Wednesday, January 28, 2004

SNOW DAYS: The North Carolina Piedmont has been snowed (actually, mostly iced) over since Sunday. Not until today (Wednesday) did my wife and I get back to work, and the two younger daughters to preschool, for part of the day. And Wake County Public Schools are cancelled through tomorrow, fer Pete's sake, so the oldest girl will be parked in front of the TV all day AGAIN. It's the South for you; the towns don't have enough plows or rock salt, so an inch and half of ice turns into a major natural catastrophe.

So there's been some cabin fever and some frayed nerves in the household, but there were some high points, too. For instantaneous parenting satisfaction, it doesn't get much better than taking your kids out to play in the snow, for the first time in their lives, or it might as well be. (We average one good snow a year, and if you're three years old you don't remember jack from when you were two.) The sled starts off, picks up speed, and moans of apprehension suddenly turn to joyful laughter. To listen to your children as they ride a sled, throw snowballs, even as they scream with delight as Daddy slips and falls on his butt on the sidewalk... Joy is the best word to describe it, for them and for me.

By chance, our family got enlisted to take care of HoneyBunny, the mascot for M.'s prechool class of 3-year-olds, for the weekend. (Yes, the rabbit's name is HoneyBunny. This is what you get when you trust a committee of 3-year-olds to decide on a name.) HoneyBunny digs coming to our house, because we let her out of her cage into the screened back porch, and she runs around pretty freely all day. The problem arose when HB's weekend visit was unexpectedly extended to five days: We ran out of rabbit food. My wife had the brilliant idea of calling our next door neighbor and asking to borrow some cat food. Neighbor agrees, and H., my oldest daughter (age 10) trudges next door in the snow and ice to pick up a Ziploc baggie full of cat food and bring it back home. At which time I point out that cats are carnivores, and while I'm unclear exactly what's in dry cat food I'm pretty sure a rabbit shouldn't eat it. So H. has to make another trip through the snow and ice to return the baggie full of cat food to the neighbors.

And boy, is H. aggravated, and I don't blame her although at the same time I find the situation humorous. And she loudly and eloquently expresses her righteous indignation, and I get a joyful kick even out of that.

Dang, maybe I need parallel blogs, one for the political bloviating, one for the kiddies 'n' bunnies...

MORE TALK OF A “NORTHERN STRATEGY”: Tim Noah in Slate magazine advises the Democrats to forget about carrying any Southern states for Prez in 2004.

Bottom line, this may be perfectly sound advice. The shortest path to a Democratic win may be to circle around the South entirely. But I’d like to enumerate my gripes with this piece, and with Tim Noah, about whom I vacillate between thinking he’s pretty smart, and thinking the poor guy must get the bends when he strays—not even outside the Beltway—to any point where one cannot still smell the phosphates in the Potomac River.

Southerners now consider it their God-given right to supply Democrats with presidential candidates or, failing that, to force non-Southern candidates to discuss Him using an alien evangelical vocabulary. (God doesn't hear the prayers of Episcopalians, Congregationalists, or Presbyterians. No use even discussing Unitarians, Jews, and atheists.)

This bit deserves its own post, and to be fair Mr. Noah is hardly alone in exaggerating the evangelical character of religion in the South. But the news story he links to is about Howard Dean’s groping for a way to talk about his faith at all. Howard’s not an evangelist; he’s just trying to be a pew-warmer. Sample: "I don't go to church that much because I don't have a lot of time for that particularly in this milieu." Not exactly soul-stirring. But let’s move on.

Overindulgence has also made the South grotesquely hypersensitive to what non-Southern liberals say about it; to quote a famous witticism about the writer John O'Hara, today's South is "master of the fancied slight."

I trust Mr. Noah never, ever, referred to Bill Clinton, former Democratic President, Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law graduate, as “Bubba.” That one was the particular slight that gave me a chip on my shoulder about Washington media types looking down their nose at anyone with a twang, no matter how accomplished that person. Maybe I fancied it; it sure seemed real for a few years there.

Thus when Vermonter Howard Dean made the perfectly innocent remark that he'd like to win votes from "guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks"—a comment, incidentally, that indicated he did not intend to write off the South—he had to fall all over himself apologizing to Southerners offended by the shorthand.

Maybe I’m wrong, but who exactly was offended by mixing Howard Dean with the rebel flag? Okay, Al Sharpton, predictably, was offended. John Edwards was offended. Other party figures from the South were offended, and certain personages who consider themselves guardians of the “sensible center” of the party were offended. And not so much offended as threatened, because it’s their job to wield the ancient cultural symbols, and Dean was being presumptuous. Were the Southern VOTERS Mr. Dean intended to address, were they themselves offended? Not in great numbers. Frankly, not many Southerners are alertly awaiting Mr. Dean’s overtures, but I don’t see the harm in his trying.

Noah quotes political scientist Thomas Schaller, approvingly: [T]he South has the fewest independent-minded voters available for Democratic conversion. Protest candidates John McCain, Ralph Nader and Perot all bombed there. Of the 10 states where Perot fared worst in 1992, all were Southern. … The South is where insurgents and independents go to die.

Hold the phone. McCain was the victim of a notorious smear job from the right by G.W. Bush in South Carolina in 2000; it may not be the only factor in McCain’s poor showing in the South, but it’s worth mentioning. And McCain was competing in a Republican primary anyway. This is being rejected by the swing voters? I’d say Ross Perot and Ralph Nader were hampered by the difficulty of a third party candidate even getting on the ballot in many Southern states. Those campaigns had to spend a lot of resources just to get in the door, and historically speaking, we have the Democratic Party to thank for the ballot access problem. And since when are Ralph Nader supporters “swing voters”?

Noah quotes Ruy Teixeira, but for debunking purposes; Noah belittles Teixeira’s remarks thusly: Democrats should resist "wholesale abandonment" because it's … impolite. [Ellipses in the original.]

That’s not what Teixeira said at all, in my view. The Teixeira quote is the single most sensible passage in the article: the Democrats need to guard against seeing the South as “a culturally alien mass that we don’t know how to talk to.” A national political movement, particularly one who very name alludes to democracy, should not write off a huge segment of the populace as immune to the movement’s message.

In the last third or so of the article, Noah catalogs the baleful racial history of the South, from Jim Crow back to secession back to the three-fifths compromise. This is the crux of the matter: Tim Noah deplores the influence of the South in American history. That’s a perfectly defensible point of view. But here I thought we were discussing contemporary American politics, and here is a region of, I don’t know, 40 million people that is not going to go away because Tim Noah wishes it would.

Certainly, the Democrats should spend their resources where they will get the most bang for the buck. I’ll cling to what I said on January 12, that “Southern values” are held by a lot of Northern voters, therefore the party needs to nod, at least, to these values. But this feels somehow like a circular argument. Either you feel enough affinity for the South to embrace it as part of America, or you don’t.

I wouldn’t want to be accused of hypersensitivity, and goodness knows I appreciate Tim Noah’s name-checking a bunch of Southern writers. But it’s ALLEN Tate, you supercilious putz.

Ahem. Sorry.

TRIPPI IS OUT as Howard Dean's campaign manager. Talking Points Memo puts it in perspective.

I figured I would look foolish, but this is a little much.

More to say later.

Monday, January 19, 2004

PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE: Let me get in a post about Democratic politics before the Iowa caucuses, so I’ll be SURE to look foolish tomorrow.

Y’know, if it looks like I’ve been a Howard Dean supporter, that’s only because, with mild reservations, I have been. I really admire the man’s aggressive attitude and the amazing grassroots campaign he’s put together.

I fell into the trap of thinking Dean was inevitable a few weeks ago, but now the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire say he’s still got a fight ahead of him. Okay, then. Let’s hear from some actual voters. And, guys, no rabbit punches or hitting below the belt, and may the best man win. (By dropping out, Carol Moseley-Braun has endorsed my use of single-gender pronouns.)

The rest of this was mostly written before the weekend:

Matthew Yglesias at Tapped directed me to
this John Harris piece in the Washington Post
about competing campaign strategies among the contestants for the Democratic nomination. Here’s Harris:

”In one sense, the strategic question facing Democrats about how to beat Bush amounts to a debate between Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, and [Mark] Penn, a principal author of Clinton's political strategy from 1995 onward.

“That strategy was built around a constant focus on the preferences of swing voters skeptical of both parties. Penn's premises about the primacy of independents and how to engage them are shared by several other Democratic campaigns.

“In an interview, Trippi said, ‘The established way is to go after the middle, even if it means depressing your base.’ He said that swing voters will look at large issues -- the war and the budget -- but that policy positions are secondary to the larger mood and promise Dean conveys.

“That promise, in the campaign's view, is a revival of grass-roots democracy to challenge Bush's alleged coziness with corporate special interests. Independent voters don't necessarily gravitate to the most moderate candidate.

“’There's something very appealing about taking a party back, and that crosses party lines,’ he said. ‘The middle tends to go the most energized party.’

“Penn said there is no evidence for this. ‘The real swing voters are not members of either party, and they are not excited by “political momentum,” ‘ he said. "They make up their mind without reference to political parties.’”

And here is Matt’s response, in part:

”Not to put too fine a point on it, [neglecting the swing voters] is insane. For one thing, a swing voter who switches his allegiance from one party to another is worth twice as much at the polls as a non-voter who you mobilize. Moreover, if Dean doesn't even try to win over former Bush voters to his side, he's going to make it easy for Bush to reach swing voters who went for Gore in 2000. Last but not least, this strategy ignores the single biggest advantage the Democrats have going into the race -- the fact that Bush's policies remain consistently less popular than Bush himself. A clear opportunity exists to convince people to vote their actual beliefs rather than their gut-level affection for the president's personality, but it won't amount to much if the opposition isn't interested in reaching out. It's true that the potential swing electorate is rather small, but it certainly exists, and it's well worth fighting for.”

This gets at the heart of the Democrats’ dilemma. There’s as much unsaid here as there is said, though, and I may well be about to go off on a Rohrschach test-style tangent, seeing something there that another reader doesn’t see. With that disclaimer, here I go.

I think Matt has constructed a straw man here, or bought too heavily into the media image of Howard Dean as the radical-left candidate of angry Bush haters. I don’t think “energizing the party” necessarily means cheerleading for the people who want to boil Bush in oil. Dean can legitimately claim to have remade the party, thanks to hundreds of thousands of small contributors, ten of thousands of Meet-Ups. And the Dean revolution is primarily organizational, not ideological. I think Dean has a great chance of crafting a vivid, vigorous, positive image for the party and the campaign.

Lurch leftward to fire up the base, or lurch rightward to appeal to those mythical creatures, the swing voters. What if it’s not an either-or choice? What if there is a zen process whereby by not trying to get the swing voters, that’s how you get ‘em? That possibility makes as much sense to me as anything. Don’t lurch. Work hard. Show some integrity. Don’t posture, don’t bullshit, and don’t take any bullshit from your opponent or from the press.

Maybe I just need to see more specifically what this Penn-ian swing voter strategy is. What I fear is that it would resemble the Dems’ strategy from the ’02 midterms, which was “give Bush everything he wants, but whine and nitpick about it in the process.”

I acknowledge the point that Americans like G.W. Bush the man better than they like his policies. The eventual nominee will need to moderate the anti-Bush rhetoric. The best way to attack Bush is not to say he’s a liar. It’s to say that he’s well-intentioned but weak, that his administration is out of control, that the real people in charge are Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, the ideologues and the stonewallers and the petty political backstabbers. The Democrats are the truth-telling, decent, pragmatic alternative.

Matt’s remark that a swing voter is twice as valuable as a new voter, is a bit facile. A Rolex watch, if I found it lying on the sidewalk, would be worth more than my whole week’s paycheck. But which do I have a better chance of actually getting my hands on?

Okay, my metaphor isn’t that great either. I’m not a complete idiot, and neither (need I point out) is Joe Trippi. No one wants the Democrats to ignore the electoral map or other tactical considerations in the fall. My final word for now: Joe Trippi has worked a near revolution in progressive politics in the last year. Mark Penn works for Joe Lieberman, for crying out loud. Right now I’m a lot more inclined to trust Trippi’s judgment than Penn’s.

Atrios as always is smarter and more concise than I.

Calpundit’s thoughts are here.

Tapped again (Nick Confessore this time). Somebody slap me, because when I read a Beltway journalist, even a good one like Mr. Confessore, say something “verges on gibberish,” my knee-jerk reaction is to give more credence, not less, to the so-called gibberish.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Monday, January 12, 2004

DEMOCRATS AND THE SOUTH: I think Josh Marshall says something smart here.

I am well aware that looking at the electoral map, there are some plausible scenarios under which the Democrats can win the White House without carrying any Southern state. But writing off a large portion of the electorate is risky. It's not just that, as Marshall puts it, whatever definition you attach to white Southerners ("ideologically pragmatic, culturally conservative" is one stab at it) would include a dangerously large number of people outside the old Confederacy. It's that pandering to some voters and neglecting others is a disspiriting spectacle. It de-energizes your core voters, as well as limiting your outreach to new voters.

This is another front on which the Democrats should stand fast and not give ground. We want a political party to offer us a vision of the country's future, not subdivide and segment us like the cable TV dial.
SHOPPING FOR FAITH: I’ve made versions of this comment on several other people’s blogs – now let me use it as fodder for a blog post of my own. I am only slightly deterred by the fact that this op-ed piece by Steven Waldman already made many of my points for me.

Several reporters and pundits have recounted the story of how Howard Dean changed churches, from an Episcopal to a Congregational church, over a bike path. Julian Sanchez in Reason, Franklin Foer in The New Republic, George Stephanopoulos on ABC News, and probably others have referred to it.

It peeves me that this story is retold in a shorthand way that makes Dean seem frivolous or flaky with regard to religion. Stephanopoulos, for instance, seemed bewildered: "A bike path? Really?" (It's partly Dean's fault to allow it to be spun that way.)

The "bike path" episode was a land use controversy, a protracted fight over whether a piece of property fronting Lake Champlain in Burlington, VT would be developed for private profit, or conserved for public use. It seems to have been an important chapter in Dean's life -- part of his transition out of medicine and into politics. It’s also the kind of controversy that a great many communities have experienced, and one that gets pretty much right at the heart at the great American ideological divide: balancing the public and private spheres.

Dean’s Episcopal parish was a player in the dispute; it held a piece of the land being fought over. Dean was disappointed in the position his church took in the controversy, so he switched his membership to a different church. The point, to me, is not that Dean takes his religion so lightly, but that he takes environmental politics pretty seriously, and his politics informs his religious viewpoint.

The Episcopal Church and the UCC (aka Congregational Church) are not that dissimilar. As Steven Waldman points out, “church shopping” is a well-known, much-remarked feature of contemporary American religion. Many, many churchgoing Americans switch between denominations at some point in their lives.

Dean switched from Episcopal to UCC; GW Bush has switched from Presbyterian to Methodist; Wes Clark has switched from Baptist to Catholic. Personally, I don't think ANY of them is a deeply pious or spiritual man. But switching churches doesn't prove anything one way or the other.

Part of the point here is that the national press is (a) reflexively dismissive of a Democrat attempting to talk about his faith, and (b) pretty uninformed about the details of religious life in general. Another point is that millions of people in this country can relate to a pragmatic approach to organized religion, an open search for belief--even to love and marriage and family ties with people of a different religious tradition. So Howard Dean, or another Democrat, can offer a model of spiritual synthesism and pragmatism that can compete with the uptight, intolerant Republican version of religion.

The gay marriage issue may give the Democrats a chance to take the offensive. Religion is one of those aspects of politics where the Democrats just concede huge amounts of territory. They shouldn't concede an inch.

Friday, January 09, 2004

All that build-up, then two months go by with no posts. Hey, it's a New Year, and guess what one of my resolutions is?

CHARLIE HUSTLE: When I was eight I signed up for Little League Baseball, my first experience in organized sports. I was randomly assigned to a team called the Rebels, and randomly issued jersey number 14. There is no big-league team called the Rebels, but in my mind I identified us with the Cincinnati Reds: our colors were red on white, and the names were similar. And thanks to my number I secretly identified myself with Pete Rose.

I don’t know that Rose was my favorite player, exactly. He was more like my patron saint. Other players were more graceful, more powerful, more handsome. But you had to admire the Reds of the ‘70s, and they were on TV all the time, and Rose was one of the most vivid characters in baseball in that period. My father was preaching hustle to me as the cardinal virtue in athletics—Run everything out!—and I was saying Amen, since eight-year-olds make quite a few errors, so it obviously paid to run hard down the line on every batted ball. But more than a clever tactic, hustle was a moral imperative. It was a tribute you paid to the game. And as every fan knows, Pete Rose was Charlie Hustle himself. Diving for extra bases, backing up plays in the field. Sprinting down to first after a base on balls!

Earlier this week the news broke: Pete Rose admits he placed bets on major league baseball games while he was managing the Reds in the late ‘80s. For 14 years Rose had been denying this allegation. During that time I didn’t believe Pete Rose, and I didn’t disbelieve Pete Rose, but I did take his side in my small way (like, in about a dozen arguments on Internet discussion boards). Because official baseball had violated his due process.

But now he cops to it. After 14 years of stonewalling, Rose suddenly caves. And he hasn’t had a change of heart; I don’t even think he had a failure of will after 14 years. No, what Pete did this week was like a judo move: with skill and deliberation, he switched from resisting the attack against him, to yielding and trying to use the attacker’s inertia to his own advantage.

I still believe Rose’s due process was violated back in ’89. But I can’t suspend judgment anymore. Now I think the case of Pete Rose is something like the case of O.J. Simpson: Each time, they framed a guilty man. I feel foolish and betrayed, a little bit, but mostly I feel sad for what Pete Rose has become: a mean little man, hawking memorabilia on cable TV, flogging his quickie as-told-to book, collecting appearance fees to sign autographs at little ag expo halls.

I don’t have the heart to weigh in on the Hall of Fame debate, or the ethics of gambling by an employee of a major league ballclub. Let us stipulate that I am, a priori, a schmuck for viewing big-time sports as any kind of moral arena or crucible of character. But to see the guy whom I remember so well in his prime, and who seemed the very epitome of proper sporting ethics—to see him end up this way smarts a little.

A hundred other writers have beaten me to the play on the word “hustle.” Far from paying tribute to the game, Pete Rose was exacting tribute from it. He was doing this all along.