.

For months, the campaign e-mails have been full of victorious, we're-ready-for-the-Republicans kind of things and about how ready Hillary is to be president. My favorite line was something to the effect of: While my opponents are talking about me, I'm talking about how to make America better.

Then, right after losing Wisconsin, the campaign decided that mentioning the opponents (at this point, just one really) wasn't such a bad idea after all. There was a fundraising appeal basically saying: Don't let Obama keep raising more money than us. Come on! Don't you want us to win?

Now, the opponent is missing again and the tack is to appeal to the base. The e-mail that went out yesterday says, "Women all across the Lone Star State are standing up and making a commitment tovote for Hillary on March 4." Later, the e-mails says, "Women are working together for Hillary because they know she is going to roll up her sleeves and get to work for them in the White House." There's even a link to a video showing women voicing their support for Hillary.

It's interesting as a study of how fall the campaign has fallen. Where once she was the unstoppable juggernaut above the fray of the nomination fight, Hillary is now finding herself scrapping for women in Texas in order to cling to a shred of hope for a campaign that she's becoming increasingly unlikely to win. How the mighty have fallen.